Fifty Years of Brasília

21 April 2010


A drawing of the plan of Brasilia.

The 21st of April is the birthday of Brasília, and this year marks fifty years since the city was inaugurated. As cities are not usually built to order, fixing a birthday for them is a matter of historical speculation, but Brasília belongs to that small class of cities — which also includes, inter alia, Herod’s Caesarea, Constantine’s Constantinople, Aigues Mortes, Canberra, Islamabad, and Naypyidaw — that were, in fact built to order, and since it was built to order in modern times there is a great deal of documentation available, as well as precise dates, that chronicle the rise of the city. The black and white photographs of Brasília have a haunting quality to them, a palpable emptiness.

A satellite photograph of contemporary Brasilia, showing it still very much a realization of its plan.

I previously mentioned Brasília in The Rational Reconstruction of Cities, where I was concerned with the difference between cities that emerge organically from a particular social, economic, ecological, and climatological circumstances in contradistinction to planned cities. Of course, most cities are a mixture of planning and organic growth. The same is true with Brasília: it began as a planned city, but in so far as the city has taken on a life of its own that is underdetermined by the planners, it has since grown both organically and inorganically.

It takes time for a planned city to begin growing organically, as it is usually built to a certain assumed population size and time is needed for the population to catch up with the initially empty city. It is only after the population has caught up with and then surpassed the intent of the planners that a more organic growth pattern is likely to emerge. If a planned city never exceeds its intended population, it remains largely in its originally planned form.

Cities are like the maps that describe them in both prescribing a reality and being prescribed by reality. I tried to explain what I meant by this in A Theory of Maps. It seems to me that there are classes of facts that are partly constituted by human actions and partly constituted by matters outside human control. The classical distinction between realism and alternatives to realism like constructivism or nominalism force us into a dichotomy between objects of the world being independent of us (realism) or dependent upon us (idealism, constructivism, etc.). I suggest that there are degrees of dependence, and that some objects are partly dependent and partly independent of us. In the terminology I used previously, in so far as they are partly constituted and partly independent, cities are ontogenic.

The Osler House by Marcio Kogan in Brasília, Brazil.

In A Theory of Maps I used the examples of timetables and schedules as constituted facts that create realities, although not without exceptions and qualifications. Cities, as we all know, are constituted by a great many schedules and timetables, as well as other contrived facts that begin as an idea in the mind of an urban planner and may someday issue in actual concrete living conditions for a mass of residents. Planned cities like Brasília are the most obvious and complete example of this, but even planned cities are not entirely governed by their plan, and therefore not entirely contrived.

In Life and Landscape I argued that the landscape a people comes from shapes the life and character of that people, and this way of life in turn shapes the ideas of that people. Thus ideology is a highly derived form of geography. As I noted above, cities emerge from particular social, economic, ecological, and climatological circumstances. All of these factors contribute to the structure and function of a city. We have very little control over ecological and climatological circumstances, other than moving to another area, but we have more control over social and economic circumstances, but not absolute control, as social and economic circumstances also emerge from the landscape.

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2 Responses to “Fifty Years of Brasília”

  1. lorenza said

    This is a photo I took in Brasília a couple of years ago…

    It was a boiling hot day and the Plaza of Tres Poderes is a huge concrete prairie. People make money by selling green coconuts on supermarket trolleys. The one in the photo was wearing a beautiful Flamengo soccer club t-shirt. This is the image I remember from my Brasília trip. I asked myself: 50 years of THIS????!!!

    I loved the expression ‘palpable emptyness’, that describes Brasília very well.

    Regards from Brazil

    October 2008 | Didactic travel to Brasília. Photo taken on a day of sun and heat from the top of the National Museum of Niemeyer. Hidden in the only shade available in the ‘concrete prairie,’ awaiting the arrival of the coconut ice cream. Author: Lorenza Pavesi

    • lorenza said

      …I hate to be pedantic but it’s not coconut ice cream…just green coconuts. You make a little hole on them and drink their very refreshing water with a straw! 🙂

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