I have my camera ready when my plane approaches, hoping I will get a good view of the layout of the city, which resembles a plane or a hummingbird, but no luck, I am seated at the wrong side of the plane and only have a view on the satellite cities (the same happens on my outward-bound flight unfortunately).
There were only two satellite cities in the original plan, but since Brasilia became a World Heritage site, development in Brasilia proper has been frozen, the World Cup 2014 stadium for example can only be built on the spot where the old one was. This has led to rapid growth in satellite cities, 2 million inhabitants live there now, against some 600.000 for the Distrito Federal.
If you look at aerial pictures or maps of Brasilia, the symbolism of the plane works well, a fuselage, the Eixo Monumental, with all the symbols and instruments of the federal state, at the top a cockpit with the decision making bodies and then the wings, the Eixo Rodoviaria, with the residential areas where the working population lives, providing the ‘lift’ to make the whole thing fly. Lucio Costa however, the one who came up with the original plan, has said he never meant that to be, he simple had a cross in mind, that he adapted to the features of the terrain and the artificial lake. So, even in this environment planned from scratch unexpected things happen, just as they probably never planned Brasilia to become the icon of architectural Modernism, but it still did.
While it is true that the being ‘modern‘ in Modernism mostly embodies: being at the cusp of developments and projecting a promise for the future, for me another important aspect is also that truly modernist designs don’t seem to age. The Bauhaus architecture from the 1920s and 1930s, still have this modern feel, the LC chairs Le Corbusier designed in 1928, are as modern today as they were then. It is that quality that also was captured by Oscar Niemeyer in designing most of the buildings of Brasilia and having Brasilia, remarkably, already declared a World Heritage site. Maybe as remarkable is the fact that the city which was designed for the future of humankind, proves to be such an awkward place for humans to live in.
“No, I am not”, I answer the girl when she asks if I am an architect. But she is. She, Beate, late twenties, has worked in England for the last few years and has just moved back to Berlin, the country she hails from. “I do like architecture though” I add, to at least explain why I pretend to know a thing or two about it. With her friend she is on the three hours tour of the main sights of Brasilia, that I also joined to get an initial overview of what there is to see (there are shorter tours, but even the three hour one is actually too short to appreciate things well, as I will discover as I visit the city over the following days). We are standing on the Praça dos Tres Poderes and considering that, while the ‘trias politica’-symbolism of the place is evident, it still does not work as well as you would have thought, simply because the three buildings in question are too far apart. The wide square lies in between and is not helped by the addition of an incoherent set of monuments and other buildings lining it (one innocuous marble box obscuring the view to the National Congress, later turns out to be the Museo de Cidade; a particular disappointment in itself, since it only contains marble walls inscribed with official texts).
“Is the square used for something in particular, ceremonies or something?”, Beate asks our guide. It is not, only for demonstrations, he explains. “Why do they not make it a bit nicer, with trees or a park”, Beate expresses our surprise at the uninviting character of the place. “Probably to keep the demonstrations short”, the guide quips. He probably had a point though, because now the temperature is a perfect 26 degrees Celcius, but in summer it is bloody hot in Brasilia and the white reflecting stones on the square will turn it into a frying pan.
“Brasilia reminds me of how in 1960s science fiction, futuristic cities would be imagined, sleek high rise, super fast monorail connections, the only thing that is missing are the little flying saucer pods that would zoom you in no-time to the other end of the city“, I tell Beate, and we talk a bit about the differences in town planning and architecture. "Did you know that many Dutch town-planning projects in the 50s and 60s were inspired by the East German model?", I ask her. "You mean the 'plattenbau'", she querries. But it is not so much the pre-fabricated building method, but rather the layout it self, I explain. "You would be surprised how much Dutch cities of those years resemble (former) East German ones". About Berlin town planning again, she is not as positive as most people are (me included, but my last visits admittedly were already some ten years ago again), in her view the newly designed city centre is not coming together as well as it should.
