There is nothing anywhere in the world quite like Brasilia. The Brazilian capital is so revolutionary in its design and the architecture and poetry of its buildings that UNESCO decided to classify it a World Heritage Site in 1987, only 27 years after it rose from the silent emptiness of the cerrado – the Brazilian plains.
1 – Building Utopia
Prophecy, adventure, utopia, visionary achievement designed by brilliant artists, built by the labour of thousands, it was the “city of hope “ for André Malraux and “a star smashed onto the ground” for Clarice Lispector. With its monumental, pioneering significance for the Brazilian nation, there is no way to adequately sum up Brasília. Its construction, a trail-blazing act in the unknown, uninhabited interior, marks the advent of modern Brazil, the country-continent’s definitive emergence from symbolic and real colonialism. Its design defies all known urban paradigms – except dependence on the car; the deficient public transport system being the city’s one great lack. Inaugurated on 21st April 1960, the city is still under construction, as new monuments continue to be added every year, including the Alvorada palace (official residence of the President of the Republic), the ministerial buildings, the Metropolitan Cathedral (one of the city’s icons) and the ‘Square of the Three Powers’, where the Planalto Palace (seat of government), the Supreme Court of Justice and the Congress face each other, the latter with its two towers flanked by a concave and convex dome.
Time passes, but Brasília remains in the future, continuing to amaze with its ethereal lightness of form and to be infused with the three ‘Ds’: “D” for desperation- ever since the city was first inhabited it has lacked any real focal point to give it the sense of an organic whole or to be rooted in the past; “D” for dazzling, for its enormous scale and proximity to the seat of power; and “D” for dementia, for the mad way in which the city grips the body and soul of its inhabitants.
2 – JK’s meta-synthesis
At the first rally in his campaign to become President of Republic in Jataí, a city deep in the interior of Goiás state, Juscelino Kubitschek (JK) was confronted by one of his audience, Toniquinho, with a question that would change Brazil’s destiny: “You said that, if elected, you would abide strictly by the Constitution. I would like to know, then, if you intend to put into practice the terms of the Founding Charter which allows, in its Transitional Provisions, for the transfer of the federal capital to the Central Plains”. JK, who seemed to be expecting the question, replied. “I have just promised that I will fully abide by the Constitution. If I am elected, I will construct the new capital and change the seat of government”. To his 30-point programme, JK added one more, which he called the “meta-synthesis”; on reaching the Presidency, he set a deadline for construction of a new city in the harsh cerrado: three years and ten months. Few thought he would succeed. But, with the tenacity of an audacious dreamer, and after over 200 flights between Rio de Janeiro and Brasília to oversee the building work, Kubitschek delivered what he had promised. On the appointed day, the 21st April 1960, Brasília was inaugurated and became the new capital of Brazil, an aspiration which had begun when the country was still a Portuguese colony.
3 – Lúcio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer
Brasília owes its futuristic and innovative forms to two men in particular: Lúcio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer. When Lúcio Costa entered the tender to design a pilot project for Brasília, he did so without intending to take on the whole work himself. His was only a suggestion. The urban planner presented some simple sketches and a description to justify his proposal, and spent a mere 64 hours on the work plus 25 cruzeiros of cheap paper, pencil, ink and a rubber. But for the jury, which included Niemeyer, it was enough. The “idea” was brilliant. The project, as Lúcio Costa himself explained, came from “the primitive gesture of one who lays down a mark or takes control: two lines intersecting at right angles, the Sign of the Cross. One axis would contain the monuments (the public buildings), the other the residential part, based on a super grid pattern, composed of apartment blocks up to six storeys high, with a space underneath supported by pillars in which there were schools, shops, leisure facilities and churches. The daring nature of the programme required an architect to match. Juscelino Kubitschek, who as mayor of Belo Horizonte had challenged Niemeyer to design the plan for the suburb of Pampulha, called on him again, appointing him as architect of the new capital. He did so in these terms: “I will give you the same opportunity as Pope Julio II gave Michelangelo, when he asked him to design his tomb”. Working day and night, Niemeyer came up with building after building in time for the inauguration of the city in only three years and ten months; and continued in the following years to design new ones, the last being the fantastic Digital TV Tower, which resembles a calliandra, a typical flower of the region, creating a work which, for its originality and monumentality, has put Brasília in the vanguard of modern architecture.
