Brasília, the capital of Brazil, was founded on April 21, 1960. The city is considered a symbol of architectural modernism for its aesthetic qualities, functionality, centralized urban planning, landscaping with regional flora, autochthonous culture, and economic organization. Inspired by the ideas of Le Corbusier, Brasília represents an attempt at erecting a new “modern” city disconnected from Latin American colonialism, slavery, underdevel-opment, and dictatorships. However, Brasília also experiences tensions between strict planning and creative initiatives, militarism and democracy, open space and public manifestations, political representation and corruption, as well as social injustice and the emergence of new urban cultures.
In official accounts the history of Brasília begins on April 21, 1960. However, its epic origins go back to the alleged “discovery” of Brazil by the Portuguese on April 21, 1500. Salvador had been the capital city of Brazil since the sixteenth century, but in 1789 a group of rebels planned the independence of Brazil and envisioned moving the Brazilian capital to Ouro Preto. This attempt failed. However, when Napoleon invaded Portugal the Portuguese king fled to Brazil with the support of the British Empire, and Rio de Janeiro became the capital of the United Kingdom of Brazil and Portugal in 1808. Soon after, in 1809, British Prime Minister William Pitt announced that a new capital would be built in the center of Brazil and be called Nova Lisboa.
With the Brazilian independence from Portugal on September 7, 1822, the idea of a capital cleansed of colonialism remained, but with a new name: Brasília. Already in 1823, a document titled “Memoir on the Need and Means of Building a New Capital in the Interior of Brazil” was presented in Parliament. In 1834, the viscount of Porto Seguro indicated the Amazon River Basin as the most appropriate location for such an enterprise. This proposal was disregarded for decades until rumors circulated in 1883 about a dream by the Catholic priest Dom Bosco in which a site between parallels 15 and 20 would become the “promised land of milk and honey, of unconceivable wealth.”
In 1889, exactly 100 years after the failed rebellion of 1789, a military-supported revolution transformed Brazil from a monarchy to a republic. Older plans were renewed and a commission was established by the Constitutional Assembly in 1892 to define the future location of Brasília. After a series of studies, the cornerstone was erected on September 7, 1922, marking the centenary of independence from Portugal. In 1953, a federal commission was created by President Getúlio Vargas to study the technical aspects involved in the building of the new capital. In 1956 the newly elected president, Juscelino Kubitschek, promised to build the new city in five years and name it Brasília. The plan gained support and on April 21, 1960, Kubitschek was installed in the new capital city.
Brasília was seen as a latent dream made possible by its politicians, intellectuals, artists, and engineers, who shared the ideals of modernism.
Many intellectuals, such as Caio Prado Jr. and Sergio Buarque de Hollanda, provided the discourse that fit facts neatly into a nation-building process. While Mario de Andrade and Oswald de Andrade led the artistic front of the Brazilian modernist movement, which declared the need for cultural independence, Mario Pedrosa criticized the mere repetition of European models and saw Brasília as an authentic political and cultural monument that should reorient history.
President Juscelino Kubitschek became a political national hero who promised to create 50 years of development in just five years. Brasília was the symbol of his achievement. Lucio Costa, Oscar Niemeyer, and Burle Marx brought together their expertise in urban planning, architecture, and landscaping and became internationally recognized for their planning of Brasília according to Le Corbusier's modernism. Lucio Costa had worked with Le Corbusier in Rio de Janeiro in the planning of federal buildings. Oscar Niemeyer had worked with Kubitschek in the city of Belo Horizonte (planned in 1897, it is the capital of the state of Minas Gerais). Burle Marx used Brazilian plants in landscaping, based on species he had found in the Botanical Garden of Berlin in the 1920s.
The Lucio Costa pilot plan proposed for Brasília was based on the intersection of two main axes in the form of an airplane, with two lines cutting across the city and intersecting at the center of power in Brazil. At the intersection are the government buildings, public services, the cathedral, and the “Square of the Three Powers,” with its famous two towers and two inverted bowls at their center. Along the north- south axis, residential complexes, parks, and shopping areas were built. Streets and avenues follow a precise grid with “super-blocks” (superquadras).
Such a strict approach to urban planning was later related to militarism. The city was de facto built only after the military coup d'état in 1964. Under military dictatorship, construction provided room for a new political bureaucracy, attracting a new population of workers who were segregated in “satellite” areas and settling landless people who had been invading federal lands.
From a sociological point of view, this strict urban organization brought about not only new social actors and economic development but also corruption, lack of sensitivity to the needs of the people, segregation, and an aura of military security. All these elements gave the impression that politicians in Brasília were detached from reality, abstracted from the real problems of other Brazilian regions. However, oppositional groups formed despite censorship and persecution. The process toward democracy turned Brasília into a center for many political manifestations. The military regime finally lost its power after 1984.
With time, Brasília became less a dream and more of a real city with a variety of social and urban issues. Researchers noticed that social life had disappeared in its residential areas, which were separated from commercial areas, while parks were lacking trees, and pedestrians found it difficult to walk—especially because of the hot weather, the distance between buildings, and the primacy given to cars. Different linguistic, cultural, and social patterns became stratified, thus creating a social structure that was supposed to have been overcome by modernist urban planning.
Brasília, was planned as something unique, representing the eruption of a new “modern” time and space disconnected from older events. In its modernity, Brasília was supposed to mark a definitive break from previous historical moments in Brazil and Latin America. However, it remained embedded in the political climate of the region. It became a symbol of totalitarianism during the times of militarism in Latin America, and then a center for democratic activity as different groups used its open spaces for public demonstrations and their struggle for democracy.
New public and democratic initiatives shaped Brasília at the end of the twentieth century. The central city spaces were used by both activist groups, such as the Central Worker's Union and the Landless Movement in their efforts toward better wages and agrarian reform, and traditional lobbyists, such as the Union of Rural Landowners. Traditional, conservative, progressive, and postmodern religious groups gained more visibility, including not only the Liberation Theology movement, but also the Charismatic Movement within the Catholic Church, the powerful political coalition of Evangelicals, as well as New Age groups that chose Brasília as their center. Moreover, with these changes an active underground city life emerged. Women's groups, workers, students, and environmental activists, as well as young artists, musicians, and followers of new religions began to use public spaces and urban niches for their expressions.
These groups also shaped Brazilian democracy, bringing people from the periphery to the center stage of national politics. With the founding of the Worker's Party in 1980, a new movement in Brazilian politics was inaugurated, which reached its peak with the election of Luis Inácio “Lula” da Silva as president in 2002, thus bringing to Brasília a former steelworker to occupy the center of political power.
Brasília was originally seen as establishing a new time and space in Latin America. It became a symbol of modern architecture, urban planning, radicalized centralism, and militarism. Then, with democracy, alternative cultures and forms of living began to emerge and change the urban landscape. Thus, in the twenty-first century Brasília looks more like a real city, more diverse and less centralized, still a symbol of modernism, but now conscious of its internal tensions.
Le Corbusier, São Paulo, Brazil, Urban Planning
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