Brasilia Letter: City of contrasts not exactly party capital of Brazil

It’s a bit like 1960s G-Plan furniture: interesting, kitsch and rather soulless

A security guard walks in front of the Planalto Palace In Brasilia as it is lit up in the colours of the Brazilian national flag ahead of the World Cup. Photograph: Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters

A security guard walks in front of the Planalto Palace In Brasilia as it is lit up in the colours of the Brazilian national flag ahead of the World Cup. Photograph: Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters


There are parts of Brasilia, Brazil’s federal capital created out of nothing in the middle of the country in the late 1950s and early ’60s, that seem straight from the set of Thunderbirds. Characterless ministry buildings marching in formation down either side of an outsized central mall; other statement buildings – a museum, cathedral, the parliament building and a digital TV tower – that are made of concrete and have swooping curves and look a bit like flying saucers.

It’s like something from science fiction and would have seemed very futuristic when built. Today, however, it has a curiously dated feel to it – a bit like G-Plan furniture from the 1960s: interesting but slightly odd, kitsch and rather soulless.

Brasilia was the brainchild of the then president of Brazil, Juscelino Kubitschek, known as JK. At the time, Rio de Janeiro was the seat of government and, then as now, a place with a reputation, earned in the 1920s and 1930s, for partying and sometimes risque pleasures. São Paulo was the country’s commercial centre, which it still is.

But the interior, the vast planalto central, what Brazilians call the cerrado, meaning savanna, starting north of São Paulo and stretching right up to Amazonia, was largely undeveloped and home only to indiginous Indian peoples, since largely pushed into the margains of reservations. Plus ça change.

Kubitschek wanted to shift the country’s centre of gravity and got the urban planner Lucio Costa to design his city in the middle of nowhere. Architect Oscar Niemeyer designed the statement buildings. Kubitschek said he would cram 50 years of development into five. He succeeded but almost broke the country financially in the process.

Costa’s masterplan, which remains intact, was for a city that looked from above like a plane or a bird in flight, wings outstretched. The central fusilage is that mall, the 8km-long Eixo Monumental (Monumental Axis), which is home to most of the federal buildings and Niemeyer’s other statement structures.

The wings host everything else in geometric formation – sectors identified by number and brief description and sounding like something from The Prisoner, the cult futuristic British TV series from the 1960s. A few examples give a flavour: SPS (Sector Police South), SHLN (Sector Hospital Local North), SAFS (Sector of Federal Management South) and SCEN (Sector Sports Clubs North).

Three years, one month and five days after Costa’s plan was unveiled, 150,000 people were in Brasilia for the city’s inauguration. There were a mere 150 hotel rooms ready and an elephant, a gift from Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, had no zoo in which it could take up residence and so was tied to a tree while one was build around it.

Today, some five million people live in Brasilia and a few million more in the sprawling unplanned towns and shanties around it. It’s an apt metaphor for Brazil itself: the elite at the centre, comfortable and well-looked after; the poor on the margins.

But JK’s plan has worked. The centre of the country has been opened up. . . mainly to vast plantations of sugar cane, maize and other oil-producing crops, to soya and to cattle ranching. Eco-tourism is also thriving.

One sees all this very well from a Triumph motorbike, which is how Geoff Hill and I arrived in the city last month. Crossing the planalto at dusk, the scruffy satellite towns and their favelas (slums) had a dystopian look about them, random fires of rubbish spiralling smoke into the evening sky; children playing on unpaved dusty roads, huge trucks rattling between Brasilia and São Paulo to the south.

Next day, a Saturday, we took a self-guided motorbike tour of the city, while local biker enthusiasts let rip along the 12-lane Eixo Monumental. The city’s playground is Lago Paranoá, an artificial lake whose name, while seeming apt for a city built for politicians, government officials and diplomats, is derived from a Tupi word meaning “bay of the sea”.

Around the lake are homes and embassy residences in a suburban, sylvan setting. It is all very nice – in a Stepford sort of way. One can’t help feeling that while Brasilia may go to Rio to let its hair down, Rio doesn’t come to Brasilia for a bit of a laugh.

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