Brasilia: How Brazil's capital became an architectural masterpiece

Not a lot happens in Petropolis these days. A clutch of elegant buildings and some towering palm trees are the only reminders that this quiet town north of Rio was once the second-most powerful city in Brazil. Every year when the imperial court relocated here for the summer, this became the country's nerve centre, the place from which power flowed.

Petropolis is not the only city in Brazil where power has waxed and waned. In the country's far north-west lies the jungle-shrouded city of Manaus. At the height of the 19th-century rubber boom, this remote outpost 1600 kilometres up the Amazon was the richest city in the world. Before the crash, Enrico Caruso came to perform and Gustav Eiffel was commissioned to design the roof of the market place. After the boom, Manaus became a ghost town. These days, it is best-known as a departure port for Amazon cruises.

Brasilia, the capital city created from scratch half a century ago, could easily have ended up another of these shadow cities, a place that burned brightly for a moment before its power ebbed away. Even in the 1950s, when big dreams were in fashion, the idea of a creating an ultra-modern city in the grasslands of the country's most backward region seemed implausible. Yet Brasilia has grown and thrived, not only as a power centre, but as an architectural showpiece.

The man who commissioned Brasilia, Juscelino Kubitschek, was not the first to dream of a Brazilian capital in the geographical centre of the country. The idea of moving the capital from coastal Rio de Janeiro had been tossed around for 150 years when Kubitschek was elected president in 1956. It took a leader with Kubitschek's crash-through attitude to turn that idea into reality.

Brasilia was just one plank in Kubitschek's grand vision: he boasted that he wanted to achieve 50 years' progress in five. The construction of an ultra-modern new capital would not only give a huge boost to the construction industry and, through it, the wider economy: it was also designed to demonstrate to Brazilians and the world that Brazil was a country to be taken seriously.

To create his city of the future, Kubitschek assembled a dream team. Lucio Costa was appointed as planner, working with Oscar Niemeyer, Brazil's most acclaimed architect and a friend of Kubitschek's, and landscape designer Robert Burle Marx.

Kubitschek gave them a tight deadline. The central area of the city, known as the Pilot Plan, was designed, constructed and inaugurated within three years, with a 60,000 strong workforce working in three shifts, 24 hours a day. One million cubic metres of concrete and 100,000 metric tonnes of steel were used.

The site's isolation compounded the difficulty: cement had to be airlifted in; there were no roads leading there. Kubitschek would fly in at night to check progress and to motivate the workers. To populate his new city, Kubitschek offered two years on double pay to workers prepared to relocate. Ambitious people from across the country seized their chance, and on April 21,1960, Brazil's new capital city was inaugurated.

Brasilia made international headlines not just for the speed of its construction, but for its remarkable buildings. No-one had ever seen anything like Niemeyer's elegantly whimsical constructions, which embraced the ideals of modernism while displaying a very Brazilian sensuousness.

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Even today, these buildings are astonishing. The gravitas of the National Congress towers is undercut by the two buildings framing them: the vast dome of the Senate and the giant saucer of the House of Deputies. The National Cathedral, a set of concrete ribs curving upward and protecting large glass panels, looks more like a lotus flower than a church.

Brasilia was about more than aesthetics, however; it was also about social programming. In Brasilia, there was to be no divide between rich and poor. Ministers and workers would live in the same buildings, all of which would be owned by the government. The buildings themselves were integrated with nature. Many were supported by columns, allowing the open space beneath to flow out into extensive green areas.

The city was laid out into separate zones, divided by two monumental boulevards: the seven-kilometre Eixo Monumental, lined with the city's key buildings, bisected by a 14-kilometre north-south boulevard. The boulevards divide the city into separate zones: government zones, commercial zones, hotel zones and residential zones.

Arriving in Brasilia, the first thing that strikes you is the scale of the place. The long boulevards and wide spaces are designed for driving, not walking, a reminder that in the 1950s, the car was considered an instrument of liberation.

Fortunately, I have a car at my disposal, thanks to my guide for the day. Roberto Carneiro Torres specialises in architectural tours, and together we criss-cross the city, exploring some of its most recognisable buildings.

The Brasilia we see today is still very much Niemeyer's city, which is itself a victory of sorts. Just five years after the city was inaugurated, the military staged a coup, ousting Kubitschek's successor and bringing democracy to end in Brazil for 20 years. Niemeyer, well-known for his left-wing views, had his office pillaged, and ended up in exile in Europe. Once democracy was restored, however, Niemeyer returned to work on Brasilia, completing a total of 160 buildings before his death in 2012.

Only a few of his buildings are open to visitors. The Itaramaraty Palace, which houses the foreign ministry, offers several tours a day, giving visitors the opportunity to admire the building's sculptural central staircase and collection of Brazilian art. And then, of course, there's the magnificent National Cathedral.

While its exterior, inspired by the crown of thorns, is striking, the interior is surprisingly serene, dominated by a patterned glass roof. Torres explains that the original design featured sheer glass panels which, under Brasilia's blazing sun, often overheated the church. At Niemeyer's urging, stained-glass artist Marianne Peretti created new panels in 1989, made of German glass which refracts the heat.

