Brasilia, utopia in concrete


back to issue

BUILDING a new capital city is a highly symbolic act and India has its own, very strong experience in the 20th century with the building of New Delhi and Chandigarh. Most planned new capitals are inspired by highly complex political, economic and social impulses. But ultimately it is the urban structure, and the architecture, that strengthen the legacy. As the great architect Mies van der Rohe once said, ‘Architecture is the will of an epoch translated into space.’

The new capital of Brazil, turns sixty this year. Through the 20th century, nothing has come as close to being an urban utopia as has Brasilia. The urban project and architecture of Brasilia has to be understood in the context of the evolution of modernism worldwide, and also as the culmination of the extraordinary interventions of modern architecture in Brazil. The new capital has had an impact on many aspects of life in Brazil that even the staunchest critics of the project believe it has changed the country dramatically. Its construction is still at the centre of many debates, but there is no doubt that Brasilia has become one of the strongest symbols of Brazil internationally.

The city stunned the world when it was inaugurated in 1960 because of the originality of its buildings, designed by Oscar Niemeyer (1907-2012), and its very straightforward and monumental urbanism centred on the automobile – then considered the ultimate symbol of modern living – developed by Lucio Costa (1902-1998). Even if some detractors contrasted its design with the natural beauty of Rio de Janeiro or debated the construction costs and its effects on the Brazilian economy, the impact was overwhelmingly positive in Brazil and around the world. The reputation of the country rose internationally as Brazil had been able to build the basic structure of the city and its main buildings in three years, using only Brazilian companies, engineers, architects and artists. It was a formidable feat accomplished.

In the 1940s and early ’50s, Brazilian culture was vibrant and the world was discovering its music, cinema, arts, literature and football – Brazil won the first World Cup during the construction of Brasilia, in 1958. Brazil was mostly recognised internationally for its architecture. Brazilian President Juscelino Kubitschek (1902-1976) knew that architecture of high quality would make a statement. He appointed Oscar Niemeyer as the architect of the official buildings because of his vast personal experience: Niemeyer had designed a series of buildings for Pampulha, a new neighbourhood of Belo Horizonte, the capital of the state of Minas Gerais, when Kubitschek was Mayor in 1942. These buildings were widely exhibited in published works and brought international recognition for the architect.

Brazilian critic, Lauro Cavalcant, in an essay published in 2001, writes that in the 1950s, architects in Brazil almost became symbols of the future of the country, as if they were translating all the aspirations and hopes of the population onto the buildings they created. If architecture and urbanism could not redress socio-economic ills accumulated over centuries, they could, at least, project a new self-image and confidence for the country. As Alain de Botton states in his The Architecture of Happiness (2006), ‘Brasilia was intended not to symbolize an existing national reality but rather to bring a new reality into being. It was hoped that with its broad avenues and its undulated concrete and steel buildings it would help erase Brazil’s legacy of colonialism... it would create the country in its own image.’

As the general public responded positively to Brasilia, the architecture critics disparaged it. Some pointed to the problems of a city being built as it was designed simultaneously. But, the worst ‘enemies’ of the new city were in Europe, where there was a growing resentment to the fact that a ‘developing’ country, from what they had deemed the ‘third world’, was designing and building the single most ambitious, modernist urban project of the century. How could Brazil ‘dare’ occupy such an important place and position in the contemporary architecture of that moment in time?


Twentieth Century architecture radically broke with the mainstream aesthetic tradition in the western world, with its origins in ancient Greece. The victory of the modern movement, nevertheless, did not seem obvious in a world that had already adapted the classical vocabulary to the new constructions of train stations, factories and tall buildings. For example, the technical revolution that allowed the creation of steel structures for building skyscrapers in Chicago in the late 19th century, was not followed by an equally revolutionary and dynamic aesthetics. On the contrary, Doric columns in steel and Greek temples, or Gothic buildings capping 40 or 50 floor buildings, had become the new normal.

According to the influential architecture historian Siegfried Giedion, at the end of the 1940s, one could distinguish three steps that the movement had to accomplish to be truly accepted: one, low-income housing and small buildings; second, urban projects; and third, ‘the most difficult and dangerous one’ – the expression and statement of monumentality.


An urgency to construct low-income housing following the destruction caused by World War I, gave an extraordinary impulse to the modern movement. The new architecture, thanks to the changed construction techniques proved to be not only viable but lucrative as well, and thus allowed for the second step to happen in the creation of large residential neighbourhoods. The projects of a large city that encompassed all the ancillary activities like housing for different social classes, commerce, cultural and civic centres, and entertainment space, much like the projects of Le Corbusier or Ludwig Hilberseimer in the 1920s, were to remain on paper.

