If you are an architect you probably heard a lot about Brasília. But even if you are not, everybody knows we are talking about Brazil’s modern capital. Many books have been written about Brasília, a city ahead of its time. It’s daring design has been called ultramodern, innovative, creative and avant-garde. Very few mention, though, what it feels like to be there, the experience within. I was lucky to visit in 2015 and though the buildings are indeed impressive the city itself disappointed me a bit.
To fully grasp the context we have look at its short history. Brasília was designed and built to attract population towards the centre. The country called for a competition to establish the new capital in 1956. The winner, Lucio Costa, drew the shape of the city with two main axis forming a cross, adapted to the terrain. The north-south axis, represented by a wide highway, drives the outside traffic into the heart of the city. Monotonous residential areas, organized in extensive super blocks, lay along this axis. The east-west axis houses the new political centre in the form of a monumental spine. Its main point is the so-called ‘Three Powers Plaza’ with government buildings, the Supreme Court and Congress.
Most of the city’s landmarks are located along the east-west axis from the ‘Plaza’ to the north-south axis. The former is a kind of a wide boulevard with a large green area in the middle, occasionally used for events. The later is an elevated motorway with two parallel avenues, completely ignoring pedestrians. Not only there are no real public spaces around intersections, but it even looks like a giant motorway junction with an unappealing bus terminal. Other important sights are located either further away around the east-west boulevard or to the extreme east near Lake Paranoá.
Brasília’s main problem is its lack of interest in pedestrians and bikers. Motorways constantly cut pedestrian paths, traffic lights give preference to the motorized vehicles and there are no bike paths. Even worse, there are no places of public interaction if we exclude the small areas around governmental buildings, a cultural block and various strange shaped shopping centres. The city is all about showcasing bureaucracy and power. It almost seems like Brazilian leaders didn’t want people to socialize out in the open. The city’s main park Parque da Cidade looks pretty modest compared to the glamorous public buildings.
On the bright side it seems Brasília is one of the country’s safest cities. Residential areas are lined with trees, buildings are in a good shape and apparently there aren’t many social differences (in the city proper). Most of the public buildings are exceptionally creative and unique and are an attraction on their own. Among the things that surprised us were a large number of different bird species in the eastern end of the east-west axis and the bizarre nightlife in gas stations kiosks including people smoking.
The following areas house the most interesting architecture of Brasília:
Three Powers Plaza
Designed by renowned architect Oscar Niemeyer in 1958, Praça dos Três Poderes houses the Executive, the Legislative and the Judiciary powers. Both Presidential Office (Palácio do Planalto) north of the square, and the Supreme Federal Court on the south have a longitudinal shape with similar style columns, while the National Congress has a particular vertical shape with two parallel towers connected by a horizontal ground floor. Across from the Congress the Tancredo Neves Pantheon of the Fatherland and Freedom brings a more dynamical shape into the orthogonal composition. The Brazilian flag (the largest in the world) and The Warriors Monument dedicated to the builders of Brasilia decorate the square.
Esplanada dos Ministérios starts west of the National Congress and occupies the longest strip of the so called Monumental Axis. Seventeen identical box type buildings surrounding the esplanade host most of Brazil’s ministries. Next to them, the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs stand out. Both are made of concrete, with tall pillars connected with each other by arches and surrounded by pools. On the extreme southwest the Cathedral of Brasília breaks the orthogonal matrix with its round shape. The esplanade itself is a simple meadow with temporary objects built for special occasions.
Republic’s Cultural Complex
The Complexo Cultural da República sits right across the Cathedral, along the Monumental Axis. The National Library is a monolithic rectangle with a rather monotonous façade broken by vertical outages that contain elevators and arched windows on the first floor. The National Museum’s shape is even simpler: a giant dome intersected with a few ramps. The white colour of both buildings contrasts with square’s concrete floor, occasionally interrupted by round pools.
A couple of kilometres isolated from the rest, to the east of the Monunmental axis we find Praça do Buriti, a concrete square and a park surrounded by large governmental buildings. A bit hidden, in the middle, the Memorial of Indigenous Peoples. Across it the JK Memorial dedicated to former president and founder of Brasilia, Kubitschek, looks like a large tombstone buried in the ground surrounded by water.
Brasília’s fancy neighbourhood located on its easternmost point is home to the city’s most elegant building – Palácio da Alvorada, home of the Brazilian president. Again, typical Niemeyer’s white arched pillars surround the horizontal building but in a more refined way. We could only see it from the gate, but the composition of its main façade makes quite an impression. We stayed in the area, in the city’s most iconic hotel, the Brasília Palace. Designed by Niemeyer it was built in 1958, burned down later and reopened in 2006. Rooms are modern, but most public areas maintain the original decor.
To fully understand Brasília you have to get to know its residential sectors, as neighbourhoods on both sides of the north-south axis are called. A longitudinal wide motorway runs parallel to several avenues, while numerous minor streets drive traffic into the sector’s interiors. All motorway exits convey into perpendicular streets, the only commercial areas in sectors. The rest of the block surface is dedicated exclusively to housing.