Building Brasília

Richard J. Williams

1955. Brazil. A man – Juscelino Kubitschek – campaigning to be president made a promise to the people to construct an entirely new capital city from scratch, to create a modern heart for the burgeoning country. Kubitschek won; he was elected president and so commenced one of the most ambitious single building projects ever. The city of Brasília was fashioned in just 4 years.

City planner Lùcio Costa’s graphic design for an ideal city was combined with architect Oscar Niemeyer’s artistic prowess and provocative use of concrete. Niemeyer was notorious for creating pure, sculptural and sometimes shocking buildings. But were these seemingly otherworldly structures practical? And what is their legacy today? Join Professor Richard J. Williams in this HENI Talk to uncover the story of this modernist ‘utopia’.

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Brasilia is just the most fascinating place. It’s a city that is one of the most ambitious single building projects ever. There is nowhere I can think of that has quite the same sense of space. It has colossal skies. I have never been anywhere quite like that. It’s a place that you can fly over and it looks like nowhere else. It’s a city that’s placed right in the centre of a country and it is imagined as being somewhere that will open up the whole country for development.

Brasilia’s got a really long history. It’s a creation of a very short period in some ways, but the idea of opening up the interior of Brazil by establishing an inland capital had been around for about, well, the best part of a century, so the people were talking about it towards the end of the Portuguese Colonial period. And then in the 1891 constitution there is provision for a new capital somewhere in the middle of Brazil. It doesn’t say any more than that but that’s the beginning of the process.

The modern founding of Brasilia starts very precisely in 1955. The then Governor of the State of Mias Gerais, Juscelino Kubitschek, was campaigning to be president. And on the stump, in 1955, someone asked him what was going to happen with this plan in the constitution to build a new capital, and he said, very simply: “We will implement the constitution”. And so, for better or worse, he won the election, became president and in 1956 he was faced with the decision of whether to go ahead with this promise. And, well, he did. And he knew that he was going to have to finish it somehow in four years, because that was the length of the presidential term. So, to create an entirely new capital, from scratch, in the middle of nowhere was an extraordinarily ambitious thing to try and do.

A competition was held in 1956 and twenty-six people entered – twenty-six architectural firms entered – from all over the world. It was a, there was an international jury. And in the end the winner was a firm, or in fact an individual Lúcio Costa, a Brazilian planner and architect, who hadn’t entered, but was friends with Kubitschek, and with the main architect involved in the central part of Brasilia, Oscar Niemeyer. Niemeyer had already been selected to create the monumental buildings in the centre of the city.

Costa produced an uh extraordinary non-competition entry. It’s very simple. It’s just on a handful of file cards, and it has some very crude sketches and it begins and it says, “Dear Committee, I’m not really entering this competition, but I’ve just had this idea and it’s sprung to me, and I thought you ought to know about it”. It’s a very simple, graphic plan for a city. And in the end, through a kind of stitch-up, through you know, friends talking to each other, he won. He was given the job of producing this city. It was a building process which lasted three and a half, four years and it was inaugurated on 21st April 1960.

Lúcio Costa’s design for the city – his competition entry that’s not a competition entry – it’s a very poetic text that’s primarily about what kind of symbols, what kind of forms do you need to make a city have the true characteristics of a capital city, and a capital city that implicitly will last forever. He wants something of that for Brasilia right from the beginning. So, the kinds of reference points he puts in there are often the historical reference points.

To make a true capital city you need different scales, you need a magnificent part, you need a ceremonial part, you need a part that maybe is very informal and has little lanes and alleyways.

The plan is startlingly clear from the air. It resonates with primal imagery: it’s an aeroplane, it’s a bird, it’s a sign of the cross, depending on whose account you read. For me, it refers to the pioneering nature of that part of the city rather than the fact that it might look like a plane. So, it’s ‘pilot’ as in an experiment or prototype.

Brazil, you know, had obviously been in existence as an independent nation for seventy years but it was very conscious of it being still a new nation, and politically, it’s constantly reinventing itself, so there’s always a sense of newness there.

The rhetoric of Brasilia’s architects was both liberatory and levelling, and the architecture was designed to bring about a social revolution. But the plan has also been described as conservative, even authoritarian. The crux of it is a great symmetrical boulevard, on an essentially neo-classical plan. Some people think it’s there to represent and uphold authority.

