Empty, remorselessly empty is the Chapadão, the plateau of Brazil’s interior. Only the moon is emptier. Godforsaken, devilish ocean. Heaving gently, the hills roll endlessly one after another beneath the fierce blue of a scorching sky. The red soil is covered with tormented, twisted scrubland, pathetically attenuated by the cruel surroundings. Full of flies, mosquitoes, ants and termites, thousands of inaccessible kilometres stretch out under the leering gaze of jealous vultures.

This is the homeland of the caboclo, the new primitive, the ‘fallen’ European in whose veins there flows the blood of Indians and Negroes. Amid the timelessness of the most recent Stone Age, ‘magical’ forces swing him to and fro. Black angels have shackled him to an inhospitable nature. Never has the word of the Redeemer awoken him, or if it has, he has forgotten it. Stupefied by an age-old nostalgia (saudade), he floats like driftwood over the plateau without ever reaching the horizon. Spurred by a natural environment that does not allow him to bond with land or locality, he trudges on barefoot, a stranger to himself and a stranger in an inimical world, in single file. Clad in a cotton shirt he sits on his mule; he can stand on one spot for hours.

Here, the aroma of an unselfconscious time wafts towards us. Perhaps it is the shadow of paradise, an LSD trip.

In 1954, the Chapadão was charted from the air. Finally, for the first time in 200 years, its inaccessibility was violated. On the 2nd of October 1956, a military plane landed on the provisional airfield. Proudly, a sign with the name Brasília now gleamed in the sun. President Juscelino Kubitschek, engineer Israel Pinheiro, town planner Lúcio Costa and architect Oscar Niemeyer took their first steps on the Chapadão. Soon, the airfield was expanded. Air travel was the only link to the civilized world. The first workmen, the first loads of cement, the first building machinery, the first building materials, food and drinks; everything had to be flown in. In the five years Brasília was under construction, President Kubitschek spent most of his time up in the air, his head permanently in a cloud, so transitory as to be unrecognizable without his aviator’s helmet, entering or alighting from a helicopter. The presidential palace in Brasília is, too, borne on wings, albeit the wings of angels. The Ministério da Aeronáutica was the first to move from Rio de Janeiro to Brasília. Then the population came pouring in, airlifted from the major cities. In April 1960, six thousand extra taxi drivers were flown over from Rio. When Brasília was inaugurated on the twenty-first of April, all the appetizers and drinks were flown in directly from Rio together with a 40-man big band.

During the decades before the building of Brasília, the modern life of Brazil had been carried by air. Flying was the favoured of escaping the suffocating provincialism of the late-colonial culture of the main cities. Gifted artists and intellectuals flew to Paris so often that the French capital could, without exaggeration, be called their second home. The height of intercontinental propellor-set snobbery was to have ones laundry done in Paris. It is worth recalling the two large projects realized in the thirties by the group of modern architects around Costa: the seaplane airport in the bay of Rio de Janeiro, and the Santos Dumont airport, named after the Brazilian aviation pioneer. Modern Brazil, that was flying - the upward leap, the flight forward... political kinetics.

If we look at Brasília with the neutral gaze of the designer and lose ourselves in its formal details and all those other matters of morphology, it is all too easy for us to misunderstand the conditions under which urban planning has been perpetrated here. We are unaware then of the chronocratic basis of this plan in which the calculating treatment of time was the main thing. The label ‘utopian’ is also likely to mislead us if we interpret this as the realization of a long-cherished dream. Here, it is far more a matter of timing - making a burst of speed at the right moment. These considerations take us away from the order of expressions and outcomes, into that of chance and vertigo, which are the main components of the Great Brasilienspiel. It is not the content that counts here, but the move itself. In the middle of the desert of pointlessness, it establishes the term of waiting for the effect. It is a move, whether or not provided with idealistic and utopian forms of expression, of which the hardness of architectural realization makes the founders smile the smile of someone who is initiated in the chronocratic order of surprising and scoring off ones rivals. They know that, past all criticism from the order of sense, they have made a move that reached beyond the point of no return.

