It took less than four years, a determined president, his favorite architect and the vast savannah to make Brasília the capital of Brazil. If it wasn’t ambitious enough to move the capital from the seaside city of Rio de Janeiro inland, it was equally daring to imagine that moving more than 900 km away could connect the rest of the country by highways and getting people to come and settle in the middle of nowhere. But more than half a century later, Brasilia inspires the world with its iconic structures.
An exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in New Delhi, entitled “Brasília 60+ and the construction of modern Brazil”, highlights the robustness of these ideas. From the story of its construction to its recent buildings, told through photographs by the Brazilian masters – Marcel Gautherot, Cristiano Mascaro and Leonardo Finotti – as well as other works of art and furniture displays, the exhibition is a revelation. of the genesis of a city, using the powerful symbol of architecture as a selling point.
This modernization project rejected the classical European style and turned to the new modernism. In 1960, President Juscelino Kubitschek, urban-planner Lucio Costa and architect Oscar Niemeyer had spectacular buildings to show the world – the Cathedral of Brasília, the Palacio do Planalto (presidential palace), the National Congress (the Parliament ) and the President’s Office Residence, Alvorada Palace.
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André Aranha Corrêa do Lago, Ambassador of Brazil in India, who takes us on a tour of the NGMA, talks to us about the evolution of the city, the transverse axes that divide the land into its residential areas, lined with superblocks, and the monuments route that presents the political symbols of the Capital. As he points to a photograph of wooden shacks, he says, “It was the ‘presidential palace’ during construction. The president would come by plane to visit the site because there were no roads to Brasilia. It is still preserved today. Niemeyer had to create the plans for the new capital by candlelight, even as the city was being built, because there was no electricity then.
Costa was Brazil’s first modernist, who invited the Franco-Swiss architect Le Corbusier as a consultant who laid out the city like an abstract bird or airplane, and brought Niemeyer on board. Master Costa planned the city and divided it into zones, separating the functions into commercial, residential, monumental and cultural. Although many critics of Brasilia say the city’s binaries are both real and mythical, it still remains “one of the great political adventures of the 20th century”.
Corrêa do Lago, who was a member of the Pritzker Prize jury, said: “Niemeyer wanted his work to be understood on a popular and symbolic level by the people who would use his building. Its buildings are unlike any other building, but even a child can draw it. It is not hard to believe this statement when you see the emblematic building of the National Congress, with its cupolas that rest on a horizontal roof and its twin towers.
Corrêa do Lago brings us to a sketch made by Niemeyer for him, which bears witness to the architectloves curves and flowing lines. The sketches show how Niemeyer used the curved columns of the Presidential Palace and the Supreme Court. Together with the National Congress, they form the Place des Trois Pouvoirs in the heart of the city.
If the ramps are a concern, the curved columns are also at Niemeyer. However, it takes this element and treats it differently in buildings, giving frontal and profile placement, changing the look and feel of each building.
Niemeyer’s finest work, however, is Brasilia Cathedral, where fingers of concrete stretch skyward, interspersed with stained glass patterns in shades of blue and white. “People really loved the structural sturdiness of the building in its unfinished state,” says Corrêa do Lago. He points to the magnificent model of the cathedral in the living room, with its tunnel entrance. “Niemeyer also plays with light and dark. You enter the cathedral through the tunnel and it’s completely dark, it’s black, and once inside, it’s a burst of light,” he adds.
The exhibition presents the Capital in the making with Gautherot’s photographs giving the barren landscape an almost ethereal feel, while Finotti’s recent ones place buildings in context with their open-air sculptures and visitors in frames. It’s hard to miss the pure geometry of the forms and the elegant use of concrete.
Works by other famous collaborators such as facades and murals in blue and white azulejo tiles by artist Athos Bulcao, and art by landscape artist Roberto Burle Marx are part of the exhibition along with furniture by Niemeyer from Corrêa do Lago’s own collection. Bulcao and Marx bring a certain humanism to the austere other monumentalism. Bulcao, who left workers hands free in laying the tiles in some of his projects, and Marx’s science in the art of planting, whether grasses or native trees, have removed the rigidity that could have been Brasilia and gave it the imperfections of the human hand and the seasonal decay of nature.
Brasilia is not without flaws. What was called the “city of hope”, where social fractures would cease, did not work as planned. To this, Corrêa do Lago says: “Architecture cannot mask social differences. Brasília was to be a symbolic city for all Brazilians. Rio was the capital from the 18th century until 1960 and it was marked by differences between those who had houses facing the sea, those who lived in the mountains or in the interior. But Brasilia was a city of unity. Everyone was new here, which became the hit of the town. And then architecture gave him icons. There are many readings of Brasília, no doubt, but I cannot think of a world capital, where the architecture has been so recognizable and so absorbed by its inhabitants.