There are other planned cities in the world -- Washington, D.C.; Chandigarh; Canberra -- but none has the daring and sheer vision of Brasilia. In the 1950s, a country that had shucked off a failed monarchy, a corrupt republic, and a police-state dictatorship decided to make a clean break from the past by creating a brand-new space for politics.
In place of the pretentious Greek columns and stone facades that other political capitals used to engender awe, designers opted for modernism, a style of clean lines and honestly exposed structure, a style in love with technology and progress and the glorious possibilities inherent in the new materials of glass and steel and concrete.
The city plan was done by Lucio Costa. The buildings were designed by Oscar Niemeyer.
Costa's Master Plan was pure architectural modernism: Transit would be by road and car; activities would be strictly segregated; residential buildings were to be identical in size and shape and appearance. Worker and manager would live in the same neighborhoods, send their children to the same schools. In place of a grid, there were but two great intersecting streets, one straight, one curved. Viewed from on high, the city looked like an airplane in flight, or an arrow shooting forward into the future.
That the entire city was completed in just 4 years is thanks to the will of then-president Juscelino Kubitschek, elected in 1956 on a promise to move the capital inland from Rio de Janeiro. Few expected him to succeed.
The site, on Brazil's high interior plateau, was nothing but cerrado -- short scrubby forest, stretching thousands of miles in every direction. It was nearly 644km (400 miles) from the nearest paved road, over 120km (75 miles) from the nearest railroad, 193km (120 miles) from the nearest airport.
Groundbreaking began in 1957. Thousands of workers poured in from around the country. By April 21, 1960, there was enough of a city for a grand inauguration. Politicians and civil servants began the long shift inland.
In years since, Brasilia has been a source of controversy. Even as ground was being broken, urbanists were beginning to doubt the rationality of rationalist planning. Cities, it was being discovered, were vital, growing entities, whose true complexity could never be encompassed in a single master plan. Costa's carefully designated zones for this and that now feels stifling, ill-equipped to address the vital, messy complexity of a living, growing city.
The social aspirations of the architecture also proved illusory -- politicians were no less corrupt; rich and poor did not live in harmony. Instead, the rich banished the poor to a periphery beyond the greenbelt.
But if nothing else, Brasilia did succeed in shifting Brazil's focus from the coast to its vast interior.
For visitors, the attractions here are purely architectural. Brazil's best designers, architects, and artists were commissioned to create the monuments and buildings and make them beautiful. A visit to Brasilia is a chance to see and judge their success.
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