The first design Lúcio Costa made for Brasília shows a cross, the second a kite and the third an aircraft. Cross, topographic fixation of the middle; but also intersection, the movement from the pure extremity to the impure centre, and crucifixion, nailing down. Crossed aeroplane, aeroplane crucified on the cross, crossplane. Thus the symbol of the political kinetic fuses with the cryptological logic of the place. The aeroplane is here in its final resting place: the place of catastrophe, of stranding. And where action congeals, the martyr arises...

One axis, which runs roughly from the west to the east, takes the form of an 8 kilometre long, 400 metre wide esplanade. This monumental grassy plain, where dust and wind have free play and whose dimensions imitate those of the Champs Elysees in Paris, is flanked by the sculptural architecture of Niemeyer. It is this axis which gives Brasília its image, and the architecture sited alongside it provides the logos which have made it world famous. It is the fuselage of the crossplane. The second axis, which is slightly curved and lies roughly north- south, spans the residential function. It takes the form of 14 by 3 kilometre ribbon city which is transected halfway by the monumental axis. The residential ribbon constitutes the wings of the crossplane. The heart of Brasília lies at the intersection of the two axes. It has the form of a box-shaped, three-storey covered shopping centre with a bus terminal beneath it. Each axis is equipped with an artery of multiple carriage ways, giving a total of 14 traffic lanes, which form the empty, smooth surface for motorized traffic. Because the complex multi-level intersections are carried through consistently, the traffic system has a generous roominess.

Brasília’s spaciousness makes it incredibly transparent and gives it the Gestalt quality of a TV commercial. Once you have seen it, you will never forget it.

“It has just rained and the air is sultry. The evening sun illumines a dramatic sky. Along the Esplanada dos Ministérios, buildings with facades of green slats stand silhouetted against a purple firmament. Bowls, hemispheres, indefinable curves, boxes and slabs, forms half submerged in the ground, bathe in a remarkable radiance as though on another planet. Everywhere I notice glinting metals, shining stone and pale concrete. Apart from the martial array of the ministries, each separate building along the monumental axis has something of a figure stepping forward out of the background, breaking the bond with its surroundings, a figure whose only aspiration is to set itself off against the overwhelming sky. The atmosphere is elegant and monotonous. Every figure is perfect. The whitish buildings, in which the expressive breadth of span of the Modern Style is taken to its utmost limit, radiate an indefinable sanctity. In the middle of, or perhaps precisely because of, all this expressive individuality, I detect nonetheless the progress of ‘whitewashing’, an evening-out of things into monotony, which is compelled by a higher principle. It reminds me of the white masks of a Venetian carnival, or perhaps the sacrificial temples of the Aztecs. The religious quality, which nestles down in between things, is like the crystalline flush of an order that arises from the excessive separation of functions and objects. In contrast to the European city, the distinction between the parts is not caused here by the notching of a body that would otherwise be too full, too large, for comprehension. Here, the gouging has become the emptiness, and the body of the city, in as far as that can be said to exist, altered into a pure distance-making backdrop without specific features, a backdrop that hides in the shadow of negation. Brasília consists of a collection of perfect objects that thank their existence to this substrate of emptiness, a theatrical kind of nothingness from which they appear to have emerged and into which they threaten to sink back. City of refuge, desert city, crypt city. The emptiness penetrates into the heart of the buildings, and the sun pours in from every side; astonishing is the visibility, and endless the miracle that remains concealed. I have a sensation that everything is just past its prime, and that death and decay are only biding their time... Where are the people? Where are the crowds to fill this gigantic emptiness, to rend this silence apart and to impose a human scale on this work of the gods? As I tear along the motorways through the centre at 140 kilometres per hour, I still get the feeling that I am standing still. When the Movimento Sem Terra, 200 strong, pitched its camp on the ruddy plain of the central axis, it virtually swallowed them up. Large parts of the buildings around this emptiness are hidden behind the visible parts or beneath the flat ground, which proves to be no more than a carpet.”

