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Friday, September 04, 2020
The Cautionary Tale of Brasilia: Beautiful but Not Functional

Beautiful cities are often not functional. The most common and classic example is Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, which is so beautiful that it is listed as a world cultural heritage. Brasilia is a city completely re-established on flat ground. There are no complicated demolition and relocation issues, which allows planners to give full play to their imagination and build an ideal city. Yet, has it really become an ideal city? Not at all. This is a question worthy of our serious, objective consideration and evaluation and not merely about urban aesthetics.

The urban construction of Brasília was influenced by the modernist style. Cleverly integrating with the terrain, the design and overall layout of the city replicate the shape of an airplane. The "nose" of the "airplane" is the Praça dos Três Poderes protruding from the tip of the peninsula, surrounded by the Presidential Palace, Supreme Court and Parliament Building. The "fuselage" is the central axis of the city, an east-west avenue with a length of 8km and a width of 250m. At the east end of the main axis is the Praça dos Três Poderes. The plaza is basically triangular, along with the Parliament Building, Supreme Court and Presidential Palace standing together. The "front cabin" is the government buildings, plazas, and cathedrals; the "rear cabin" is the cultural and educational district, as well as the with sports area and TV tower. On the other hand, the "tail" is the railway station and the north-south railway, the industrial area as well as the printing and publishing district; further back of it are several small factories. Meanwhile, the "wings" are residential areas. The junction of the "wings" and the "fuselage" is the central business district, with commercial service facilities such as supermarkets, banks, post offices, telecommunications buildings, national theaters, and grand hotels. The living area is separated by green spaces. The eastern end of the main axis is mainly equipped with municipal offices, and the western end is the city's railway passenger station. All walks of life in the city have their own designated space. Bank areas, hotel areas, commercial areas, recreation areas, residential areas, and even car repairs have fixed locations. In order to ensure that the urban layout of large aircraft is maintained, the Brazilian government strictly restricts the development and utilization of the main urban area. New residential areas are not allowed within the city, and residents can only live in satellite cities outside of the city.

This is a classic plan, but whether classic is good or bad is debatable. According to the urban philosophy, Brasilia is a typical and negative case. The city plan of Brasilia expected the city to house 500,000 people. Yet, there are only 200,000 people in Brasilia. Some statistics say that Brasilia has a population of 3 million, though that actually refers to Brasilia Federal District. That is to say, that population size includes all the surrounding satellite towns in Brasilia. It is in fact the Brasilia Federal District and its satellite towns that have proven to be the failure of Brasilia's design. This kind of urban design does not take into account the complex needs of the people, nor does it consider the future development of the city. The entire city is purposefully divided into administrative, cultural, residential areas and even car repair areas, bar areas, and warehouse areas are subdivided, which has caused great inconvenience to the citizens. If a citizen needs to repair his car, he needs to find ways to transport his car to a dedicated car repair area, even if he lives on the other side of the city. It is of no surprise then, that a large number of Brasilia residents do not really want to live there. On weekends, they would get themselves out of Brasilia and go to other cities such as Rio de Janeiro for their weekend getaways.

Brasilia has been turned into a city of automobiles, and the highway network is connected to the whole of Brazil. However, only roads and highways used by motor vehicles were considered in the plan, and a large number of highways are scattered in the city, causing a high traffic accident rate. The public space of a city is very important, especially for the capital. Public space should be pleasant, a place for people to communicate and have social interactions. Unfortunately, such is not the case for Brasilia. The sun in Brasilia is strong, and the temperature is often rather hot. Thus, it is understandable that people do not stop and enjoy the large-scale landscape avenues. If it were Europe or any other place, it would be filled with bustling streets, pedestrians, cafes, and bars, all of which are absent in Brasilia. There is no street where the public can gather, no busy street corners and no lively shops on both sides of the road. There are no suitable meeting points in this city, making it so that its citizens can usually only invite guests to meet at their homes.

Some negative things are also reflected in terms of the construction background of the entire city. Brasilia shaped a very famous architect, Oscar Niemeyer, who completed many of the main buildings in the city as well. Niemeyer was a leftist and at that time, it was also a leftist government that pushed for the construction and development of Brasilia. The basic idea of the leftist in South America was to build large-scale infrastructure. In this way, many workers would be needed, and the employment problem would be solved. With employment, the income level would go up, and the support for the left-wing government would increase. This of course meant that the votes for such a government would be guaranteed. The right-wing government emphasized on efficiency and hoped to rejuvenate economic growth within the country. Juscelino Kubitschek, then President of the left-wing Brazilian government, was the one responsible for the infrastructure projects, and because of his ambitions, the construction of Brasilia was launched.

But this kind of large infrastructure economic model can easily cause heavy debts and cause a huge debt burden. This is also an important reason why the Brazilian military and other political forces opposed the construction of the city of Brasilia. Not long after the completion of Kubitschek's Brasilia, he died in a car accident. After that, Brazil slowly shifted from a left-wing government to a right-wing government. In South America, this kind of regime rotation, from left to right, and then from right to left, is fairly common. It did not take long for the Brasilia that we see today to take shape. Brasilia is indeed very beautiful on the surface, with many of its buildings being extremely eye-catching, it will undoubtedly leave a strong visual impact on people. Therefore, there are those who blindly imitate and repeat the Brasilia-style tragedy, which is still being performed all over the world and some places in China. The damage brought about by this is quite serious. In order to repair the city's defects, the Brazilian government has been working continuously up till now. Even to this day, it has not solved many problems left over from the construction of Brasilia, which requires a large amount of capital investment and time to gradually resolve them.

Although the city of Brasilia is beautifully designed, it is not a city suitable for living. A city cannot bring out the real urban value just for being beautiful, nor can it bring real improvement in urban assets.

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