The plan is basically a cross. The long axis is the Eixo Rodovia or the highway axis. That’s about fourteen kilometres long. It’s bisected, right in the middle, by a five kilometre “Eixo Monumental”, or the monumental axis. That’s the axis that contains all of the government buildings. Right in the middle, where the two axes cross is, in a way, not what you would think. You might think it would be, you know, government buildings or something really monumental. It’s not, it’s the bus station. And this is one of the most extraordinary bus stations on earth. It’s a multi-storey complex. All human life is there. And it has a huge motorway going over the top. It’s a very, very complex structure.

It is the only part of the Pilot Plan with the density and richness of more traditional Brazilian cities. And it’s a building largely used by the poorer classes, people who are most likely to take the bus, even though it was intended to be a building all about movement and speed and modern Brazil.

Along the Monumental Axis there are clusters of government buildings. They’re almost like platonic, ideal forms, very pure, very white, very sculptural. They don’t really look like buildings from earth.

Perhaps the most important is the Square of the Three Powers or the Praça dos Três Poderes. And that has the Congress, the Presidential Palace is there and it has the Judiciary, and this great big enormous plaza. Then a bit further down the Monumental Axis you’ve got the cathedral, which is one of the most iconic buildings in the city. It looks like a crown of thorns, where the thorns are the ribs of the cathedral.

When people visit Brasilia, they tend to visit the monuments of the centre. They tend not to go to the residential areas. That’s a pity in a way because some of those areas are beautifully done. The residential parts are really a key part of the plan. They’re normally known as ‘super quadras’ or ‘super blocks’ – a maximum of six storeys – so quite low – arranged in formal clusters. The architecture is not that interesting of itself, but as a group, these blocks create a really quite seductive environment with lots of planting, sometimes facilities little cafes.

The planning didn’t abolish class distinctions by any means, but apartments in the Pilot Plan are suggestive of a more egalitarian way of living, even if such a transformation never really happened.

If you want to see really good Modernist planning the super blocks are one of the places that you can see it.

Brasilia today is a vast sprawling metropolis. Only a small proportion of people live in the Plana Piloto – the Pilot Plan – the centre. Economically it’s one of the most successful parts of Brazil. The per capita income is very high. For a middle-class resident of the city it appears to work very well. It’s got a sense of, you know, order and safety, relative tranquillity that the Brazilian cities on the coast don’t generally have. It’s still a place that’svery divided between the centre and the periphery. There are many parts of the periphery which are very poor, where there are colossal divisions of wealth, where personal safety is not assured at all. But, in general, compared to other Brazilian cities, it’s regarded as a success.The centre of the city, the Pilot Plan, is often described as a Utopia. It’s now preserved, it’s now listed by UNESCO, so it’s not possible to make any major changes to that.

Niemeyer very very distinctive architect. He got involved before the competition happened because he knew Kubitschek, the president, and the president already commissioned him to design some buildings for the new city. He’s somebody who had, had worked with Le Corbusier early in the twentieth century. He’d taken on board lots of the trends that were happening in Europe but he’d added to that a sense of sculpture or exuberance. This is a version of modernism that is partly recognisable in European terms but partly it does something completely new.

What Niemeyer’s particularly famous for is doing very bold things with concrete. Concrete is his material because of its plastic qualities. And also, the fact that concrete’s a material that needs a lot of labour, but labour is Brazil is very cheap. Or at least it was then.

He loves to do pilotis, or columns, that may be tapered to a very very narrow point. He likes to do columns that appear to be upside down. He likes to do things that give you a sense of maybe roofs that are floating or doing something impossible.

He’s become very influential. Architects like Zaha Hadid, maybe Daniel Liebskind, who’ve built some of the most spectacular buildings of the last twenty or thirty years, used Niemeyer as a reference point.

I think Niemeyer was very concerned with experience.The kinds of forms that he was producing, and the kind of things that he was saying, were not unlike the things that were said around Surrealism. And he certainly knew about Surrealism. He was in touch with many of the people in that movement in France at the time of it being produced. Some of his forms are like the things you would see in the painting of Joan Mirò, the great Catalan artist.

Niemeyer was very keen that we think of him as an artist. So, if you were to visit his studio when he was still alive, you would be taken to a desk and you would meet him, and he would be somebody who would just sketch a few lines and then he would that say “Oh, I’m going to give this to my assistants now and they’ll turn it into a building”. So there was a sense that at a fundamental level he regarded what he was doing as art and then the practical dimensions to the buildings, somebody else could look after that. It was a bit of an act. He was a very skilled technician and he knew about engineering, but he wanted us to believe that he was an artist. And certainly, you know, everything that we know the buildings suggests somebody whose interests were very much in form rather than the functions of the buildings.

