I have been to Brasilia on a few occasions, but every time the aircraft has made preparations to land at this magnificent capital of Brazil, I have frantically looked down for a visual corroboration of what I was told long years ago: Brasilia as a city that was conceived as an aircraft-its parts representing different functionalities of the capital city.

While the shape of the town Is better appreciated on the casually drawn sketches by its planner Lucio Marçal Ferreira Ribeiro Lima Costa that he used to clinch the Brasilia deal, the enormity of what was conceived and later how Brasilia acquired shape between 1956-60 is visible as soon as the rubber hits the tarmac and a visitor takes the road to the city. A distance of 15 kilometers to the city center is speedily covered as the roads in Lucio Costa’s built city  has no traffic lights or stops- only destinations. As the grand vision of its iconic architect, Oscar Ribeiro de Almeida Niemeyer Soares Filho- who died at the ripe age of 104 years- is revealed, it becomes quite apparent on how and why Brazil’s new capital helped in raising the global profile of this Latin American giant.  Inspired by the legendary French modernist architect, Le Corbusier, who also built a new city from scratch, India’s Chandigarh, Niemeyer, built  the parliament, the foreign office, the President’s palace and the Church. All very extraordinary and unique in their conception. A practicing communist, he had his own views on what he wanted his creations to convey. He built public buildings and also wanted the living quarters that he built in Brasilia as state owned- not to be owned by an individual.  The social transformation that the capital would bring about was vigorously sold to the people of Brazil- unfortunately did not happen. More on that later.

Though I had made many trips to Chandigarh, but thisss writer was still unprepared to absorb the modern grandeur of Brasilia created by Niemeyer. Backed by President Juscelino Kubitschek, Costa and Niemeyer built  the new capital of Brasilia in just 5 years even when the decision to build Brasilia was taken as far back as in 1890.

The different layers of Brasilian architectural history and Niemeyer’s thinking behind each of his many buildings that he conceived and built, were made available to me in a personally guided tour of the tastefully curated exhibition of ‘Brasilia 60+ And the construction of Modern Brazil’ at New Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art, by the extremely erudite and well informed Ambassador of Brazil to Delhi, André Aranha Corrêa do Lago. The exhibition took place in May, 2022. An expert critic on architecture, Ambassador Andre shared pictures and sketches about how the city evolved. from his personal collection.

Many of the buildings in Brasilia that I saw in plain wonder,  came alive when Ambassador Andre- perhaps the tallest Ambassador in Delhi’s diplomatic corp- began to explain how they were  constructed. The iconic National Congress building with two half spheres, is the favorite of its creator, Oscar Niemeyer, as it dominates the esplanade of other ministries and is considered as an icon of sorts of the new Brazil and its values. The building was built on the cross that Costa marked when he began to plan the city. The prominence that is given to the two domes emanates from Niemeyer’s democratic imagination where he believed that debates will take place in public between deputies in the house of the people. Niemeyer invited eminent artists like Athos Bulcao, Burle Marx and Marianne Paretti to work on the interiors of the building. His attention to detail manifested when, along with his daughter, he also designed furniture pieces for the building. 

Every design of Niemeyer displays a fluidity, so distinct from the European architecture that dominated much of Brazil. In his own words, “I am not attracted to straight angles or to the straight line, hard and inflexible, created by man. I am attracted to free-flowing, sensual curves. The curves that I find in the mountains of my country, in the sinuousness of its rivers, in the waves of the ocean, and on the body of the beloved woman. Curves make up the entire Universe, the curved Universe of Einstein (Niemeyer, 62).”

It is this love for curves that are found in nearly all the buildings that Niemeyer built in Brasilia.

The speed at which Brasilia was completed has been breathtaking for many of those who understand the complexity of constructing a city ground up. Brasilia came up as it had the support of the President and people of the country, who recognized the importance of meeting deadlines as national pride was at stake. Although the construction of the city drained the coffers of the Brazilian government, but this modernist exploration at such a grand scale helped in raising the global profile of the country. President Juscelino Kubitschek’s war cry to marshal support of the masses was “ fifty years progress in five”. In India, too, similar slogan was spouted “ 40 years work in 4 months” without having to show much except violence and political assassination.

The capital was to be the harbinger of social change, but Costa failed to account for those who could not afford staying at the city center and was compelled by circumstances to live at the periphery. Niemeyer, a communist, trenchantly opposed the fact that the city plan did not factor this issue. The manner in which the town was planned by Costa,  privileged some work over the other and contributed in creating a new social hierarchy. To sum up, the workers- the people that built the capital- had to live far away in the suburbs.

The capital, which was to be a game changer for the country contributed to serious economic distress causing raging anger amongst the masses. The economic turmoil gave legitimacy to the army that overthrew whatever democratic pretensions the government may be having. Be that as it may, Brasilia and its iconic architect, Oscar Niemeyer, has been an inspiration for a generation of new cities and their planners. It is a matter of speculation where and when a new city comes up like Chandigarh and Brasilia- from scratch.

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Marcal Costa and Oscar Niemeyer, backed by Brazilian President Juscelino Kubitschek built Brasilia from scratch like India’s Chandigarh. Did the capital meet its social objectives that drove Niemeyer? History thinks otherwise.
Brasilia-A city that speaks for itself and its builders