Brasília and DF are the result of an ambitious urban project, which was set in motion by heroic President Juscelino Kubitschek, and orchestrated by architect Oscar Niemeyer, urban planner Lúcio Costa and landscape architect Burle Marx. The whole thing was built in just 41 months, though it was a long time coming.
The concept of an inland capital was first conceived in 1823 by Brazilian statesman José Bonifácio, who believed moving the capital from Rio de Janeiro was central to capitalizing on the country’s vast inland resources and would bring an economic shock to the interior. His idea was shrugged off until years later, when Dom Bosco, a Salesian priest living in Turin, Italy, prophesied a new civilization would emerge in Brazil, somewhere between the 15th and 20th parallels. That caught Brazil’s attention and land was allocated in the 1891 Constitution for a new capital.
Still, it wasn’t until 1955 that Brasília started to become a reality. After almost 150 years of debate, President Kubitschek ordered the DF be carved out of the state of Goiás to house the new capital, Brasília. With millions of poor peasants from the Northeast working around the clock, Brasília was built, incredibly, in just three years (Niemeyer later admitted that it was all done too quickly) – it wasn’t exactly finished, but it was ready to be the capital. The capital was officially moved from Rio to Brasília on April 21, 1960.
The dream of an inland capital had always been dismissed as expensive folly. What possessed Kubitschek to actually do it? Politics. He made the building of Brasília a symbol of the country’s determination and ability to become a great economic power. Kubitschek successfully appealed to all Brazilians to put aside their differences and rally to the cause. In doing so, he distracted attention from the country’s social and economic problems, gained enormous personal popularity, and borrowed heavily from the international banks.
Today, Kubitschek is heralded as a national hero (he died in a suspicious automobile accident in 1976) and the jury is still out on Brasília. For some, the city represents the outstanding capabilities of this great and vast nation, a world model for urban development, architecture and society. On the other hand, some consider the city a wasted opportunity, full of pretty buildings but lacking a soul. You can judge for yourself. Meanwhile, Niemeyer’s original plans for the city continue to this day, with the opening most recently of the National Museum.