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Definition: Brasília from Merriam-Webster's Geographical Dictionary

City, ✽ of Brazil, on the Paraná (a headstream of the Tocantins); constitutes, with surrounding area, the Federal District; presidential palace; cathedral; university (1961); construction begun 1956; ✽ moved from Rio de Janeiro 1960; nearby is Brasília National Park.

Summary Article: Brasília
from Brazil Today: An Encyclopedia of Life in the Republic

Brasília is the capital of Brazil and one of the country's most beautiful cities. Listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO since 1987, Brasília is recognized as a symbol of modernist urbanism and architecture. Surrounded by the state of Goiás in Brazil's Center-West and part of the demarcated Federal District, Brasília had a 2010 estimated population of nearly 2.6 million in an area of only 5,801 square kilometers, yielding a high population density of approximately 402 people per square kilometer. The city has dry summers and rainy winters, an average yearly temperature of 72 degrees Fahrenheit, and maximum and minimum temperatures of 81 and 55 degrees Fahrenheit, respectively. Its modernist architecture and political-economic importance attract thousands of visitors annually. Boasting a gross domestic product per capita that is above the national average, Brasília ranks as one of Brazil's wealthiest cities. The provision of public health, safety, and transportation helps give Brasília one of the highest ratings in the Human Development Index among Brazilian cities. Nonetheless, many social problems in the city remain unsolved.


Brasília received official mention as early as 1822 in a legislative document that contained a proposal to transfer the capital from the Atlantic coast to the scarcely populated and undeveloped Center-West. The proposal's proponents claimed that the transfer would foster economic and social development in the Center-West while offering the nation's capital a setting that was more secure from foreign threats. Despite numerous exploratory missions in search of a proper location for the future capital and many statements of support by politicians, the long-standing proposal began to attain realization only in the mid-1950s when Juscelino Kubitschek, who became president in 1956, founded the New Capital Urbanization Company (Novacap) and set aside 50,000 square kilometers as the Federal District. Kubitschek selected an associate from his days as mayor of Belo Horizonte, Oscar Ribeiro de Almeida de Niemeyer Soares, as the chief architect for the new capital. Novacap also held a competition to select the best master plan for construction of the city. The winner, urban planner Lúcio Costa, already had a long working relationship with Niemeyer and was openly promoted by the project's influential architect. Some of Brazil's finest and most renowned artists contributed to the project, including landscape designer Roberto Burle Max, painter Emiliano Di Cavalcanti, and sculptor Victor Brecheret.

The city's construction, which commenced in 1956, faced a variety of difficulties. A shortage of laborers in the sparsely settled region required that they be recruited from distant locations. Poor infrastructure, transportation, and communication combined with shortages of basic goods to hinder construction. Architects, engineers, contractors, and workers responded by doubling their efforts. As a result, basic construction of the city was completed after almost four years, and the city was formally inaugurated, with great ceremony, as the new capital on April 21, 1960, by President Kubitschek. However, political conflict, social unrest, and threats from the military distracted the next two presidents, thereby delaying substantive transfer of the government to the new capital from Rio de Janeiro (City) until after initiation of the military dictatorship in 1964.

A Genuinely Modernist City

Brasília's construction and modernist architecture symbolized Brazilians’ high expectations for social change and modernization during the 1950s and early 1960s. In interviews, both Costa and Niemeyer expressed the prevailing optimism that Brazilian economic development and modernization were within reach. Kubitschek, the politician closely associated with Brasília's realization, affirmed the country's optimism and high expectations by declaring “fifty years in five,” a reference to the national goal of rapid social and economic development. The rapid industrialization that marked the period elevated expectations and optimism among workers who enjoyed high levels of employment, increased purchasing power, and expanded public services and social programs. Although the benefits of rapid industrialization failed to reach much of the population, there prevailed a strong belief that Brazil would soon be a major country and, therefore, needed a new capital commensurate with such status. Costa and Niemeyer felt encouraged and challenged to create a city that would concretely symbolize Brazilians’ high hopes. In this context, Brasília became known as the City of Hope, a title coined by the French author André Malraux suggesting that the new capital could erase a distorted and negative Brazilian past while launching a brand-new era of national achievement.

The novelty of Costa's master plan and the radicalism of Niemeyer's public buildings and monuments reflected the nation's sentiments during that heady period. Brasília became an international reference for urban planning and a world-famous tourist destination for admirers of modernist architecture and art. According to official data, approximately 1 million tourists visit Brasília annually. The most popular destinations are the Juscelino Kubitschek Memorial, the Ministries Esplanade, the National Congress, the Presidential Palace, the Three Powers Square, the Cultural Complex of the Republic, the National Cathedral, and Lake Paranoá along with the Juscelino Kubitschek Bridge, which spans the human-made body of water.

Brasília Today

Brasília's main sources of economic wealth and employment are the public sector, financial services, and agriculture, including cattle ranching. To accommodate and entertain the dignitaries, businesspeople, and tourists who visit the city, Brasília offers diversified services that include many highly rated international restaurants and hotels in addition to a robust tourist assistance system. Brasília also has a vibrant cultural life. During the 1980s, rock bands from the city, such as Aborto Elétrico, Plebe Rude, Capital Inicial, and Legião Urbana, gained national recognition. The city has many museums, theaters, and concert halls in addition to hosting the famous Brazilian Movie Festival and nurturing a popular art scene. The surrounding region offers a park and nature reserve replete with waterfalls, lakes, and diversified fauna and flora. Alternative communities ranging from hippie communes to religious retreats dot the city's outskirts.

Despite its world-renowned master plan, Brasília currently faces several challenges. The city's current population, the majority of which lives in satellite suburbs, far exceeds original plans for up to 500,000 residents. This overpopulation has causes typical urban problems such as traffic jams, land speculation, and the growth of favelas (slums). Brasília also displays severe social inequality, as the political and economic elite for whom the city was originally intended relies on services provided by impoverished workers who flock to the city in search of employment. In recent years, Brasília has become notorious as a city where politicians and their young sons can commit serious crimes with impunity. Although distinguished by its stunning modernist architecture, the City of Hope today confronts many of the problems typical of medium-sized Brazilian cities.

See also Art and Architecture; Tourism.

Suggested Reading
  • Holston, James. The Modernist City: An Anthropological Critique of Brasília. University of Chicago Press Chicago, 1989.
  • Shoumatoff, Alex. The Capital of Hope. Coward, McCann, & Geoghegan New York, 1980.
  • Nobile, Rodrigo
    Copyright 2012 by John J. Crocitti and Monique M. Vallance

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