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Under the deep blue sky of Brazil’s central plateau, Brasília was built in two thousand days to be the nation’s focus of power. Inaugurated by ex-President Juscelino Kubitschek on April 21st, 1960, the Brazilian capital is the best known of the cities that were planned during the 20th century and is a landmark in contemporary town planning and modern architecture. The major players in the history of Brasília were ex-President Juscelino Kubitschek, who launched the competition to select the project for the new city and made huge efforts to see it built during his term, the town planner Lucio Costa, winner of the competition and creator of the Pilot Plan for Brasília and the architect Oscar Niemeyer responsible for the city’s main architectural works.
Since the second half of the 18th century, Brazil’s governing authorities considered, with varying degrees of intensity, transferring the seat of government from Rio de Janeiro to some inland area, safe from naval attacks. The first Republican constitution (1891) went as far as defining where the future Federal District would be – a rectangle within the State of Goiás, in the heart of the country. But it was not until 1956, after eight years of surveying, that the actual design and construction of the new Capital began under President Juscelino Kubitschek. The site chosen for Brasilia is located in the Federal District and comprises 2,245 sq. miles (5,814 sq. km) of a sparsely inhabited plateau carved out of the State of Goiás, 3,609 feet (1,100 meters) above sea level and 746 miles (1,200 km) from Rio de Janeiro. The competition for the urban master plan was won by Brazilian architect and urban planner, Lúcio Costa. The major government buildings were designed by the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer. Landscape designer Roberto Burle Marx planned the layout and selection of plant varieties to add a vivid green backdrop to the otherwise dry, yellow landscape of the savanna vegetation. On April 21, 1960, Brasília was officially inaugurated and started functioning as the new capital of Brazil.
Oscar Niemeyer was born in Brazil in 1907. Considered to be the most important Brazilian architect of the twentieth century because of the quantity and quality of his buildings, he began his career in the office of Lucio Costa in 1934 after graduating from the National School of Fine Art.From the time he replaced Costa in the group that worked on Le Corbusier’s design for the headquarters building for the Ministry of Education and Health in Rio, Niemeyer played the leading role in the modernist current that encouraged plastic expression. In 1947, the headquarters building of the United Nations organization in the United States once again gave Niemeyer the chance to share a definitive project with Le Corbusier, based on the independent proposals of each of them.The corbusian influence is evident in the early works of Niemeyer. However, the architect gradually acquired his own style: the lightness of the curved forms created spaces that transformed the architectural scheme into something that was hitherto unknown; harmony, grace and elegance are the adjectives that are most appropriate to describe the work of Oscar Niemeyer. The adaptations produced by the architect to connect the baroque vocabulary with modernist architecture made possible formal experiences in spectacular volumes, executed by famous mathematicians including the Brazilian Joaquim Cardoso and the Italian Pier Luigi Nervi.The architecture of Brasília, glimpsed in the sketches submitted by Lucio Costa for the international design contest for the new capital of Brazil, was the result of Niemeyer’s definitive impetus on the scene of the international history of contemporary architecture. The concave and convex domes of the National Congress and the columns of the Alvorada and Planalto palaces and the Supreme Court are highly original features. Combining these with the spectacular forms of the columns of the Cathedral and the palaces of Itamaraty and Justiça, Niemeyer succeeded in closing the rectangular and symmetrical perspective formed by the repetition of the Esplanada and Ministry buildings.The use of reinforced concrete to form curves or as a shell and the unique use of the aesthetic possibilities of the straight line were translated into factories, skyscrapers, exhibition centres, residential areas, theatres, temples, head office buildings for public and private sector companies, universities, clubs, hospitals and buildings for various social schemes. Of these, the following are worthy of special mention: the Obra do Berço and residence on the Estrada das Canoas in Rio de Janeiro; The Duchen factory, the Copan building and Ibirapuera Park in São Paulo; the Pampulha architectural complex including a casino, restaurant and the Temple of St. Francis of Assisi, in Belo Horizonte; the design for the Hotel de Ouro Preto in Minas Gerais, the Caracas Museum in Venezuela, the headquarters building of the Communist Party in Paris, the head office of Editora Mondatori in Milan, the Constantine University in Algeria and the Niterói Museum of Contemporary Art, Rio de Janeiro.The constant presence of Oscar Niemeyer on the scene of international contemporary architecture from 1936 until the present time, has transformed him into a symbol of Brazil. He has received numerous prizes and is the owner of a vast library containing books written by him and also by Stamo Papadaki, as well as editions of early editions of magazines on French and Italian architecture.