It was only in the Soviet Union that modern architecture began to be used for important new public buildings in the 1920s – as an instrument to stress the rupture with tradition and to build a sense of confidence in communism. In Germany, the Nazis banned modernist architecture and looked for a new monumental classicism as representative of the image of the regime, just at a point when the movement was gaining traction with the financial support of important economic groups.


In the other centres where modern architecture was intervening and growing, like in France, Austria and the Netherlands, the conservative spirit was preserved in the large-scale projects, despite the efforts of brilliant architects like Le Corbusier. William Curtis, author of Modern Architecture Since 1900, points out that in fascist Italy ‘the eventual absorption of international models of modernity needs to be understood against the background of a struggle to crystallize an industrial culture... and against the background of a persistent, sometimes unconscious, classical continuity.’ Large and complex modernist cities and monumental modernism – the second and third steps mentioned by Sigfried Giedion, had not taken root in Europe when World War II started.

In Brazil though, the first important symbol of modern architecture was, surprisingly, a monumental project: the Ministry of Education and Health, built between 1937 and 1943 in Rio de Janeiro, the first tall glass building in the world. The project, coordinated by Lucio Costa, had Le Corbusier as a consultant and brought together a group of young architects, most of whom had brilliant careers in the years that followed. Among them were Oscar Niemeyer, Affonso Eduardo Reidy (1909-1964) and Jorge Moreira (1904-1992). The project also unveiled the talent of Brazilian landscape designer, Roberto Burle Marx (1909-1994).

With the Ministry of Education completed, the country leapfrogged into the architecture vanguard. In 1943 the American magazine, Progressive Architecture, published a piece stating that the project was ‘the most important modern building in the western hemisphere.’ It was a forerunner to, and anticipated the large public modern buildings designed and built in Europe and the United States after the war like the United Nations building (1947-52), the first glass building in New York.


This modernist masterpiece did not happen by accident. Modern architecture had already begun in Brazil in the 1920s, mostly because of the work of Russian architect, Gregory Warchavchik (1896-1972), who moved to São Paulo in 1923, and designed its first modernist house in 1927. However, the Ministry of Education established that in a country with minimal international cultural influence, a group of young architects were capable of interpreting the theories and principles developed over earlier decades by the most revolutionary architects of their times, like Le Corbusier.

During the 1940s and 1950s, as Oscar Niemeyer became internationally acclaimed, many other exceptional Brazilian architects were also making a mark on the country’s cityscapes. Roberto Burle Marx was recognized as one of the greatest landscape designers of the 20th century, contributing enormously to the rise of a new ‘Brazilian School of modern architecture’.

This success saw Brazilian projects featured regularly in architecture journals and publications in Europe and the United States through the 1940s and 1950s. The Museum of Modern Art of New York (MoMA) was the first institution to support Brazilian architecture with the exhibition and book Brazil Builds, in 1943. By the late 1950s it was not surprising that in Masters of Modern Architecture by John Peter, the work of 38 architects from across the world were showcased: four from Italy, one from Spain, three from Japan, two from France and five from Brazil. If Brazilian modern architecture was seen by some critics as ‘too original’, even ‘wild’, there was no doubt, as the historian Denise Sharp states in Twentieth Century Architecture: A Visual History (1971), that a new generation led by Lucio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer ‘pushed forward the boundaries of twentieth-century architectural expression much further than most European designers.’


Sigfried Giedion affirms that ‘...the prodigy of Brazilian architecture blossoms as a tropical plant.’ One of the most influential architects of the century, Walter Gropius, after travelling in Brazil in 1954, writes: ‘...I can highlight the fact that Brazilians have developed a modern architecture with its own character and that the number of architects genuinely prepared to meet the challenges is large. I do not believe this to be a transient fashion but I do believe it to be a vigorous movement.’ In that same year, in view of the ‘annoying’ international attention being given to Brazilian architects, Bruno Zevi, an influential architecture historian, stated that ‘Brazilian architecture is the architecture of evasion. In such an immense country, with no permanent values or economic stability, architecture – in its figurative fluidity and its hysterical search for licentiously new shapes – reflects a state of uncertainty.’

The Argentinian architecture critic, Jorge Francisco Liernur, writes in a text of his from 1992, clearly explaining the discomfort that existed with the independence of architects like Niemeyer: ‘The flirtation with Latin American "vitalist" architecture lasted the duration of European expiation for having caused the loss of 20 million lives. With earlier optimism now restored, an unusual court was set up in 1954 in the prestigious offices of the Architectural Review to pass "judgment" on Brazilian architecture. The "force of naturalness" was transformed into the "anarchy of the jungle", the "impulse of youth" into "childish impulses", the "mystery of the myth" into "overloaded sensuality"... from that moment on, the accused was expelled from civilized circles.’ In this context, imagine the reaction of many such critics when the decision to design, construct and build Brasilia was announced.