And there is a number of Niemeyer’s buildings which are criticised in those terms. The ministry buildings, housing the civil service were built with so much glazing in a city that has some of the highest levels of sunshine in the world, they were basically uninhabitable at certain times of the day.

With the cathedral, he designed it as a mostly a glazed structure. You enter the cathedral by going down into the ground. Some people said that this was a joke, that you ended up going into this hot, glazed structure by going underneath the street level, so you were descending into hell. I don’t know whether that’s right or not but it’s an amazing piece of sculpture. Niemeyer was an Atheist. He wasn’t a believer at all. He was a very active member of the Brazilian Communist Party, so who knows if this uncomfortable effect was intentional.

In all of his work, he’s thinking of the viewer having an experience that that takes them out of the everyday world, that kind of shocks them. He often used that word. He wanted to shock and surprise visitors. He wanted to take them out of the ordinary world, to take them somewhere else, to think, you know, “I’ve never seen something like that before”. The character of Brasilia that people often remark on is the way that it looks like it’s come from another planet. That was exactly what Niemeyer was after.


Alamy Stock Photo

Arquivo Público do Distrito Federal

Faculdade de Arquitetura e Urbanismo da USP

Getty Images

Getty Research Institute

NASA Earth Observatory

Noun Project

Richard J. Williams



9 Lives

Audio Network




4K Brazil Flag

onuroner / Getty Images


Bridge Jk, Brasilia City

Head Images Production / Getty Images


POV, Driving on Monumental Axis, Brasilia

Geoff Tomkinson / Getty Images


Traffic in front of bus station, day to dusk, Brasilia

Geoff Tomkinson / Getty Images


Rodoviaria bus station, Brasilia, Brazil

Geoff Tomkinson / Getty Images


Girl waiting for a bus

FG Trade / Getty Images


Cathedral of Brasilia and National Museum,

traffic on highway in foreground, Brasilia, Brazil

Geoff Tomkinson / Getty Images


TV Tower Square, Brasilia ,

Brazil, Capital of the Brazil, waters source, angle three

Head Images Production / Getty Images


TV Tower Square, Brasilia, Brazil

Head Images Production / Getty Images


Monumental Axis

Harvey Meston / Getty Images


Construção dos edifícios ministeriais em Brasília, 1959

Arquivo Público do Distrito Federal

(CC BY 3.0)


Job 5441: Oscar Niemeyer, Brasília Buildings

Julius Shulman, 1977

Image numbers: 008, 0016, 013, 006, 015, 023

© J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10)


1963 Building Brasilia

Archive Farms / Getty Images


National Congress of Brazil

Globo / Getty Images


T/L, WS, Square of Three Powers, Brasilia, Brazil

Geoff Tomkinson / Getty Images


Palacio do Planalto

StockLapse / Getty Images


Brasilia, built in the shape of an aircraft by city planner Lucio Costa

Florian Kopp / Getty Images


Brasilia, Brazil

Planet Observer / Getty Images


Brasilia world cup 2014 Brazil hosting City

Beeldbeworking / Getty Images


j kubitschek statue zoom in out with sun reflexion

Bertrand Schafer / Getty Images


Low Angle View Of Architecture Against Clear Sky

Willie Schumann / EyeEm / Getty Images


National Museum designed by Oscar Niemeyer, Brasilia

Keren Su / Getty Images


The dovecote at the Palacio de Justicia in Brasilia

United Archives / Getty Images


Nacional Museum

Goga – Gogliardo Vieira Maragno, Campo Grande,

MS – Brasil / Getty Images


Brazilian flag with Brasilia cityscape and parliament in background

Bronek Kaminski / Getty Images


T/L, WS, Tourists and statues in front of Cathedral of Brasilia, day to night,

Geoff Tomkinson / Getty Images


Papal mass for new capital of Brazil

Onyx Media, Llc – Footage / Getty Images


Juscelino Kubitschek, 1956

Governo do Brasil

(CC0 1.0)


Juscelino Kubitschek During Press Conference

Bettmann / Getty Images


Aerial View of Building Construction

Bettmann / Getty Images


Building Brasilia

Hulton Archive / Getty Images


Brasilia – Moderne Bauten

Ullstein bild / Getty Images


Lucio Costa standing in the field site of the new capitol

Dmitri Kessel / Getty Images


Oscar Niemeyer (1907-2012) à gauche et Lucio Costa (1902-1998) à droite en 1957

Jean-Pierre Dalbéra / Le pavillon du Brésil (Biennale d’architecture 2014, Venise)

