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AR Archive: Brasilia

[Archive] An update on the construction of Brazil’s new capital by J. M. Richards first published February 1959

Lucio Costa’s master-plan for the new Brazilian capital, 600 miles north-west of Rio de Janeiro, was described and illustrated in the AR for December, 1957, in an article by Sir William Holford, who was a member of the international jury which earlier that year had awarded Costa first prize in the competition for the plan. Construction began forthwith, under the architectural direction of Oscar Niemeyer, and the city is already taking shape on the ground, as the air-view opposite shows. On the following pages are an account of progress to date, a preview of Niemeyer’s designs for some of the principal buildings and illustrations of the two important buildings already completed by him, an hotel and the President’s palace.

Building activity is concentrated just now on two sites, some two and a half miles apart, one at the eastern end of the main axis, where the parliament buildings are under construction, and the other in the residential belt, where eleven of the square blocks of this belt consists are in various stages of construction. These are about a third of the way along the southern arm.

Elsewhere on the site of the future city - an area of about sixty square miles - the ground is still covered with its original vegetation, ‘a fairly sparse low-growing scrub dotted with small twisted trees not big enough to obscure the bright red earth between.’ Apart from the newly built highway that links Brasilia with the outside world (the nearest town, Anapolis, was 75 miles the away), the site is of course criss-crossed with roads - mostly as yet unmetalled - and there is an enormous amount of completed work in the way of water and power supplies, drainage systems and so on not visible to the eye.

It is otherwise fairly featureless except for a distant rim of mountains in every direction. Its shape is a plateau with only minor undulations, rising slightly towards its centre. It will have much more character when the lake which is to enclose it on two sides has been created. This will be done by damming a couple of streams that meet nearby. The barrage which will effect this is under construction and will be finished next year, but it will take a whole rainy season after that (December to March) for the lake to fill. The lake will also provide a useful head of water for hydro-electric power, supplementing the rather meagre supply that now comes from a single fuel operated station.

Beside the shore of the future lake, near where its two arms will join, are sited the two major buildings already completed: the hotel and the President’s palace. They are about a quarter of a mile -apart and just north of the extreme eastern end of the main axis. The hotel has a simple unpretentious character such as befits a building that will not eventually have so important a role to play in the life of city as it has for the time being-when hotels grow up in the central area it is likely to become a lakeside holiday hotel or country club. But it has the advantage of spacious planning on a scale that a building restricted, as most hotels are, by the economics of land values cannot normally afford; it is not normally practicable, for example, to have all the bedrooms along one side of the corridor only and the public rooms in a spreading single-storey wing. The equipment and decoration of the bedrooms and public rooms is of the highest standard.

The President’s palace is a more consciously monumental conception, and Niemeyer has managed to give it a nobility of character rarely achieved in a frame-and-glass idiom. The at first sight somewhat eccentric shape of the marble screen, which partly supports the outer’ edge of the surrounding verandah and serves also to throw patches of shade across its floor, discloses itself in practice as a most successful architectural device. It gives the. palace a slightly grander than domestic scale, and redeems the austerity of its general lines not only by ‘the introduction of these dipping curves, but by adding sparkle and vitality to the whole structure through the fall of light on the surfaces and edges of the subtly modelled marble.

The way the palace, with its verandah, is ‘poised above the ground it sits on and reflected, when seen from the approach road, in shallow pools adorned with sculpture, adds to its dignity. The only weakness in the design is the uncertain handling of the end elevations. The scale of the circular chapel, which stands on a square platform extended from the end of he building at the level of the verandah, has also been criticised. Photographed separately it does perhaps look as though it ought to be bigger than it is, but the eye is not in fact disturbed by its scale and it is happily enough related to the rest of the palace.

Inside there is a wonderful sense of space, with an appropriate change of scale between the magnificent suite of reception rooms on the ground floor and the living quarters occupying an upper floor at either end of the building. The interior day lighting successfully eliminates glare. The finishes are beautiful. The sumptuous furnishing is by the architect’s daughter.

The present startling contrast between the elegant sophistication of this building and the primeval landscape that reaches from all directions right up to its doors will of course become less as the landscape is tamed, gardens are planted and the future lake-shore defines the edge of its site. But the palace has been designed nevertheless to stand permanently in an open verdant setting, detached from the built-up area of the town.

