The construction of Brasilia, the much-maligned capital city of Brazil, represents an important and cathartic moment in the history of modern architecture and the International Style. As well as becoming a national emblem for the geographically disparate country, Brasilia has also become, in more recent times, a symbol for some of the perceived shortcomings of the modernist movement. Bringing together many of the European ideals that had accompanied the Utopian urban plans of the postwar years, Brasilia necessitated the deployment of monumental architecture on a scale almost unprecedented in the 20th century. The emphasis on establishing a new cultural identity for the South American power was interwoven with the global architectural language of Oscar Niemeyer and the Le Corbusian-inspired planning of his mentor Lúcio Costa. The optimistic proposal was to be realized within an incredibly short construction period and in the wake of enormous political pressure.
The decision to relocate the Brazilian capital from Rio de Janeiro to Brasilia in the isolated interior of the country was set against a backdrop of domestic instability and individual ambition. In 1955 Juscelino Kubitschek had been elected president of Brazil by a slender margin and without a party majority. The decision to build a new capital was motivated by the need to consolidate the support of a marginal electorate as well as the need to project Brazil into the technological age. The geography of the country had dictated much of the political and economic structure of Brazil, concentrating most of the population and industry along the scenic Atlantic coast that housed most of Brazil’s major cities. An inland capital was intended to not only symbolically relocate the seat of national power but also shift the demographic and economic focus away from the European colonial powers and toward the vast domestic hinterland. This was part of Kubitschek’s nationwide industrialization process that sought to rapidly develop rural and remote regions of Brazil and bring egalitarian prosperity to the emerging country. The new capital was to be a symbol for this modernization, establishing a new national identity and offering the opportunity to reform the convoluted bureaucracy of the old capital in Rio.
The fact that Kubitschek was limited to a single five-year term in office necessitated that the epic project be realized within this period. The vast scale and enormous technical impediments to the project meant that the preliminary design of the city had to be undertaken with speed and efficiency. Brazil’s most internationally renowned architect, Oscar Niemeyer, who had previously worked with Kubitschek, was appointed to direct the works and given complete control over the design and construction process. On 16 March 1957, Niemeyer announced a national competition for the master plan of the new capital and, as an important member of the jury, was instrumental in awarding the winning scheme to Lúcio Costa (his teacher and former employer). Niemeyer was to be the architect for the buildings extending a long period of successful collaboration between the two men. Construction was begun in 1957 and the new capital city was inaugurated on schedule on 21 April 1960.
Costa’s plan for the city was hinged around the intersection of two monumental axes, marking Brasilia as the symbolic and geographic center of Brazil. The characteristic arrangement houses the three branches of government—legislative, executive, and judicial—along a lineal central axis that Costa calls the Plaza of the Three Powers. From here, two wings radiate in either direction, housing the ministry buildings and embassies, giving the plan a diagrammatic relationship to a modern aircraft. This cruciform plan was an important symbol aligning the new capital not only with more traditional Catholic typology but also with the pervasive imagery of modernism, progress, and flight. Unlike the congested streets of Brazil’s coastal metropolises, the new capital was serviced by broad, expansive highways that celebrated automation and the technological convenience of the modern age.
Costa had followed Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse (Radial City) (partially, implemented at Chandigarh) by isolating the political and administrative centers of the new capital from the housing and recreational facilities, which radiated out from the circumference of this new monolithic center. However, it was the imposing architectural composition of Niemeyer that most clearly reiterated the formal principles of Le Corbusian modernism. The language of Niemeyer’s grandiose structures betrayed a profound allegiance to Le Corbusier and, in particular, his work at Chandigarh. Niemeyer, in reverence to the Punjab capital, implemented a simple but elegant geometric language to articulate the colossal monuments of Costa’s plan. The austerity of this new architectural entourage, like many modernist projects, attempted a synthesis between an idealistic social vision and pure geometric form. The attenuated scale of the buildings deployed in the capital worked with the master plan to facilitate a characteristically modernist reunification between architecture, nature, and the individual.
The Plaza of the Three Powers represents the political and architectural epicenter for the new capital. The elegant Palácio de Planalto (Highland Palace) became the new seat for Brazil’s government, housed within a single structure running parallel to the plaza. Giant, curved concrete pilasters articulate the exterior of the building, allowing the roof and floors to float gracefully above the ground. Opposite the palace and separated by a broad public space is the Supreme Court, which employs a similar language of forms to the palace with the strong rhythm of sculptural pilasters that dominates the elevation. In the vast space between these two buildings, along the center of the axis, is the Museum of the City of Brasilia, characterized by a dramatic horizontal cantilever that memorializes the construction of the city. A large bust of Kubitschek faces back toward the palace, unmistakably commemorating the president responsible.
The central axis is also the site of several important cultural buildings including the National Theatre and the sculptural Metropolitan Chapel. The chapel, in particular, is an important structure subtly demarcating the roles of politics and religion within Costa’s plan for a Utopian urbanism. The poetic conical structure is formed by 16 bent concrete pilasters opening out at the top to form a crown. Between the concrete supports is a mosaic of colored glass (redesigned in 1970 by Marianne Peretti) transmitting a powerful spirituality to the internal space. This is heightened by the entry procedure, which takes visitors underground before depositing them dramatically in the center of the internalized crystal chamber. The National Theatre also makes use of a pyramidal form elegantly housing two theaters within a terraced subterranean crater.