One of the problems of Brasilia are the distances, while the superquadra living areas on the ‘wings’ are more or less self-contained (library, shops, etc), the distances between them and the ‘centre’ of the city are only negotiable by car. Public transport is plentiful, but as a tourist it takes a bit of time before you figure out how it works (on occasion I had a long wait for the next bus, not sure if one was still coming). Walking anywhere is hardly an option.0)
“It is a bit too far away for a good view, isn’t it". We are now standing in front of the Palacio do Alvorado, the President’s residence. “But it still looks very modern“, Beate answers, “even though it is already over 50 years old“. “Can you imagine what a shock to the senses the Bauhaus architecture of the 1920s and 1930s must have been to the people still accustomed to the 19th century ideas of romanticist and neo-classicist architecture“, I continue, “this revolution of functionality and lack of ornamentation, the emphasis on the structural and simplicity of line of the designs”. As we talk about Dutch architects like Rem Koolhaas and MVRDV (Beate mentions them, I only knew a Rotterdam based group with a funny acronym exists), she explains to me that nowadays there is no particular style architects adhere to anymore: “You can basically do what you want”, which actually in her book does not necessarily makes it easier.
“For you architects, visiting Brasilia is certainly a must”, it is not so much a question as an observation on my part, “have you seen other Niemeyer work in Brazil?“ They have, they went to see the Niteroi Museum of Modern Art just outside of Rio de Janeiro (which I visited some time later: see picture). “It did look a bit funny from the outside, a bit like a flying saucer”, she tells me, “but from the inside the views were breathtaking”. Not the highest of recommendations probably, and if we had had a bit more time I might have told her of the Yoshijima-ke house in Takayama, Japan, where I felt an almost physical relaxation in this 1907 fore-runner of modernist, minimalist composition (entry #256).
When the little bus drops me off at my hotel again, I take my leave, they are off to Iguazu Falls the next day, whereas I plan on staying a few more days in Brasilia. “I particularly enjoyed the helicopter flight over the falls“, I tell them, “it was spectacular”(entry #33). Leaving them to debate if they still have the money to indulge themselves.
“What would a senator earn then?”, I ask the young girl who is showing me around the National Congress. It turns out to about R$20.000 (EUR 8.000) a month (she is quite happy earning R$1.000 (EUR 400) for this job which she does alongside studying psychology). “What about corruption?”, I ask. This question proves a lot more difficult for her, since she is not allowed to say anything on the subject, but she does tell me that a nasty case against two members is presently before a judge. I am a little surprised at the coyness of her instructions on the topic, because it is not particularly a secret that corruption amongst politicians exists in Brazil, even the most popular president Juscelino Kubitschek (JK, the one responsible for Brasilia being built in the first place), was often accused of corruption, even though none was proven at the time. Below us the Senate session resumed again at exactly 2 p.m., the presidency is at the top table, a speaker is speaking and of the 81 members (3 for each of the 27 states), all told one member is present and she is working her smart phone. Not really what you would expect. 1)
She shows me around the place and in one of the reception areas I spot the Le Corbusier chairs, as you often do in office reception areas, but in this modernist icon it is even a bit more appropriate than usual I would say. 2)
Brasilia in Quotes.
