As the city of Brasilia turns 50, photographer and writer Duccio Malagamba captures the everyday life of this super-scaled utopia
The first thing to attract the attention of those arriving in Brasilia from Rio de Janeiro is the attitude of the passers-by: they are relaxed. Here the guarded behaviour and vigilant glances of the cariocas (as the citizens of Rio de Janeiro are popularly known) seem a distant memory. You wonder whether you’ve allowed yourself to be influenced by the writings of the crime columns in the local journals.
In the absence of the tension that taints the experience of wandering around Rio as a tourist, it’s hard not to be upset on discovering that Brasilia is not a city suited to the promenade. The distances are immense, boundless, and absurd.
It’s hard to understand how so cultured and cosmopolitan an architect as Lúcio Costa managed to so completely ignore human scale in designing his Plano Piloto (the original blueprint which laid out the inner city’s Federal District, as opposed to the surrounding suburbs). Nor is it easy to fathom how the brilliant Oscar Niemeyer, the other grand designer of the new Brazilian capital, beyond doubt committed and anti-conformist, failed to notice that they were condemning the working classes to a permanent dependence on a means of transport which would necessarily be public, given the earnings of the majority of the population (although in Brasilia, unlike many other Brazilian cities, there is clear evidence of a dignified middle class).
To get an idea of what I’m referring to, suffice to say that what appears on the map to be a mere traffic island between the north and south carriageways of the Monumental Axis (or Eixo Monumental, the city’s main arterial route), is in reality a true urban park which in some areas exceeds 300 metres in length. To traverse from one side to another takes at least a quarter of an hour. To even reach the Square of the Three Powers on leaving the National Congress - in theory one of the three buildings that bound the square - requires you to walk 200 metres.
It must be admitted that these distances, inconceivable from a European point of view, give a unique character to Brasilia: the feeling of being lost in the middle of a capital is not a common sensation. It’s an experience which helps make the visit to this city, which is already truly unique from an architectural point of view, entirely unforgettable.
Once you’ve become accustomed to the vast distances involved in reaching destinations by foot, you have to acclimatise to the rigid zonification that dominates the Plano Piloto, generally divided into north and south. A tourist, normally lodging in one of the two Hotel Sectors of the city, can satisfy most needs in one of the big commercial centres, but will doubtless have to visit the Financial Sector (North or South) to make less routine transactions, to the Medical Hospital Sectors for health tests, or to the Embassy Sectors for anything which requires a consul.
The result is a rather rigid system which obliges even those who have use of a car to make long, disparate movements, although traffic generally flows and parking spaces are relatively abundant. In the foundational phase of the city the creation of this hierarchy offered some advantages; today it is obsolete and counter-productive, with entire sectors deserted from 5pm. Despite this, the protection enjoyed by the regulated plan’s UNESCO status - the ‘Historical Heritage of Humanity’ - will obstruct rethinking the system.
But if the ghettoised urban organisation leaves something to be desired in the administrative and tertiary sectors, the same cannot be said about the residential areas, structured into the celebrated superquadras. These large residential blocks, which conform to the so-called ‘wings’ of the original urban plan, seem to withstand the passing of time with ease, thanks to the semi-tropical exuberance of the gardens which encircle them, designed by the great landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx.
The scale adjusts itself in these tidy residential areas, which appear to the visitor to have both order and a serene vitality. It’s a vitality which is diluted in the monumental areas by the huge spaces and the imposing aspect of the buildings but is nevertheless present, and gives the institutional edifices and official spaces a typically Latin feel. In fact, one of the justifications for making the pilgrimage to this modern architectural Mecca is the chance to compare the abstract ideas of the interventions, which we architects know by heart, with the contamination which comes withuse and context.
The elegant, solemn forms of Niemeyer assume a different meaning when they are transformed into background scenery for an ice-cream cart, bored souvenir sellers or uniformed schoolchildren. There is undoubtedly more to Brasilia’s architecture beyond that which we all believe we know.
In March 1944 the AR dedicated an issue to Brazil, and in February 1959 published an in-depth study on the new Brasilia. See www.architectural-review.com/home/ar-archive.