(CC BY 2.0)


Oscar Niemeyer

Frank Scherschel / Getty Images

One of the first plans of Brasília, on permanent public display at the

O Espaço Lúcio Costa in Brasília

Photo: Uri Rosenheck

(CC BY-SA 3.0)


Lucio Costa; Lucio Meira; Juscelino Kubitschek; Israel Pinheiro

Dmitri Kessel / Getty Images


Lúcio Costa, 1970

National Archives of Brazil

Public Domain Mark 1.0


Building To Brasilia In 1958

Keystone-France / Getty Images


WS Itamaraty Palace at dusk

Bronek Kaminski / Getty Images


Low angle view of the Parthenon in Athens

Luxy Images / Getty Images


Brasilia, Brazil

NASA Earth Observatory, 2010


T/L, ZO, WS, President Juscelino Kubitschek memorial, Brasilia

Geoff Tomkinson / Getty Images


Juscelino Kubitschek Monument, Goias, Brasilia, Brazil

DEA / G. SOSIO/ De Agostini / Getty Images


Brasilia site cross, 1957

Faculdade de Arquitetura e Urbanismo da USP


T/L, WS, HA, Monumental Axis and Television tower, highway in foreground, Brasilia

Geoff Tomkinson / Getty Images


Traffic moves along Monumental Axis and over the W3 highway in Brasilia

Firefly CM / Getty Images


MS, HA Day to night of Brasilia central cityscape across Eixo Monumental

Bronek Kaminski / Getty Images


T/L, WS, HA, Busy bus station at night, Brasilia

Geoff Tomkinson / Getty Images


CS Crowds in main bus station, Rodoviaria, Brasilia

Bronek Kaminski / Getty Images


Bus Station – Aerial View – Federal District, Brasília

SkyWorksFootage / Getty Images


Traffic and buses move around a busy bus station and shopping mall in Brasilia

Firefly CM / Getty Images


T/L, HA, MS, Crowded market at bus station, Brasilia

Geoff Tomkinson / Getty Images


T/L, MS, FISH EYE, National Congress Building, Brasilia

Geoff Tomkinson / Getty Images


WS Congresso Nacional do Brasil, Brasilia

Bronek Kaminski / Getty Images


Palácio do Planalto – Brasília

DircinhaSW / Getty Images


Supremo Tribunal Federal – STF

Ruy Barbosa Pinto / Getty Images


Plaza Of The Three Powers

Dmitri Kessel / Getty Images


T/L, WS, Cathedral of Brasilia and traffic on highway, day to night

Geoff Tomkinson / Getty Images


Concrete framework for 108-ft- high, 197-ft-diameter conical Cathedral of Brasília,

designed by architect Oscar Niemeyer

Dmitri Kessel / Getty Images



EVARISTO SA / AFP / Getty Images


Bruno Giorgi, Os Guerreiros, Brasília, c. 1958

Richard J. Williams, 2003


Oscar Niemeyer, Supremo Tribunal Federal, Brasília, c. 1957-8 (a)

Richard J. Williams, 2003



Harvey Meston / Getty Images


Playground of a Superquadra

Harvey Meston / Getty Images


Aerial View Of Brasilia Under Construction

Dmitri Kessel / Getty Images


Brasilia South Wing – Aerial View

SkyWorksFootage / Getty Images


Superquadra (b 039)

Richard J. Williams, 2003


Superquadra (b 037)

Richard J. Williams, 2003


Superquadra (b 044)

Richard J. Williams, 2003


Buildings in residential superblock – North Wing

Pulsar Imagens / Alamy Stock Photo


Superquadra 308, South Wing, city, Distrito Federal, Brasília

AGB Photo Library / Alamy Stock Photo


Super Quadra 208 Sul Super Square 208 South

Pedro Luz Cunha / Alamy Stock Photo


Traffic at The Monumental Axis, Brasilia

Luis Veiga / Getty Images


T/L, WS, HA, Monumental Axis and Television tower, highway in foreground, Brasilia