Approaching it from the direction of the palace, the town proper begins with the group of parliament buildings,1, (previewed in AR December, 1957), of which the construction is already well advanced. They rise above a rectangular platform and consist of three elements: a twin-slab secretariat building, twenty-eight storeys high (it will be the tallest in the city), and two low circular buildings, the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies, the one covered by a shallow dome and the other having the shape of an inverted dome, which contains a basin-like auditorium. These are linked by two levels of service rooms beneath the platform. They will be the first of the public buildings to be finished, and have already reached the stage where their geometrical form is beginning to emerge from a tangle of concrete formwork and scaffolding.

Around them the complicated ‘series of levels comprising ,main roads; approach roads, building sites and their surrounding terraces and car-parks have already been established by batteries of earth-moving machinery. The double highway leading into the town passes either side of the platform on which these buildings stand; and then , beneath and on to a larger platform at the’ ends of which are sited the two other major buildings of the central group: the offices of ‘the Supreme Tribunal and of the President and his cabinet, 2. These have already been designed, ,but not yet started. They are similar but not identical, and are not unlike the President’s palace in style, incorporating a marble screen similarly composed of curved members, but in this case set at right-angles to the walls of the building instead of parallel. Niemeyer has also designed a stone monument, 3, to be erected ‘on the same platform to commemorate the inauguration of Brasilia.

The next group of buildings to be started will be several of the eighteen identical government office buildings, arranged, in parallel formation, that are sited immediately west of -the parliament building’s. These are very simply designed: 340-ft. -long rectangles ten storeys high raised pilotis, with the interior floor-space (except for lift-enclosures, lavatories an escape-stairs) are left open for subdivision as required.

Beyond these government offices, just off the main axis, will be the cathedral, again already designed though no starting-date has been, fixed. Niemeyer’s design’ is ‘highly original. It is circular in plan with a sunken floor; reached by a ramp leading downwards from the surrounding pavement. The ramp leads into a darkened ante-chamber, from which the visitor passes into the huge light interior of the cathedral, 230 ft. in diameter and 130 ft. high, holding 4,000 people, shaped like a cooling-tower and, it is understood, functioning like one as well. A detached baptistery, egg-shaped externally, is reached by stairs from a subterranean passage leading from the cathedral floor.

The only other central-area buildings so far designed are for the business zone, where banks, insurance companies and so on will have their offices. A model, 5, has been made showing Lucio Costa’s proposals as to how such buildings might be grouped. It is difficult to understand the logic of the change of orientation between the eleven fifteen-storey slab blocks suggested for private establishments and the remainder, which consist of a twenty-storey block in the centre for the Bank of Brazil and five others, 6 connected to it, for Government financial agencies; but the use of levels to separate motor-traffic and car parking from pedestrian access (cars approach each building beneath the piazza on which the buildings stand) is interesting and consistent with the planning technique used elsewhere.

The residential zone (see plan) is divided into squares, each housing about 3,000 people, identical in size but laid out internally in different ways. Belts of trees separate them, and primary schools and community buildings are sited among these trees. Another purpose they are intended to serve is to identify the outline of the squares and create a built-up skyline throughout the residential zone, during the period when parts of it have not yet reached .the development stage. Work is going forward on eleven of these squares and others will be started soon. The buildings already begun will accommodate 3,000 people, mostly in seven- or eight-storey blocks of fiats. Something over 200 fiats are on the point of completion, 2,800 are scheduled to be ready by the end of this year and nearly 4,000 by the end of 1960.

This rate of progress means that in April 1960 when the seat of Government officially moves from Rio de Janeiro to Brasilia, there will be something like 3,300 fiats ready for occupation. It has been estimated that a minimum of 1,800 essential civil servants will have to be working in Brasilia for the Government to begin operating from there, so this leaves a margin of accommodation for others besides civil servants, apart from the smaller quantity of housing that is already beginning to go up in controlled areas outside the main housing belt. Notable among these is a group of middle-class houses already finished, east of the southern arm of this belt at the edge of the future lake.

The layout of the first square due to be finished within the residential belt is shown in model form in 6, and the progress photograph shows the buildings under construction. In the corner of the model can be seen the neighbourhood church, which is already finished, 8. It is one of Niemeyer’s always interesting demonstrations of the use of concrete as a plastic material, though the relationship of some of the planes gives the impression of not having been very fully visualized and the church suffers from having been built, for economy reasons, rather smaller than the architect designed it.

