Brasilia a city of ideas, contradictions

August 15, 1993|By Catherine Healy | Catherine Healy,Contributing Writer

Brasilia, Brazil -- Some visitors still sneer that this capital, bulldozed from the wilderness 36 years ago, is a city without a soul.

But many of metropolitan Brasilia's nearly 2 million residents believe they live in a predestined place, built on a geologic foundation of energy-generating crystals.

They cite the legend of an 18th-century Italian monk who had a vision that the power base of the third millennium would be centered about where Brasilia sits today.

Cultists, wearing monklike garb and 1950s-style prom gowns, have set up towns nearby, convinced they are channeling into special crystal forces.

For the more staid in the capital, a large crystal in a pyramid-shaped church roof radiates sunlight down on barefoot pilgrims waiting on marble floors for an infusion of energy.

Brazil is one of a small number of countries that have abandoned one capital city to pioneer another in jungles, deserts, swamps or grazing lands.

The most recent relocation occurred less than two years ago when Africa's most populous nation, Nigeria, moved its capital from the coastal city of Lagos to Abuja in the center of the country.

Other "new" seats of government are as diverse as Washington; Belmopan, Belize; Islamabad, Pakistan; Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; and Canberra, Australia.

"Brasilia is a fantasy in our country," says architect Pedro Braga, the city's chief of public works.

"There are more swimming pools per capita than anywhere in the world. Our health facilities, hospitals, schools -- everything is better, relative to everyone else in the country."

Outside Brasilia's front doors, hand-planted woods and lawns beckon.

Sailboats tack along a man-made lake, and restaurants featuring cuisine from dozens of countries tempt the most sophisticated palates.

Lunch breaks last two hours, even for schoolchildren. It takes less than 25 minutes to drive from one end of the city to the other.

"People either love it here or they hate it," says Igor Rodrigues, a Brasilia-born 28-year-old bicycle racer and physical-education teacher.

"People who hate it usually want to be by the beach."

A few years ago, hardly anyone believed Brazilians would move away from their famed capital city on the Atlantic coast, Rio de Janeiro.

n 1957, when the first bulldozers started clearing thorny brush for a new seat of government about 1,200 kilometers inland, 93 percent of Brazil's population lived within a few hours of the ocean.

Brazil -- South America's largest country, the world's fifth in size -- seemed almost too big for its borders.

In 1957, when a visionary president, Dr. JuscelinoKubitschek, was elected, Brazilians living in Amazonian towns near Peru needed nine months to reach Sao Paulo in the south.

Dr. Kubitschek was determined to settle the interior and to industrialize his country.

"Fifty years in five," promised the physician-president from the backwoods.

Brasilia was to be "the belt that held it all together," with highways fanning out to distant points of the country.

DDr. Kubitschek's intention was not just a new city, "but a city full of new ideas," recalls Jose Edson Perpetuo, the former president's cousin and military aide, who was part of the venture from the outset.

Elaborate designs were submitted from all over the world. The final entry, a simple cross with curved arms that followed the shape of the newly built lake, captivated the judges.

They appointed Lucio Costa, Brazil's first modern architect, as the designer.

"I hadn't planned to submit anything, but it was an idea that had to get out of me," says Mr. Costa, now 90, who lives in a beachfront apartment in Rio.

Mr. Costa arranged grand government buildings along the main line of the cross and low-rise residential neighborhoods along the arms, with single-family homes and private clubs around the lake.

In total, there was room for 550,000 people, with ample green space for everyone.

Most modern city

Cars figured prominently in what was to be the most modern city on Earth. (Another of Dr. Kubitschek's plans was to make Brazil a leader in car manufacturing.)

Traffic lights were banished in the original plan through a triumph of engineering, allowing drivers to accelerate along wide streets.

"I think Brasilia is exactly as it should be," says Mr. Costa. "I wouldn't change anything, not at all."

Others disagree. Brasilia's traffic-death rate has become the highest in the country because of speedway streets.

And many Brazilians prefer the "soap opera" of living close enough together to know their neighbors' business.

The early, idealistic economic mix of "driver and [congressional] deputy" living side-by-side here is long gone. Apartments cost more than in Rio.

"Costa is a genius," says Mr. Braga. "His plan has a good conception. It's a city that's easy to live in, but there are lots of changes needed.

"Otherwise Brasilia is a museum of 1960s modern, based on urban concepts from the 1920s."

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