I am not attracted to straight angles or to the straight line, hard and inflexible, created by man. I am attracted to free-flowing, sensual curves. The curves that I find in the mountains of my country, in the sinuousness of its rivers, in the waves of the ocean, and on the body of the beloved woman. Curves make up the entire Universe, the curved Universe of Einstein
In early December, Oscar Niemeyer died. The Brazilian architect met Juscelino Kubitschek on a September morning in 1956, a meeting for a project that would preserve them in the collective mind and history of Brazil. They were to build a new capital in the interior – founded on the ideals for a new country. Niemeyer saw Planalto Central plateau as a blank canvas upon which to form his revolutionary structures and together with urban planner Lucio Costa, build Brasilia in 41 months.
From the sky Brasilia was designed to look like a bird, and on land everything was to be monumental, from the buildings to the landscapes. The architecture, though modernist, does not seem to follow any global trend and the buildings appear almost extraterrestrial. Niemeyer’s work was inspired by organic sensual lines, explicit in the hyperbolic cathedral of Brasilia or the inverted arches of Palacio da Alvorada, the residence of the president. The monumental size of Niemeyer’s works is reminiscent of Soviet architecture – despite the fact that Niemeyer only visited during his exile when the military dictatorship seized power in Brazil, 4 years after Brasilia’s inauguration. However he always admired the Soviet communist ideals.
The planners sought to impose a particular lifestyle on future residents, as the units that composed the city were called superblocks, containing around 30,000 people. Four of these made a vicinity, which provided services like schools, hospitals, movie theaters and super markets. From here, small, almost self-sustaining societies would form, as distances were generally too great to travel by foot. The original socialist idea was that ministers and laborers would share the same building in order to eliminate the prestige of rank.
The capital’s purpose was to colonize the interior of Brazil, empty in contrast with the lively, industrial coastal cities such as Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and Salvador de Bahia. This way, they could industrialize inner Brazil by creating a city in a region-neutral setting that would integrate and cohere the country’s distant inhabitants. An optimistic air was breathed as the new city meant a new beginning, where the errors of the past would not be repeated.
Dreams Vs. Reality
Brasilia’s success is widely discussed, though the architect’s communist symbolism was mostly forgotten. Niemeyer’s integrated buildings were quickly appropriated by higher ranked politicians and bureaucrats—a capitalist move furthered by the regular weekend trips of the politicians to Rio or Sao Paulo—while the poorest had to move to the outskirts of the city, and engaged in uncontrolled favela building. This situation also reflects the immense scale of inequality in Brazil. The country is caught up in the contradiction of being both the strongest economy in Latin America, as well as one of the most unequal, performing consistently in the top 15 most unequal countries in the world on different rankings.
The colonization of the interior brought about economic successes, but its downside are environmental and social conflict. Since 1970, 20% of the Amazon rainforest has been logged down for purposes like soybean production, mining, cattle and hydroelectricity. And distinct ideologies regarding the meaning of progress have clashed. Lastm August, the state, hungry for resources, tried to build the Belo Monte Dam at Xingu river, a move that was finally ruled out as environmentalists and natives denounced its social impact.
However the tension lingers on. Niemeyer, Costa and Kubitschek’s goal of an integrated Brazil contradicts Brazil’s desire for resources that would allow the country to keep growing at an annual rate of 5% (annual GDP growth)- a feat that would allow the country to assert itself as a global political and economic power.
In this respect, Brasilia, as a reflection of the country and as Latin America’s regional economic and political leader, has been successful. The country is a major economic partner of most South American countries (who represent 25% of the power’s trade), and much of its revenue comes from firms investing abroad like Petrobras, the most valuable company in the southern hemisphere. In addition, Lula da Silva was a successful mediator in the 2008 conflicts within Bolivia, and the diplomatic tensions between Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador the same year. In this manner, Brazil has also asserted itself as a counterbalance to the United States in their “backyard.”
If his ideal Brasilia was the image of success Niemeyer dreamt for the entire country, it failed. Brazil has achieved global prominence due to its economic success, but at the cost of social ruin and neglect – reflected by the lawless favelas In Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. Niemeyer’s communist socialist dream was all but forgotten, though resurgence in socialist leadership in the last 10 years has turned the political agenda towards welfare policies that would not inhibit economic growth.
The idea now is to limit the exploitation of the Amazon to a wise, sustainable amount in the form of a future investments in quality of life and better relations with the indigenous groups. They could be integrated to the country, not by homogenization of practices and needs, but by recognition of Brazil’s multicultural origin. There are steps that would develop the country’s international image, and make it appear more socially responsible. Until then, Niemeyer’s dreams have not died with him, but live on through his architecture – it that was made to please the eyes of the people, and remains an ode to beauty and risk.
– Camilo Ucros
(featured photo: jvc, Creative Commons, Flickr)
photo 1 CTJ Online, Creative Commons, Flickr)