Hope and folly given form

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Above: The Palacio Do Planalto in Brasilia, Brazil. Designed by Oscar Niemeyer it was completed in 1960.

Whether the result of a fevered dream of the 19th Century Italian saint Don Bosco (who legend has it, in 1883, dreamed of a futuristic city in central Brazil), or simply the fulfillment of a political promise by then President Juscelino Kubitschek, Brasilia stands uniquely alone in the world as a modern city entirely planned and built from the ground up.

In 1956 Brazilian president Juscelino Kubitschek ordered the construction of Brasilia as part of his ambitious “fifty years of prosperity in five” plan to bring Brazil into the modern age, and to move the capital, which was then Rio de Janeiro, to a more central location. The city of Brasilia was to be a shining symbol of a modern, industrious, and cultured nation – a completely new city unlike any in the world. In an open contest that saw more than 5500 entrants, Lucio Costa was declared the winner and given the job of Brasilia’s main urban planner in 1957. Costa chose his close friend Oscar Niemeyer (with whom he had worked with designing the Brazilian Pavilion at the 1939 New York’s World’s Fair) to be the new city’s chief architect, with Roberto Burle Marx tasked with the landscaping design.

The basic plan for Brasilia was to have specific ‘zones’ or ‘superquadras’ separate from each other but connected with clear, wide roadways and vast plazas branching out from a large central axis (the Eixo Monumental). There were zones for government administration, living areas, and areas for entertainment all arranged within an airplane-shaped city plan. Brasilia would also become the new home to all three branches of the federal government of Brazil, including the Congress, President, and Supreme Court. With a work force of tens of thousands Brasilia was built – astonishingly – in 41 months, from 1956 to April 21, 1960. When the city was inaugurated it was already home to a population of 140,000 residents.

The Eixo Monumental (Monumental Axis), Brasilia, Brazil. Photo: New York Times

The Eixo Monumental (Monumental Axis), Brasilia, Brazil. Photo: New York Times

Early photos of Brasilia including construction shots. There is a second gallery of recent photos of Brasilia at the end of the article. Click on image for full view.

Brasilia has been both lauded and criticized. From the beginning its population growth was underestimated and the city struggled to keep up. Brasilia was also built around the idea that everyone would drive so few sidewalks were built along its main roads and by the 1970’s the rate of pedestrian accidents were among the highest in the world. After a visit from French writer Simone de Beauvoir she wrote that no matter where one was in the city it exuded “the same air of elegant monotony,” while other observers equated the city’s large open lawns, plazas, and fields to wastelands. Some saw the grand scale of the project as futurist fantasy – decrying it as idealistic folly and a failed attempt at creating an urban utopia. But along with the naysayers comes the praise. No one would deny the tremendous engineering accomplishment of Brasilia. Niemeyer’s designs for the city are now considered among some of his finest and are modernist icons. But Brasilia itself takes one of its principal criticisms and turns it into a positive. Brasilia is idealistic. Idealism is needed. Without idealism the future is without hope.

Some photos provided courtesy of

Recent photos of Brasilia, Brazil's capital city. All buildings shown designed by Oscar Niemeyer. Click on image for full view

Period video showing the design and building of Brasilia. (Portugese)

Here are some book suggestions to learn more about Brasilia.


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8 years ago

Absolute genius! Oscar Neimeyer’s work leaves me speechless every time I see it. There is nothing I’ve ever heard that speaks as eloquently as his architecture for Brasilia.