Finding Beauty in Brasília

The recent riot by supporters of Jair Bolsonaro, in which government buildings in Brasília were stormed by an angry mob, threw an unwelcome spotlight on a capital city, which is often overshadowed by the more populous São Paulo and the more glamorous Rio de Janeiro.  For me, though, I have fonder memories of Brasília than either of its noisy neighbours.

Designed as a purpose-built capital city by architect Oscar Niemeyer and urban planner Lúcio Costa, I visited thirty years after its inauguration.  At the time, I was struck by the wide open spaces of the capital; its modernist buildings; its beautiful churches.

As a tourist, it felt somewhere that was safe to wander around; local people spoke of how there was no need to lock up their houses; the atmosphere was far more relaxed than the big cities on the coast.  There was talk of an urban utopia.

Thirty years later, and the talk is more of an urban dystopia.  Brasília’s initial success has ultimately led to its downfall.  Over-crowding has resulted in a gridlocked traffic system and the zonal demarcation of services has led to sprawling residential districts without access to local amenities.  Art critic Robert Hughes was very critical of the city as long ago as 1980 in his landmark TV documentary series The Shock of the New.

And yet, for all its problems, I can’t help but find that the modernist beauty of its centre remains.  It may not work for its residents but, for a visitor, I still felt as though I had arrived at a city located on a different planet.  It was rather like walking through a slightly dodgy stage set for a futurist city on Doctor Who.  And I felt thrilled.  Any moment, I expected ten-foot tall humanoid aliens dressed in tightly-fitting Spandex body stockings to walk up and approach me and welcome me to their world.

Hughes stated of Brasília that ‘nothing dates faster than people’s fantasies about the future’ but, the fact is, that I still prefer my science fiction to be of 1950s vintage rather than anything that has come out more recently.  Why bother with Banks when you can have a bit of Dick has long been a design-for-living that I adhere to.

So, for me, I retain happy memories, strolling on that hot, high plateau in the centre of Brazil, amidst a deserted, concrete world of grand government structures, long empty vistas, and the hopes of a better world.

© E. C. Glendenny

E. C. Glendenny recommends Brasília … to visit.

Travel writer E. C. Glendenny describes a trip up Sugar Loaf Mountain in Rio in her book Slow and Easy.

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