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After Brasilia: the modern city in Brazil, 1960 to the present


Professor Richard Williams, Head of History of Art and Professor of Contemporary Visual Cultures at the Edinburgh College of Art, University of Edinburgh, talks about his research project After Brasilia: The Modern City in Brazil, 1960 to the Present. This article first appeared on the AHRC blog Research Beyond Borders.

After Brasília: the modern city in Brazil, 1960 to the present was a project that explored the architecture of the Brazilian city after the inauguration of the planned capital city, probably the greatest single monument to architectural modernism. It paid a lot of attention to the big cities of the south east of the country, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, exploring high rise landscapes there, the phenomenon of the favela, and the concrete monuments of so-called Paulista Brutalism, a kind of architectural parallel evolution which produced, quite independently, work that looks a lot like the buildings on London’s South Bank.

Oscar Niemeyer and Lucio Costa, Praça dos Tres Poderes, Brasília (1960) Credit: Richard Williams.

At the time the project was done, Brazil’s architectural profile was relatively low – it aimed to bring to attention again sights, and sites that had been for some years neglected by the international architectural media.

It also explored the larger phenomenon of modernization. Brazil’s spectacular modernist architecture was matched by similarly spectacular investments in hydroelectric production, agriculture, air transport, and (sometimes) roads. At various points in the twentieth century, at least in image, Brazil could claim it was the most modern country in the world.

Oscar Niemeyer, Edifício Copan São Paulo (1952-61) Credit: Richard Williams.

That modernization tended to come at a cost. The construction of Brasília arguably led to decades of debt, coupled with hyperinflation, and political instability in various combinations. It certainly produced a city that played out the country’s manifest contradictions: a pristine and organized central city surrounded by a much larger, and much poorer, informal one. Modernization in Brazil in the twentieth century seemed always to bring with it its opposite, so what it sought most to abolish, the sight of poverty, always returned.

That story has been repeated, in updated form, endlessly in the media coverage of the World Cup in 2014 and most recently with the preparations for this summer’s Olympic Games, in which massive infrastructural works have been surrounded by talk of disease, corruption and financial collapse. While the media representation of Brazil’s cities still tends to the catastrophic, as ever, the project helped restore architectural interest in them: they have a boldness, scale and complexity that makes them truly global property.

Paraisópolis favela, São Paulo, c. 2009 Credit: Richard Williams.

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