4 – Candanga Memories
In Brasília’s short history, the figure of the candango occupies a special place. This term of African origin was applied in Brazil to poor labourers from the interior. Thousands of these men came from all over the country in search of the Promised Land, or simply to escape hunger and misery, many with wives and children in tow, to build the new capital. Immortalized in a bronze statue by Bruno Giorgi erected in the Praça dos Três Poderes, these are the real heroes of Brasília. They began by settling in the so-called ‘Free City’, a shanty out of the reach of the tax authorities which gave rise to what is today the Núcleo Bandeirante and in the neighbourhood of Cidade Operária (today called Candangolândia), which housed the offices of Novacap, the state enterprise responsible for the construction of Brasília. Midway between Candangolândia and the Núcleo Bandeirante is the Living Museum to the Memory of the Candanga in the shacks where the first hospital in Brasília operated. It is a simple museum but a must see, which helps you better understand how construction of the new capital unfolded. It is near Catetinho, the beautiful “Palácio de Tábuas” where President Juscelino Kubitschek lived while Brasília was built. Designed by Niemeyer, it took only ten days to build.
Museu Vivo da Memória Candanga
Via EPIA Sul – Lote D – Núcleo Bandeirante
Opening hours: Tuesday to Sunday 9am to 5pm
5 - Lake Paranoá
The idea of Lúcio Costa’s Pilot Plan for Brasília was to build a city that, although impressive, was “comfortable, efficient and intimate”. Both “spread out and compact, rustic and urban, lyrical and functional”. A “city-park” in the middle of the dusty dryness of the cerrado. Niemeyer (together with Athos Bulcão, who with his blue tiled panels and other installations, added grandeur to the planned architecture), was responsible for the monumentality; and the landscape architect Burle Marx took on the tree-planting and laying out of gardens (it is one of the greenest cities in Brazil today). Building a dam on the River Paranoá, which was no more than a stream, created a large lake and added the vital missing element to complete the puzzle and make the city greener and more habitable: water. Today, Lake Paranoá is, along with the monuments, one of the city’s biggest attractions, with clubs, restaurants, bars and leisure infrastructures around its shores. Taking a cruise on the Barca Brasil at dusk to appreciate the fantastic JK Bridge, watching the sunset and contemplating the cityscape is one of the most exhilarating experiences you can have in Brasília, comparable only to going up the TV Tower, which gives you an amazing panorama over the Brazilian capital.
6 – Rock Brasília
Record companies wanted to make him the “Bob Dylan of the cerrado”, but Renato Russo was more of a “Jim Morrison of the plains”. Like the lead singer of the Doors, Renato Russo died young, but of complications caused by HIV, and became a legend, lodged in the memory of a generation of Brazilians who grew up listening to the music of Legião Urbana, the rock band he fronted as lead singer. Legião Urbana, now no more, was the most popular rock band in Brazil. It still is. Together with groups like Plebe Rude and Capital Inicial, it was part of a movement which in the 1980s made Brasília the rock capital of Brazil. It inspired the documentary “Rock Brasília – A era de ouro”, directed by Vladimir Carvalho in 2011. Carvalho was himself a big name in the capital, and cinema is one of its most creative cultural industries. With the death of Renato Russo and later Cássia Eller (seen at the time as the new Elis Regina), the Brazilian rock scene rather ran out of steam. Today, the big name is the group Móveis Coloniais de Acaju. Mixing various types of rock with ska and classic Brazilian influences, the band created its own festival, the Móveis Convida, to showcase new talent. But it is the traditional sounds of Brazil, such as forró, samba or choro, which have most strongly re-emerged in Brasília. The Clube do Choro is, in fact, one of the hippest places in the city and Hamilton de Hollanda its most virtuoso bandolino player.
