Brasília: Tailor-Made for Governing

Airlines put a small number of cheap tickets on their websites which they advertise widely in order to attract people to visit them. Most people find they involve too many stopovers, at ridiculous times, and are generally too inconvenient.

Brasília National Congress, photo by Ben Tavener

Brazil’s National Congress – The Senate, on Brasília’s grand central Esplanade. Photo by Ben Tavener.

They then plump for a more expensive, but more humane, option.

However, when TAM Airlines quoted me over £200 less to make my usual 14-hour journey from Curitiba to London into 26 hours, two stopovers, and a seven-hour layover in Brasília, I jumped at the chance.

Mão de vaca (“tight-fisted”, lit. “cow-handed”) though I may occasionally be, the main reason I opted for the flight from hell was the chance to visit Brazil’s capital for the first time.

Brasília is fascinating for many reasons, with its grand, imposing, clever, artistic architecture the clear front-runner – as the photos I took hopefully show.

However, its raison d’être is probably the most interesting aspect. Before it was “made to order” to become Brazil’s new seat of government (for all three levels of it, in fact), the city’s construction had been on the cards for well over a hundred years: the original idea to make the country’s capital somewhere more central than the then capital, coast-riding Rio de Janeiro, had been conceived back in 1827 by one of Emperor Dom Pedro I’s advisors.

The idea was finally etched into the constitution in 1891, but the idea of locating the capital in the centre of Brazil wasn’t defined until 30 years later.

Brasília Cathedral on a stormy day, photo by Ben Tavener

Starkly beautiful inside, Brasília Cathedral shows off its hyperboloid structure on a stormy but baking hot summer’s day. Photo by Ben Tavener.

In 1956 President Juscelino Kubitschek, known as JK to his followers, ordered the construction of Brasília (the city’s airport now bears his name as testament to the fact).

The building was led by architects Lucio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer, well-known internationally for having built many groundbreaking buildings, including the UN Headquarters in New York and several in the Iberian Peninsula (he is – at time of writing – still alive, having recently celebrated his 104th birthday).

Yes, the Brazilians – as per usual – took their time about the deciding phase, but once they were set on the idea, the city rose from the dusty Goiás countryside in the blink of an eye – starting in 1957 and finishing within 3 years and 5 months in April 1960.

The project had created a new capital for Brazil, transferred power from Rio and stimulated the country’s economy by providing work for people from poorer regions, such as the country’s Northeast.

Others said power had been intentionally taken away from the coast quite simply because that is where the people were – and protests and general unpleasantness could be kept at arms length.

Whatever the real reason, no sooner had the tools that constructed the city been laid to rest, than the city was heaped with praise and labelled “a masterpiece of modern urbanism and modern architecture”, and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Brasília from above, aerial shot

From the air, it’s easy to see Brasília’s famous plane-shaped city centre and central Government Esplanade

Knowing all this was outside the airport, I obviously couldn’t sit on my backside for the seven-hour stopover in the city. With my luggage already on its way to London, I was free to jump on the R$2 (70p) taxibus to the centre and get to see the bare bones of the city.

From the air, you can see how the city centre was built in the shape of an aircraft – with the focus of my trip in the “nose” and front sections of “fuselage” of the plane – the Esplanade, which houses the three government buildings, all major ministeries, the main courts and Brasília famous hyperboloid-shaped Cathedral.

After stopping the bus near where the “south wing” meets the “fuselage” – and the Esplanade – I walked through an area where the main banks’ headquarters are located: Banco do Brasil, Caixa, Itaú, etc.

Then, I wandered past the National Library, National Museum and onto arguably the city’s most famous building – Brasília Cathedral. All white – and probably just as well, as the city’s temperature wavers around 27-28°C year round.

Lining the central Esplanade avenue, all the way down to the Senate, Lower House and enormous Brazilian flag, are the main ministeries – including the Palace of Justice and the weirdly-named Itamaraty – the country’s Foreign Office.

In a funny way, it was this building that I wanted to see the most. I’d written about it so many times!

Palácio do Itamaraty - Brazil's Foreign Office, Brasília, Dec 2011 - photo by Ben Tavener

Brazil’s Foreign Office is known by the media and politicians by the Tupi word “Itamaraty”. Photo by Ben Tavener.

The name Itamaraty was transferred with the institution from its original location in Rio, and means “water from the sea of stone” in an extinct language spoken by the indigenous Tupi people.

Walking down further to the Senate – you are constantly struck by the feeling of wandering round in someone’s blown-up architectural model. It’s really invigorating – but nothing in Brasília feels nature.

There are weird and wonderful shapes – sculptures, buildings, monuments – all mixtures of glass, stone, metal, waterfalls, ponds, flames and greenery.

The place does feel very “governmental” – the people walking around are either government workers, protesters or those who’ve bussed themselves in from the city’s poorer suburbs to work in shops or sell refreshments on the streets. All the while I had my camera out and felt generally very safe, as compared with the most guarded feeling I often had in, for example, Rio or Foz do Iguaçu.

Clearly my three or four hours in the centre were not enough to see everything Brasília has to offer, but I think that a day or two is enough to the see most of the interesting things here. If you get the chance – go for it. It’s a truly remarkable, interesting city to ogle at for a couple of hours, and definitely worth the trip in from the airport to the centre if you find yourself there.

But I got the feeling it’s a one timer, and – not to be disrespectful to the Brazilian capital – next time, I’ll probably just pay the extra and fly direct.

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