Brasília is totally focussed on its national and international ‘aura’. The city’s form is almost entirely dedicated to communication. It is intended to give expression to a synthesis which is Brazilian in nature and which rises above the ‘everyday mixing’. Of course it is a synthesis of form and function, of the beautiful and the useful, of art and technology; and also of Indians and Negroes, of the baroque and the poetic, of the modern and the traditional. Brasília is often regarded as a functional city. It may well be so, but it is a city without the ideology of the moderns. Without their pathos. Without that bloody infuriating will to achieve purity and authenticity. Functionalism tries to make function into the only and the true meaning of form. If we take the ideal of functionalism in this sense, Brasília is kitsch - if only because the Baroque has been brought into the equation, let alone the rest. In fact, the city is lost to the cause of functionalism. “To me, functionalism was a temporary constraint, and once contemporary architecture won the day I rejected it completely”, Niemeyer said in 1978. He and Costa did not shrink from introducing, alongside the truth of functionalism, a second truth that contaminated the first with abundant, excessive, decorative elements such as the ‘disproportionate dimensions’ of public space and the ‘pointless’ special effects of the architecture. Kitsch recognizes that form has no truth, that it can never be more than one of the most beautiful decorations. The Baroque recognizes that form is a phenomenon without basis and that it can arbitrarily adopt the structure of truth or lies. The logical consequence of this confusion is to go beyond function and to elevate the effect of the meaner. This is the virulence of the ‘Brazilian Style’. But owing to the indeterminacy of that style’s alibi (its indifference with respect to truth or falsehood), it leaves open the possibility of an artfully higher bid for meaning.

“Something is not quite right here. Everywhere, you can see that the city is deteriorating. I mean not only visible decay, such as the crumbling marble of the buildings on the Square of the Three Powers (Praça dos Três Poderes), such as the shopping malls near the bus station, one of which changes at night into a veritable red light district complete with striptease clubs, and such as the subsidences in the road surface and the washed-away embankments; but also the invisible decay, which is evident from the new plans to sacrifice the fixed image of the city in order to respond to unanticipated developments. Nowadays, for example, taller buildings are sometimes permitted, and traffic lights have been set up in some places that cast a stain on the idea of the free flow of traffic. But what makes me the most uneasy, is... where are all the people?”

When we scan the plateau that lies before us from the somewhat raised white plain of the Square of the Three Powers, we see, roughly speaking, emptiness. At first sight the city seems to be an island in the wasteland. But as long ago as 1965, the periphery of Brasília was more densely built than the centre. In 1975, Plano Piloto, meant for 700,000 people, had a population of 244,647. In 1988, Brasilia’s Plano Piloto was placed on the UNESCO list of world heritage sites. This meant more or less a declaration of death for the centre of the city in urban planning and economic respects, for no buildings may be added that are not in the original design drawings. New economic developments can now no longer be supported by raising the density of offices and homes. So the district will never be allowed to house a population of more than 700,000.

Eleven legitimate satellite towns, including Guará 1, Guará 2, Taguatinga, Samambaia and Ceilândia, plus countless favelas have developed from miserable hovels for the building workers into substantial Brazilian cities. Invisible at a distance of some tens of kilometres, they support a population of 1.6 million souls - 85 percent of the population of Greater Brasília. Neither in physical nor in social and economic respects do the satellite towns show the least resemblance to the model city. They lack a symbolic urban form. Apart from the favelas, which have much more complex forms, they were laid out as grid cities in the form of building plots fringing a road at the same time as the Plano Piloto. The government then provided water supply points and electricity, followed by water mains, sewers and street paving, and, finally, administration. The satellite cities house mainly people from the direct vicinity and from North-East Brazil, and they survive on the local economy. These are the people who uphold the generosity of space in Brasília. With as many people as possible together in as small as possible an area, they squander space... so as to protect the grandeur of emptiness elsewhere.

Taguatinga, Cei­lândia, Samambaia. Here the common people have a right to exists: noise, small shops, buses, hustle and bustle ... an untidy clutter.  The bus wheels splash mud from the road roughly and indiscriminately in all directions. With a hiss, the front doors open, and we try cheerfully to record the human misery on video and in photographs. The smiling child beams at us with opulence, the promise of the under-developed, the not yet. Plano Piloto, around six in the evening. Vehicles are flooding out of the city. Long queues wait at the bus stops. Despite the spatial separation, it is the traffic engineering, the numbers and the local economy that give the satellite towns their vitality of precluded rest, a rest that permanently threatens to absorb the exclusive model.