7 – Açougue Cultural T– Bone
At Açougue Cultural T-Bone, customers can buy some picanha and take some Schopenhauer home to read. You are bound to hear the staff tempting you with things like: “Do you want half a kilo of Saramago or some steaks by Machado de Assis?” The story of Açougue T-Bone began in 1994, when Bahia-born Luís Amorim put out a stall in his butcher’s shop with 10 books to lend to customers. Luís arrived in Brasília at the age of seven, started out by shining shoes, at 12 went to work as an assistant at the T-Bone butcher’s and started learning to read and write at 16. At 18 he read his first book and since then has never stopped reading and collecting them. In 1994, he bought the butcher’s shop (his only source of income) and started one of the most original cultural initiatives in Brasília: selling meat and lending books. In the first few years, he worked alone. Later he managed to attract the interest and financial support of various state institutions and firms such as Petrobras and created the NGO Açougue Cultural T-Bone. In 2002, Luís Amorim opened a community library with over 45,000 books. In 2007, Açougue led to Parada Cultural – Biblioteca Popular, which placed books at bus stops. More recently he has launched the Estações Culturais project, bus stops with books and free internet. In parallel, Luís Amorim holds biannual poetry festivals, cultural evenings, meetings with writers and book launches, initiatives which mean closing the road where the butcher’s shop is and which attract thousands of people. “Cutting meat and making art are two things I love doing. One complements the other”, he says.
8 – The “old” municipal market
Brasília is a new city, which has so far gathered little moss, but since 2005 it has been creating some history, with a showcase of “the old world”: a market reminiscent of traditional European marketplaces in Art Noveau style. Jorge Ferreira is the man behind this project of “modernizing regression”, as he calls it, inspired by the verses of poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade: “I am tired of being modern; now, I will be eternal”. After visiting many municipal markets in Brazil and Europe, Jorge went shopping for ironwork and historical fixtures and fittings. He then convinced some gourmet retailers in São Paulo market to set themselves up in Brasília as well and recreated on Avenue W3 Sul an “old-time” municipal market, where you can find numerous delicatessen products from Brazil and other parts of the world. Decorated with pictures and artworks by important Brazilian artists, the Municipal Market not only offers foodstuffs but also restaurants (gourmet on the mezzanine floor, everyday eateries in the adjoining Bar do Mercado) and an arts centre. Jorge Ferreira is also a poet and songwriter. As a businessman, he is also linked to other well-known bars in the city, such as Bar Brasília (with its prizewinning beer), Armazém do Ferreira and Feitiço Mineiro.
9 – A taste of Brazil and the world
Although it is the most Brazilian of cities, as it was never colonized and its inhabitants come from all over the country, Brasília does not have its own cuisine. Indeed, the capital is a real showcase for Brazilian and world cooking. With fewer than 500,000 inhabitants, Brasília is the third largest culinary centre in the country (after São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro). From Peruvian to Japanese cuisine, from the African-influenced flavours of Bahia to the indigenous people of Pará, there is a little of everything here. If you want an amazing seafood paella you can, for example, try Oliver at the Academia de Golfe. To sample roast pork you can slice with a spoon, Parrilla Madrid is the right place. If you fancy a real pizza, just pop next door to Baco. Lovers of Japanese food will adore Soho, a plush restaurant on Pontão do Lago Sul, one of the new spots in Brasília. And if you are a connoisseur of Minhas Gerais cuisine you must go to the magnificent Esquina Mineira. For some nightlife in Brasília, there are plenty of options. One of the most popular is the Balaio café, with traditional Brazilian music. Recently, the excellent bar 10 013 has opened on block 408 Sul, where you can have dinner and listen to live jazz and blues.
10 – Chapada Imperial
Brasília is a very green and florid city, but if you want to immerse yourself in the atmosphere of the cerrado the best option is to go on an excursion to Chapada Imperial, an ecological sanctuary some 50 kilometres from Brasília. What makes this place special, apart from the stunning countryside typical of the region, are the luxurious series of cataracts (about 30 of them) originating from a spring located further into the interior of this private property. All are accessible from trails of varying difficulty and come with experienced guides. The most difficult takes three hours to complete. You only need to attempt one of medium difficulty of around two hours to feel you are in heaven. The hike ends at the idyllic Buruti falls (named after an indigenous palm tree). The refreshing, clear waters are a real blessing and help you make the return journey, where you can lunch on tasty country-raised caipira chicken.
by Pedro Garcias