Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Happy 50th Birthday, Brasilia

Today marks the fiftieth birthday of Brasilia, the high-modernist capital of Brazil that was built out of nothing in the plains of Brazil across 41 months in the late-1950s before its inauguration on April 21, 1960.

There's a lot to say here. The history of Brasilia itself is unique. the myth of the city goes back to a Catholic official who had a vision of a great city in Brazil's interior (and the largest cathedral in the city, Catedral Dom Bosco, is named after him). A plan early in the 1820s during Pedro I's empire suggested relocating the capital to the interior of Brazil someday, though it was never enacted. Brazil's constitution had declared for years that eventually the capital would relocate from Rio (which had been the capital from 1763 until 1960). As story goes, while campaigning for president in 1954, Juscelino Kubitschek met a boy who asked when he was going to fulfill the constitution and relocate the capital to the interior. True or not, Kubitschek made Brasilia his primary goal during his administration. The city would simultaneously fulfill a part of the constitution, yes, but more importantly to Kubitschek, it would symbolize the developmental push his administration would oversee ("50 years in 5"), serving as a physical proof to the world that Brazil was truly modern. Planning by Lucio Costa and architecture by (still-alive) Oscar Niemeyer only reinforced this image.
Of course, the city itself is a little more complicated than the official story of its creation. While Kubitschek is inextricably tied to the city's image (and rightfully so), he did more during his administration, include establish development and fiscal policies that ultimately led to increasing inflation that would be a major problem for Joao Goulart, ultimately factoring into his downfall to a military coup. And while the airplane-design remains intact, the city has grown much more quickly than anybody had anticipated, reaching 2.5 million people by the 2000s. The result has been suburbs that are a good 20-25 minute drive away (again, so as to keep the airplane shape in tact).
Brazil projected an image of Brasilia as harmonious and peaceful to the international community, using the city as a perfect symbol of Brazilian society in general. And the politicians and publicists were right: Brasilia is a perfect symbol of Brazil, but not necessarily for the reasons they intended. Poor Northeasterners were brought in to build a city that was explicitly designed not for them, but for the middle class and political elite. The result was a beautiful, modern city for the elite, constructed by poor workers who were then forced to live in shantytowns in neighboring parts of the countryside. Even today, it is simultaneously defined by a society polarized between political elites and the middle class on the one hand, and the extremely poor on the other, living together in the same city yet worlds apart socio-economically. That image that still summarizes much of the socio-economic relations in Brazil even today.
Nonetheless, it truly was a remarkable feat - the fact that it went from literally middle-of-nowhere farmland to a city in name and fact in 5 years was simply amazing, Of course, the transferral of government took a little longer - many politicians were slow to leave Rio for the interior, and many government offices (such as the Ministry of Education) couldn't simply transplant overnight. Indeed, even the first president of Brazil's military dictatorship, Humberto Castello Branco (1964-1967), spent as much time in Rio as in Brasilia. Nonetheless, the federal authority was increasingly concentrated in the city throughout the 1960s, and remains there to this day.
As for the city itself...people love it or hate it. It is an anomaly in Brazil, in that it's almost essential to have a car. Even today, the subway system is incomplete; as you go from the suburbs to the city, you can see the hollowed out concrete stops where there will one day be a station, but not yet. I actually kind of like the city, having been there several times. The architecture isn't to everybody's tastes, but I really liked it, and it's nice seeing a city that has simultaneous uniformity and innovation in its design. I've also never gotten over the fact that it is the only place like it in the world - nowhere else has anybody said, "we're building a new capital right here, in the middle of nowhere," and pulled it off so successfully in such a short time.
As for the reputation of Brasilia as cold, impossible to navigate, and impersonal...I can't agree. Certainly, knowing people there helps in getting around (they'll almost inevitably have a car to help you), but it's not essential. I spent a couple of weeks researching there, with no access to cars, and was still able to get from one of the suburbs into the city and catch a bus to the archive. Sure, I spent a decent amount of time commuting (about 45 minutes each way), but it's not much wore than what many Americans do each day (and I'd spend more time commuting without ever leaving the island of Manhattan when I lived in New York).
I think even scholars who have written on Brasilia (and there aren't many) have often misinterpreted it. Most notably, while I would agree with James Scott's general observations on high modernism, I think he doesn't even misinterpret so much as abuse his evidence drawing on Brasilia. You can in fact walk around the city; more importantly, it absolutely has been home to mass mobilizations and protests, from anti-dictatorship protests in the 1960s to the movement to impeach corrupt president Fernando Collor in 1992 to anti-government protests in the 2000s. The images Scott uses to suggest that Brasilia is inhospitable to mass-protests are deceptive and historically inaccurate. Is it Sao Paulo or Rio? Of course not, but then again, Brasilia isn't nearly as big (2.5 million people) as either of the two main hubs of Brazil (20 million and 11 million people in the respective metropolitan areas).
Many today sort of ignore Brasilia or take it for granted, and I think over time the luster of the city has worn off for many, either due to normalcy or to mere generational differences. That said, as Brasilia turns 50 today, it is worth remembering how remarkable it was and still is, as an artistic achievement, as a declaration of purpose, and for all it represented and represents for Brazil, both in the dreams and the realities.