Brasília & Modernity
The focus of this presentation is Brazil’s capital Brasília, but also “modernity” and how we understand what is
As you know the course thesis is that Latin America & the Caribbean are world regions that have and continue
to create things of global importance: culture, martial arts, art, and ideas about the nature of political
freedom. In making this argument I am arguing against the idea – which might not be said all the time but
exists – that the only places that produce new and important things (ideas, technology, human rights, culture)
are the United States and Western Europe.
There are a number of terms people use to describe this – progress, development, advanced, etc – the one I
want to focus on is “Modern.”
Modern is a flexible term. A few important versions:
The Modern Era (historical) – 1500-1800
Modernism – Late 19th & Early 20th Century
Modern Art – Mid 19th to Mid 20th Century. We have covered a lot of this with art in the last few weeks.
Modern Architecture – Early 20th Century
Modern Dance – Late 19th and Early 20th Century
Modernity, the self-definition of a generation about its own technological innovation, governance, and socioeconomics.
To participate in modernity was to conceive of one’s society as engaging in organizational and knowledge advances that
make one’s immediate predecessors appear antiquated or, at least, surpassed. The eminent Victorians thus appeared oldfashioned to a new generation of “moderns” at the beginning of the 20th century, and the motto of poets of the time was
to “make it new.”
Modernity & Modernism – This video is about art, but the first half (just a minute or
so) covers some useful terminology. You will need to be in slide show mode to get it
• For this course, what is important is that these terms (modernity,
modernism, etc.) is the idea that there is a movement, or a historical
era that values and searches for innovation and improvement.
• When joined to a Eurocentric view of world history (one that says
history was moved forward by certain groups of people) ideas about
modernism – or what is modernity – tend to leave out innovations
made in Latin America and the Caribbean (as well as Africa, the Middle
East, Asia, etc.). Of course, many in Latin America & the Caribbean
consider themselves part of the Eurocentric or Western part of the
story – remember that Vasconcelos saw his “cosmic race” as an
extension of prior achievements including those of Europe. However,
that view is not widely held in the United States – the context for our
• Repeating myself here – because I believe it is important – there are
different ways to think about modernity, but I will stand by the point
that the impression we are given of Latin America – and the Caribbean
– is that it exists in opposition to “advanced” or perhaps “modern”
societies. In the collective imagination of the U.S. that means the U.S.
maybe Europe, Canada, Australia, and a few other places.
• I believe that when we (in the U.S. generally) think of Latin America or
the Caribbean we gravitate toward vacation stuff – beaches,
picturesque cities, or wild nature – the Amazon. Or, we think of
poverty and, increasingly, violence, with run down cities full of
squalor, disease, underdevelopment, and more lately of violent
For example, famous
images of urban poverty
refer to “favelas.” The
poor neighborhoods in
Brazilian cities that began
as informal housing –
shanties – and over time
grew. Those of Rio are
famous as the geography
of the city have them
hanging off of hills and
sometimes quite close to
Gran Torre Santiago – finished 2012
Most Latin American cities have something
like favelas, often the result of migration
from rural areas that outruns the
infrastructure of a city.
But many Latin American cities also have
new construction that is “modern.” Of
course the contrast reflects inequality –
but so do the buildings in Manhattan.
These projects include wealthy
neighborhoods with fancy houses and –
dramatically – skyscrapers. Here are a few
BD Bacata – a multi-towered building,
one will be 67 story tower (one part) still
under construction in Bogotá in 2018.
Just about the
largest city in the
(along with Rio
and Mexico City)
is São Paulo.
Famously urban, I
couldn’t find an
example of one
city. Instead I
found images like
this one, an
entire city of
stretching on and
Now, moving back in time. Shortly after Brazil became a Republic (in 1889 – remember) people began to float plans to construct a new federal capital – something like Washington D.C. that
would no belong to an individual state. For the first half of the 20 th century there were various plans and debate.