The end of the Plaza of the Three Powers is punctuated by the third major administrative building—the authoritative residence of the Congress. This colossal structure dominates the surrounding landscape with two slender concrete towers on a broad horizontal plinth. The two bodies of congress (the House of Deputies and the Senate) are expressed by two enormous parabolic dishes, one inverted, that are located on either side of the two towers above the podium. The circular form of the dishes allows a seductive interior layout for the two legislative bodies, distributing, rather than focusing, power.
The playful composition of the Congress, set against the expansive public spaces of the plaza, marks the hierarchical apex of the axis forming a hinging point in the whole design. Costa’s plan is reminiscent of the principles of the colonial baroque architecture (evident in many coastal cities of Brazil) that established primary and secondary functional corridors. Architecturally, Neimeyer established this hierarchy through the use of form and finish to distinguish between the sacred Plaza of the Three Powers and the secondary administrative axis that bisects it. The various ministries that make up the two curved wings of the plan are accommodated within undistinguished Cartesian office blocks, less elaborate than the parliamentary buildings in both form and execution.
Recent writers have applied a more critical eye to Brasilia and observed that Niemeyer’s structures unwillingly enforced a cultural hierarchy by allocating expensive finishes and detailing to the institutional structures and neglecting the sites of work and leisure. Unlike the rough Brutalism of Chandigarh, which was uncompromising in its rough-cast concrete finish, many of the significant buildings of Brasilia are finished with luxurious yet cosmetic surfaces like marble, metal, and mirrored panels. The most pronounced contrast with this, and the subject of many contemporary critiques of the city, is embodied in the sprawling housing sectors that surround the capital and quickly became the scene of crime, poverty, and disease. As a result, Brasilia became a city of transit for politicians who generally resided in Rio de Janeiro and visited the capital only intermittently. The residents of the city, many of whom had been instrumental in its construction, were relegated to ramshackle favelas enveloping the periphery of the city. This divisive relationship between the center and the periphery seemingly enforces a rigid social stratification between the monumental majesty of the governing elite and the working-class squatters, betraying the egalitarian rhetoric that initially inspired the construction of the new capital.
Nowhere is the decadent luxury of Brasilia more evident than in the lavish presidential palace, which exists on an isolated site apart from the other institutional buildings. Known as the Alvarado Palace, the expansive residence was the first building completed at Brasilia and remains one of the most recognizable and influential of Niemeyer’s buildings. It quickly became the architectural symbol of the new capital. The palace employs a similar language to the Federal Government and Supreme Court monuments, dominated by an inverted arched colonnade that sinks gracefully into a pristine reflecting pond. The palace incorporates a private chapel, signaling the seamless influence of the Catholic Church on the affairs of state. Located at the side of the imposing palace, the plan of the chapel is based on a sweeping spiral that, like the plastic forms of Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp, leads the visitor from the sculptural whitewashed exterior toward a discreet and contemplative altar. The geographic and spiritual isolation of the residence, as well as its imposing scale, further elaborates the social stratification intrinsic to the program of the new Capital.
Only four years after the city’s completion, Brazil was the victim of a military coup that instantaneously reversed the democratic and egalitarian principles that had initially inspired the construction of the new capital. The next 20 years within the country were characterized by a turbulent political landscape that ultimately led Niemeyer to live in exile in Europe for several years. Despite this, Niemeyer, although occasionally distancing himself from the design of the city, continued his association with the capital under the new regime, finishing the construction of several important buildings, including the Ministry of Justice. Significantly, in 1980 Niemeyer proposed a monument to commemorate the death of Juscelino Kubitschek, who had been the political and spiritual force behind the new city. The monument, whose form is reminiscent of the hammer and sickle, houses the tomb of the former president in a serene underground chamber.
However, possibly the most elegant and graceful of all of the buildings at Brasilia is the Pantheon of Liberty and Democracy, completed in 1987 in memory of Tancredo Neves. The poetic reinforced concrete sails of the pyre now enclose the southern end of the Plaza of the Three Powers, juxtaposed against the robust silhouette of the congress building at the northern end. The expressive structure subtly completes the urban composition, complementing the formal austerity of the earlier monumental structures with contemporary images of peace and harmony.
Despite failing in its intention to create a more egalitarian society through pure architectural expression, the city of Brasilia remains a powerful urban gesture, layered with symbolism of form and meaning deployed across a rich architectural tapestry. The dominant scenography, rigid geometric planning, and uniform aesthetic language effectively unite the diverse political, social, and artistic forces of the turbulent South American nation, forming a capital that is as inspirational as it is imperfect. The elegant poetry, epic scale, and often-naïfe socialism embodied in the monumental forms provide an important commentary on both the best and worst aspects of the Modern movement.
Sennott R.S. Encyclopedia of twentieth century architecture, Vol.1 (A-F). Fitzroy Dearborn., 2005.