What makes Brasília iconic on the world architecture map

It took under four years, a determined President, his favorite architect and the wide savannah to make Brasília, the capital of Brazil. If it wasn’t ambitious enough to move the capital from the seaside city of Rio de Janeiro into the interiors, it was equally audacious to imagine the shift more than 900 km away could connect the rest of the country through highways and nudge people to come and settle in the middle of nowhere. But more than half a century later, Brasília inspires the world with its iconic structures.

Bringing the robustness of these ideas to the fore is an exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), New Delhi, titled “Brasília 60+ and the Construction of Modern Brazil”. From the story of its construction to its recent buildings, told through photographs of Brazil’s masters — Marcel Gautherot, Cristiano Mascaro and Leonardo Finotti — along with other works of art and furniture exhibits, the show is a revelation of how a city came into being, using the powerful symbol of architecture as its selling point.

Presidential residence by Cristiano Mascaro (courtesy: The Embassy of Brazil)

This modernization project rejected European classical style and turned its face towards new modernism. By 1960, president Juscelino Kubitschek with urban designer-planner Lucio Costa and architect Oscar Niemeyer had spectacular buildings to show the world — the Brasília Cathedral, the Palacio do Planalto (Presidential Palace), the National Congress (the Parliament), and the President’s official residence, Alvorada Palace.

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André Aranha Corrêa do Lago, Brazilian Ambassador to India, who gives us a walk-through at the NGMA, talks about the evolution of the city, from the cross axes that divide the land into its residential zones, lined with superblocks, and the monumental path that presents the political symbols of the Capital. As he points to a photograph of wooden cabins, he says, “This was the ‘Presidential Palace’ during the construction. The president would come by plane to visit the site because there were no roads to Brasília. It’s preserved even today. Niemeyer had to create the designs for the new capital in candlelight, even as the city was being built, because there was no electricity then.”

Costa was Brazil’s first modernist, who invited Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier as a consultant who laid out the city like a bird or an abstract aeroplane, and got Niemeyer to come onboard. Costa master planned the city and divided it into zones, separating functions into commercial, residential, monumental and cultural. Though many critics of Brasília speak of the binaries of the city being both real and mythical, it still stands as “one of the 20th century’s great political adventures”.

Corrêa do Lago, who has been a member of the notable Pritzker Prize jury, says, “Niemeyer wanted his work to be understood at the popular and symbolic level by people who would use his building. His buildings don’t look like any other building but even a child can draw it.” It’s not hard to believe this statement when one sees the iconic National Congress building, with its cupolas that sit on a horizontal roof and its twin towers.

Corrêa do Lago brings us before a sketch done by Niemeyer for him, which testify to the architect‘s love for curves and fluid lines. The sketches show the way Niemeyer has used curved columns in the Presidential Palace and the Supreme Court. With the National Congress, they form the Square of Three Powers in the heart of the city.

If ramps are a preoccupation, so are curved columns with Niemeyer. However, he takes this element and treats them differently in the buildings, giving a frontal and profile placement, thereby changing the very look and feel of each building.

Niemeyer’s finest work, though, is the Brasília Cathedral, where fingers of concrete stretch towards the skies, interspersed with stained glass patterns in shades of blue and white. “People actually loved the structural robustness of the building in its unfinished state,” says Corrêa do Lago. He points to the magnificent model of the cathedral at the show, with its tunnel entrance. “Niemeyer also plays with light and darkness. You enter the cathedral through the tunnel and it’s completely dark, it’s black, and once inside, it’s a burst of light,” he adds.

The Embassy of Brazil Cathedral interior image by Leonardo Finotti (courtesy: The Embassy of Brazil)

The exhibition presents the Capital in the making with Gautherot’s photographs giving the barren landscape an almost ethereal feel, while the recent ones by Finotti place the buildings in their context with their open-air sculptures and visitors in the frames. It’s hard to miss the pure geometry in the forms, and the sleek use of concrete.

The works of other famous collaborators such as artist Athos Bulcao’s blue-and-white azulejos tiled facades and murals, and landscape designer Roberto Burle Marx’s art make it to the exhibition along with furniture pieces by Niemeyer from Corrêa do Lago’s own collection. Bulcao and Marx bring a certain humanism to the otherwise stark monumentalism. Bulcao, who gave workers a free hand in laying out tiles in some of his projects, and Marx’s science in the craft of planting, be it grasses or native trees, have taken away the rigidity that could have been Brasília and given it the imperfections of the human hand and the seasonal decay of nature.

Brasília is not without its faults. What was called the “city of hope”, where social fault lines would cease, hasn’t worked out as planned. To this, Corrêa do Lago says, “Architecture cannot mask social differences. Brasília was meant to be a symbolic city for all Brazilians. Rio was the capital till the 18th century and it was marked by differences among those who had sea-facing homes, those who lived in the mountains or the interiors. But Brasília was a city of unity. Everyone was new here, which became the success of the city. And then architecture gave it icons. There are many readings of Brasília, no doubt, but I can’t think of a world capital, where architecture has been so recognisable and so absorbed by its people.”

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