Article by Greg Lindsay
Open Skies  |  July 2011

Paradise Lost: The Death and Strange Afterlife of Brasilia

Brasilia was to be South America’s city of the future. Instead it was a disaster of epic proportions. Greg Lindsay reports on the painful birth and the slow death of the Brazilian capital.

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“Brasilia is artificial – as artificial as the world must have been when it was created,” wrote acclaimed Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector following a visit in 1962, after the new capital had just turned two years old. The instant city had risen from Brazil’s dry inland plateau in 41 feverish months, ahead of schedule in President Juscelino
Kubitschek’s campaign promise to deliver “50 years of progress in five.”

The postcard-ready edifices were in place by then – the flying saucers atop the National Congress, the concrete ribs of the Cathedral, the dainty colonnades of Itamaraty Palace – courtesy of architect Oscar Niemeyer, whose teacher, Lucio Costa, had designed the master plan. Costa did away with neighbourhoods and streets, replacing them with residential superblocks and superspeedways aligned along the Great Axis and Monumental Axis. The result was a city best seen from above, laid out in a pattern resembling a bird – or a plane. At ground level, the vast, windswept plazas swallowed people, crowds, and any semblance of street life.

“If they took my picture standing in Brasilia, only the landscape would appear,” Lispector imagined, awed by the inhuman scale of the place. “The two architects who planned Brasilia were not interested in creating something beautiful. That would be too simple; they created their own terror, and left that terror unexplained. Creation is not an understanding. It is a new mystery.”

The mystery confronting visitors 50 years later is why its creators ever thought Brasilia would succeed – not just in overturning 5,000 years of urbanism, but in Kubitschek’s aim of “a complete break with the past, a possibility to re-create the destiny of the country.” Made-to-order capitals were nothing new by 1956 – Washington D.C. was one – but in rejecting Brazil’s colonial heritage outright in favour of a utopian future, the president and his architects guaranteed their plans would be undone by messy reality.

(For the complete story, please download a PDF version here.)

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Greg Lindsay is a journalist, urbanist, futurist, and speaker. He is a partner at the geo-strategic and climate advisory firm FutureMap, the senior fellow for applied research and foresight at NewCities, a senior fellow of MIT’s Future Urban Collectives Lab, and a non-resident senior fellow of The Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Strategy Initiative.

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