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Dry flowers from the cerrado

Not even Brasília, planned with extreme and inhuman rationality, could resist urban-architectural chaos

Brasília lúcio costa oscar niemeyer photo by rené burri magnum photos par397115 architectural review brazil 1465

Brasília lúcio costa oscar niemeyer photo by rené burri magnum photos par397115 architectural review brazil 1465


The promise of Lúcio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer’s monument city, Brasília, rapidly vanished. The ambitious construction phase was photographed by René Burri

Some people are silent or hardly say a word, but in Brasília even the walls emit strange sounds. Silence, proper silence, exists only in the distance, in the original savannah, the cerrado.

I notice that the hotel room wallpaper is geometrically patterned like an origami sheet; from the window I see leafless trees with twisted branches, the brown lawn, the horizon scorched by the September drought. In the middle of the seared landscape, the Praça dos Três Poderes … People say that Brasília’s new national library opened before it had any books. Is that a metaphor for many politicians’ minds? Or for these times we’re in?

The hotel’s chambermaid is a woman from Minas; the receptionist is a young man from Pernambuco, and one of the chef’s assistants is from Bahia. All of Brazil is here, and that real Brazil seems to be absent in the concave and convex sculptural forms of the National Congress. Every time I enter the glass lift I hear the sound of birds. They sing but are nowhere to be seen: where are they? There are no birds in the images of the Pantanal and Amazonia stuck onto the two walls of the panoramic lift. Yet when I go up or down 17 floors in that glass and steel cage I am forced to hear the metallic trilling. I am reminded of Marcel Schwob’s piece, ‘Paolo Uccello’, in Imaginary Lives. The 15th-century Florentine genius was obsessed with birds, as he was with geometry and perspective. Uccello wanted to understand the space and depth of the world. He painted birds on his studio wall, which gave him his nickname, and gave Schwob the title for his story. But life isn’t imaginary, or not always, especially when the lift stops at the ground floor and I sit down at the breakfast table listening to snatches of indiscreet conversations:

‘I’ll be back next week to know the result of the tender …’
‘I’ve spoken to the senator, we just need …’
‘I managed to get an appointment, now it’ll be easier to …’

The woman from Minas earns the minimum wage and lives in Samambaia, one of the Federal District’s favelas. When I lived in Brasília no one used the term favelas, we referred to them as satellite cities instead. That urban euphemism still exists, but time also makes euphemisms fade. The new capital city’s masterplan was carried out under the sign of Brazilian misery: the impoverished local builders, day labourers, artisans and the unemployed who migrated from all corners and went to live on the outskirts of the monument-city.

What would Brazil and Brasília be like if there had been no military curfew, with its long night of infamy?

The chef’s assistant earns a little more than the woman from Minas and lives in Sobradinho.

‘If I didn’t eat my meals at the hotel, I’d go hungry. My two boys are children of the capital.’

Twins from the Collor era, these boys came into the world in the midst of a political nightmare. Sobradinho. I will never forget those satellite cities, where we used to go to spray-paint slogans against censorship and the military regime’s brutality. Where are my friends from that time? Zé Wilson, known to us as Cuca, was still young when he crossed to the other side of the looking glass, he didn’t even say goodbye. I still remember his enthusiasm for the classics; he read everything and stared at us from behind the thick glasses on his child-like face. Chico dos Anjos, the son of writer Cyro dos Anjos, also departed this world prematurely. I said to Chico: Your father’s O Amauense Belmiro is a beautiful novel. Those mineiros can really write, it makes me jealous.

I detected a hint of pride in my friend’s gaze. Then he laughed out loud. Chico laughed when everyone was silent. Those were no times for laughter, but he had a sense of humour, and gave off the most harmonious vibe.

Nothing was very clean in 1968’s Brasília, an embryonic city, a small capital. And a watched-over capital. Some men in power wore suits and ties, many flaunted their uniforms and brass, they were fierce with their weapons, but they were also afraid, because fear, violence and mud were at Brasília’s heart. The red dust covered the super-blocks, stained the ministries’ facades and the unfinished cathedral’s curved claws. The muddy dust blotted out the Planalto Palace; the other one, the Alvorada, was also reddened. ‘Subversive mud, damn mud’, they used to say. Even the savannah’s primordial mud was communist. Hotel availability was meagre, I remember the two nights I slept at the Das Nações Hotel, nights of anguish, my heart ground down with longing for the north. Then I moved into a room in a house on Avenue W-3 South: cheap lodging at an informal guesthouse. It was owned by a black family: the father was a builder from Bahia, an authentic candango who had helped build the Das Nações Hotel, which opened in 1962. The houses on W-3 South had patios at the back, sometimes turned into backyards, but they are unrecognisable now. Two children played blindman’s buff near a pitanga tree. One of them offered me a handful of the fruits and I started to like Brasília. Now the yards are built over with cheap extensions, divided into small contiguous rooms, the promise of a slum. Families grew, incomes dwindled, owners started renting out their backyard space.

Bart simpson documentary brasília life after design 2017 aconite productions  lowik media architectural review brazil 1465

Bart simpson documentary brasília life after design 2017 aconite productions lowik media architectural review brazil 1465


The crown-like Brasília cathedral features as miniature replica in Bart Simpson’s recent documentary Brasília: Life after Design, which questions ‘what it is like to live in someone else’s idea’

Not even Brasília, planned with extreme and inhuman rationality, could resist urban-architectural chaos. Misery and its favelas surround the Republic’s three powers, the old fear and violence returned under a new guise. Chico dos Anjos, Cuca, you did not live to see it. João Luiz Lafetá, a fine critic who lived in Brasília at the time, also died without seeing the country liberated from a persistent, and very Brazilian, type of hope. João Alexandre Barbosa, another friend, a most erudite literary critic, left us too. He and hundreds of lecturers from the University of Brasília were expelled from that institution in the 1960s. But the university resisted, survived.

I think of you all as I hear the metallic trilling of absent birds. Seventeen floors in 30 seconds. Better to walk with no direction, to revisit Brasília in the early morning darkness, waiting for dawn to break. I exit the steel and glass cage and see two artificially blonde women speaking to lobbyists. They are sitting on leather armchairs and drinking whisky, perhaps they earn in a night what the woman from Minas makes in a month, and their lobbyist partners might earn more than all the whores and other working women would earn in 10 years of toil.

The origami pattern on the wall means nothing to me, it is one more decoration in a hotel room that could well be in the Philippines, Holland or South Africa. I take a journey with no destination through the cerrado, I want to find a place from my past, the Blue Pool, where I would find shelter from fear and from men.

A journey in time: through what is visible and invisible in memory’s opacity. There are real birds here: sanhaços and saíras and blue saís land in the shade of jatobá trees and pick at the meaty fruits of comélias. Naked bodies lying on the boulders by the Blue Pool and the humid undergrowth spilling into the brook. I see no dwarf trees with twisted branches, nor do I see the crooked limbs of tragic plant-like beings. Here, the past does not hurt my body or my soul, I can pick the dry flowers from the cerrado and write these words of love to a city that never leaves me.

This essay first appeared at Flip festival in DEZ/TEN, by CASA AZUL, Liz Calder and Flavio Moura (editors). Translated from Portuguese by Ángel Gurría-Quintana

This piece is featured in the AR October issue on Brazil – click here to purchase your copy today