Brazilia, Brazil, and Travel Serendipity
Who actually plans a trip to Brazilia, Brazil’s made-to-order capital city? Not me. It was, however, a three-day stop en route from Rio de Janeiro to the Amazon. I can’t say that Brasilia is enchanting or charming by Merriam-Webster’s definition, but it is captivating.
In my experience, the capitals of most countries contain an olio of historic buildings and neighborhoods that provide a history lesson in and of themselves. Brazilia is unique in its uniformity. An oxymoronic statement, yes, but let me explain.
The majority of the government buildings and residential blocks within the city were planned for, and built, in the 1950’s and 1960’s, in an architectural style known as “Brutalism.” I saw the buildings before I learned the term. The word paints such a clear picture of Brasilia that, when I did hear it for the first time, it was all I could do to keep from saying “duh.”
Technically, Brutalism came from a French term meaning “raw concrete”. I once visited East Berlin, when there was such a city. There, too, were many brutal buildings. Fortunately, the similarity ends there. Communist-built structures seemed to carry with them the darkness of people’s moods. Brazilia has edifices, on the other hand, speak almost of whimsy, each building seeking to stamp its own identity on a mass of gray concrete — and succeeding. Their simplicity and functionality create a certain kind of beauty that must be seen to be appreciated.
The Houses of Government occupy one end of a grassy mall, not unlike the United States’ Capitol Building. A dome covers the Senate chambers; a bowl sits atop the House of Deputies. Behind them stands Brazil’s Twin Towers, housing the lawmakers’ offices. Nearby, another tall structure, aptly dubbed “The Clothespin,” was built exclusively for the use of Brasilia’s pigeons. Much of the architecture is the brainchild of Oscar Niemeyer who still designs today at the age of 101!
More than just the architecture captivated me. Urban legend says that Brazilia was carved out of the jungle. Not true. It rose from grassland, almost desert, which serves to moderate the extreme humidity found in the rainforests further north. I visited in September, after the rainy season, when temperatures made for pleasant, bug-free, outdoor dining. Fresh fruit and vegetables, beef, fish and chicken abound, the meat often grilled over open fires to juicy perfection.
Brazilia is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, an honor that carries its own problems. When repairs or upgrades are needed, which after fifty years is often the case, the UNESCO agreement requires a complicated approval process, especially if original materials and construction processes cannot be duplicated.
A good example is the Metropolitan Cathedral. Nineteen-sixty construction used single-pane windows. A half-century of direct sunlight and rain has cracked many of the panes, which remain in place, shattered, allowing the heat and moisture indoors. Approval to replace those panels with double-pane glass is, and has been, an ongoing process. I was saddened to see such a gorgeous interior marred by broken windows.
Far more modern than the central city are the suburbs, some of which can be reached by crossing over the Ponte Juscelino Kubitschek (Ponte JK to locals), named for the Brazilian president who brought Brasilia to fruition. The bridge, an ultra-modern, arched, steel structure, has won numerous design and construction awards. It feels other-worldly in a metropolitan area dominated by Brutalism.
As I left
headed for the Amazon, I felt grateful for the serendipity of travel that brought me to this unique city.
Susan Tornga has undergraduate and graduate degrees in Business Administration, but prefers travel to tax forms, and finds the world a much better teacher than any classroom. Her fiction and non-fiction has appeared in numerous publications, including the Chicken Soup and Patchwork Path anthologies.