Some people go gaga over Brasília, while others find it arid and alienating. Of course, how could the world’s most famous planned city and undisputed mecca of modernism leave anyone indifferent? Indisputably, Brasília concentrates the most stunning ensemble of modernist architecture on the planet, a fact that earned it recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.
If you have any interest whatsoever in 20th-century architecture, a pilgrimage to this meticulously planned space-age city with its rational lines tempered by graceful curves is an absolute must. And even if you don’t, the surreal experience of being plunked down in a futuristic cityscape—where the “future” is seen through a decidedly retro 1950s and ’60s version of utopia—is definitely unique.
Architecture aside, however, Brasília does hold other attractions. The presence of the nation’s political elite, along with international diplomats and visiting dignitaries, has transformed Brasília into a cosmopolitan place. Its sophisticated gastronomic scene is only surpassed by Rio’s and São Paulo’s, and its cultural offerings—from music to cinema—are world class.
Aside from the astounding number of parks and green “sectors” within the city itself, the surrounding Cerrado beckons with its singular vegetation, unusual rock formations, and countless waterfalls.
The idea of a new Brazilian capital located in the heart of the country is as old as the Brazilian republic itself, and was being bandied about as early as the dawn of the 19th century. In the 1890s, Congress once again resurrected the plan. It went so far as to send an expedition into the Planalto (high plains) of Goiás which, at the time, consisted of little more than decaying gold-mining towns, cattle ranches, and Indian territory. It wasn’t until the 1950s that Juscelino Kubitschek, former mayor of Belo Horizonte and governor of Minas Gerais, made the new capital a central tenet of his 1955 campaign platform to get elected as Brazil’s president.
When the victorious Kubitschek took power in early 1956, he lost no time in getting to work. Through aerial surveys, a site was quickly chosen. An international competition yielded a winning plan submitted by Lúcio Costa, a young urban designer. Working alongside Costa were two long-time collaborators of Kubitschek’s who had contributed to daring projects in Belo Horizonte. Landscaper Roberto Burle Marx was responsible for Copacabana’s famous mosaic walkway, and architect Oscar Niemeyer was a former pupil of Le Corbusier, the brilliant French modernist who was an advocate of geometrically planned cities.
Lúcio Costa’s plan for Brasília followed Le Corbusier’s precepts of rectilinear order while playing up the element of space—low buildings, wide boulevards, and vast green expanses. His goal was to emphasize the Planalto’s endless horizon, drawing the eye to the point at which the red earth meets the luminous blue skies. Costa once commented: “The sky is the sea of Brasília.” Indeed, what makes the city so striking is the contrast of gleaming white buildings set against green lawns and azure skies.
As for Niemeyer, although he adhered to Le Corbusier’s principles, he also subverted (and improved) them by adding sinuous and sensuous circles, arcs, spirals, and curves to otherwise linear buildings. Softening what could have otherwise taken on shades of totalitarian uniformity, he imbued his buildings with an organic, even playful sensibility more in keeping with a tropical aesthetic and with the Brazilian personality as a whole.
Getting to Brasília
By Air: Due its distance from the coast, most travelers arrive in Brasília by air. There is no shortage of flights from most state capitals, including numerous flights from Rio and São Paulo. Make sure to request a window seat since the view of the Plano Piloto from above is truly unforgettable.
The Aeroporto Internacional de Brasília—Presidente Juscelino Kubitschek (tel. 61/3364-9000) is a high-tech and futuristic place, located 10 kilometers (6 miles) west of the Eixo Monumental. A taxi from the airport to the hotel sectors costs about R$30–40. You can also take a municipal bus to the rodoviária, but then you’ll need to get another bus (or a cab) to your hotel.
By Bus: Buses from all corners of Brazil arrive and depart at the long-distance rodoferroviária (tel. 61/3363-2281), at the western edge of the Eixo Monumental. Aside from destinations in neighboring Goiás, traveling anywhere else involves an exhaustingly long haul: Brasília is 930 kilometers (577 miles) from Rio, 870 kilometers (539 miles) from São Paulo, and 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) from Salvador (20 hours). Real (tel. 61/3361-4555) operates buses to São Paulo (14 hours), Itapemirim (tel. 61/3361-4505, www.itapemirim.com.br) services Rio (17 hours), and Real Expresso (tel. 61/2106-5100, www.realexpresso.com.br) offers service to Salvador (20 hours).
By Car Although it’s possible to drive to Brasília from other Brazilian regions, once again, the distances are enormous and you’ll waste a lot of time on the road. The BR-050 connects Brasília with São Paulo. The BR-060 goes west to the Pantanal where it intersects with the BR-153, which stretches north to the Amazon and Belém. Running east to the coast, the BR-020 cuts through the Sertão of Bahia all the way to Salvador.
© Michael Sommers from Moon Brazil, 2nd Edition