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Day 15: Brasília

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Brasília with its man-made lake, Paranoá.
Michael Palin - BrazilMy hotel room looks out over a wide stretch of water. Nothing much different there, except that, for the first time since I arrived in Brazil, this is not water that will eventually find its way into the Amazon. Sixty years ago it would not even have been here. I'm looking out on Lake Paranoá, artificially created in the late 1950s to provide precious humidity for a brand-new city called Brasília that was springing up on a treeless plateau, bone dry for six months of the year.

The principle of a new capital had been written into the Brazilian constitution from the earliest days of the Republic, but the idea of putting it in the interior, a long way from anywhere, was a brave and bold, and many people thought completely foolhardy, decision. But not Juscelino Kubitschek, the son of a Czech gypsy, who won the Presidency in 1956 with big ideas for Brazil and the rousing slogan 'Fifty Years in Five'. Within a year of taking office he had set up a planning group called NOVACAP and enlisted two resolute left-wing modernists, Lúcio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer, to design the new city. By the end of his Presidency in 1961 it was up and running. Which was not bad, bearing in mind that when work started the nearest railway was 125 kilometres (80 miles) away and a paved road 450 kilometres (280 miles) beyond that.

Stepping outside this morning, the air tastes and feels quite different from the north. We're nearly 1,200 metres above sea level, and it's dry and clear, with no hint of the lurking dark clouds that were always somewhere in the Amazon skies. And there's a sense of space that cities don't usually have.

Brasília's layout has been compared to an aeroplane, with the long central fuselage, called the Eixo Monumental (Monumental Axis), containing all the government buildings and coming to a point at the western end where Congress and finally the Presidential Palace are located. Along the Axis are the various auxiliary sectors, each one carefully delineated – the Hotel Sector, the Banking Sector, the Cultural Sector and so on. The residential areas, the quadras, extend along the 'wings' of the 'aeroplane' and fan out from the Eixo Rodoviário, the ring road. The streets have numbers rather than names, and a typical address might be 573 Norte, Bloco C, Loja 15. It's all rather daunting at first and I feel I need a human voice here.

I take a ride around the city with someone whose own birth just about coincided with the birth of Brasília. His name is Dinho Ouro Preto, and he's the lead singer with a band called Capital Inicial. Moving to Brasília as a teenager, he was drawn to punk rock in the eighties and now, in his late thirties, he's mellowed into New Wave. Slim, with jet-black hair and good-looking in a tidy way, he has lived in Săo Paulo since 1985. I want to know what it must have been like growing up at the heart of one of the great urban experiments of the twentieth century. Was it all wonderfully exciting?

He grimaces and thinks for a moment. 'In aesthetic terms I didn't like it that much. I thought it was something that separated people. That didn't take into account the individual. It was built by someone who believed in the collective idea.'

Which of course was deliberate. Kubitschek's choice of a brand-new capital was motivated by the need to build a symbol of a united Brazil, a Brazil for all the people, untainted by favour or fiction or past history. Salvador, the first capital, and Rio the second, both had a weight of history behind them – a history, very often, of slavery and exploitation. Brasília was to be a new start, on neutral ground. Lúcio Costa, educated for a time at the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle, and the man charged with the overall plan for the city, saw it as a chance to build an urban Utopia. Oscar Niemeyer, the chief architect, was a Communist. With these fathers Brasília was never going to be a child like any other.

Dinho recognizes this and says that his initial reactions were probably just the natural responses of a rebellious teenager against the embrace of home. He did, after all, buy his first record here – it was by Jimi Hendrix – and he honed his musical tastes by hanging out near the University of Brasília and listening to bands with names like Electric Abortion.

He laughs and admits that with the passage of time he's changed his ideas. 'I do think it's beautiful,' he says, as we head west, looking out at the Metropolitan Cathedral in the shape of a huge crown of thorns and the smooth white dome of the National Museum, with a single ramp curving into a flying-saucer-like entrance halfway up the side of it. 'But I'm curious to see what time will do to it.'
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 15: Brasília
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Brasília
  • Book page no: 75

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