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Cities & Citizenship

New Frontiers in Global South Urbanism

Brasilia's design and construction represented a high point in the expected triumph of humans over nature, of men's rational thoughts over the natural chaos cities breed. Dreamed, designed, and built at breakneck pace, it served as a literal and figurative symbol of new technology, fossil fuels, and impressive engineering. While the daring designs of monuments remain remarkable today, its approach of social engineering through imported architecture and urban planning ideas today feels dated.

As detailed in James Holston's The Modernist City, the design of Brasilia's master plan began with a competition (itself a wasteful format, as described in Gary Hustwit's film Urbanized). Emerging from it were the well-known Oscar Niemeyer and his mentor Lúcio Costa, both inspired by Le Corbusier, who favored a "blank slate" approach to design. "We must refuse to afford even the slightest concession to what is," the latter once wrote (Scott 106). In other colonial contexts, this meant bulldozing buildings and ignoring millennia of local design and culture, but the philosophy fit perfectly with the plan to rapidly birth a modern capital from near-scratch for Brasilia. Nonetheless, in Brazil it similarly meant design choices incompatible with the local or long-term global climate, and forcing new social ideas onto the population.

One of the primary points of the Master Plan is the separation of functions, with housing (for the wealthy) standing in one area and the business district on the opposite side, with two monumental roadways crossing in the center to connect them all. While appealing in theory, when combined with expectations of similar working hours across society, this design creates car traffic, air pollution, wasted time, and stress. The city's design artificial design has an energy of the human triumph over nature; the clear mental plan's triumph over chaos. Representing the era they come from, fossil fuels are thus embedded in design choices everywhere. The materials themselves tell the story: embodied carbon and operational carbon emissions from vast expanses of concrete, steel structures, and sunlit glass are sky high. The built environment asks its residents to participate in the "modern" ways of oil use, from depending on artificial cooling in office buildings designed without attention to solar gain to driving gasoline-powered automobiles for commuting anywhere. While wasteful anywhere, these choices make more sense in Le Corbusier's northern European climate context. Airplanes, which rapidly improved prior to the designing of Brasilia, played a key role; not only is the scale of the vast designs best experienced from one, the city itself is shaped into one. "Architecture is the art above all others which achieves a state of platonic grandeur, mathematical order, speculation, the perception of harmony that lies in emotional relationships," Le Corbusier wrote (Scott 106). Aesthetics of the plan trumped pedestrian experience, and aesthetics of the buildings trumped their utility and environmental realities, all in the name of this platonic grandeur.

Beyond aesthetics and climate, this "blank slate" approach additionally dehumanizes residents, and makes them passive subjects of the modernist plan. "Modernist total planning is a tool of social transformation as much as of spatial production", Teresa Caldeira and James Holston write (395). "It is conceived as a means of creating an urban environment that molds society in its image." Should residents be allowed to live in whatever kind of home, wherever they want, in a city? In Brasilia, the answer is unequivocally not.

The city combines super-egalitarian designs for individual buildings and blocks with obscenely segregated ideas about where residents belong. Whereas traditionally, a myriad of stylistic choices on a building radiate the wealth of the owners, in Brasilia, identical residential units house everyone in the central district, Plano Piloto. Holston explains that "by rendering them architecturally illegible," this implementation of moderns sought to make "targeted social distinctions" "socially irrelevant" (56). Houses sheathed in Bauhaus-descended glass facades exposed private lives to public scrutiny. Whether residents wanted their lives publicized was irrelevant to the designers, and all government executives were required to live there.

Immediately upon the capital city's opening, this plan began to crack. Where residents lived was centrally planned, mapping economic wealth onto a spatial system not visible from the ground. The construction workers that physically built Brasilia at record speed, had no place to live in the city, even when most housing remained unoccupied. According to Holston's chapter "Brazilianization", since then 72% of the population live in the imperial-style satellite cities that arose from construction worker barracks, not in the center (graph 8.1). Inside the airplane shape of the central city, Holston describes, rich residents eager to visualize and experience their wealth have created private clubs and taken over previously-public squares for capital-restricted sports and socializing. Many public squares, massive paved areas without tree cover in the hot sun and no small businesses like cafes to serve them, remain dramatically underutilized. While Holston's 1989 writings were too early to connect the design failures to climate, newer works do. In Richard Mosse's recent ultra-widescreen film Broken Spectre, we see one scene of the public squares packed, though not one helping the city's image. Thousands of indigenous Brazilians descend on the central square between government offices, camping in brutal conditions and protesting the deforestation of the surrounding Amazon rainforest for days on end. The searing sun beams over the endless identical buildings, rendered in stark black and white, reveal a ruthless, uncaring Brasilia not only through its politics, but the built environment. The rights of Brazilian citizens are abridged even through the discomfort of engaging with politicians in the country's capital.

While economically successful as a whole, the majority of the population of Brasilia today lives despite the design of the city, not because of it. The city provides a limit case example of how planned architecture can influence residents: where they live, what they live in, how they live, how they commute and navigate. The inflexibility of the system created, not allowing for population growth beyond imperial satellite cities for the working class, the traffic of the arterial roadways, and the inflexibility in the design of residential buildings and public squares, have not aged well. In the era of global climate collapse, vast expanses of concrete and oil-based transportation date the plan to an era of unlimited fossil fuel growth. Spectacular monuments may continue to draw tourists, but the design of the city itself ensures residents can never live in harmony with one another or the environment in the modernist playground.

Works Cited

Caldeira, Teresa and Holston, James. 2005. “State and Space in Brazil: From Modernist Planning to Democratic Interventions,” in Ong, A and Collier, S. (eds), Global Anthropology: Technology, Governmentality, Ethics, Blackwell, London. Pp. 393-416.

Holston, James. 1989. The Modernist City: An Anthropological Critique of Brasília. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Chapters 2 (“Blueprint Utopia”) and 8 (“The Brazilianization of Brasília”).

Hustwit, Gary. Urbanized. 2011.

Mosse, Richard. Broken Spectre. 2024.

Scott, James C. Seeing like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. Yale University Press, 2020.