Thursday, April 14, 2011

Brasilia, the City on the Edge of Forever

I lived a good part of my life in Brasilia, Brazil's capital. The city was created from scratch by government decree. Historically speaking, cultural trends reach their apex in Brazil with a substantial lag relative to central nations, and the construction of Brasilia was no exception. Its planners, designers and architects came to symbolize the last breath of modernism in architecture, so the city was unlucky to have been heavily influenced by an architectural school whose failures were at that point becoming evident, and also by communist ideology and a religious-like faith in central planning.

There's no need to say that the results were negative. Brasilia is known for being unfriendly to its dwellers. Some have called it "the soulless city," others have called it the "fantasy island." It's also called the "monumental city," many times pejoratively ("people don't enjoy living and working inside monuments" is a commonly heard complaint in Brasilia). I personally find Brasilia's monuments to vary in appearance from plain ugly to nightmarish.

As time goes, the city looks to me more and more like the ideal location for a postwar fascistic dystopia. Economist Marcos Bittencourt for example recently wrote a very good article (in Portuguese) that explains the many failures of Brasilia as a livable city. It's a personal judgment naturally, but I've been to only one city that is uglier and less urban friendly than Brasilia, and this city is São Paulo - and I've been to many places. Economist Tyler Cowen has been recently to Brasilia and summarized well how it looks like to an outsider:
Could this be the strangest city I have visited? ... It resembles an old science fiction movie and yes I like old science fiction movies.
Cowen hits the bull's-eye: Brasilia looks and feels exactly like a sixties sci-fi z-movie, and ages as badly as sci-fi z-movies from the sixties do. In reality, I've always wondered why is it that very few people have realized that one of the most well-known backdrop drawings in the Star Trek explicitly paid homage to Brasilia. Compare the two pictures below:

The first picture shows the Tantalus Penal Colony in the Star Trek episode "Dagger of the Mind" while the second picture shows the Palacio da Alvorada, the residence of the President of Brazil. The similarities between the two buildings are clearly not coincidental, and, some may suggest, tongue in cheek, prophetical...

It's unfortunate that Brasilia had to be built at the wrong time and place (unremarkable nature, geographically isolated, extremely dry weather). Had it been built during any other couple of decades, and at a more livable location, it would probably be a glorious city. So be it: at least, Brasilia will become the ultimate monument to an age of questionable aesthetic preferences, misguided "humanism," and failed ideologies: the city on the edge of forever.
PS: Cowen made it clear that he thinks that "Brasilia works reasonably well." Relative to other cities in Brazil, this may indeed be true, but it clearly comes at a high cost to the average Brazilian taxpayer.


Blog do Adolfo said...

GREAT post!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


Chutando a Lata said...

Thanks for your reference. Really, it's amazing when you match your feeling with a model. Better, when it is good; everything is simple to see. Things are clear.

Michael McMullen said...

I saw the sci-fi aspect immediately when I moved to Brasilia and so I wrote a sci-fi novel set in the city. It is amazingly easy to imagine alternative explanations for the bizarre nature of the place.

My book is "The Brasilia Machinations", available on Amazon.

I have to say, as strange as the city is, I like living here.