At the end of the 1940s and start of the 1950s, modern architecture had already gathered support amongst architecture and design professionals in the universities and outside of them. In part this was due to the rejection of the modern principles enunciated and supported by Hitler and Stalin. The reduction of construction costs and timelines because of new materials and techniques, also played a crucial role. A key factor, however, was the CIAM – Congrès Internationaux de l’Architecture Moderne – that brought together architects from around the world and was instrumental in disseminating some of the more important principles of the modern movement. The Athens Charter (1933), adopted at CIAM’s fourth conference in the Greek capital, had set the guidelines for a new urbanism characterized by a clear division between living, working, recreation and circulation. CIAM’s principles would influence the post-war reconstruction in Europe, but would not achieve the large-scale influence the proponents had wished for.

With some of the most important architects from Europe post World War II residing in America, it facilitated the development of a new phase where design adapted to American cities and their need for certain types of buildings required for a fast-growing economy. Modern monumental architecture had arrived, but not for public buildings. Commissioned by large companies and banks, glass towers became the most ubiquitous and symbolic expressions of modern architecture in the United States.


The difference between the North American and European perspectives was even more stark and definite in the area of urbanism. This came from an objective reality: the lack of physical space for city expansion in Europe was not a matter of concern for the Americans. The United States adopted, particularly well, the principles of the ‘Garden City Movement’, which arose in England at the end of the 19th century, advocating decentralization and self-sufficient centres as a solution to the problems of city growth. A few decades later, these principles influenced the rise of vast suburbs with individual housing, schools and shopping malls, saving the inhabitants from making daily trips to traditional city centres.

The United States, and Europe, were both ill-suited for the construction of large utopian projects in the decade after World War II. That challenge was taken by the Latin America countries and the newly independent nations in Asia, which became the best testing grounds for an architecture that many saw as a symbol of trust in the future.

In India, Le Corbusier succeeded in transforming his urban theories into reality with the building of Chandigarh (1951/1956), commissioned by Jawaharlal Nehru, as the new capital of Punjab. Although an unequivocal architectural masterpiece, Chandigarh was not accepted internationally as a new paradigm for city planning. Western audiences received it with little enthusiasm. The early photographs showed a few large buildings with a raw concrete finish – béton brut – that seemed to be poorly built. Manfredo Tafuri and Francesco dal Co defined it as ‘a symphony that cannot be deciphered at first glance.’

Meanwhile, the limitations presented for developing large-scale urban projects – especially in Europe, the continent which had given birth to modern architecture – led to a growing frustration among architects who had started to question the tenets of the Athens Charter. A new generation began to develop less radical plans, paradoxically, while Chandigarh was being built. According to the architectural historian William Curtis, the tabula rasa (clean slate) utopian planning was replaced by a search for a more complex and favourable relationship between the old urban centres and a contemporary city’s new needs and functions.


When the competition for Brasilia’s urban plan was launched, architects and urban planners had ceased to dream of building a revolutionary city. Not because the dream had failed but because there was a sense that it would not be realized, at least in Europe and the United States. Chandigarh had come closest to that dream of a generation of architects, and had been attacked on all fronts. For some, it was the imposition of a western concept on a non-western society; for others, the extraordinary concepts were marred by shoddy and incomplete execution. When President Juscelino Kubitschek, elected in 1956, announced a competition for an urban plan of the new capital, few believed he would make significant progress in just one mandate. Convinced that his experience as Mayor and Governor could overcome many possible obstacles, he embarked upon this adventure to create an important landmark.

Brazil, with its immense territory (more than twice India’s size) mostly unexploited, in spite of being an important producer of coffee and minerals, was considered in 1956 to be a small, under-developed economy with a population of 65 million people (210 million today) that had started its process of industrialization barely ten years earlier. The idea of building a new capital, symbolically located in what could be the geographic centre of the territory, was so strong, it was mentioned in the constitution of the country in the 19th century to break with the colonial tradition of building capitals by the sea: Salvador (Bahia), since the 16th century, and Rio de Janeiro since 1763.

Lucio Costa won the competition for the urban plan of Brasilia that attracted the best Brazilian architects: Villanova Artiga, Henrique Mindlin, Rino Levi, M.M.M. Roberto, among others. Costa was widely respected for his role as an early modernist, a key defender of the colonial architecture legacy, and a teacher. Lucio Costa’s project was not unanimously approved. He faced opposition even from his fellow Brazilian architects – the only juror to abstain from evaluating his proposal in the jury was the representative of the Brazilian Architects Association (IAB).


Costa presented a short submission, with preliminary sketches and a brief reasoning. His detractors seized this to suggest that Costa be disqualified in favour of the other proposals that presented detailed studies and equally detailed urban plans. But the very strength of Costa’s plan was, according to the majority of the jury, the straightforwardness of its main concepts. Yves Bruand, architectural historian, says that among the fundamental qualities that seduced the jurors was that ‘it was not the plan for a city, but the plan for a capital.’

