Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Brasilia: the country's bold capital

I first learned about Brasilia in 1965 when I started my studies in architecture. But I hadn't really planned on coming here until I started to exchange emails with my friend Jonathan Rubenstein, who spent quite a bit of time here putting together a mining project.

Brasilia is the modern capital city of Brazil. It was essentially carved out of the jungle over a four year period, and officially inaugurated in 1960. The driving force behind it was Juscelino Kubitschek, who was elected president of Brazil in 1956 on the promise that he would build the capital before the end of his term. It was originally planned for 500,000 people. Today it has a population of over 4 million and is still growing. It was master planned by Oscar Niemeyer, a student of Le Corbusier and Lucio Costa. Did I mention it was a master planned community?

While in many respects it was a difficult place to be a tourist, it was fascinating to see. It is a vivid case study on how planning has changed in 50 years.

We nearly didn't come. When we tried to book a hotel, only two had space, and we didn’t want to stay at a Brazilian Comfort Inn. When we tried to book flights, the airlines wouldn’t accept our international credit cards. So we did something we have never done before. We went to the airport with no reservations and no tickets. When the taxi driver asked which terminal, we had no idea. As it turned out, we were lucky. TAM, the Brazilian airline in Terminal 1, (or was it 2?) had a flight in an hour. We bought a ticket, checked in, and it was all too good to be true. And it was. The flight was delayed two hours! But we eventually got there, although I missed seeing the city, whose site plan is based on the shape of a bird or plane, from the air in daylight.

As it turned out the hotel was just fine. We had a great room, free internet, in a good location, if you consider ‘the hotel zone’ a good location! That’s right. In the plan prepared by Niemeyer and Costa, all the hotels are located together in hotel zones, with little else around them; no small shops to buy snacks and water; no apartments; few restaurants; just lots of hotels, and a large nearby shopping centre.

In fact, the entire city is planned that way. Elsewhere are the government precincts; the embassy precincts; the 4 storey residential precincts; the 6 storey residential precincts; the high rise residential precincts; the sports and leisure precincts; and so on, all separated by very wide arterial roads.

The concept for the neighbourhoods is similar to that of Chandigarh, designed by Le Corbusier. Each has its own neighbourhood retail. However, what the planners didn’t understand is that in Brazil, retailers want to be near other similar retailers. As a result, the residents still have to leave their neighbourhood by car to buy most things.

The character of the place is best exemplified by the street addresses. Most people live in ‘superquadras’ such as SQS 105, Bloco A-501, 70344 Brasilia, which means superquadra south no 105, building A, apartment 501 postcode 70344. The three digit superquadra number gives the location; the first digit represents the position east or west of the main axis; (with odd numbers to the west, evens to the east), increasing the further away form the centre you get. The last two digits represent the distance north or south of the other axis. A similar logic applies to the main roads. Once you get the hang of it, it’s actually very functional, and makes it easy to find a location, as long as you can figure out the road system.

Each sector is separated by wide arterial roads, with grade separated intersections, and lots of cloverleaves. To illustrate the situation, on our first evening we wanted to go to a restaurant we could see from our hotel. However, we had to take a taxi since it was across a major boulevard street, with no traffic lights or pedestrian crossings. The road system was so contorted the taxi cost 30 percent more coming than going!

We should have taken some organized tours, but since there were few if any other tourists, we would have been on our own in a little van. We considered renting a car, but Sally was concerned we would always be lost. I told her we can’t get lost if we don’t know where we are going, but she wasn’t convinced. So we decided to tour by public bus routes suggested by our guide book. At first, we had little success. However, everyone was extremely friendly and helpful. At one point, a fellow passenger who couldn't speak English handed me his cell phone. It turned out he had dialed a friend who could speak English, to give us directions!

We toured most of Niemeyer’s major buildings which really are quite extraordinary. We also walked by the 17 identical government office buildings. At one point, we couldn’t get from the congress to the street above, so we did what other people did, and used the steps that had been carved into the side of the grass slope.

We were both disturbed by some of the major civic spaces that were completely devoid of trees and street furniture of any kind. Many of the buildings were much too sculptural to be functional, which reminded us of a famous Canadian architect.

We took the bus over a new bridge that was voted the best bridge in the world in 2003. En route we met a young lady who told us it wasn’t often she met foreigners on a bus in Brasilia.

The second evening, we took the advice of Jon’s friends Carlos and Tina, who live in Brasilia, and went to Zuu, a fusion restaurant owned by his friend. It offered a mix of Brazilian and Japanese influences and was very good; one of the best meals of the trip.

On the third evening we went for dinner with Carlos and Tina to a wine shop that served meals in the evening. A very interesting concept. I was a bit disappointed that after a very good Brazilian champagne, the sommelier proposed an Australian white and Spanish red. In fact, there are some very good Brazilian wines. But we had a very good evening together, and enjoyed experiencing their very sophisticated approach to life in Brazil. However, when they come to Canada, we’re serving BC wines.

After three days, it was time to again move on. We decided our next stop would be Curitiba, another city I wanted to see for planning reasons. Unfortunately, the director of planning who I had met in Vancouver had not responded to my email, and I hadn’t bothered to contact the former Mayor who inspired me to come. But at noon we boarded another TAM flight and were on our way. This time we had a ticket and a reservation before getting to the airport.

Brasilia, like the art gallery in Balbao, was intended to put the country on the world map. It cost a lot of money, and put many governments in debt. But the consensus is that it is now a great success in terms of having opened up a major part of the country. I would just like to see some changes to make it a bit friendlier to pedestrians. But Carlos mentioned that certain things can’t be changed in order to keep the UNESCO designation intact. Hopefully one day, the UN will allow some small shops in the hotel zones.

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