The Brazilian architect Lucio Costa was born in France in 1902 and died in Rio de Janeiro in June, 1998. The son of Brazilian parents, he was educated in England and Switzerland until 1916, graduating as an architect in 1924 from the School of Fine Art in Rio de Janeiro.The interest created by the work of Lucio Costa is the result of the strict relationship he established between traditional construction, the Brazilian baroque aesthetic and the modernists, varying them in accordance with an attitude simultaneously humanist and classical. Intellectual and erudite, Lucio Costa defined the theoretical parameters of Brazilian architecture from the 1920s, when the neo colonial style was evident in his initial work which was the first manifestation of the native talent of South America in defence of its Luso-Iberian roots. In 1930-32 Lucio Costa established a highly fruitful partnership with the Russian architect, Gregori Warchavchik, a futurist who introduced modernism to Brazil. Following his studies in Rome and Milan, in 1926 Warchavchik was invited by the construction company, Simonsen, to work in São Paulo. A controversial involvement in modernism in the teaching of architecture for a brief spell early in the 1930s, as director of the National School of Fine Art, leading the defence of the historical and artistic heritage shared with modernists such as Mário de Andrade, Rodrigo Melo Franco and Manuel Bandeira, led Lucio Costa to be involved in a process of constant revision and updating. The most striking feature of that phase was the building of the headquarters of the former Ministry of Education and Health between 1936-46. The decision by Lucio Costa to invite the French architect, Le Corbusier, to sketch out the first lines of the new ministry design was an act of protest at the result of the contest won by the architect, Archimedes Memória, with a building in the art deco style. This decision gave Brazilian modernist architecture the official seal of approval.After the ministry building, the Brazil Pavilion for the New York International Fair in 1939 in partnership with Oscar Niemeyer, made possible the use of defining elements of native architectural expression and the inclusion of corbusian themes. The resulting plastic effect of the integration of the pilotis with local tectonics in combination with inner courtyards and terraces with tropical gardens, transformed the pure concepts of Le Corbusier. In 1948, Lucio Costa executed this model to perfection in the construction of two works that were paradigmatic for architects throughout Brazil: the Parque Guinle residential complex in the city of Rio de Janeiro and the Hotel do Park São Clemente in the mountain city of Nova Friburgo (state of Rio de Janeiro). The houses he designed were influenced by corbusian models and also include his updated vision of traditional techniques.The organization of new capital cities – including Le Corbusier’s draft plans for Chandigarh in India in 1950 and those of Lucio Costa for Brasília in 1956 – form the most significant examples of post war city planning. Lucio Costa is known all over the world for having designed Brazil’s new capital and for having consolidated there, again with Oscar Niemeyer, the ideals of tradition and renovation that have become points of reference in contemporary architecture. Despite criticism for being excessively functional, Brasília is a dividing line between Brazilian and international architecture. Lucio Costa continued his professional career at the Institute of National Historical and Artistic Heritage (Iphan), a world pioneer in actions for the protection of the urban and natural environment, where he remained until 1972. The dual roles of contemporary architect and specialist in preserving the Luso-Brazilian tradition enabled Lucio Costa’s ideas to have an influence throughout Brazil. It can be said that even to this day, the Brazilian capitals bear the mark of the colonial and modernist phases as a direct result of his work at the Institute of National Historical and Artistic Heritage.
The Building of Brasília
The determination of Juscelino Kubitschek’s government (1956-1960) to press ahead with development produced some elegant examples in terms of city planning. The transfer of political power and the economic initiative into the hands of the industrial bourgeoisie reinforced the urban culture. Whilst the growth rate of the Brazilian population during the 1950s was 3.16%, urban growth in Brazil reached 7.38%. This dominance of the city over the countryside was reflected in the Brazilian urban network complex. The spatial and functional distribution of this growth produced an urban scenario in which São Paulo emerged as the national metropolis. The “Target Plan” devised by Kubitschek and his team, to be executed within four years, contained a “target synthesis” that was to have great impact: the construction of the new capital, Brasília. A major national contest involving all the important names in Brazilian architecture and city planning was won by the architect and planner Lucio Costa. Schematically, the design was conceived according to urbanistic principles laid down by the International Congresses for Modern Architecture, especially those formalized during the 1933 Congress and recorded in the Charter of Athens, published in 1942 and proposing strict zonal functioning based on the activities of living, working, leaisure and travel.According to Lucio Costa, the scheme “emerged from the primary gesture as a result of someone earmarking a place or taking possession of it: two axes crossing at right-angles, in fact, the sign of the cross”. He started work on adapting the local topography to the draining away of water in the most appropriate direction. There was an evident preoccupation to apply the most advanced principles of road design to the planning of this city. Cross-roads were eliminated by means of interchanges at lower levels.The north-south axis was given the function of a through route, with central high speed traffic lanes. Lateral lanes were intended for local traffic distribution leading directly to the residential area. The transversal east-west axis, known as the “monumental axis” was for the civic and administrative centre, the cultural area, the commercial leisure centre, the city administrative sector. The complex of buildings designed to house the legislative, executive and judiciary authorities, forming the triangular Square of the Three Powers, was visibly prominent. Beyond the National Congress Building, occupying the western part of the square near the intersection of the axes, is the monumental Esplanade of the Ministries.The solution found for the residential sector lay in the creation of a large grid system. The development is in the form of squares two hundred and fifty metres long, set on either side of the roadway and framed by a wide band of vegetation. Inside these huge square formations are residential blocks arranged in a variety of ways but conforming with two principles: a maximum of six floors and vehicular traffic rigorously separated from pedestrian traffic.From the point of view of spatial relationships, Brasília’s strict zoning system is on three scales: social, residential and monumental. The first relates to the leisure and business sectors; the second to the residential sector and the third, to the complex formed by the Three Powers Square and the Esplanade of the Ministries.The architect Oscar Niemeyer was responsible for the design of all the public buildings in the capital. There is a strong and perfect relationship between the Draft Plan conceived by Lucio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer’s architectural designs. Both created a city that was planned as a whole and viewed as a single global entity.
(all texts from Vision of Brazil)
Photos by Plínio Dondon.