March 12th, 2008
Brasilia is the futuristic capitol of Brazil. It has been so since 1960 when the federal government moved there from Rio de Janeiro. I recently spent two days there and it is truly magnificent. It has been a place I have wanted to visit almost my entire life, but more on that later. First it is important to briefly tell the story of its creation as it is all about vision and how vision can project humanity into the future.
The population of Brazil, since colonization by the Portuguese has always been predominately oriented to the Atlantic coast, where the majority of Brazilians still reside. The country is the fifth largest in the world in terms of land mass. In 1823 a statesman named Jose Bonifacio suggested that moving the capitol inland would be a stimulus to the great interior of the country and would also be safer from foreign attack. He came up with the name Brasilia. Nothing much came of his efforts until decades later, a priest, living in Italy prophesied that a new civilization would emerge in Brazil between the 15th and 20th parallels. This caught the attention of Brazil and in the 1891 Constitution, land in the central plateau of Brazil was allocated for the construction of a federal district. Several legislative directives followed in the decades that followed, but nothing was ever done until a great leader with vision became President.
Juscelino Kubitschek became President in 1955. During the electoral campaign, he was asked if he would be the person to finally act on the vision to create a great capitol city in the countriesâ€™ interior. He replied that such an act required a visionary leader, that he was that leader and, if elected, he would create such a city. In the first year of his presidency he proposed, and Congress passed the creation of a new capitol that would be, in his words, â€œa capitol for the third millenniumâ€. In late 1956 the jungle that covered the chosen area of the plateau began to be cleared. In October 1957 Kubitschek declared that April 21, 1960 would be the day that the capitol moved from Rio de Janeiro to the new Brasilia. Utilizing tens of thousands of worker brought in from all over the country and working three shifts every day for three years, the goal was reached and on April 21, 1960, Kubitschek personally closed the door to the presidential palace in Rio and moved the government to Brasilia.
This in and of itself was an incredible feat. In addition to the leadership and the mobilization that it engendered, was the incredible vision of the urban planner Lucio Costa and architect Oscar Niemeyer. It was up to them to visualize what a third millennium city should look like and how it should be laid out. Using the leading edge image of mid-twentieth century engineering, Costa laid the city out in the shape of a jet plane. The fuselage is the mall where all branches of government reside, and the wings is where the population would live, go to school and shop. It then fell to Niemeyer to create third millennium architecture. His architectural designs became some of the most innovative and beautiful buildings in all of modern architecture. He is considered to be one of the great architects of the 20th century.
The buildings are all modern. Given that they were designed and built in the 1950s, there is some mid-century style to them that is of that age. However the more dominant impression is how modern they still look today. The government buildings are aesthetic works of beauty. The living complexes, while less beautiful, ironically embody concepts that are current today. In these complexes there are no buildings higher than six stories, and these complexes are grouped into blocks and quadrants. The goal was to have 80% of the land area be green, with central courtyards or quadrangles. Each block has a kindergarten and grade school and each quadrant of four blocks has a high school. Every two blocks have a shopping district to share. Every thing is of a human scale so that people can walk most places. Granted there is a lot of automobile traffic, but there is an extensive and logically laid out public transportation system of buses and subway. There is absolutely none of the horribleness of the public housing vertical slums of the U.S. or the shoddy grayness of Soviet and East German housing projects.
I cannot comment on how functional the Brazilian federal bureaucracy is, but it is certainly housed in modern architectural works of art. I found it striking to think about the fact that this is the only major capitol city I have ever been in where it was intentionally built with a clear eye on the future. Since it was built out of the jungle, there was no past, just the future. When visiting the capitols of practically every other nation, it is traveling to the past. The capitols of Europe and Asia are history lessons. Washington D.C. is a monumental city from the 1800s that holds dearly to the past. Even the structures built in Washington D.C. in the 20th century are monumental reflections of the past. Looking at Brasilia from the viewpoint of the 21st century, fifty years after Kubitschek said that the country would build a city for the third millennium I was struck by the fact that it is.
Creating a new capitol from scratch in the middle of a jungle takes vision. To have accomplished this task in four years takes visionary leadership and a powerful national commitment. To employ architects and planners and tell them to only design for the future is simply remarkable. It is one of the great examples of how looking to the future and planning for it can result in the shaping of it in a way that is nothing less than breathtaking! A model for much of what humanity faces today.
I will write more about Brasilia in another column, but to close on the promised personal note. When I was in this beautiful city I found that my heart opened up and that I was overwhelmed with emotion; the type that forces one to stop and analyze the powerful feelings. Sure I was seeing something a futurist would love to see. Sure I was taking in some of the most beautiful and visionary modern architecture that exists. But what I realized was that, as a child growing up when Brasilia was being built, I had devoured the Life magazine articles about how a great leader led a great nation to create something for the future out of nothing and was doing so in an incredibly short period of time. It was a dream place that represented the power of vision, of leadership, of massive coordinated effort all pointed toward a bright future yet to unfold. It was a boyhood experience that may well have fueled my life to embrace visions of the future. How often can one stand in the dreams of childhood and find them as beautiful in their reality?