Brasilia has to be seen to be believed

The federal capital of Brazil is an exhilarating and insane city, writes Jono Cane

02 August 2017 - 12:13
By Jono Cane
The Metropolitan Cathedral of Nossa Senhora Aparecida in Brasilia.
Image: Supplied The Metropolitan Cathedral of Nossa Senhora Aparecida in Brasilia.

Brasília is the future city of the past. Like a colony of alien spaceships, its sculptural high-rises sit stubbornly in the wilderness, resisting corrosion by unspeakable heat and humidity.

One of the few built-from-scratch cities, Brazil's ambitious federal capital was laid out in the shape of a condor by some of the world's most important, imaginative and idealistic architects, literally in the middle of nowhere.

In the 1950s Brazilian political elites rejected the fading baroque charm of the old capital city Rio de Janeiro and embraced a mid-20th-century optimism about what could be built with enough money, power and concrete.

Where once goats grazed on guavas and grass, Lúcio Costa, Oscar Niemeyer and Roberto Burle Marx built their utopia - or dystopia, depending on whom you ask. Either way, the city is surely on every archi-junkie's wish list.

Brasília is arranged into two distinct zones; a cornerstone of modern planning, the idea that work should be separated from leisure and dwelling.

The ministerial zone is the most iconic with its brutal, heroic, space-age courts, libraries and embassies.

The residential zone, along the north-south axis, is known for its ''superquadras", massive interlocking apartment buildings that frame strangely intimate gardens, schools and whimsical playgrounds.

The contrasts between the bureaucratic monoliths and the flat parklands, between the governmental power and domestic safety, and between the scale of the superquadras and their gardens are what define the city.

For accommodation, either stay in Brasília Palace, Niemeyer's factory-like hotel on the edge of the man-made lake, or rent an apartment in Lúcio Costa's superquadra block SQS 308 where gargantuan palm trees, parasitic orchids and elephant ears the size of elephants' ears envelop the white concrete high-rises.

Some notes on navigation will be helpful. The first is that basically all government buildings are called Palácio something-or-other. Second, everything in Brasília is straightforwardly numbered, so once you've cracked the code navigation is easy.

For instance, the residential address SQS 308 B means SuperQuadra South No. 308, Block B. And last, Brasília was designed with the idea that everyone would own and drive a car, so walking around is an odd experience.

While there have been attempts to make the city bicycle-friendly, often you will find yourself crossing two six-lane highways on foot. But the city is pretty small and even though you'll be the only pedestrian out in the sun, it is walkable.

The heat is almost unbearable and so all public buildings have been designed with effective and elegant passive cooling systems.

For instance, Palácio Itamaraty (the Ministry of External Relations) is surrounded by water and a tropical garden designed by Roberto Burle Marx, one of the world's most famous landscapers.

In addition to aquatics and flora, Brasília's architects implemented bold brise-soleil, sun-screens that shade the buildings' façades, producing whimsical, constantly-changing patterns.

Santuario Dom Bosco, Brasília.
Image: Supplied Santuario Dom Bosco, Brasília.

Walking though Brasília is like wandering though an open-air architectural museum where the key lessons of modernist design are on show. But, what's most remarkable about the city is how unorthodox and audacious this kind of modernism is.

The National Museum is a rising moon with space portals, surrounded by a landscape of circular ponds. The Metropolitan Cathedral of Nossa Senhora Aparecida is sunken underground with a stained glass roof that bursts up like an aquifer.

Walking though Brasília is like wandering though an open-air architectural museum where the key lessons of modernist design are on show

The Palácio do Planalto, the president's office, has a death-defying staircase without balustrades. In fact, almost every building has some kind of outrageous swirl of a staircase, ramp or bridge.

There are entire walls of silver tiles, others of blue doves; entirely yellow buildings, gold buildings and a completely blue church, Santuario Dom Bosco.

Brasilia is an exhilarating and insane city. A dysfunctional, impractical, weird, messed-up, amazing and magical explosion of concrete, steel, blue glass, elephant ears, orchids and rainbows.