Today marks the 52nd anniversary of the official inauguration of Brasília, the high-modernist capital of Brazil.
Although only begun in 1956 and inaugurated in 1960, the idea of Brasília has its roots in the early-1800s. In the 1820s, José Bonifacio proposed a city named Brasília further westward from the Southeastern coast of Brazil. In the 1880s, Italian Dom John Bosco had a vision of a futuristic city that would govern a peaceful world, with coordinates located roughly where Brasília sits today. And when Brazil became a Republic after nearly 70 years as an empire, the 1891 Constitution codified that at some point the capital of the country would relocate from Rio de Janeiro to a more central site.
It was not until the presidency of Juscelino Kubitschek (1955-1960), however, that Brasília went from an idea to a reality. According to the popular telling of the story, a young boy asked a campaigning Kubitschek when he would fulfill the constitution’s promise and relocate the capital. Upon winning election, Kubitschek saw the creation of a brand new capital in the interior of Brazil as a great opportunity to provide a unique public image to his broader goal of helping Brazil develop “50 years in 5,” in his own words. Kubitschek created a national construction company to build the city, and architect Oscar Niemeyer and urban planner Lucio Costa were brought in to design the city, ultimately settling on a layout shaped like a bird (or plane) to symbolize what Kubitschek and others envisioned as Brazil’s unlimited future.
With the design in place, workers from Brazil’s poor northeast arrived to the savannah-like interior of Brazil to build a city for the political elites and white-collar bureaucrats of the government. Work on the city was constant, with Kubitschek regularly making the trek from Rio de Janeiro to check in on the progress of what many came to treat as the most visible evidence of Brazil’s growth (though the city was only an architectural cypher for the broader reforms, development, and growth in industrial production, education, and cultural production that occurred during the “golden years” that coincided with, shaped, and were shaped by the Kubitschek government).
While many viewed the construction as a pipe-dream that took time, resources, and money away from very real social issues confronting Brazil, ultimately the capital proceeded, and just before leaving office, Kubitschek inaugurated the city that had become inextricably linked to his name. Of course, the inauguration did not mean the completion of Brasília. Well into the 1960s and even the 1970s, many governmental offices and bureaucrats remained in Rio de Janeiro, the capital of the country from 1763 until Brasília’s completion, and even today, the National Archives and National Library have their main collections in Rio de Janeiro (a fact for which many historians are extremely grateful, as researching in Rio de Janeiro is more enjoyable than researching in Brasília, for obvious reasons). New buildings, such as the Tancredo Neves Pantheon of the Fatherland and of Liberty, appeared in the 1980s, continuing the high modernist style, and even today, one does not have to look very hard to see new buildings in the capital that fit perfectly with the aesthetics of the 1950s designs.
While many at the time were proud of the city, today, views of it are more complicated. Critics of high modernism describe it as “sterile” and “cold,” and scholars like James Scott have pointed to Brasília as an example of the state trying to use space and urban design to prevent social mobilization. Additionally, while there is an extensive bus system and a subway connecting Brasília to the suburbs (which, in order to preserve the bird/plane shape of Brasília, are completely separate from the city), the subway was still only partially operational in 2008; as a result, Brasília is one of the few throughout Brazil that absolutely requires the possession of a car for residents to get around. Still, others love the city, and regardless of what one’s opinion of it is, there can be no question that its importance to Brazil’s government, economy, and society more generally has only grown. Indeed, while planners originally envisioned 500,000 people living in Brasília by 2000, the real numbers were triple that. Indeed, perhaps the best indicator of its cultural worth is that the whole city is the only 20th-century city to be distinguished as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
To commemorate the anniversary, Google Brazil has marked the day by having its cover page commemorate Oscar Neimeyer’s design of the city. Below is the image of Google Brazil’s page today, with the letters signifying: the Juscelino Kubitschek memorial (the “G”); the Congress (the two “o’s”); the Metropolitan Cathedral (the “l”); and the Presidential Palace (the “e”).
(And for more on high modernism in Brazil in the 1950s-1970s, I’ve written about it previously here.)