BRASILIA - At first sight, Brasilia is made exclusively of highways. So either the city is hiding below the carefully trimmed grass, or it is just another Latin American myth. Its inhabitants are also invisible. How do they go from one place to another if there are no sidewalks or walkways?
Our bus makes another turn and stops at a railroad crossing. We stay there for a few minutes -- the time for me to gaze at the signs indicating neighborhoods and areas with cryptic names, seeking some kind of reference point.
Finally, the Brazilian capital appears with its grand esplanade and its characteristic buildings. The Planalto Palace (the Presidential Palace), protected by two uniformed guards stationed on each side of the long access ramps; the National Congress, with its two towers and two white domes pregnant with meaning: the semi-sphere on the left is the seat of the Senate and symbolizes ideas and reflection, while the bowl on the right -- representing the democratic receptiveness -- is the seat of the Chamber of the Deputies; and the Itamaraty Palace, the headquarters of the Ministry of External Relations, with its reflecting pool and plays of light.
It is not a coincidence that the National Congress is larger than the Palácio do, or that the Ministries -- except for Foreign Affairs -- form two rows of identical rectangular buildings, lacking any particular identity and labeled with the same large gold letters. At first sight, they look almost like huge file cabinets. They are also the buildings that have aged the most, both physically and stylistically. In front of them, dozens of officials are standing, waiting to be needed; to complete the picture, add a couple of guards, receptionists, cleaning staff. Is that what architects Lúcio Costa, Oscar Niemeyer or Roberto Burle Marx were thinking about when they drew the buildings?
Real life in Brasilia is happening in the residential areas, with its mix of apartment buildings, public services, shops and green areas. All the embassies are in the same neighborhood, and the only buildings that escaped the rigid planning are the favelas and the homes of the rich, on the other side of the (artificial) lake of Paranoa.
A Parisian connection
With all its contradictions, its achievements and failures, Brasilia inevitably recalls the years when Latin American governments planned and executed these types of mega-projects. By embracing modernism, they were somehow trying to make a radical cut with the past and reshape the future – something that is either impossible or simply too expensive.
Such a temptation was not limited to the Latin American elite. Of all the buildings that French PresidentFrançois Mitterrand built to celebrate his presidency, none has been more criticized than the National Library, designed by Dominique Perrault. It is a building that undoubtedly drew inspiration from Brasilia’s National Congress: four towers set on a cold esplanade, with long access ramps that users complain about in both winter and summer.
Each tower symbolizes something: there’s the tower of the Times, that of the Laws, the tower of the Numbers and that of the Letters. But by passing next to them, one realizes that some are only partially used – and some completely empty.
It is also said that computer, electrical and ventilation systems inside the complex have never worked well, and that people working there suffer from respiratory diseases, claustrophobia and hallucinations.
But there is a fundamental difference between the dysfunctions of modernism in Brasilia and the postmodernism of the French National Library. Brasilia is located in Latin America, where the vitality helps, to some extent, improve the systems of information and correct the failures. The Brasilienses, as the inhabitants of the Brazilian capital are known, are able to add a jeitinho (Brazilian touch) to the city, and bring energy where Costa and Niemeyer’s plans did not succeed. Such a touch among Parisians is in far shorter supply.
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