Brasilia is an unusual city. It was planned from scratch to be the new capital of Brazil (replacing Rio de Janeiro, which had filled that role since 1763). Brasilia was built in a whirlwind of activity, starting in 1956, and was inaugurated as the capital in 1960. I’m embarrassed to note that, even though I have been paying more attention to Brazilian affairs since meeting Cissa over six years ago, I still had a vague mental image of Brasilia as a city hacked out of the Amazonian jungle, with anacondas and jaguars barely at bay beyond the city limits.
Oops. When looking out the window on final approach to the airport, my immediate reaction was “We’re in Texas.”
The Brazilian planalto (plateau) is high, dry (at least in September), and huge. It’s 4 million square kilometers, or half the size of the continental U.S. And Brazil had been planning to move its capital there since 1891. Brazilians are wonderful people, but not always the most time-conscious… it took until the presidency of Juscelino Kubitschek in the 1950s to actually survey locations, pick a spot, draw up plans, and find the money.
Most of the public buildings were designed by Oscar Niemeyer, who had worked on the UN headquarters in New York City. Brasilia cemented his reputation as on of the 20th century’s leading Modernist architects. The buildings are, indeed, impressive. The Metropolitan Cathedral alone is a masterpiece… although I think the Santuário Dom Bosco, designed by Alvimar Moreira, is both more attractive and more spiritually moving. (Click picture to embiggen.)
Brazilians treat Niemeyer like a minor god. (And, yes, he’s still alive, at the age of 102!) So it’s somewhat sacrilegious of me to say that his buildings have not aged well. They’re still impressive to look at, and Brasilia as a whole definitely states “Look at me! I’m the capital of a modern country!” But I don’t get the impression that Niemeyer liked people very much. (A perception that is only reinforced by his lifelong membership in the Brazilian Communist Party… Communists like the idea of people, as workers or proletariat, but they don’t seem to like the idiosyncrasies and irrationalities of real flesh-and-blood people.)
Look at the entry hall for the Itamaraty Palace, the headquarters of what the U.S. would call the State Department:
It’s a soul-killing space. Low, dark, unrelievedly monochromatic, without any sign that actual humans are welcome there at all. Not even a No Smoking sign. The rest of the building is similar; I assume that the other government buildings (most of which aren’t open for tourists) echo Niemeyer’s principles internally as well as externally. As art, the buildings are beautiful; as places to live, work, and play, they’re inadequate.
But, oh, the way the buildings are laid out! (Which was actually the work of city planner Lucio Costa, Niemeyer’s teacher.) Brasilia was the first major international capital to be designed after the automobile conquered the 20th century. It makes heavy use of cloverleafs, roundabouts, dedicated U-turn lanes, and “tesourinhas” (“little scissors”) loops. There are almost no traffic lights in the “Plano Piloto” (“Pilot Plan”), and even with a population five times the original target, traffic flows relatively smoothly. It’s easy to be jealous of Brasilia’s design until you realize how much real estate is gobbled by the car-friendly layout. And I wouldn’t want to be a bicyclist there!
(Although Brasilia is the only place on either of my trips Brazil where I would see drivers routinely yield to pedestrians. Elsewhere, I would reflexively slow for pedestrians, and Cissa would remind me to keep going, since I was just confusing everyone!)
And here’s a strange fact: you have to have a university degree to join the police force in Brasilia. Now, a university degree is a big deal in Brazil, where a far smaller percentage of the population goes to college. Heck, having a diploma even gets you special treatment if you’re arrested! Brasilia’s college-educated police force, at least for now, stands out as a distinction.