Looking back in time, it was an astonishing ambition, but the second half of the 20th century was an era of such ambitions, including 50 years ago the landing of the first man on the moon. In 2000, the new Brazilian capital city of Brasilia held the distinction of being the largest city in the world which had not existed a century previously, ie in 1900.
Today Brasilia is the third largest city in Brazil, such has been its growth, with a population of around 4 million people. It’s airport is the third busiest in Brazil and it is home, not only to the national government and all the relevant bodies, but embassies from some 124 countries. The UK embassy was originally going to be designed by Alison and Peter Smithson and the French by Le Corbusier himself – sadly, neither came to fruition.
Brasilia had a long birth. In 1891, with Brazil’s first republican constitution, there had been an ambition to move the capital from Rio de Janeiro into somewhere more central, though there had been proposals going back decades before that and it is said that the Italian saint Don Bosco had a dream in 1883 in which he described a futuristic city in the centre of the country. Not surprisingly, there are many references to Don Bosco in the modern Brasilia.
With the brave near world after the Second World War, things started to move and in 1957 Lucio Costa’s masterplan was selected by an international jury to form the basis of the new city. While the plan was in many ways quite high-level, it did lay out the streets and districts and some have since complained that it has become inflexible. Perhaps that is a good thing as it means the vision remains intact.
Its success in terms of scale of development and population growth is amazing and Costa’s plan has links back to Le Corbusier. The public buildings designed by Oscar Niemeyer were considered futuristic and innovative, being copied in various forms around the world, the Joaquim Cardozo as the structural engineer and Roberto Burle Marx the landscape designer for this astonishing achievement which was built in less than four years, being officially inaugurated in April 1960.
Now one of the few late 20th century World Heritage Sites, Brasilia, the project was noted not only for its architecture and lush landscape architecture but the art integrated into the new city by the best of contemporary Brazilian artists. Brasilia was indeed seeking to set standards for the future and show the world what it could achieve.
At the Embassy of Brazil in London, centre-stage is a huge aerial model showing the immense scale of the enterprise, surrounded by photographs, drawings, documents and models of the planning, architecture and art illustrating the amount of work that went into creating this unique 20th century utopia.