There is now a labour force of about 20,000 in Brasilia, including building and engineering workers, transport and tractor drivers and those engaged in road making and landscaping. They live for the most part in camps, hidden away in folds of the ground a little distance from the future built-up area. There is also, just west of the airport, which is near the southern tip of the residential belt, a temporary shopping and recreation centre for the working population, known as the ‘free town’ because any enterprising trader is free to set up there on the understanding that the whole place-which is mostly single-storey and timber-built-will be cleared away in a few years. The total population of Brasilia, including the inhabitants of the free town and others that ‘serve the needs of the construction workers, the administrators, transport workers, police and those who run the services already established there like the airport, the power-station and the hotel, is now about 45,000.

The only industries so far established are small ones connected with the building works, and some of these are probably only temporary. There is also some, temporary agriculture, because in order to create a source of food in this hitherto unpopulated regioil, financial help has been given to farmers to start smallholdings on a short-term basis on land that may eventually be too near the centre of the city to be permanently agricultural-it may be required for parks and playing fields or outlying housing areas.

There is also a long-term plan for promoting agriculture in the region. Land is to be leased to farmers on initial leases of thirty years. Owing to the poor quality of the soil at present they will be helped to improve its fertility, on the basis of a survey of the potentialities of different areas and the crops most suitable for each, which has already been made. So far forty-three farms ‘have been allotted to tenants by the Ministry of Agriculture, and besides these four large model farms have been planned, which the Ministry will operate itself. The area over which this and similar regional planning ‘is going forward is about 2,000 square miles, and a commission, has recently been set up to study the future of the even bigger region of which Brasilia will ‘eventually be the centre.

The programme for building and sitting hospitals and schools in and around the city is ‘fairly complete, but construction of these is only just beginning, ,except for some temporary schools for urgent present needs of which there are not many because construction workers have been discouraged from bringing their families. Housing and government buildings have the first priority because of the decision to move the seat of Government to Brasilia next year. Great efforts are being made to get the life of the city well under way and the Government solidly established there, by this date because soon afterwards there will be a presidential election. President Kubitschek (who cannot constitutionally be re-elected) has been the driving force behind the construction of the new capital; the energy that is being ‘put into the project is the result of his enthusiasm for it; its architectural quality derives from his interest and discrimination. No one knows how a change of president may affect its future progress and even influence the official policy towards what is, for Brazil, a long-term investment made at an unusually difficult moment as regards the country’s economy, as well as a declaration of faith in the future.


The palace was built in 13 months and completed last June. It is sited on the shore of the future lake, about three miles east of the built-up area of the city.

The plan consists of three elements: the main rectangular building of two storeys and basement, shaded by a verandah; a circular chapel on the same level as the verandah, linked to across a it by a bridge sunken road; and a service wing consisting of basement only, at right-angles to the main building and linked to it by an underground passage.

The main building has a central entrance hall rising through two floors. This is on the same level as the paved terrace outside, and from it a ramp rises about 4 ft. to the general ground-floor level of the building, which is the same as that of the surrounding verandah. The main suite of reception rooms (part of which again rises through two storeys) runs nearly the full length of the far (north) side of the building, facing the lake, and terminates in a banqueting-room. The kitchen adjoins this on the south side. Occupying the equivalent position to the banqueting-room at the other end of the building is a Ministers’ council-chamber which can be reached by a private entrance at basement level, beneath the bridge leading to the chapel. Also in the basement, which is approached by a road beneath the entrance terrace, are a guardroom, various stores and preparation rooms in connection with the kitchen above, and a private film-theatre.

At the end of the service wing, which contains staff living-quarters, is the garage, entered from the far (eastern) side. On the north side of the main building is a swimming-pool. The upper floor of the main building contains the private apartments, divided into two groups that are connected by a gallery overlooking the two-storey hall. The bedrooms of the President’s apartments have a balcony facing north, projecting beneath the roof of the verandah.

The building has a reinforced concrete frame and roof, the latter cantilevered outwards to form the roof of the verandah, which is also supported by the screen of greyish white marble along the north and south sides. The upright members forming the screen curve outwards at the level of the verandah floor, the outer edge of which they support, and then inwards again to the points at which they rest on the ground. Between the arches thus formed the ground continues underneath the verandah, so do the shallow pools of water on either side of the entrance. The paved terraces and the walls of the chapel are of the same marble s the verandah screen. The chapel is lined internally with gold mosaic. The walls of the main building are of clear glass except at the western end, facing the chapel, where the glass has a greenish colour to counteract the glare from the low evening sun.


J. M. Richards

James Maude Richards was born at Epsom, Surrey, in 1907. Educated at Cambridge University, he trained as an architect at the Architectural Association, but his main career was as a writer on architecture. He served as AR editor from 1937 to 1971.

J. M. Richards in AR People






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