Friday, December 05, 2014

[The Life of Shaun #503] Brasília

Prior to the trip, the nerdy, urbanist side of me was most excited about the second stop of the birthday adventure, Brasília, the modernist, master-planned capital city of Brazil.  Salvador was the original capital, but it was moved to Rio de Janeiro in 1763, where it stayed for almost two hundred years.  (During the Napoleonic invasion, Rio even served as the capital of the Portuguese Empire, rather than Lisbon.)

During the last decades of Rio's run as capital, the idea was floated to build a new capital inland, to pull power away from the dominant Southeast coast, and to spur development of the poorer interior.  Despite being written into Brazil's post-colonial constitution, the proposal to move the capital came to naught until Juscelino Kubitschek, the "father of modern Brazil", ordered the construction of the new capital as part of his manifesto of "fifty years of progress in five."  Lúcio Costa won the contest for the master plan, and his close friend and modernist darling, Oscar Niemeyer, designed the main buildings within.

Born at the beginning of the jet age, Brasília was made in the image of an airplane, its fuselage stretching East-West, with the nose of the plane jutting into the man-made Lake Paranoá.  The spine of the fuselage is the Eixo Monumental (Monumental Axis), a wide strip of parks and roads along which most of Brasília's important buildings are spread.  The two wings, North and South, arch off the Eixo Monumental, and contain most of the city's hotels, residential areas, and entertainment centres.  It's very Utopian, and emblematic of the midcentury ideal of the automobile as modernity.  

From nothing, the city has exploded into a metropolitan population of four million in a little over fifty years.  The city proper is relatively expensive, and surrounded by a greenbelt.  Poorer sattelite cities and favellas sit a comfortable distance away from the centre.  Connected by bus and train, they serve as the homes for most of the workers who service the city.  The commute is so one-directional that hundreds of busses come into the city each morning, disgorge their passengers, and then sit in giant parking lots until taking their passengers back home in the evening, where the busses rest overnight.

Since learning about Brasília many years ago, I have been keen to see it in person.  The city is surprising in several ways: it's much larger than I expected it to be, and the iconic architecture for which it is famous is much smaller.  The heavy-handed symbolism of the airplane is less obvious and more agreeable on the ground than I imagined, and the city itself, while sprawling, was more pleasant and lively than a young, inorganic, car-centric city would be expected to be (think Milton Keynes, or Canberra).  We were there for three days, and part of me thought that might be excessive.  But in the end, it wasn't; there was enough to see in the day, and plenty of diversions in the evening, to keep Russ and me occupied and happy.  Even after years of anticipation, Brasília did not disappoint.

Looking down the Eixo Monumental towards Brazil's National Congress building, the apex of the avenue.

The North "wing" radiating out from the "fuselage" (from Wiki).

Brazil's National Congress building.  "The semi-sphere on the left is the seat of the Senate, and the semi-sphere on the right is the seat of the Chamber of the Deputies.  Between them are two vertical office towers. The Congress also occupies other surrounding office buildings, some of them interconnected by a tunnel...The dome that opens to the sky sym symbolises e deputies’ openness to the people, while the upside down dome symbolises reflection."  Unfortunately, due to regular protests in the capital around our visit, only organised school tours were being allowed inside the complex.

Two similar, but different, Niemeyer buildings flank the National Congress.

Rows of ministries (two per building) stretch along both sides of the Eixo Monumental.

Russ and I in front of the Cathedral of Brasília.  The cathedral is symbolic of the crown of thorns; the bell tower to right of the wine from the Last Supper; to the left, out of frame, is a structure representing the loaf of bread.  (Incidentally Niemeyer was an atheist.)

Inside the cathedral.  The pews are relatively recent additions; they were seen by Niemeyer to clutter the space, so worshipers originally had to stand, or sit on one of a very few pedestals around the edge.

The National Museum of the Republic sits on one side of the Cultural Complex of the Republic.  Unfortunately, again, there was no exhibit on while we were in town, so I could not go inside.

Palácio da Alvorada, the official residence of the president of Brazil, protected by a moat (with guards at both ends) rather than a fence.  Water features are very common in Niemeyer's work.

For the Niemeyer fans, this is the only hotel in the city he designed, the Brasília Palace Hotel.  I considered staying there, but it's far from the city centre and got lack lacklustre reviews.  Judging by its empty parking lot, this is a very common decision.

The spectacular Estádio Nacional Mané Garrincha, designed in the style of Brasília.

The Juscelino Kubitschek Memorial, and final resting place of the father of modern Brazil.

Niemeyer was sure to design handsome, copious buildings for the country's military.

The Santuário Dom Bosco, or "Blue Church", appears a concrete cube outside...

...and it's not until you step inside you see where its nickname comes from.

The residential sections of Brasília are divided into organised groups.  Eleven buildings make up a superblock, "each group of four superblocks was supposed to serve as a single neighbourhood unit.  Each group was to have a church, a secondary school, a movie house, a youth club, and adequate field space for children to play sports on.  Between the superblocks were lower buildings for commercial businesses. Each superblock's six-story buildings rested on massive pillars, so there was an open area beneath the building for the free movement of pedestrians and for children to play under during inclement weather. The superblocks were also intended to be egalitarian, so that people of all income levels would live together and interact without class distinctions."

One of the sections of "lower buildings for commercial businesses".  Many were outwardly unappealing, but I managed to fine a good wine bar, pub and Asian restaurant within them.

The elegant Juscelino Kubitschek Bridge crosses the Lake Paranoá, connecting the city centre with wealthy homes on hillsides overlooking the capital.

Shaun H. Coley ~ Kentish Town
 ~ Camden ~ London NW5 ~ UK ~
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