Could the pandemic make Brasília a model for cities?

. Jun 30, 2020
brasília urban planning pandemic Three Powers Square, in Brasília. Photo: GDF/Bento Vian/Flickr

One of the first impressions a first-time visitor has of Brasília, Brazil’s uniquely modernist capital city, is: where are all the people? At least, that was my impression upon alighting at the central bus station for the first time, 22 years ago, and taking a ride down the Monumental Axis — an avenue with six lanes on each side, separated by a huge grass median the size of many amateur football pitches. I always knew, even before moving to Brasília, that the Brazilian capital was unique in its urban planning — but it took me a while to get used to a place where “just around the corner” could mean somewhere 10 kilometers away. Aside from the fact that there are no corners in Brasília.

Bashing the capital city for its aloofness is a favored pastime for those based elsewhere. Indeed, Brasília, which turned 60 years old in April, offers little in the way of human interaction on its streets.

You can walk for kilometers before spotting a fellow pedestrian. French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, who visited the city in the 1960s, was unimpressed with the breathtaking magnificence of constructions such as the Congress building or the Three Powers Plaza, and instead complained about Brasília&#8217;s &#8220;<a href=";pg=PA136&amp;lpg=PA136&amp;dq=Simone+de+Beauvoir+Brasilia+%22elegant+monotony%22&amp;source=bl&amp;ots=rd1c_tYBBZ&amp;sig=ACfU3U3-iYkDkhkkMhhcDvL_eJ9Ic-AqbA&amp;hl=en&amp;sa=X&amp;ved=2ahUKEwjC76CXn5rpAhWFUcAKHaE0CxkQ6AEwCXoECAkQAQ#v=onepage&amp;q=Simone%20de%20Beauvoir%20Brasilia%20%22elegant%20monotony%22&amp;f=false">elegant monotony</a>.&#8221;</p> <p>The lack of anything resembling life in traditional urban centers is what makes many people wary of Brasília. Many have called its monumental distances “inhuman” and “suffocating.” But in coronavirus times, its perceived flaws may well be virtues.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img src="" alt="Brasília National Museum. Photo: Luca Piccollo/Shutterstock" class="wp-image-43598" srcset=" 1000w, 300w, 768w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 1000px) 100vw, 1000px" /><figcaption>National Museum. Photo: Luca Piccollo/Shutterstock</figcaption></figure> <h2>What sets the urbanism in Brasília apart</h2> <p>One of the biggest landmarks of modernist urbanism was the <a href="">Athens Charter</a>, a 1933 document published by Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier. In his <a href="">manifesto</a>, Le Corbusier claimed that populations were &#8220;too dense within the historic nuclei of cities.&#8221; He would add that “even when open spaces are of adequate size, they are often poorly located and are therefore not readily accessible to a great number of inhabitants.” Another requirement would be for “industrial areas [to] be independent of residential areas, and separated from one another by a zone of vegetation.”</p> <p>A few decades later, Brasília would become the first —&nbsp;and also the biggest — experimentation of the application of modernist architecture in city planning. With wide avenues, immense green fields, stocky apartment buildings elevated above the ground, distant from one another, with no walls or fences, Brasília&#8217;s urban planning favors the free flow of people —&nbsp;making a large concentration of people rare. &#8220;The plan by urbanist Lúcio Costa was a stroke of genius, nearly flawless,&#8221; says geographer Aldo Paviani, a professor emeritus at the University of Brasília, who has studied the city for five decades. &#8220;He thought of everything, especially of people.&#8221;</p> <p>Brasília&#8217;s scenery is made by its architecture, which imposes itself over the dry savannah-like vegetation. Its monumental standing is given by its open spaces, with unobstructed views. At any point in the city, one has a 180-degree vista of the surroundings.</p> <p>Residential areas were also a paradigm-shifter. Lúcio Costa broke with the conventional structure of apartment blocks, creating so-called &#8220;superblocks,&#8221; which are wide green spaces permeated by squat residential buildings of up to six storeys high, raised off the ground by a series of reinforced concrete pillars. When bidding for the rights to take charge of the new capital&#8217;s urban planning, Lúcio Costa described these structures as offering space for children to play close to their homes, where adults could monitor them in safety.</p> <p>Critics said Costa&#8217;s plan had the opposite effect of what he intended. Instead of strengthening community bonds, it made people more distant. Now, with the pandemic, that is seen as a virtue of his project. &#8220;The raised structures and green open spaces allow for people to have outdoor activities without having to expose themselves to contamination. That is a privilege,&#8221; says architect Cristiano de Sousa, a member of the Urbanists for Brasília collective, which studies and defends the capital urbanism.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img src="" alt="" class="wp-image-43599" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 1536w, 610w, 2048w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /><figcaption>Green open spaces: outdoor activities without exposing yourself to contamination. Photo: Acácio Pinheiro/ABSB</figcaption></figure> <h2>Not according to plan</h2> <p>Sixty years after the inauguration of Brasília, the city has grown at a faster pace than expected. In 1957, the contest to choose a plan for the capital predicted up to 500,000 inhabitants by 2010&nbsp;—&nbsp;but the current population tops 2.8 million. Most of these inhabitants, however, live in poorly-urbanized satellite cities, which are drastically different from the capital in almost every way: in the landscape, colors, infrastructure, and income.</p> <p>They usually cannot benefit from remote work and must take packed buses to commute every day. Not surprisingly, the residents of Brasília&#8217;s 32 satellite cities are the worst-affected by the coronavirus pandemic — which has infected over 44,000 and killed another 500 in the Brazilian capital.

Renato Alves

Renato Alves is a Brazilian journalist who has worked for Correio Braziliense and Crusoé.

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