Home / Opinion / Columns /  Brasília’s modernism could do with some urban spontaneity

Sixty-one years ago, Brasília emerged from Brazil’s hinterland. Developed on an empty savanna between 1956 and 1960, the city that replaced Rio de Janeiro as its capital was a joint endeavour between urban planner Lúcio Costa and architect Oscar Niemeyer. With its winged shape, Brasília became a powerful symbol. But it takes only a few hours here to see that this utopian metropolis—a Unesco World Heritage Site since 1987—is plagued by urban-planning defects.

The most obvious problem is a series of design choices that privilege motorists. The power of the automobile is cemented into Brasília’s principal axis, the 15-km Eixo Monumental. Driving it through green fields and past mighty monuments is a thrill, but walking it is stymied by stretches of missing sidewalk. The urban landscape is seemingly tailored for spectacular selfies, rather than for moving one’s legs.

While municipalities across the world are today competing to make their streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists, Brasília’s rumbling engines and screeching tires are a stark reminder of how many 20th-century urban designers imagined a future inextricably linked to the car. Now we must struggle to overcome the visions they paved.

In Brasília, that vision is of a life that can run only through the city’s automotive arteries. Buildings are large distances apart, scattered along wide esplanades. Niemeyer’s masterpieces console us with their curving shapes. These are the curves, he wrote, that “we find in mountains, in the waves of the sea, in the body of the woman we love." But the absence of a traditional urban set-up leaves Brasília socially poorer. There is a profound lack of public spaces and the streets are bereft of their historical significance as places of encounter and dialogue. They exist here only as a parody of true urban infrastructure.

Another of Brasília’s drawbacks is its rigid functional division. This affects the city’s planning even more. During one of my first visits, a young local engineer in our delegation made a telling quip: “Do you know what really doesn’t work in this city? The espresso coffee district is far from the sugar district." His joke revealed one of the fundamental limitations of both Costa’s Plano Piloto design and modernist urban-planning principles in general: dogmatic zoning that stifles possibilities for organic urban growth. In Brasília, you might well find yourself in a mono-functional neighbourhood, perhaps consisting almost entirely of dull hotels. Far from embracing complexity, Brazil’s capital rejects it, as if the city could be reduced to a formula. Christopher Alexander diagnosed this mistake a half-century ago in A City is Not a Tree. A metropolis cannot obey predefined hierarchies and orders, like those of a tree diagram, but should resemble a network of interconnected elements. By trying to reduce complexity, Brasília’s designers stunted the spontaneity of its urban experience.

Fortunately, Brasília is not a lost city. The more one gets to know its inhabitants, the more one understands how, over time, life always manages to take over. For example, pousadas—small family-run hotels—have popped up everywhere to take tourists out of the city’s traditional hotel zones. Such initiatives bring a pinprick of pleasant chaos to Brasília’s rigid modernist design. This pattern of life prevailing in the face of top-down impositions is a central theme of Latin American history, especially among the indigenous people who have resisted social and cultural oblivion since European conquerors arrived five centuries ago.

One priority for urban designers today should be to accelerate this dynamic. There are many ways to do it. Widening sidewalks and bike paths, for example, can alter the way we enjoy the city. New neighbourhoods can be created in Brasília that preserve its basic layout, while promoting a greater mix of functions and more complexity.

Brasília’s design limitations offer a crucial lesson for many other cities. By resisting the temptation to fill every square inch of space on their paper and leaving as many blank areas as possible, architects and urban planners can allow people and changing times to co-create a city as spontaneous as life. The writer Umberto Eco called this notion “the open work" and contrasted it with fixed blueprints imposed from above.

On my most recent departure from Brasília, a phrase of Le Corbusier’s came to mind. The great Swiss-French architect [who designed Chandigarh] was one of the most influential of the 20th century, and he helped develop the modernist urban-planning principles that gave birth to Brasília. In one of his last interviews, a journalist asked him about some of his projects that had failed to respond to a multiplicity of social demands, his answer was as revealing as it was magnanimous. “You know," he said, “it is life that is always right, and the architect who is wrong." ©2021/Project Syndicate

Carlo Ratti is director of the Senseable City Lab at MIT, and co-founder of the international design and innovation office Carlo Ratti Associati.

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