Capital in a Void: the modern mythology of Brasilia


Brasilia, Brazil's capital, inaugurated in 1960, is a staple subject in the criticism of Modernist urbanism. It was both hailed and decried by major theorists and historians since even before its completion, but remains often misunderstood. The objective of this paper is to analyze the interpretive discourse on Brasilia, with an emphasis on its central bus station, in terms of mythical structures. Four such structures can be identified and related to three different aspects of discourses on Brasilia: first, the character of revelation ascribed to the theoretical roots of the design for Brasilia, linking it to European discourses of the 1930s and 1940s and ignoring the development of the Modern movement within Brazil herself; second, that of the authority ascribed to Lucio Costa's original master plan that won the competition in 1957, a statement of ideas and not a definite urban map, which nevertheless acquired gospel status; third, that of the construction process itself, stressing the heroic deeds of President Juscelino Kubitschek, of chief architect Oscar Niemeyer, and the anonymity of the working-class masses who actually built the city; fourth, that of growth and preservation of the city, which looks back on an idealized golden age whence Brasilia's design has decayed, tying back into and strengthening the power of the other three myths.

Even authors who have attempted earlier to criticize "myths" about the city, such as James Holston, have given in to one or more of these mythical structures. The design for the central city of Brasilia---currently only one in a string of neighborhoods comprising Brazil's fourth most populated metropolitan area---is famous for its crossing of two axes: the Residential axis, lined with superblocks, and the Monumental, comprising the political and symbolic functions of the city. At the crossing itself, surrounded by the city's Central Business District, lies, not a monument or a political building, but a void: the superimposed levels of the central bus station.

The bus station platform, a monumental structure connecting the south and north parts of the central area of Brasilia, embodies the ideal of the modernist void. The huge structure fades in the monumental landscape due to its extreme horizontality, blending into the city's smooth terrain (Fig. 1). The wide belvedere that becomes transit platform overlooks on either side the Esplanade of Ministries and the opposite stretch of the Monumental Axis, towards the dominant verticality of the TV tower. This immense void of the platform is the main direct north--south link, for both pedestrians and vehicles, within the urban core of the capital.

Over 800,000 transit riders and other citizens use the bus terminal each day. Most of them take part in the daily pendular commute that brings scores of workers to the planned capital city from the satellite towns and other cities that make up its metropolitan area (Fig. 2). In 2012, this area houses nearly 3 million people and mostly service-sector jobs. Being at the symbolic center of the metropolis, the bus terminal is also, thanks to its architectural features, the grand urban void where diverse personal and collective narratives intermingle, bringing together high-modernist Brasilia and satellite-town Brasilia.

In each of the five following sections we shall address one myth pertaining to Brasilia, exposing its foundation tale, then its ritual reenactment of sorts in later discourse, and its implications in the case of the central bus station.

The first mythical structure conceives of Brasilia as direct revelation of the high modernist gospel codified during World War II. This gospel is embodied, according to various authors, either in the 1943 publication, by Le Corbusier, of the Athens Charter discussed by the CIAM members a decade earlier, or in the text written in the same year by Josep Lluis Sert, Sigfried Giedion, and Fernand Léger, titled Nine Points on Monumentality. In either case, the design of Brasilia ends up being linked to a single, direct source in European theory, ignoring the Brazilian articulation of this theory during the thirty years that preceded the competition.

The second mythical structure is that which defines the city as a direct materialization of its original design. The idea of Brasilia is thus held hostage to an established discourse centered on the need to bring about this foundational image. Reference to its supposedly ex nihilo creators, urban designer Lucio Costa and chief architect Oscar Niemeyer, is also a means of legitimizing both controversial changes in the urban fabric and the sanctification of social segregation in the city.

The second mythical structure is the explanatory apparatus of the Brasilia-myth as that of a heroic achievement. This explanation, in fact a long string of narratives and laws regarding the construction of a new seat of government, stretching back into the mid-eighteenth century, stresses the opposition between the civilizatory act of city-building and the purported cultural void in which it is to take place. It is, therefore, an individuated act, of which the major performer is the appropriately heroic figure of President Juscelino Kubitschek.

The third mythical structure is the millennial discourse locked between the unrealized past of the first structure and the denial of the present city. The foundation myth is reenacted, in an attempt to draw from the myth instructions for the historic preservation of Brasilia. It also gives birth to a rhetoric of absence, inasmuch as the original design, the 1957 Pilot Plan report, is superseded irrevocably by its very materialization, yet lives forever in a nostalgic narrative. It is by means of this use that the narrative gains actuality, thus fulfilling the operative requirement of the myth. The preservationist discourse fostered in this way tends to favor a static view of the city in which the void, to begin with an indispensable asset where the heroic act of city-building takes place, ends up considered a liability. Thus, in the end the Modernist public space is seen not as a relationship of matter and void where flows and socio-spatial practices can happen, but as lacunae to be filled in authoritatively. This is based on the fact that the original design is sufficiently open, both spatially and conceptually, to be invoked as authoritative while being arbitrarily interpreted by the competent discourse---in such a way as to disenfranchise non-specialists from public debate.

The central Bus station is one case where the void survives as a key factor in the social appropriation of Brasilia. The mythology of the foundational design, however, results in a drive to "complete" the space with a number of urban designs and policy decisions bent on retrieving this elusive original intent. Actual social appropriations of the space are, on the other hand, driven into the background by this mythology.