Buildings that changed the world - Brasilia, Brazil

President Juscelino Kubitschek's commission for a new capital city helped seal Oscar Niemeyer's reputation
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Congresso Nacional - Oscar Niemeyer
Congresso Nacional - Oscar Niemeyer

Brasilia is an exquisite one-off – unique in the way it was conceived and executed. The city was the brainchild of Brazil’s President Juscelino Kubitschek, who dreamed of a brand new capital city in the country’s arid interior. Through this he hoped to enhance the nation’s image, boost industry and initiate major construction projects. At the same time, he wanted to break with its colonial past and thrust the nation into the modern world, as a multi-racial, democratic country.

 

Brasilia, plan of the sectors
Brasilia, plan of the sectors

This was at a time when, and in a place where, anything seemed possible, and Kubitschek handed some of the world’s most progressive architects the absolute dream commission of building an entire city. He tasked influential modernist architects Lúcio Costa to deliver the urban plan, and Oscar Niemeyer – who died this week aged 104 – to design the key buildings on this high plateau. Other buildings were by some of Brazil’s top architects, and Roberto Burle Marx was brought in as the landscape designer.

 

Alvorada Palace, Brasilia - Oscar Niemeyer
Alvorada Palace, Brasilia - Oscar Niemeyer

Brasilia was designed in the most progressive style of the day, the International Style, and seemed more like something out of a sci-fi movie than a 20th century city. As our 20th Century World Architecture describes, "Costa's plan was laid out in the form of a cross and has been compared to a gliding plane. A 14km residential axis curves from north to south, following the topography and an artificial lake. A 5km monumental axis runs from west to east, with government buildings lining views down a wide grassy esplanade that culminates in the eastern end in the Square of the Three Powers."

Costa laid everything out in sectors - the power sector, dwelling sector and hotel sector. Along the central axis Niemeyer built such monumentally beautiful edifices that the architectural world collectively gasped. These pieces combined straight lines and rounded sculptural shapes which appeared to defy gravity.

 

National Cathedral, Brasilia - Oscar Niemeyer
National Cathedral, Brasilia - Oscar Niemeyer

Best known of these perhaps is the crown-shaped National Cathedral of struts of reinforced concrete – the material Niemeyer made his own. The glazed areas between the struts mean that the inside is bathed in light.

Then there’s his breath-taking National Congress: a brace of skyscrapers with the domed Senate on one side and the bowled-shaped House of Deputies on the other. These two along with the Planalto Palace (seat of government), the Itamaraty palace (foreign ministry) became known as Niemeyer’s signature projects.

 

Itamaraty Palace, Brasilia - Oscar Niemeyer
Itamaraty Palace, Brasilia - Oscar Niemeyer

Between these delights are scattered some lower-profile classic modernist gems including the Nilson Nelson Arena by Ícaro Castro Mello and the Sarah Hospital by João Filgueiras Lima (Lelé).

The city was inaugurated in 1960, and 27 years later was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, who called it ‘a landmark in the history of urban planning’. Brasilia is just one of 757 breath-taking projects in our exhaustive 20th Century World Architecture, available at a very special price for a limited time only in the phaidon.com store.

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Itamaraty Palace staircase, Brasilia - Oscar Niemeyer
Itamaraty Palace staircase, Brasilia - Oscar Niemeyer


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