A little over a year ago, my husband and I moved to Brazil. When friends and family first heard that we would be moving to Brazil, they immediately assumed we would be in Rio de Janeiro and were likely envisioning their next vacation on Copacabana beach. We had to break the news to them that no, we weren’t going to be in Rio, nor in São Paulo. Instead, we’d be going to the center of Brazil’s vast country, to live in its capital Brasília, a city that has only existed a mere 56 years.
Brasília is surrounded not by the beach, but by a tropical savannah region known as the cerrado. Yet its defining characteristic is the layout of the city–depending on whom you ask, it resembles either an airplane, a bird or a cross. The main ministries and government buildings are located on the Eixo Monumental, which runs west to east; on the axis running from north to south there are superquadras, self-contained residential blocks that are all identical to one another. The city owes its design to three individuals: Lúcio Costa (urban planner), Oscar Niemeyer (architect), and Roberto Burle Marx (landscape designer).
And of course, the city would not exist without the vision of former president, Juscelino Kubitschek, who campaigned on the promise of moving the capital of Brazil in Rio to a more central location in the country. Hailed as the “city of the future”, the city shot up in only four years and was inaugurated on April 21, 1960. Brasília has since been named a UNESCO world heritage site and for anyone who studies modernist architecture, this city is a must-see.
But what’s it like to actually live here?
When I was back in the States this summer, many people asked me how I liked Brasília. I always had to pause and choose my words carefully. “It’s … interesting,” I would begin–which, of course, says absolutely nothing about it. But in honesty, what fascinates me about this city is that it seems to stand still in time. You can drive past the superquadras, or along the Eixo Monumental and sense how unique and modern this place must have seemed in 1960. But that’s just it–nothing seems to have changed since then. Building façades are grey and crumbling, park signs are defaced with graffiti and streets are filled with potholes. And unlike the European cities I am used to, which are built around a central market square and sprawl organically from the center, Brasília feels a bit hollow, without a cultural history to define it. Its origins are purely functional and every detail of each neighborhood is pre-planned. There is nothing spontaneous about this city, no hidden cobblestone alleys, no charming corner shop to stumble upon. Even Brazilian friends whom I ask about Brasília admit that the city is strange and are quick to assure me, “Brasília is not Brazil.”
–and yet. When you are out on Lake Paranoá at sunset and gazing at the city, as tiny waves gently lap against the side of the boat, the harsh, grey lines of the city fade and you see Brasília from a different angle, one that is quite different and full of beauty. Or, on a Saturday morning bakery run, you pass a group of capoeira dancers practicing out in the open and you pause to listen to the mesmerizing beats and chants. And then there are those evenings spent at a hole-in-the-wall outdoor restaurant with plastic tables and chairs, surrounded by good friends sipping caipirinhas, waiting for the next juicy cut of picanha to arrive at your table from the smokey churrascaria.
This is also Brasília–and, arguably, Brazil. Maybe you have to zoom in close or way out to see this, but it is there.
I look forward to sharing more impressions of life in and around Brasília with you, so please stop by again!