Designing cities has a long history in the Americas – leaving out indigenous building a different and lengthy topic – the Spanish had been designing cities that reflected their ideals of how
society should function since they got to this hemisphere. Below (left) is a 16 th century drawing laying out how to build these cities and (right) a 16 th map of Santiago Chile. For you urban
planning architecture nerds here is the link to the article where I got these images – it is very interesting https://www.patriciasendin.com/2014/06/the-spanish-colonial-townplanning.html
The urge continued and not just in Brazil. In
1880 Argentina made the city of Buenos
Aires its federal capital (again like
Washington D.C.). This meant that the
province (also called Buenos Aires) needed a
new capital. So they planned and built the
city of La Plata. An aerial photograph shows
how the streets were laid out as a grid with
avenues running at an angle. This is the old
Spanish grid system with – I think – an
imitation of Parisian boulevards that were
used to remake that city a few decades
But in the 20th Century the Brazilian government went much further. They seized on ideas that had been circulating
for decades in architectural and urban planning circles to control and improve society. As President Vargas was
promoting “racial democracy” in Brazil (recognizing Capoeira) and Mexicans were presenting themselves as the
“Cosmic Race” after the Revolution (and a number of muralist painters were also architects as well) other people
were thinking of actual buildings.
It took a few decades, but President Juscelino Kubitschek (President 1956-1961) put Oscar Niemeyer – a Brazilian
architect considered a key figure in modern architecture – in charge building the new capital. Niemeyer oversaw
construction of Brasilia between 1956-1960, one of the World’s first modern planned cities. There was literally
nothing in this place before the project.
For more see https://geopolicraticus.wordpress.com/2010/04/21/fifty-years-of-brasilia/
Lúcio Costa was the
designer who planned
the city’s layout – this is
what it would look like
from overhead. The
city was built far away
from anything. Sort of
in the middle of the
country – the location
had been selected back
Short Video to check out:
Federal Supreme Court
• Not only was the city planned but the architectural style was also an expression of the new,
the modern called “Brutalist” architecture. Brutalist is a reference to the raw concrete used.
New technology let people design and build outrageous shapes that would have been almost
impossible before. The movement is often criticized – check the video:
Some other notable examples of brutalist architecture
Prentice Women’s Hospital - Chicago
Geisel Library - California
Some regional examples
near us. In Albany, NY
“The Egg” and Empire
I’m from Long Island – and
during my childhood the
slow building of the Stony
Brook University Hospital
was a sort of defining event.
In retrospect, two of the
buildings were typical of the
era. Then they added that
third glass tower, I don’t
even know what to call that.
Back to Brasilia.
Plaza of the Three Powers
If I have this right – this bridge – named after Kubitschek was built over a lake that was built for the
city. That’s right, first they built an artificial lake and then built a bridge over it. I believe this is as
good a description of “progress” during the 20th century that you can find.
In addition to the
monumental architecture the
city also included Super
Cuadras – giant residential
blocks, intended to change
how people interacted within
society. Places where rich and
poor would live together. The
architecture and planning was
a form of social engineering
intended to “better” society.
The buildings were intended to take life off of
the street – where it had been centered in
Brazilian cities. With open green spaces
underneath the buildings where people would
interact. My understanding is all of this – the
buildings and a city built to get around with in a
car, not walking, sucks. That people don’t like
Brasilia and it isn’t that much fun to live in.
Maybe that is just anecdotal.
LeFRAK City: The pictures of the superquadras reminded me of giant housing projects
and complexes from the U.S. – especially LeFRAK city that you always see driving east out of NYC.
Inside of these giant buildings is – green space, somewhat like in Brasilia.
• … and so, maybe we can think about cities in Latin America
differently. Maybe we think about “modernity” differently. Maybe
not. Either way, Brasilia is a great example that Latin American nations
could embrace progress, bold solutions to societal problems, and
invest enormous amounts of money and energy into something that
ultimately might be a terrible idea.
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