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.

Revelation Myth: Result of the Athens Charter

The identification of Brasilia not only as a modernist city, but as the modernist city par excellence, may be the most distinctive image of the Brazilian capital for professionals and the public alike. Conversely, images of ideal modernist cities tend to revolve around the Le Corbusier's several iterations of bird's-eye perspectives showing functionally segregated cityscapes, housing blocks, and highways amid the greenery. The Athens Charter, discussed during CIAM IV in 1933, never had a definite graphical interpretation and even its well-known text was contrived by Le Corbusier alone ten years after the fact. Nevertheless, Athens Charter became shorthand for a certain strain of table-rase urban renewal implemented hodgepodge in the postwar era throughout the world.

In this context, the appeal of Brasilia as the only major instance, together with Chandigarh, of an entire city reflecting the modernist ideals is undeniable. Edmund Bacon considers it not only the most important example of modernist urbanism, but "the most significant example of a city designed as a whole" (Bacon, 1974, p. 235). Richard Williams summarizes the general understanding that: "It appealed particularly to Europe, where for a large section of the architectural profession it represented everything that was desired but could not yet be achieved" (Williams, 2009, p. 95). Ironically, even the backlash against Brasilia during the 1970s and 80s is fueled by this association with high modernist principles that are, by then, seen as failures in the European and North American blighted housing projects. As early as 1973, Carl Epstein opposes the ideal "plan" drawn from the CIAM to the "reality" of social segregation in a city that failed to deliver the salvation through architecture promised by Le Corbusier (Epstein 1973).

The most comprehensive, to date, English-language book on Brasilia is The Modernist City: an anthropological critique of Brasilia, first produced by American anthropologist James Holston as a doctoral dissertation between 1980 and 1985 and published as a book in 1989. To see how widespread such a myth is, suffice to say that Holston, himself one of the strongest critics of the Brasilia "mythology," is himself a prisoner of the discourse of the original design. He is unambiguous in his statement of "Brasilia's pedigree" that he understands the city as a direct result of the Athens Charter: "it is the most complete example ever constructed of the architectural and planning tenets put forward in CIAM manifestos" in general and of the Athens Charter more specifically (Holston, 1989, p. 31). When trying to unravel the genesis of Lucio Costa's plan or when analyzing subsequent official development in the city, his chief frame of reference is the purported actualization of a program to be found in the CIAM doctrines. He then goes on to claim that Lucio Costa's design is a direct implementation of the CIAM program, a misconception he shares with Kenneth Frampton. The latter holds that Brasilia is merely another take on the Ville Radieuse or even Chandigarh (Frampton, 1985, p. 256).

Frederico de Holanda contradicts this assumption, showing how it departs both from a reading of the Athens Charter and from the organization of Chandigarh (de Holanda, 2010, p. 91).

Finally, Holston reports having heard from city officials that construction being carried out in the city at the time of his field research was nothing more than the "final solution," a "return to the principles of the Master Plan," and concludes that these principles are indeed achieved because of the absence of street life (Holston, 1989, p. 141–143). The "plan mythology" that Holston so sharply criticizes is thus fully at work even in his own writing; he is unable to see the existing city as functioning at any deeper level than as actualization---successful or not---of what he calls the "hidden agenda" of its theoretical plan.