touring the bush (8) : brasilia vs curtiba, intro (utopia)

brasília is a project-turned city. in the early nineteenth century brazil started playing with the idea of an inland capital, in order to stretch development and political networks away from the coast (urban growth and economic activities were typically concentrated along the coastline, both the earlier capitals, salvador (1549-1759) and rio de janeiro (1760-1960), were city-ports). aside from these more or less practical justifications, moving the capital to the near-empty heart of the country followed a strong, abstract (nationalistic) reasoning. the shift would be symbolic: away from the colonial patterns of coastal urbanism (and european/colonial trade dependency) to a proto-nationalist imperial centrality. just like the rest of mid(XXth)-century latinoamerican modernisms, the actual quest begun earlier, within rotting ancien régime “transitional” structures of the late 1800s. old-school aristocratic values, “civic” control-of-the-masses, depictions of nation, and other ancien régime conceptions outlasted the social chaos at the turn of the century, and pervaded the “new” order of tropical modernisms, particularly different orbits of social-aestheticism (architecture and planning included).

stale utopian types where mixed with rationalist optimism, radical urban planning, social and economic upheavals, and a
dash of caudillismo (charismatic authoritarianism). in the case of brasilia, even though the project had been thought up sometime in the second half of the nineteenth century, and the site for the city was set by a 1922 “groundbreaking”, nothing really happened until the fifties, with brazil riding the continental post-ww2 boom, and the rise of kubitschek, "president bossa nova," the man of the "50 years in 5" growth scheme, the frantic and populist developmentalism that latinoamérica eventually got used to and later resented (with collosal debts and national bankruptcies falling across the region in the seventies and eighties).

juscelino kubitschek was elected president in l955, and one of his main campaign offerings was transfering the capital, "build brasília to rebuild brazil." the ordeal was nothing short of astounding. the project (i.e. city) design team was more than just a bunch of home-grown corb' groupies. costa, niemeyer and burle marx took the master's sudamericana musings and stuffed them with new meanings and understandings and stylings until they had come up with something truly original. corbusier's 1929 south american tour not only brought out this unexpected lightness and sensuality in his own work, but actually managed to breath the tropical modernists to life, full-blown. his "earthscrapers" and "seascrapers", his jots and wavy scribbles and sketches, the fascination with the landscape, and plain faith and enthusiasm in a bright architectural and urban future proved to theoretic and stylistic references, as well as points of departure.

lúcio costa landed in rio from europe in 1919, and noticed that "at first, there was only a landscape. a strangely beautiful landscape..." his own 1957 plan for brasília was a proposal for a another strangely beautiful landscape, the concrete, intentionally balanced landscape of brazilian modernism. brazil in the 50's was all newness: bossa nova, cinema novo, neoconcretismo... now it was on its way to a new architecture and a new city...

it took 50 thousand candangos (workers) and 41 months to finish and "inaugurate" the city on april 20, 1960. brasília was to be efficient and pleasant, but above all, a showcase for the novo estado novo (the old "new state" had been the authoritarian fascitoid rule of getúlio vargas, and a certain rationalist and controlled planning resonance from the vargas regime stuck on kubrischek's projects despite their progressive character). yes, everything was new, but everything was also old. the setbacks and contradictions of utopia would soon start to show, not due to perversion, but because there was a negative germ in the system from the beginning, because brasília was, after all, an inherited utopia, a piece in the game of state power and presumption.

1922 was also the year of the century exhibition, a world's fair showcase in rio de janeiro that coincided with brazil's 100 years of independence. the architecture of the fair celebrated and embodied ideals of beauty, order, public health, civic morals, productivity, and above all state nationalism and guidance. it was in the end, a celebration of power and the future promise of power extension. brasília, with all its conscience and idealism, somehow fell on the same weaknesses the discarded utopias of the past did, despite itself, on a gargantuan scale. like its rise, the fall of the city would be all too fast and resonant.

next : failed utopia, future utopia. the exceptions of curitiba.

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