The first images of the city and of its main monuments – especially the pictures taken by Marcel Gautherot – captivated a generation that had never seen a Presidential palace in glass or government buildings, such as the National Congress, that looked more like sculptures than traditional building forms. Until the construction of the Palaces of Alvorada (the President’s residential building) and Planalto (the President’s office building), important government buildings had been essentially classical and solid. Suddenly, architecture was seen as being both monumental and at the same time modern, transparent and light.


It is quite irresistible to associate these palaces with the enthusiasm of Le Corbusier when he saw the Acropolis for the first time in 1911: ‘Oh! Lumière! Marbre! Monochromie! – Light! Marble! Monochrome! Niemeyer’s architecture – very different from the style of many architects – did not seem to want to impress the ‘experts’. Quite the opposite: he wanted to please the people in general. Brasilia showed that modern architecture had arrived into its monumental phase, and as Paul Goldberger pointed out in an article for The New Yorker in 1999: ‘Brasilia embodies… more brazenly than anything ever built in the United States, the determined faith of the ’50s that modern design could make the world better.’

If specialized circles were upset with Brazilian architecture as early as 1954, they swiftly attempted to undo the reputation of Brasilia as soon as it was inaugurated in 1960. With the establishment of a military regime in Brazil in 1964, the new city – conceived during one of the most dynamic democratic periods in Brazilian history – was wrongly associated with an authoritarian project. The forced transfer of foreign diplomats from a beautiful tropical city surrounded by beaches like Rio de Janeiro to Brasilia – with many neighbourhoods still under construction in an almost barren savanna – in 1970 did not help in sending out the right message to the world. Even after the return of democracy to Brazil in 1985, successive economic crises in the country dissociated Brasilia from the initial optimism in the future, and the city was analysed as a sociological project. The city also began to represent the excesses of government bureaucracy and the many privileges of the ruling class.


The architect Peter Blake, in his book Form Follows Fiasco (1977), refers to Brasilia as the ‘final solution’. However, Edmund Bacon, in Design of Cities, one of the most influential books on urbanism (1975), states that: ‘Very poorly treated by critics, the majority of which have not personally visited the city, Brasilia represents for contemporary architecture the most significant example of a wholly-planned city.’

Most analysts have missed the surprising evolution of the city, including the residential areas which are called ‘superquadras’ (superblocks). As the critic Kenneth Frampton stated after his trip to Brasilia in 2010, ‘The concept of the Neighborhood Unit... by Clarence Perry (1929)... probably has never been more cleverly articulated and judiciously applied than in Brasilia’s "superblocks".’

Brasilia in the 1990s started to be positively re-evaluated and grew to be seen as a popular modernist icon. In 1987 it became the first modern architecture complex to be listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This should remind us that Brazil’s capital is a modern city, not a contemporary one. It is a statement of the past, even if it be the recent past, and should be treated like other planned cities: Bath, Nancy and Jaipur. It has also been an extraordinary experience of creating a group of representative monumental buildings in the 20th century. At least 10 of the Niemeyer buildings in the city can be considered masterpieces. If the principles that guided its construction are respected, Brasilia will increasingly be, for Brazil and for the world, the ultimate symbol of an era.


In its commemorative millennium edition published at the end of 1999, The Economist carried articles about the most important moments of the last one thousand years. It contains only four texts about South America. One of them is about Brazil’s capital, in which can be found the best and most concise definition of the city: ‘Brasilia is at the same time the glory and the grave of the modernist ideal.’ It is the glory because one hundred years from now, the defining image of the planned city of the 20th century will be Brasilia. And it is its grave because, as Goldberger says, ‘Brasilia proves, better than any other place, that modern architecture can’t make cities although it can make some wonderful buildings.’ But finally, to use a famous quote attributed to the Brazilian art critic Mario Pedrosa: ‘if Brasília’s construction was reckless, long live recklesness!’



Manfredo Tafuri and Francesco Dal Co, Architettura Contemporanea. Milan, Electa, 1976.

William J.R. Curtis, Modern Architecture, Since 1900. Third Edition, Phaidon Press, 1996.

Edmund N. Bacon, Design of Cities. Thames and Hudson, 1978.

John Peter, Masters of Modern Architecture. Bonanza Books, New York, 1958.

Dennis Sharp, Twentieth Century Architecture, A Visual History. Facts on File, New York, 1991.

Paul Goldberger, ‘Far Out’, The New Yorker, 1999, pp. 03-08.

Alain de Bottom, The Architecture of Happiness. Hamish Hamilton, 2006.

Lauro Cavalcanti, Guia de Arquitetura 1928-1960. Aeroplano, 2001.

Yves Bruand, Arquitetura Contemporanea No Brasil. Perspectiva, 1981.