At a visit to the Universidade Católica, a professor told me that Brasilia is considered a mystical city. Not far from here is a city of 20,000 people, Vale do Amanhecer, which was founded by a woman truck driver who had a vision in the 1960s to start a city and a new religion, which she did. People come from all over the world to live there. They’re all “veteran spirits of the Earth with nineteen or more incarnations.” They help people, drawing them in during “times of confusion and insecurity.”
Brasilia is something else entirely. A designed, futuristic national capital of the nation spurred by President Juscelino Kubitschek. All the development in Brazil was happening along the Atlantic Coast, including the capital of Rio. JK moved the capital to the nation’s center, which made many citizens happy–except those in Rio who saw their city decline and face more poverty and violence following the move in 1960. Brasilia was designed by Lucia Costa and Oscar Niemeyer in 7 to 8 months, built in three years by 60,000 migrant workers laboring day and night. The nineteen ministerial buildings, the presidential and vice presidential palaces, the metropolitan cathedral, the plaza of the three powers, the national congress, national library, museum, theater, the museum of the indigenous people, etc. Sectors of the city designated for education and churches, hospitals, hotels arranged in superquadra, with commercial streets separating them.
In the military sector, the main street is wide enough for jet planes to land on. There is an Acoustic shell used for military graduations that captures sounds in its parabolic arc, echoes waffling off a bicameral concavity so that a hand clap pops and ripples through the air:
The streets and the flow of traffic are designed into artful loops and under and over passes and wild roundabouts of confluence and dispersal. Until fairly recently there were no traffic lights. On the weekends, the city turns them off. The city was built so quickly because JK was afraid that if an election came during the construction, the plan would be halted by a new administration. It had to be built in three years. The influence of Le Corbusier is everywhere. Niemeyer is still alive, living in Rio at age 104, smoking, drinking, recently married to “a 62 year old child” (per our tour guide), still going to the office every day.
Someone said the night life isn’t great because the city is too young. Someone said the design is a hummingbird though “it doesn’t flap its social wings as quickly.” Population in Brasilia is 600,000, but adding the satellite cities that ring it, the population is 2.5 million.
The terrain is red clay. Lush green with straggly little ibe trees. They are very thin because of little water. In June, July, and August the land will look bare and red but it is “to be born again,” as our embassy guide Karla told me, “with the first rain. It looks dead but inside it’s alive.”
At the swank, crisp bauhaus presidential palace, we saw a busload of schoolkids arrive. They were elementary kids, dressed in white t-shirts and navy shorts, jumping around like a pack of puppies and chanting out in bouncy exuberance. The sky was steel gray with rain clouds and we could see the sheets falling a few miles away in dark ferocity. What are they saying, I asked the guide. “They are calling down the rain: ‘Traiz chuva.'” Come here rain. Come to Earth.
We saw many quero quero in the city–a very aggressive native bird, an angry bird, that looks a little like a big plover. It will attack people. Sometimes it interrupts soccer games. It will attack players and the game must stop.
Off to Sao Paolo on Wednesday, a city big as five LAs.
Photos of Oscar Niemeyer’s astonishing work on Brasilia:
Alison Hawthorne Deming, Professor of Creative Writing and Agnese Nelms Haury Chair of Environment and Social Justice at the University of Arizona, is author of four poetry books, including Rope (Penguin 2009), and four books of nonfiction, including Writing the Sacred Into the Real and Zoologies(Milkweed 2014). She’s received the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets, Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University, two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Bayer Award in Science Writing and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Her poems and prose have been widely anthologized, including in The Norton Book of Nature Writing and Best American Science and Nature Writing.