Geoff Tomkinson / Getty Images


MS A shopping centre in central Brasilia

Bronek Kaminski / Getty Images


LS Commercial area in one of Brasilia’s Super Quadras

Bronek Kaminski / Getty Images


TV Tower Square, Brasilia, Brazil

Head Images Production / Getty Images


A woman walks with children at the Itapua favela

Bloomberg / Getty Images


Estructural shantytown inhabitants



Voters in bike’s mirror, Estrutural shantytown near Brasília



Brazilian flag with Brasilia cityscape and parliament in background

Bronek Kaminski / Getty Images


Oscar Niemeyer, 1960

Frank Scherschel / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty Images


Oscar Niemeyer, 1947

Frank Scherschel / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty Images


A Conference By Le Corbusier In Milan, 1953

Keystone-France/ Gamma-Keystone / Getty Images


Oscar Niemeyer, 1950

Kurt Hutton / Getty Images


National Congress

Archive Photos / Getty Images


National Museum

Yann Arthus-Bertrand / Getty Images


Pedro Calmon Theater

Yann Arthus-Bertrand / Getty Images


National Museum, Cultural Complex of the Republic

Jane Sweeney / Getty Images


Oscar Niemeyer, Supremo Tribunal Federal, Brasília, c. 1957-8 (b)

Richard J. Williams, 2003


Oscar Niemeyer, Supremo Tribunal Federal, Brasília, c. 1957-8 (c)

Richard J. Williams, 2003


The National Congress building in Brasilia

Seidel / United Archives / UIG / Getty Images


MS Palace of Justice

Bronek Kaminski / Getty Images


Architect Zaha Hadid Visits Glasgow’s Riverside Museum

Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images


Daniel Libeskind Designs Jewish Museum Academy

Carsten Koall / Getty Images


Abstract stained glass windows adorn the Cathedral of Brasilia

BBC Universal / Getty Images


Interior view of Metropolitan Cathedral of Brasilia

Luis Veiga / Getty Images


T/L, WS, Cathedral of Brasilia interior, Brasilia

Geoff Tomkinson / Getty Images


T/L, WS, FISH EYE, National Congress Building, Brasilia

Geoff Tomkinson / Getty Images


Architectural art by Oscar Niemeier at the Plaza of the Three Powers, Brasilia

Michael Runkel / Getty Images


steady shot art monument

Bertrand Schafer / Getty Images


Portrait de Juan Miro en 1977

Gilbert UZAN /Gamma-Rapho / Getty Images


Oscar Niemeyer, 1950

Kurt Hutton / Getty Images


Oscar Niemeyer working

Mondadori Portfolio / Getty Images


3 Photos of Brazilian Architect Oscar Niemeyer

In His Copacabana Studio On March 14th, 2002

Frederic REGLAIN/ Gamma-Rapho / Getty Images


Oscar Niemeyer smiling

Mondadori Portfolio / Getty Images


Modern architecture by Oscar Niemeyer in Brasilia

Rudolf Dietrich/ ullstein bild / Getty Images


Standard Ministries designed by Oscar Niemeyer in 1958

Matt Frost / Getty Images


Street of the Ministries

Stanzel /ullstein bild / Getty Images


Cathedral of Brasilia at night

Jean-Pierre Lescourret / Getty Images


Inside Metropolitan Cathedral of Brasilia

Dircinha Welter / Getty Images


Cathedral Metropolitana by Niemeyer

Paulo Fridman/Corbis via Getty Images


Oscar Niemeyer smoking

Mondadori Portfolio / Getty Images


Detail of the inner part of the dome of the Cathedral of Brasilia

Mario De Biasi / Mondadori Portfolio / Getty Images


Statues Du Dome De La Cathedrale

Gerard SIOEN / Gamma-Rapho / Getty Images


MS Memorial JK, Brasilia

Bronek Kaminski / Getty Images


TL National Museum, Brasilia

Bronek Kaminski / Getty Images


Architect Oscar Niemeyer

Paulo Fridman / Corbis / Getty Images


Airplane silhouette

Popay / Getty Images


Christian Cross black and white

Bubaone / Getty Images



Stefan_Alfonso / Getty Images


Down hand drawn arrow

Kiddo / Noun Project


Freesound contributors:



Brasilia’, UNESCO World Heritage Centre

Oscar Niemeyer‘, Encyclopaedia Britannica

Lúcio Costa‘, Encyclopaedia Britannica

Juscelino Kubitschek‘, Encyclopaedia Britannica

Brasilia: Preservation of a Modernist City’, The Getty Conservation Institute

A brief history of concrete: from 10,000BC to 3D printed houses’, Guardian


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