Saturday, August 28, 2010

Brasilia, Brazil: Capital City Planned for Urban Designers, Not People

Coconut water vendors in front of the cathedral,  Catedral Metropolitana Nossa Senhora Aparecida (photo by Luis Bastardo)

Let me say, right off the bat, that I didn't like Brasilia. Staying in the cheerless capital city of Brazil was an especially jarring experience after spending a week in the lush Panatanal, the beautiful, vast, more or less untouched wildlife reserve and wetlands of the state of Masso Grosso. Brasilia is a planned city of 3.5 million people and, in common with the Pantanal, is a UNESCO World Heritage site; it is also the home to the Brazilian government, numerous foreign embassies, as well as many of the headquarters of large Brazilian companies, such as Eletrobrás and Banco de Brasil. It was planned in 1956 and designed by Lúcio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer, who seem to have been so enamored of their own designs that they didn't realize that living, breathing people would be populating their city. Brasilia was designed in the shape of a bird with its wings spread (which may be symbolic of the only life form able to traverse the city with any degree of efficiency). The city is vast and flat, with grey, unadorned buildings and monuments surrounded by huge, unshaded, empty concrete lots, almost devoid of any pedestrian accommodations or places to rest such as paths, benches or groups of shade trees. To walk across these spaces with the sun beating down is exhausting and many tourists were crowded under any shade they could find.

 The memorial to Juscelino Kubitschek, Brazilian ex-president (photo by Luis Bastardo)

 To be fair, the city does include many interesting, albeit often Stalinist-style, grey, poured concrete structures, such as the National Congress Building, the Cultural Complex of the Republic and the Supreme Federal Tribunal. Purely from a design standpoint, the city is architecturally important and  innovative and we did our best to appreciate Costa's and Niemeyer's vision, but to no avail. Although we tried to visit all of the buildings, only a handful of them were generally open to visitors and were closed the few days that we were there, often for unspecific restoration work or other nebulous reasons. Even the most well-known structure, the national cathedral, Catedral Metropolitana Nossa Senhora Aparecida, was closed for unclear reasons. The cathedral's priests kept telling visitors to return at 2pm, then when it was still closed at 2pm, to return at 6pm, but when we returned again, it was still closed and, after three days of trying to get inside, we finally gave up. Local residents told us that Brasilia was designed for governmental administrative purposes and was never meant to be a tourist-friendly city and, indeed, we found that many building administrators could not even fathom why we wanted to visit their buildings.

  The National Congress Building and one of the vast plazas that link buildings and monuments throughout the city (photo by Luis Bastardo)

The city's streets were designed to alleviate the traffic congestion that plagues other Brazilian cities and in that, the plan has succeeded. The traffic moves quickly and generally efficiently, at least in relation to other South American (and for that matter, North American) cities, but the consequence is that pedestrians have few viable walkways or places to safely cross roads and highways. It is a city built for cars. Attempting to cross a street requires ice water in your veins and a mad dash from one side of the street to the other when there is finally a three-second break in traffic. Children and the elderly had an especially difficult time of it and were often left standing on the shoulders of the roads (there are few sidewalks) for at least 20 minutes waiting for an opening. We also had some difficulty finding places to eat and only chanced upon two restaurants, both overpriced chains: TGI Friday's and Fogo de Chão. Out of desperation, we ended up eating at an office cafeteria, settling for white bread sandwiches and bottled soft drinks...not exactly the authentic Brazilian food experience we had in mind. So, no, I didn't care much for Brasilia. It didn't take long to decide to move on to the colorful, spicy, bright and African-influenced northeast coast of Salvador de Bahia!

  The Cultural Complex of the Republic situated in the middle of yet more open space (photo by Luis Bastardo)

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