words Hannah Baldock
Brasilia was built for cars not people. Ever since it was inaugurated in 1960, the city has provoked perennial criticism: that the $2 billion cost of building it in three years nearly bankrupted Brazil, which continues to struggle with debt; that it is a beautiful, sterile, cultural void that no one wants to live in; that a pristine, white monument to European-influenced modernism is an anomaly in vibrant, colourful, multiracial Brazil. But the most insistent criticism is that it lacks human scale: that it wasn’t designed for people, but for cars.
Brasilia was conceived by pioneering modernists Lucio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer – who, tireless at 95, has just completed his first building in Britain, the Serpentine Gallery’s summer pavilion which opened last month. Since Costa and Niemeyer had the classical modernist tabula rasa with Brasilia, they wanted to design out the faults of other metropolises – traffic congestion, homelessness and crime. It was 1956, at a time when owning a car – the bigger the better – was as culturally valued as owning one’s own home, when the domestic auto industry was booming and income was growing. In a flawed vision of an ultra-modern, efficient city of the future, they decided that Brasilia would, first and foremost, be designed for cars.
And so it was that Brasilia was born, and became driver heaven, and pedestrian hell. In 1995, 68 people a month – more than double the national average – were being killed in car accidents on Brasilia’s highways, by drivers doing an average speed of 90kmh, despite a 50kmh speed limit. As a result, in 1996, 25,000 Brasilia residents marched on Congress as part of the Peace In The Traffic campaign demanding new laws to protect pedestrians from “traffic violence“. Yet in the same year, boy-racer businessman and state opposition leader Luis Estevao brazenly contested the legal grounds for electronic speed control, winning a two-week suspension of electronic fines. One can only imagine what kind of engine Estevao had raring to get out of the garage, and the pleasure he got out of speeding around Brasilia’s highways.
So, in the 21st century, what is the city of the automobile circa 1960 like to live and drive in?
The experience of travelling on a long-distance bus into Brasilia gives a sense of its remoteness, and the “inspired lunacy”, as the Reuters correspondent of the day remarked, of siting it there. As well as massive financial risk, it took a leap of the imagination to move the country’s capital from the Cidade Maravilhosa (“Marvellous City”) of Rio de Janeiro to a remote site in the hot savannah of its central plateau. The travel writer John Malathronas puts it in perspective in his Brasilia Travelogue: “In line with the 1969 moon landings, it was the 20th-century equivalent of those daredevil adventures of the conquistadors: the colonisation of the uninhabitable, the taming of a frontier, a leap into the unknown for the leap’s sake.”
The idea of establishing Brasilia was to redress the country’s uneven development, and boost its economy, by moving its centre of gravity to the heart of its vast, unexploited territory. When Niemeyer first visited the site, there were no roads connecting it to civilisation. “The first time I flew with [President] Kubitschek and his ministers to the site chosen for Brasilia, I was horrified,” he recalled in a BBC interview on the Brazilian capital’s 41st anniversary. “I thought it was too remote; that it was the end of the earth.”
The traveller on a bus bound for Brasilia traverses endless panoramas of undulating savannah, where countless Brahma, Sindhi and other unfamiliar cattle graze by the odd pool of water or spindly palm tree. Tall red mounds of earth, the work of voracious subterranean termites, pepper the landscape as far as the eye can see. Fields of soya and wheat, or the entrance to the odd fazenda (estate) and roadside chapel are the other, sporadic signs of settlement. This is the territory that was tamed by Costa, Niemeyer and legions of Candangos (the name given to the workers who built Brasilia, and now to its residents) all those years ago.
When the bus finally arrives at the interstate bus terminal, it is an underwhelming, not to say unsettling, experience. Can this really be the threshold of the capital of South America’s biggest nation? One side of the station looks out on to uncultivated fields, the other on to a featureless highway. If the bus terminals in Rio or São Paulo – huge, vertiginous, labyrinthine interchanges, constantly teeming with people – feel like the guts of the city, this feels like a request stop on an off-peak spur line.
The fringe location of the interstate bus terminal is a sign of how Brasilia has outgrown itself, as economic migrants, many of them from the poorer north-eastern provinces, continue to flock to the capital in the footsteps of those who came to build the city in 1956. As a result, 2 million people now live in, or commute to, a city designed for 500,000. As the city expanded, the bus traffic outgrew the terminal, and interstate buses were moved to their current outpost, leaving the inner city terminal to the local buses that run between the city and the 19 satellite towns, ranging from vibrant communities to shanties, where most of the newer, poorer population lives.
