Brasília

1 March 2020

Brasilia existed in the imagination of Brazilians long before it was planned or built, or even before anywhere knew where it would be. The story goes back to Brazil’s constitution of 1889 which included reference to a national capital called “Brasilia” in the interior of the country. Eighty years later, Juscelino Kubitschek was a candidate for president and promised that he would honour all aspects of the constitution, apparently not realising that this included building a new capital city. He won, and the result was a city built in a thousand days, on a plateau in the sparsely populated state of Goias. The capital was transferred from Rio de Janeiro in 1960 and the project gave Brazil a city that reflected its confidence as a country of the future, while opening up the interior for greater economic development and population growth.

“Brazil is not a serious country!”

Charles de Gaulle never actually said this, apparently, but the highly stylised “inter-planetary Brazilian” of Oscar Niemyer’s vision for Brasilia is both monumental and bizarre. Is there any other city in the world planned in the shape of an aeroplane? Where government buildings look like groovy space stations? Where there are zones rather than street addresses? Where all the pharmacies are along one city block? It is a curious fact that Niemeyer never explained his designs, and provided no theoretical structure to support his work.

The entire city centre of Brasilia was UNESCO world heritage listed in 1987. In a way, Brasilia is a victim of its own unique success, because everything is protected and now – sixty years’ on – serious money is needed to preserve buildings that were hastily constructed. There is also much debate about what should be protected and what should be replaced or modernised. And while Brasilia has marvellous open spaces, it is also heavily car-centric and practically impossible to walk.

Harmony in vision and execution

Brasilia is a time capsule – it is the past dressed as the future. The national congress consists of a sunken oblong building that appears to float on water with asymmetrical domes and towers. The national congress offers excellent tours, the highlight of which was the beautiful golden-tiled dome of the senate chamber, and, in total seriousness, possibly the best vacuum cleaner art in all of Brazil.

Next door to the national congress are two exceptional buildings: the Justice Department, with large basins of overflowing water across its façade, and the Presidential Palace, a glass atrium held up by a colonnade that makes it seem to be detached from the earth. Meanwhile, across to the other side of the central axis, the national museum is a large singular dome with curving ramps, suggesting that the planet Saturn has emerged from the concrete; and across the forecourt (cut through by a sunken motorway, naturally) is ‘that’ cathedral. The national cathedral – which some suggest looks like a crown of thorns, but nothing is certain – is a glorious tribute to the human imagination. The interior glass is mostly clear, so the eye is swept up into the clouds, and the statues of oversized hanging angles by sculptor Marianne Peretti are permanently hovering above us. It feels much smaller than what it is, and it gets far too hot inside, but the national cathedral is probably the quintessential building of Brasilia, and the future the Brazilians saw themselves in.    

Inside an ecclesiastical jewel

The Salesian church of Brasilia is conceptually remarkable, beautifully crafted and a lovely space for reflection and contemplation. The structure consists of one large room that is perfectly square. Its supporting columns are exterior, and all four walls consist of long, perpendicular floor-to-ceiling windows of blue glass. The blues become progressively darker as they rise to the ceiling – representing all phases of the day and night – and the corner windows are a rose pink. By opening the corners in this way, the building appears to be larger and more dynamic. Both the ceiling and the heavy chandelier (the only artificial light in the room) appear to be impossibly supported by the graceful windows. The Salesian church feels like the inside of a multi-coloured jewel and is an exceptional contribution to 20th century ecclesiastical architecture.

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