The cathedral is not Brasilia's only remarkable church. Torres takes me to the Sanctuary of Dom Bosco, designed by Carlos Alberto Naves. Its plain exterior – a simple concrete box with tall lancet windows – contrasts with the jewel-like interior, filled with coloured light filtering through windows stained in 12 different shades of blue. Naves also had an eye for quirky details: Torres shows me how the windows are louvred, to provide ventilation, and also points out that the ornate ceiling is made, of all things, pressed cardboard.

Over the years, the city of Brasilia has had mixed press. Originally hailed for its eye-catching design, it was later derided as a faux city, sterile and lacking the vibrant street life that characterises other Brazilian cities. Today's headlines, however, tend to focus on how Brasilia has become a victim of its own success.

Its population has risen to almost 3 million, far larger than originally envisaged, leading to concerns about air quality and water resources. Kubitschek's egalitarian ideals have also suffered. The central housing that was envisaged as classless accommodation is now largely occupied by the upper middle class. Poorer workers commute from the 27 satellite cities that have sprung up around it, straining the transport system.

Yet what's heartening about Brasilia is that they keep trying to get it right. Torres says that all major new buildings must now be LEED certified for energy efficiency, and that the city's newest sector, Setor Noroeste, aims to address many of Brasilia's existing problems. The new sector will have more pedestrian walkways and 44 kilometres of bicycle paths. Instead of the long shopping boulevards included in the pilot plan, shopping areas will be spaced every two blocks, to encourage walking. Other sustainability initiatives include the use of natural gas, solar energy and rainwater harvesting.

To me, the structure that best encapsulates Brasilia is not one of Niemeyer's designs, but a bridge we use to travel across Paranoá Lake. The artificial lake is another of Brasilia's grand achievements: covering 40 square kilometres, with a 112 kilometre perimeter, it took two years to fill. The JK bridge, named after the president who created Brasilia and designed by Brazilian architect Alexandre Chan, features three graceful arches inspired by the skipping of a stone across a pond. Its name is a tribute to one of Brasilia's creators, its elegant sinuousness a tribute to another. It is a reminder that Brasilia is still a place of beauty, and a place where people believe that things can be better.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

www.visitbrasil.com

GETTING THERE

LAN Airlines operates six flights a week from Sydney to Santiago, Chile, with connections to Brasilia via Sao Paulo with partner airline, TAM Airlines. See www.lan.com.

STAYING THERE

The Mercure Brasilia Eixo Monumental has rooms from around $92. See www.mercure.com.

TOURING THERE

The Classic Safari Company can organise custom itineraries of Brasilia and other Brazilian destinations. See www.classicsafaricompany.com.au. Roberto Carneiro Torres offers architectural tours of Brasilia. See www.carneirotorres@msn.com.

The writer travelled with the assistance of LAN Airlines, The Classic Safari Company and Roberto Carneiro Torres.

BEST LAID PLANS

From Renaissance towns to clockwork cities, the world's planned cities are a mixed bunch. Here are some highlights.

PALMANOVA, ITALY

When this northern Italian fortress town was constructed by the Serene Republic of Venice in the 16th century, security was a priority. Its nine-pointed star shape includes seven kilometres of walls in three defensive rings. See www.whc.unesco.org

NEW DELHI, INDIA

A century after it was built as the symbol of British power, New Delhi retains its distinct character. The elegant classical buildings and plentiful green space have resisted the chaos that consumes much of the surrounding city. See www.delhitourism.gov.in

WASHINGTON DC, US

Pierre Charles L'Enfant got his inspiration for the design of the US capital by studying an assortment of cities including Paris, Amsterdam, Karlsruhe and Milan. The city's low-rise silhouette, determined in the original plan, is still maintained. See www.washington.org

LA CHAUX-DE-FONDS, SWITZERLAND

After a fire swept through this Swiss watchmaking town in the 1790s, a new city plan was drawn up. Wide streets laid out on a grid system helped to ensure the watchmakers got the natural light they needed for their up-close work. See www.myswitzerland.com

CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA

Designed by Chicago architects Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin, Canberra's layout incorporates large amounts of natural vegetation, which disguises the plan's heavy use of geometric shapes such as circles, hexagons and triangles. See www.visitcanberra.com.au

FIVE GREAT BRASILIA BUILDINGS

THE NATIONAL CATHEDRAL

Its elegant concrete struts were inspired by the crown of thorns, and its light-filled interior offers a 20th-century twist on the Gothic cathedral.

PALACIO ITAMARATY

Floating in a tranquil pool, the Foreign Affairs Ministry offers a modernist update on a Moorish palace.

NATIONAL CONGRESS

An oversized dome and a giant saucer makes these perhaps the most unusual government buildings in the world.

PALÁCIO DA ALVORADA

Framed in a lush setting, the Presidential Palace looks like something out of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel.

THE SANCTUARY OF DOM BOSCO

Not a Niemeyer design, but nonetheless exquisite; a shimmering blue interior.

See also: Six of the best cities for architecture

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