The pleasing geometry of Costa’s road plan, which looks like a giant Spirograph pattern, can be appreciated from a platform 75m up the 224m-high TV tower, which overlooks the monumental highways leading to Congress. Eighteen lanes of traffic run straight down the centre of the city, north to south, and 12 lanes slice it in half east to west. Costa specified “no intersections whatsoever” in his masterplan, in a radical bid to eliminate gridlocks, substituting spiralling ramps and underpasses for intersections to allow the uninterrupted flow of traffic. Wide, six-lane avenues sweep in each direction past 17 domino-shaped ministry buildings, speeding the chauffeured Mercedes and Audis of politicians into Three Powers Square – the administrative heart of the city. The iconic upturned and downturned saucers of the bicameral Congress, and administrative block shaped like an H (for humanity), the Supreme Court and the Presidential Palace, floating glass boxes framed in consecutive structural concrete curves, and halfway down the approach, the spectacular crown-of-thorns-shaped cathedral. The purity and clarity of Niemeyer’s architecture of curves and clean lines, sharp white against the deep blue skies, or floodlit against the night, exerts a magnetic attraction. The east-to-west avenues propel residents via feeder roads into the residential axis, where 500,000 live in long, white six-storey superblocks, raised on massive pillars above polished granite esplanades, and screened by greenery, or two-storey houses with gardens on culs-de-sac perpendicular to the main avenues.
As traffic glides off the six-lane highways of the monumental axis, around the symmetrical cloverleaf ramps down into the bus station or up into the residential and commercial districts, the whole thing seems to work pretty well. As it does late at night, or on a weekend, as you speed seamlessly around the city, pinned to your seat by the G-force of the aerodynamic spiralling ramps with their 1:3 decline. But for most of the time, reality on the ground is far from relaxing. For one thing, to the uninitiated, the circular routes are disorienting, as author Malcolm Slesser, lost in 1967 Brasilia, relates. “Circling the most sumptuous and well cared-for roundabout in Brazil, we found ourselves on the Highway Axis. The impression we gained was of space. The traffic was there, fast-moving as ever, but well spaced. Underpasses and feeder roads ensured no intersections. People drove with precision and confidence. The trouble was we could not find out how to get on to the monumental axis that would take us lakewards, and hence to our hotel. At one moment, we had the option to swoop down (to the bus station as it turned out) or up on to an overpass. We chose wrongly and spent minutes finding a way on to a returning lane. To the cognoscenti Brasilia-driving is like going flat-out on the big dipper; but for the beginner…”
And the reality is that many drivers are beginners in Brasilia, including taxi drivers who flock from the poorer provinces of Brazil to snap up the higher fares. As a pedestrian, too, you are given directions that are way off the mark, by people who may have arrived in Brasilia anything from a few weeks to a few years ago, but because everything is so separated, only use or know certain routes and circuits (there are sectors for hotels, hospitals, banks, schools, entertainments, sports facilities, car mechanics, government car mechanics). Distances between the city’s landmarks are far greater than they look, and pedestrian crossings and bus stops few and far between, so pedestrians end up traipsing for miles in the beating sun. While it is a myth that there are no pavements in Brasilia, it is true that there are no street corners. These are cut off into curves, so that before stepping into the road, pedestrians have to crane their necks round to see cars veering towards them. As Malathronas writes in his superbly observed Brasilia Travelogue: “It’s as if the city is a vast Darwinian contraption trying to speed up natural selection by weeding out the attention-deficient, the easily distracted, the drowsy and the downright dim. They should hand out a T-shirt at Airport Departures: I survived Brasilia.” In the three years following the introduction of speed cameras in 1996, the average speed in the city decreased from 90kmh to 55kmh, and traffic deaths were reduced by 48.3%. Even so, five people are estimated to be killed a week trying to negotiate the city’s inhospitable highways.
And now there is trouble in driver paradise, too. Since it is forbidden to build taller than the 28-storey Congress tower in the Unesco-protected pilot plan, Brasilia has to grow outwards, so that everyone who can afford one has a car. Claudio Marcio, planning director of Novacap, the quango responsible for the development of Brasilia, admits that without a car in Brasilia you are in trouble: “It takes me 15 minutes to drive from my home in Lago Sul to my office on a good day. But if I didn’t have a car, it would take me one and a half hours on two buses.” As a result of this, and relative affluence, more people in Brasilia have cars than in any other city in Brazil, causing a shortage of parking spaces, and forcing people to park illegally on kerbs. In recent years, tailbacks have started to appear at rush hour on the main roads out of the city centre, despite the construction of 14 viaducts and relief roads in recent years.
