Brasília and DF (the Federal District) are the result of an ambitious urban project, which was set in motion by former president Juscelino Kubitschek and orchestrated by architect Oscar Niemeyer, urban planner Lúcio Costa and landscape architect Burle Marx. The new city 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 (John) Bosco, a Salesian priest living in Turin, Italy, prophesied that 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 to be carved out of Goiás to house the new capital, Brasília. With millions of poor peasants from the Northeast working around the clock, Brasília was built from absolutely nothing 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.
Kubitschek made the building of Brasília a symbol of the country’s determination and ability to become a great economic power. He 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 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) but the jury is still out on Brasília. For some, the city represents the outstanding capabilities of this great and vast nation, and a world model for urban development, architecture and society. Others, meanwhile, consider the city a wasted opportunity, full of pretty buildings but lacking a soul.