Bird, aeroplane, city

A view down the Esplanada dos Ministerios

As a monument to the brilliance of arrogance, it works, somehow. Brasília is a purpose-built capital city, like the US’s Washington or Australia’s Canberra, but with a communistic love of concrete and an embalmed retro space-age feel which means it revels in the bonkers in a way those cities never could. Walking around, I couldn’t help but be reminded of that joke when we realised ‘the future’ in Back to the Future was almost here – where’s that bloody hoverboard I was promised?

Oscar Niemeyer, the architect who planned and designed the whole city from its inception in the 1950s to today, is undoubtedly a genius. For one thing the whole city shaped like an aeroplane (although some say a bird), which, as far as I’m concerned, is reason enough to love it forever. The cathedral, from the outside immodestly individual, from the inside soars with light and calm in a way which could not fail to have impressed Christopher Wren and his sixteenth-century European ilk; the balanced beauty of Congress, with one down-turned dome-shaped construct for the House of Deputies and a mirrored up-turned bowl for the Senate, anchors the city to its governmental purpose with style and grace. But as Niemeyer was given a whole city and 50 years to play around in, one can’t help but get the impression of a kid let loose in a craft box – will they let me build the museum to look like a planet? It seems so…

And while Brasília is continuously impressive as you drive around, if you walk – not something which is either easy or encouraged in that city – up close the buildings are unfortunately reminiscent of the tower blocks thrown up in London at around the same time, to house citizens returning from war and bombed out of their former terraces. Fifties architecture is at once so brilliant and so ugly; it pushed the boundaries of the possible by re-imagining how we should live, but it did so with aluminium windows, which just do not look good five decades later.

The city has been well-maintained, however, in part because its daunting purpose and the pride with which it was inaugurated could not permit otherwise; President Juscelino Kubitschek won the election on a promise to build an inland capital, and lived up to the promise regardless of a remarkable financial burden and seemingly insurmountable technical issues. His face and words continue to adorn the city, and the bursting pride with which Brasília’s 50th anniversary was celebrated this year shows just how the achievement continues to mark the Brazilian consciousness. Whether that consciousness was more or less marked by the rampant inflation let loose by the slack monetary policy needed to build the city in the timeframe set – inflation which took a generation to tame – is debateable.

But as Brasília is part of Brazilianness, so the verve of its people has changed the city. It was built to the mantra that behaviour and lifestyle can be trained by surroundings, and that order in environment creates orderly people; but the irrepressible nature of its inhabitants means the city’s rectilinear goals have been gently but undeniably subverted. Satellite cities – stacks of ill-planned and under-provided homes and commercial centres, which can’t be translated in English to the genteel ‘suburb’ – cluster around the aeroplane’s wings as the homes of the vast majority of the city’s actual, working residents. The deep red earth from which the city was hacked out of an inland plain is omnipresent on pavements and shoes to this day. Markets cluster around major landmarks, workers lope across the ‘no-walking’ grassy spaces, and the Brazilian need to congregate and chat has created slightly uncomfortable but determined spaces to afford that. Niemeyer may have been a genius, but no group of buildings could tame such a need.

Indeed, my favourite thing about Brasília was something Niemeyer may have been influenced by, but which was well beyond his control. The landscape is almost completely flat, and so while buildings do get to 12 or 15 stories (although strictly no more), the sky is wonderfully, awesomely huge, and so so beautiful; I was there in rainy season, which meant that mountain ranges of clouds formed and shifted in evolutionary parody, playing with the sunlight to create unending glory. I can’t really imagine living in Brasília, although the natives, candangos, seem to love it – but sitting on a balcony in São Paulo, looking at my allotted three square inches of sky between the buildings, there’s a definite appeal.

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