The experiment of Brasilia proves that it is impossible to design the perfect city for the automobile. For a long time it alienated the human traffic, which would flock to the bus stations and airports on the weekends, seeking in other cities the street corners, shady squares, pavement cafés and nightlife they were missing. Julian Dibbell who summed up this effect, described Brasilia as “intended, after all, to give the impression of having been built neither by nor for mere earthlings. A race of hyper-intelligent Volkswagens, perhaps, or aliens who speak a language made up entirely of Euclidean axioms, might be expected to feel at home in this sidewalk-poor zone of perfectly circulating asphalt arteries and relentlessly clean lines of design – but not any species as puny and unkempt as homo sapiens.” There are other, practical reasons why Brasilia doesn’t work. Property prices are so high that some north wing superquadras are still uninhabited, though many are forced to live far from the pilot plan and commute to their jobs. The preservation of the city as decreed by Unesco in 1987, while it helps preserve the quality of life on the pilot plan, makes it very difficult for the city to adapt to new urban concepts. For example, in the 1970s when the inferior fluorescent street lighting was universally modified to mercury lamps, in Brasilia the wide spacing and low height of the original posts had to be maintained, so that the highways of the capital are darker at night than Rio’s or São Paulo’s and more dangerous for both vehicles and pedestrians. “Talk about imposing a museum straitjacket in the most modern of capitals. Imagine astronauts having to live aboard Mir because it had been declared a Unesco site,” snorts John Malathronas.
The rational modernist premise for Costa’s traffic planning was that unplanned development leads to chaos, and that this can be averted by the organising power of architecture. This has been found, since the 1960s, to be wishful thinking. Today, there is consensus that the wealth of urban life can’t be reduced to a functional scheme. A real city adjusts itself over decades and centuries and is the sum total of what architects and engineers have imposed upon it.
Many Brazilians are still unconvinced that Brasilia was a good idea. They resent the exorbitant costs of sustaining it as the country’s capital, including politicians’ airfares and apart-hotel bills. Most have never been there, nor have any desire to. “What would I want to travel 16 hours there for? It is just full of corrupt politicians conspiring in some modern buildings. There is nothing else going on,” is a common rejoinder from residents of Rio or São Paulo, from where Brasilia is equally as remote both in distance (931km and 870km respectively), and lifestyle. Yet the popularity of Brazil’s new left-wing president Lula da Silva, a scrupulous former steelworker from the impoverished north-eastern province of Pernambuco, may soften this attitude. Lula has a huge popular mandate to try to redress decades of uneven development in Brazil – which has left a third of its 175 million inhabitants in hunger and poverty. At his inauguration a banner on the cathedral read: “Those who have never been represented salute you.” The left-wing zeal emanating from Brasilia’s presidential palace has certainly made one old man happy – its designer, the staunch, lifelong communist Oscar Niemeyer.
And for all its faults, Brasilia has become a more human city since the 1960s and 1970s. “The bus station or the airport on a Friday night will still be full of people leaving,” says Marcio. “But more and more stay put and explore increasing leisure pursuits in and around Brasilia – watersports at clubs on Paranoa lake, cycling races, picnics at fazendas [estates] outside the city, visits to waterfalls and hot springs in the Chapada dos Veadeiros national park.”
A new national library and art museum, recently redesigned by Niemeyer, will complete the cultural quarter planned for Brasilia since 1956, before funds ran out. Meanwhile, the chief leisure pursuit of Brasilia residents is disposing of their income. There are 14 shopping malls in Brasilia, more than in any other Brazilian city, and affluent Brasilia residents park their cars and disappear into them for hours, as shops, restaurants, bars and nightclubs are all located inside shopping centres. If Rio is associated with beaches, bikinis and carnival, São Paulo with industry, culture and nightlife, Salvador with candomble, capoeira and carnival, Brasilia is associated with jobs, money and shopping. And most migrants to Brasilia would not swap it for the beach. “People earn good salaries, can give their families a good standard of living, bring their kids up in a relatively safe and healthy environment,” says Novacap’s Marcio. “The city is beautiful, you can see the horizon, the air is clean, we get lots of sun and beautiful sunsets. You can get around easily and quickly, apart from in the rush hours. It is the safest of the great urban centres. Property and the cost of living is higher but services are better.”
Ultimately, while Brasilia was flawed in its conception, and utopia was short-lived, the city’s location is a great success. The vast highway network which was built to provide access to Brasilia from practically everywhere in Brazil, the longest of which is the 2,276km Belem-Brasilia highway, has galvanised its economy. Brasilia’s central location also provided a growth centre for Brazil to expand westward and tap into its vast interior resources. As for the future of the city of the automobile, in early 1992 the government decided to alleviate the incipient traffic problems by building a metro. The Brasilia metro will link the south of the city with five satellite towns that house two thirds of the population, with 34 stations (12 underground). It started in 1992, and has already cost $2bn (£1.25bn) and was supposed to open in 1998, but has been held up because of funding problems. Brasilia’s drivers, including Luis Estevao no doubt, hope that it will free up some road space, and allow them to taste a little lost paradise.