Brasília: Unconventional Capital at the Heart of Brazil

(guest contribution by Miruna Bacali)

Once you set foot on Brazilian soil, you realize quickly that the scale is completely different from what you are used to as a European. With its 8.5 million km², Brazil is just a little smaller than Europe (10.5 million km2). The federal state of Goiás, surrounding the Federal District where Brasília is located, covers 350,000 km² – which nearly equals the area of Germany. If you live in Brazil’s central region, you have to travel at least 1500 km just to reach the coast – which would be comparable to a trip from Germany to Spain or Greece.

When it comes to experiencing the landscapes and space in general, Brazil can be overwhelming, but, for a European, also exhilarating. In this country (but also in other American territories), it is almost as if space materializes: it is infinite, it is everywhere, engulfing you. This creates a mode of interacting with the environment diametrically opposed to what we are used to in an urban European setting, where gentrification brings about an ongoing battle for spaces to rent – for living, working, opening shops, restaurants, or cafés. The centers of densely populated Brazilian cities are everything but free of clutter, smog, and suffocating traffic, but in the younger city of Brasília, inaugurated only in 1961, many parcels of wild land are still available for building houses. A significant portion of today’s housing areas was covered in shrubs or woodland 10-20 years ago.

Residential Area in Brasília
Photo credit: Miruna Bacali

This mode of experiencing space is complemented by a different way of experiencing nature: While in Europe we tend to shield ourselves against it (mostly because of weather conditions), in Brazil many constructions seem to incorporate nature into their very substance. In the capital, one often finds buildings consisting of two enormous horizontal slabs tied together by a range of either columns or vertical slabs. Air and light flow through this symbiotic construction instead of being obstructed by walls. In between blocks, there are often very expansive green areas, balancing out society and nature. It’s also very common to find giant trees and plants in between the buildings – or even climbing up the columns. It is also not uncommon to find edible fruits around the city, including the university campus. For instance, during the season when mango ripens, residential areas turn into gigantic gardens. While walking around campus in between classes, you may find gigantic jackfruits (see photo below) lying on the grass and all kinds of birds exploring the green areas in search of food. In the study rooms below the ground level of the university library, you can see giant bamboo plants balancing in the soft breeze and hear birds chirping through a loosely knit metal net – and most of the days there will be at least some rays of sunshine.

Brasília Jackfruits
Photo credit: Toninho Tavares/Agência Brasília
Brasília Mangoes
Photo credit: Jessica Nascimento

When it comes to its overall visual features, Brasília is an unusually “graphic” city with its airplane shape, sleek lines, and ethereal architecture. Its city plan is that of an airplane, consisting of one main axis (Plano Piloto) which divides the city into the “North Wing” (Asa Norte) and “South Wing” (Asa Sul). Even though we are talking about a capital, tall buildings (including skyscrapers) are only to be found in the very commercial heart of the city, leaving the entirety of the sky to be seen clearly from anywhere one might be. This takes the “spacing out” of the city to a whole new level: Rather than condensing everything into one central area, the city spreads out, elongating into the distance and seemingly shortening the distance between the viewer and the horizon, which is especially striking around sunset time. One of the best examples in this respect is the distribution of the cultural landmarks throughout the city: the cathedral, the Brazilian Congress and its surroundings – the Esplanada dos Ministérios (an open “city corridor” on a plain), are all situated within the perimeter of the city center, dispersed like pearls on a necklace rather than lumped together in one crowded area.

The University Library
Photo credit: Filipe Oconde
University of Brasília
Photo credit:

Brasília was envisioned at the center of Brazil by late president Juscelino Kubitschek (1902-1976) in order to integrate the enormous country, which suffered from low population density far from the coast, while the São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro counties were experiencing overpopulation. Before the planning started, there was a public contest for the future design of the city, which Lúcio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer won. Niemeyer’s futuristic style, inspired by European socialist architecture, gave birth to most of the cultural landmarks: the Palácio Alvorada, the Municipal Library (where open air events often take place), the university’s ICC (“Sciences Main Building”), the JK (Juscelino Kubitschek) Memorial, and the JK Bridge, also named after Brazil’s late president.

Brasília City Plan
Photo credit: Wikimedia commons

The decision to build Brasília as a spaced out city has a direct impact on the way social life unfolds. As there is no center encompassing the traditional triad of marketplace, church, and school and also no pedestrian zone, people tend to gather in a different way compared to what Europeans are used to. Mostly that requires them to travel some distance (usually not on foot) if they want to go out and meet friends and peers. It is thus difficult to navigate the city if you do not have a car, since by design it encourages the inhabitants to drive to their destination. How viable is it, then, to walk around Brasília? And how does people’s movement by automobile promote or affect social contacts? That might be the subject of a future investigation.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s