If we reason in terms not of the region but of communicative space, Brasília is not an island at all. It has been closely tied into the global air transport network from the start. For the air-travelling elite, the city degrades into a suffocating place of incarceration and an exchangeable theatre-in-the-round. For this reason alone, Brasília the monument has become a worthless memory as far as the humanistic idea is concerned. The state officials/inhabitants jump in and out of their planes. Anyone who works can go by air. Many people abandon the city every weekend. As a transit city of baroque dimensions, Brasília becomes an apparition inhabited by shades, a kind of anamorphosis of the threshold on which there falls the shadow of the last remnants of the abode that once formed the basis of the city and the urban culture.

At ground level, the flying culture repels the land culture. At the interurban bus station of Brasília, by the ‘gateways’ of Plano Piloto, the buses of the Ministry of Social Affairs stand waiting every day ready to ship the stream of candidate residents - the attraction of Brasília is not without success - directly to one of the satellite towns. This division over two types of space makes the city a model for the rise of all those other closed forms and city zones that sunder themselves from their surroundings and go to make up the scattered universe of the non-continent of speed.

Beyond suspense, the Apocalypse of Brasília will be bipartite. On the one hand it falls prey to the voracious absorptive capacity of the living masses, and on the other hand it is enchanted by the syncretism of the signs.

It is easy to see from the air that Greater Brasília has the shape of a ribbon city that runs from south to north, where it makes a gentle bend eastwards and terminates in Plano Pilato. It consist of French-style banlieus with urban-villa like apartments, Asiatic urban fragments in the form of closely-packed nondescript four-storey buildings smothered with advertisements, South American fragments with stuccoed two-storey patio houses, grid-pattern favelas with red-brick slums, and tent villages with much plastic sheeting. The crossplane turns its back on all this and looks away from it. Supported by the urban planning of recent decades, this conglomeration is veined with excellent roads that allow the traffic to reach every part. That is exactly what you experience in the evening in Brasília - an absurdly heavy traffic load that can only come from outside. If we now half close our eyes, we can see how the conglomeration takes the shape of a slightly bent Caboclo, vibrating in its place, with an annoying fly on its nose.

The Brazilians tend to undermine official meanings by fusing two equal components - by syncretism. The Candomblé religion subordinates African demons to Catholic saints. Its adherents thus experience Catholicism in the double light of multiple meanings. The figure of the Virgin Mary is for example syncretized with that of Yemanjá, the African goddess of water. Who can say what is going on in the mind of the devotee who kneels praying before a statue of the Virgin, while in the grip of the African spectre concealed within Her? In the same way as the Brazilian cause was subordinated to Functionalism and Modernism, the Brazilian people slip their own (possibly subversive) meaning under every official meaning, with an evident predilection for maximum intensity and always going one better.

Brasília is thus the symbol of a movement that wants the city to fulfil once more its task and duty as a capital and a city of the future. It tries to outdo the reality of Brasília as a relic of Modernism by pinning hope to a higher dimension. Modern air-travel culture is trumped by angels, gods, demons and the stars. Under their guiding light, Brasília will become the capital of the Third Millennium. Even emptier than the desert scrublands are the universe, the heavens, the endless vastness of the cosmos and the invisible. What is stronger than the rational utopias of the twentieth century? The irrational expectations of the twenty-first. What is more surprising that the logical outcome of linear progress or all the great works of human will? It is revelation, or all that reaches out to us from the other side and will rescue us. And what travels faster than a plane? The UFO, the alien, the incarnation of a divinity. From the radical emptiness of the future and the cosmos, a sign will be given, and it will be given in the place that is most ready for it: Brasília. This sign will usher in the finale of Brasília. In Brasília, the races will finally, irrevocably blend. Thanks to this fusion, and not until it has taken place, Brasília will become the true capital of Brazil.

From: Nijenhuis, Wim and Maurice Nio, Eating Brazil, 010 Publishers, Rotterdam, 1999

© 2021/01/07