Brasilia is…

A city that Colin Rowe (Collage City) defines a city like Brasilia as an anticipatory city of isolated objects and continuous voids, the alleged city of freedom and ‘universal’ society will not be made to go away and if, perhaps in its essentials, it is more valuable than its dis-creditors can allow, if, while it is felt to be ‘good’, nobody seems to like it, the problem remains: what to try to do with it?

Brasília was a failure in many ways. The city did not turn out the way the planners intended and is not thought of very highly by either its own inhabitants or other Brazilians. The construction of the city produced a debt of over 2 billion dollars. Massive inflation in the 1960’s, fueled by the proliferation of paper money, gave the military a good reason to take over the government and ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985.

Brasília is widely known as the “three day city” (Brunn and Williams, 1993), as many of its wealthier workers spend only Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday working in Brasília, and then jet to the more social cities like Rio and Sao Paulo for extended weekends. This only furthers the view of Brasília as an unpopular city.

Brasilia is full of open space. There seem to be playing fields and parks everywhere. The planners seem to have accomplished what some might call an impossible task — a livable, walk able, drivable city.

My interest in the nature of the streets was sparked some time ago by James Holston’s absorbing study, The modernist city: an anthropological critique of Brasilia, published in 1989. Holston offers a devastating critique of the plano piloto, the master-plan, which I would love to quote more fully than I have time for. Essentially in the plan, he claimed, ‘the street itself had been architecturally denied and remains legally proscribed.’ Nowhere, he says, did the word ‘street’ appear in the plan. Each of the commercial sectors that alternate with the large residential blocks had a ‘via de acesso motorizado,’ a motorized service way. These ‘anti-streets’ served to dismantle the traditional urban market ‘by reordering relations of commerce and residence, pedestrians and transport.’ The theory is a clear example of modernism promoting space without sociability.

Holston argues that the design of Brasilia ‘accomplishes a radical functional differentiation of commercial space and thereby of exchange: streets have become entirely identified with the functions of transport and supply.’ Then he goes on to document how ‘the first inhabitants of Brasilia’s superquadras simply rejected the anti-street because it contradicted social practice.’ The early settlers came mostly from urban Brazil and started to convert the service backs into store fronts, thus reversing the design. ‘As a result, habit reproduced the street in practice where it had been architecturally denied.’

‘The signs of the popular street reappeared: mixed up functions (cars and people), uncoordinated signs, colors, and displays, window-shopping, sidewalk socializing, loitering, and even littering. The riot of urban codes’ Holston writes triumphantly, ‘reasserted itself in spite of the best attempts yet devised to prevent it.’

I have no doubt from what I saw, that the process identified by Holston in the 1980s has simply gathered pace. I stopped to chat to three young ladies who run a hair salon in back of one of the service blocks. People were powering around this apparently ‘hidden’ part of the neighborhood from all sides. They told me that they have clients who come from fifteen minutes’ drive away, a lot from the commercial sector round the corner and many of course from the neighborhood which their property is facing. I turned to look at it, and subsequently saw several like it. People have high quality apartments, green space, trees, shade, places to stop and chat. In several places they look like the campus of a new university. The blocks are on stilts so folk pass through readily. The geometries of movement are hardly constrained.

Brasilia as a city was never finished and remains in a state of evolution rather than decline. Brasilia’s development will be analyzed in the light of postcolonial discourse as a means to  engage critically with issues regarding Brazilian identities and to bring to the fore some political questions that are intrinsically connected with the built environment which have been usually overlooked

Rethinking the informal city: critical perspectives from Latin America

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