Brasilia makes me think of my hometown of Newcastle, which is strange because the two cities really have very little to do with one another. However, the leader of Newcastle City Council from 1960-5, T Dan Smith, declared that he would build Newcastle in the image of Brasilia, to make Newcastle the ‘Brasilia of the North’. And so there remains an odd connection between these two unlikely places.
T Dan Smith’s statement is a nod to the utopian vision pioneered by the French architect Le Corbusier, of ‘streets in the sky’, comprising overhead walkways, separating traffic from pedestrian and inner-city trunk roads. This is a vision which sought to wipe away the past, to build modern, clean and safe cities, doing away with unsanitary living conditions. In the UK Le Corbusier’s ideas emerged most readily through Brutalism, which often manifested in concrete modernist imitations, built hastily and cheaply, which councils across the country are now fast demolishing (even Brutalism’s best iterations). In Newcastle T Dan Smith was responsible for many atrocities in the city. He bulldozed a central Georgian square, ran a motorway through the centre of the city and created high rise living, not compatible with the families that were sent to live there. Whilst the roots of these ideas emerged from a sort of paternal socialism of a (preconceived) notion of ‘progress’ and better living conditions for all, they often manifested in the urban landscape through architectural ruthlessness. T Dan Smith never found the Geordie Oscar Niemeyer, and so what was conceived was often a cheap imitation of modernist ideas. However, his statement to build Newcastle in the image of Brasilia always stuck in my head, not only for its eccentricity, but also because it is an assertion rooted in energy, in hope and in a will to move forward. So being in Brazil I decided to make a trip to Brasilia to see the city for myself.
I thought I would hate Brasilia. It is the ultimate planned city – a huge quilted pattern of roads and green space where the vast highways are six lanes wide, and iconic architecture is set around empty spaces and endless car parks. Even when you’re standing right in the middle of the city it feels that you’re looking at an image, a modernist painting, a mirage of something that isn’t there. The grass is so green it looks like Astroturf, the oxidised soil is so red it looks like the surface of Mars, and the iconic buildings have a pure, and utterly startling whiteness. However, when you truly encounter Brasilia and all its architectural surfaces and green expanses you realise that it is not picture perfect, and its imperfections are where its humanity is found.
Brasilia is a place like no other I’ve ever encountered before. On the bus from the airport, going past Niemeyer’s most famous architectural works, I felt like I had landed on another planet so much so that Niemeyer’s famous desire “to create the unexpected” seemed complete. The city is in no way ‘charming’, it doesn’t tease you with fanciful architecture, it doesn’t open its arms to you, instead it slaps you in the face. It is a brash manifestation of architecture. It is a city that makes you laugh and cry at the same time. The laughter emerges from its playfulness – it is a place full of curves, both in its network of roads but also in its architecture, which veers around you and deviates across space. It is an architecture that defies the right angle, which is so prominent in modernist architecture. Niemeyer believed that whilst the straight line and the right angle were created by man to create order and to direct and tame nature, the curve is a form of nature. And so there is a particular humaneness to Niemeyer’s architecture, one that is missing from much hard-edged modernism. To create his curved architectural forms Niemeyer truly embraced the plasticity of reinforced concrete, pushing it to the limits of its engineering. He modeled it like clay, and rather than appearing heavy, it seems that it could fly away at any moment. And so his buildings are more sculptural than architectural – instead of forms that connect together to create the logical structure of a building, they are volumes, huge objects set in space. For me it is Niemeyer’s defiance of the functionalism and utilitarianism of much modernist architecture that makes these buildings so utterly inspiring. They embrace an approach to building design that makes the user feel and experience the space. Further to this, as the buildings have aged and weathered they have become imbibed with perfect imperfection. The facades are not perfectly smooth, but are rippled and bumpy, the white is not perfectly clean, but scuffs and water marks stain the paint. There is a sense that whilst these buildings are precious, they are not too precious. Yet these are not imperfections that can be seen from a photograph.
I’ve always enjoyed seeing paintings in the flesh for exactly this reason. For example whilst Malevich’s ‘White on White’ painting looks flat and clean in a reproduced image, when you are beside it you notice uneven brushstrokes and different thicknesses of paint. Furthermore, Brasilia’s iconic buildings aren’t ‘preserved’ in the way they would be if they were in the UK (although in the UK we do building preservation in a very strange way, such as demolishing iconic works of Brutalism, and swiftly placing them in museums), for instance the roof of the National Congress building shoots out to meet the earth, and to stop people entering onto this space there is a hastily placed rusty metal gate. Perhaps this signifies different cultures of building preservation, or just different economies, however I thoroughly enjoyed seeing the use (and some might say ‘abuse’) of Niemeyer’s works.
But the part of Brasilia that makes you cry is the sheer brutality of the city. It is a city built around the car instead of the pedestrian and so it’s hard on your feet – the only way to cross roads which are six lanes wide is to run (which everyone does), and whilst you can see where you want to go, there seems to be no way of getting there amongst the web of roads. Yet from the air Brasilia makes sense – its perfect symmetry has a logic to it, but when you’re down on the ground it is a complex maze. The green areas in the central axis of the city are empty voids, there are no people enjoying the parkland, and there is no ‘street life’ in this area at all, as people take to their vehicles to move around. And so it is a city that goes against everything that the ‘amateur urbanist’ Jane Jacobs wrote about urban planning – that in liveable neighbourhoods we need a diversity of buildings and people, we need ‘cross use’ of spaces, so that streets are used for different purposes throughout the course of the day and night, and we need pedestrian friendly neighbourhoods. Instead Brasilia separates all its activities into ‘quarters’ for residential, commercial, governmental and hotel uses. Beyond the central axis of the city the neighbourhoods have names like ‘Superquadra Sul’ and ‘Comercio Local’, followed by a number to create a seemingly bland and generic system of addresses.
However the biggest critique of this experiment in modernism, is that Brasilia was thrust upon a country as a vision of the ‘modern’ (western) city based upon a predefined notion of progress. And so Brasilia is a place built on a particular idea of the future, one flown (or driven) in. Yet, it is Niemeyer that saves the city from being a mere exercise in architectural imperialism. As a Brazilian he translated these ideas for the Brazilian context, and offered new forms and methods of building which are more rooted in place and people.
And so despite its faults I can’t hate Brasilia. I can’t hate an architecture and a city that leaves me in utter wonder. But furthermore, I feel somehow connected to this place – there is something interesting about this cross-cultural switch – an idea about progress that moved from the West to South America and then back again to my hometown.