‘…completed in an era when millions of Americans were fleeing cities for the homogeneous suburbs of the Eisenhower era…Brasilia seemed to assert that erotic desire and human tenderness had a place in modern society. Better still, the stunning speed of its construction suggested that this sensual utopia was only as far away as the next cocktail…’ (Nicolai Ouroussoff, architecture critic of the NYT, 26-12-2007)
‘…I am not attracted to straight angles or to the straight line, hard and inflexible, created by man. I am attracted to the 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….’ (Oscar Niemeyer on himself)
‘…no photograph can prepare a visitor to the 1958 National Congress building for the delicacy with which it is set into the landscape. Surrounded by immaculate lawns, its form sunken slightly into the ground, it exerts a gravitational pull as you approach. A long narrow ramp leads up to the roof, where the public can stroll around the base of the bowl-like form of the chamber of deputies. The expression of the bond between a government and its people is as moving today as when the building was inaugurated half a century ago…’.(Nicolai Ouroussoff, architecture critic of the NYT, 26-12-2007)
‘…even more refined is the nearby Itamaraty Palace, built to house the Ministry of Foreign Relations. Its soaring slender arches, rising from vast reflecting pools, are like a soothing oasis in a vast flat landscape. Inside, a circular staircase is conceived as a series of cantilevered concrete slabs. As you climb, you can practically feel gravity releasing its hold on your body, a physical sensation that reinforces the building’s visual lightness…’.(Nicolai Ouroussoff, architecture critic of the NYT, 26-12-2007)
‘…some of the most revered buildings-from the Brasilia Cathedral to the grand Monumental Axis of the city itself-have been marred by the architect’s own hand…’(Nicolai Ouroussoff, architecture critic of the NYT, 26-12-2007)
‘…on the other hand, most folks in the rest of the country see the city as a soulless bore, a sterile metropolis full of bureaucratic nonsense…Brasilia is a lot like Los Angeles: residents love it, while others love to hate it…’(Lonely Planet)
‘…nothing dates faster than people’s fantasies about the future. This is what you get when perfectly decent, intelligent, and talented men start thinking in terms of space rather than place; an single rather than multiple meanings. It’s what you get when you design for political aspirations rather than real human needs…’ (Robert Hughes, The Shock of the New, Episode 4: Trouble in Utopia)
0) After staying in Recife and Rio de Janeiro however I think a little qualification is in order. Both have proper city centres but they are derelict, deserted at night and the weekend and pretty unsafe, while the traffic jams are horrendous. Under those circumstances you might be better off not having a centre at all.
1) Which led me to wonder how the numbers of Brazil as the ‘B’ from the BRIC group, stack up against those of the EU and the USA and I looked it up and put in a table (see picture; Tripmaster does not support tables)
Indeed it turns out that in Brazil there is a relatively high number of representatives (1 for each 323.000 inhabitants, with 1 per 591.000 for the USA and 1 for 667.000 in the EU, also the income is relatively high compared to the average income, a factor 10 in Brazil, 3.4 in the USA and 3.5 in the EU. Somewhat flippantly one could say that there are no objective reasons for corruption and an incentive to be at least present at your place of work.
Also interesting to note is that the growing income disparity in the USA is now almost as high as a developing nation as Brazil and that the EU economy (already for a number of years) is larger than that of the USA (which makes those BBC reporters all the more annoying who at every turn of phrase will tell you that the USA has the: ‘…l a a a rgest economy in the W o o o rld…’). Admittedly the average income is quite a bit higher, but with the income disparity that does not necessarily mean an affluent middle class, generally considered a prerequisite for a robust economy and a stable democracy.
2) ‘If you do not send me the items for the price we agreed when I ordered them, I will cancel the order and will want my down-payment back’. It is the end of 1996 as I write this angry line to Cassina in Italy, where I have ordered the LC-2 (grand comfort, petit modèle) chairs for my Paris apartment. I had just bought the place and decided that I would finally shell out the money to buy the chairs that I had wanted for so long, but never had the money to buy. Now close to the moment of delivery they had written to me that the initial price they had quoted was not correct and that I should pay an additional amount. I smelled some scam, since I had already made a hefty down-payment, but my anger was much greater, that’s why I wrote what I wrote. It helped, a few weeks later they were delivered for the original price.
As I had hoped the modernist design went well with my antiques and the ‘petit modèle’ fitted nicely into the small surface area a Paris apartment offers, but the 'grand comfort' proved less so, they are about as uncomfortable to lounge in, as Brasilia is a city to live in.