Daniels, Anthony, New Criterion
When I was about ten years old, I used to design cities. It was very easy, and I was surprised that everyone before me had made such a hash of it. I could conclude only that the world had hitherto been populated by fools. At the very center of the city was the parliament building, which was like St. Peter's but on a bigger and grander scale. Round it ran an eight-lane circular road, from which radiated, symmetrically, six large avenues. How the deputies to the parliament were supposed to reach it--dodge between the traffic, I suppose--was not a question with which I concerned myself. I was designing cities and buildings, not human convenience. Along the avenues were situated the institutions that I then considered essential for cities: the natural history museum, the art gallery, the royal palace. Everything was on a grand scale, and no mess of the kind created by commercial or other inessential establishments was permitted or planned for.
Brasilia was being built while I designed my cities, though in a different architectural vocabulary: one of reinforced concrete rather than marbled neoclassical facades. From the point of view of urban design and planning, however, it was not much of an advance over mine, but, unlike my designs, it was put into practice.
The first thing to say about Brasilia is that it is an astonishing achievement or feat, and this is so whether you think it good or bad or somewhere in between the two. Where nothing but a remote, hot, and scrubby plain existed just over half a century ago, there now stands a functioning city of over three million people. This is enough to excite wonderment.
What perhaps is even more astonishing is that Brasilia was up and running within less than four years of the first foundation being laid. The dream of moving the capital from the coast to the interior was almost as old as Brazil itself, and, indeed, such a move had long been a constitutional requirement, if only a dead-letter one. The idea was both economic and strategic: the move would simultaneously develop the interior and protect the country from foreign occupation.
It was President Juscelino Kubitschek de Oliveira, a Parisian-trained former urologist, who finally ordered Brasilia's construction. According to the story, a man asked Kubitschek at a pre-election meeting whether, if elected, he would comply with the constitutional requirement that the capital be moved, and he said that he would. Whether for reasons of probity not universal among politicians, or for more pragmatic reasons, Kubitschek kept to his undertaking, but made it a condition of doing so that the new capital be completed within his presidential mandate. As with many, perhaps most, or even all grand schemes, the economic cost was not taken into account: Kubitschek was, in effect, Brazil's Peter the Great, but without the cruelty or indifference to human life. Unfortunately, he was also without the taste.
This difference, no doubt, had more to do with the artistic Zeitgeist titan with the individual qualities of the two men. Kubitschek has a mausoleum in Brasilia. His body is preserved in a stone sarcophagus in a dimly lit rotunda, complete with a museum of memorabilia, including his white-tic evening dress and foreign decorations. The whole thing is oddly Soviet for a country as seemingly unsovietizable as Brazil; it is like a hybrid of Lenin's tomb and the "proofs of love" museum in Bucharest, devoted to the gifts that Nicolae and Elena Ceaucescu received from around the world, such as carved coconut shell cups or bowls from their fervent admirers in Samoa.
In the mausoleum is a photograph of Belo Horizonte, where Kubitschek had been mayor in 1940. It was clearly a very pleasant place, architecturally speaking, a European city with tree-lined boulevards along which it would be pleasant to spend a day going from cafe to cafe. Everything was on a human scale, but, in a sense, it was undistinguished, because no architect had thought to build with a view to making Belo Horizonte completely different from anywhere else. …