"This is how, being monumental, it is also comfortable, efficient and intimate. It is both spilled and concise, bucolic and urban, lyrical and functional… Brasília, capital by air and by road; city-park.

The Patriarch's arch-secular dream.”

Lucio Costa
Brasília Pilot Plan Report

The city drawn out between the mountains, forest, sand and sea was only Brazil’s capital between 1763 and 1960. Rio first came to be the capital of the Portuguese Empire in 1808 when the Royal family fled Portugal as a consequence of the Napoleonic Wars and remained there until 1821. In the following year of their return to Portugal, Dom Pedro the First of Brazil (known as Dom Pedro the Fourth in Portugal, and also reigning King of the empire) decided to remain and declare Brazil’s independence.

Rio had been the capital of a colony, kingdom, empire, republic, dictatorship, and democracy. In every one of these political moments, the will to move the capital inland was present and steps were taken in the attempt to materialise this dream. Brazil’s territory extends far into the continent, yet the country had almost entirely been settled and urbanised on the Atlantic coast, with a few daring exceptions that swayed inland by major rivers. For centuries Brazil had been exploited closer to the coast and its raw materials exported overseas, mainly to Europe. As independence movements throughout the continent flourished, it was urgent for the country to affirm its claim over deep inland territory. The desire to occupy the central-west of Brazil had gradually progressed with decades of cyclical surges and crumbles of recurrent political systems. Finally, in 1946 the ratification of the constitution officialised the transfer of the capital to a rectangular (literally) demarcated area which would be known as the Federal District.

Brasilia / Marcel Gautherot, 1958

Even though there were obvious political and geographical sovereignty-related motives to assert Brazil's territorial claim, social aspects were also definitive in the acceleration of this decision. Aligned to the timeless desire to declare a new capital in the central planalto region, were the political and higher social classes that had always enjoyed their colonial societal heritage and looked to distance themselves from the 'hectic' disorganised and badly planned cities of the coast. Rio de Janeiro, for example, had experienced countless epidemics, riots, sieges and coup attempts during more than a century as the capital. The opportunity for a fresh start, urbanistically, economically and socially was a reverie for any power hungry elite to shape their ideal vision of the urbis distant from the all too-close pressures of civil demands. The phrase that best illustrates this sentiment was said to Dom Pedro the First in 1810 by counsilman Veloso de Oliveira:

“The capital should be fixed in a location which is healthy, pleasant, mild, free from the hustle and bustle of people indistinctly accumulated.”

In 1956, President Juscelino Kubitscheck signed the definitive decree for the transfer of his government to the future capital city of Brasilia, setting the moving date to the 21st of April, 1960. From that day on, Brazil was running against the clock to build a functioning metropolis in the middle of the central-west plain lands of Brazil, where even the roads to get there were still to be constructed. It was a colossal endeavour equalled only by the tremendous ambitions of a nation that pursued a developmentalist approach to rapidly develop socially and economically.

Workers’ truck passes near the future National Congress building / Mário Fontanelle, 1959. Arquivo Público do DF.

The effort was entitled “the 1000 days project” and amassed vast quantities of materials and people for construction. At first, much of these were flown to the location and placed in adjacent improvised settlements, yet still having to journey for hours to the construction sites. Thousands of these workers flocked from the northeast of Brazil, one of the poorest regions of the country. Known as Candangos, most workers came alone and were subjected to inhumane working conditions during the construction years. Others migrated with their families hoping that by managing work they would be allowed to remain once the city was complete.

The city’s project competition was won by Lucio Costa, prominent Brazilian modern urbanist who had suggested himself that the government should organize a competition for the project. Although initially he had not intended to participate, after a trip to Miami, he felt inspired by the grand infrastructural expressways of the US, and whilst flying back to Brazil, drew concept sketches of the project and wrote the detailed 20 point manifesto for his proposal. His project is an example of the Brazilian translation of the modernist ideals brought by the charter of Athens, yet incorporating a few postmodern revisionist concepts from Alison and Peter Smithson. Oscar Niemeyer worked closely with Lucio Costa designing the major buildings of the plan.

Sketches presented by Lúcio Costa.

Brasilia’s pilot plan considered accommodation for 500 thousand people with all amenities of the modern metropolis of its time. Excess population would be distributed in outskirt satellite towns, where access would be done exclusively with cars since the city was designed favouring the automobile. Much of these towns, and later cities would become absolutely dependent on the capital city’s infrastructure, where many were urbanised informally with low income households. In 1987, UNESCO considered Brasilia a World Heritage Site, which froze the project in time, severely hindering any possibility of revisions to the project to make it more accessible and human friendly. Since then, the dichotomy between the politically and socially wealthy within the pilot plan, that dictate and decide the future of Brazil, and the outsiders and peripherals, workers and descendents of those that lifted Brasilia into existence, has only become greater. In the end, those who wished to turn a blind eye and move away from the chaos of a ruptured unfair society, by not addressing the issue, only deepened it.