I’m in Brasilia for two nights, which is a little bit unexpected. I’ve travelled here for a Rousseau Colloquium in nearby Pirenopolis but it turns out I’m not going there until tomorrow, hence this opportunity to explore Brazil’s capital city.
I say, “opportunity”, but that is a bit misleading since the pedestrian here has to find the few footpaths that have been grudgingly placed along six-lane highways and then, when necessary, seize the chance to run across said highways in order to get from A to B.
As a new city, built on the red highland earth in the 1950s, Brasilia incorporates all the best town-planning theory of that era. It is rigidly divided into different zones or sectors, each dedicated to a particular function or activity. Commerce and government have their designated zones, and so do hotels. Apparently, nobody had the idea that the people staying in hotels might want to see anything other than more hotels …
Having said that, there is something magnificent about the fading modernism of the place, particularly the Congress Building and the Praca dos Tres Poderes. Oscar Niemeyer had a good eye for form and structure; pity the poor humans. On a bus tour this afternoon we whizzed past some government building, all clean and pure, but it seemed to be guarded by people dressed in something like Swiss Guards’ uniform: two different notions of how to project the state’s majesty, incongruously juxtaposed. But the strongest clash with the modernist ideal comes from nature, from the cracked concrete, the uneven surfaces, the red earth and plant life pushing through. A city of two million people where nobody lived before; a triumph of bureaucratic will, but for how long?
When I made some remarks along these lines on Facebook, Michael Rosen directed me to a clip from Robert Hughes’s The Shock of the New. As he puts it, “miles of jerry-built Platonic nowhere infested with Volkswagens.” Needless to say the film is followed by angry comments saying that Hughes doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Well 48 hours in a place hardly gives me the right to an opinion either, and, as a fan of James C. Scott’s critique of high modernism, I’m already ideologically predisposed. But Hughes seems broadly correct to me. Enjoy