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Day 18: Brasília

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Brasília. The Palácio do Planalto, the President's office.
Michael Palin - BrazilBack in the capital, I walk out early to beat the tourist crowds, and make for the Praça dos Três Poderes, 'Three Powers Square', where the Legislature, Judiciary and Executive are gathered together. Here, within strolling distance of each other, are all the elements that run the country. If anywhere could be described as the beating heart of Brazil, this is it.

The buildings around the square are all, in their various ways, impressive. Not always because of their size; more often it's because of their delicate, elegant, airy modern lines. The Palace of Congress dominates. Its two tall central towers are flanked by two white hemispheres, one face-up and one face-down, one housing the Senate, the other the Chamber of Deputies. Coming from a country where government buildings are usually neo-classical and rather grand, authority set in stone, I find them fresh and appealing. Power is rarely as restrained as this. Ironic, then, that it took a staunch Communist like Oscar Niemeyer (still alive as I write, at 104) to create a centre of government as modern and light and unintimidating as this. But then Niemeyer is not just a Communist, he's a Brazilian. Somehow these buildings all around me – from the Palace of Congress to the compact Supreme Court with its wide white roof and upswept bird's-wing columns, to the low-slung, airy Planalto Palace from which the President works – could only be Brazilian. In the emphasis on visual pleasure as much as functionality, in their embrace of the sun, and in their informality and lack of pomposity, Niemeyer seems to have found a visual metaphor for the way the Brazilians like to see themselves. And there's a nod to their love of mysticism. On Republic Day the sun rises exactly between the two towers of the Congress building. I'm sure there are all sorts of maintenance issues with this type of architecture but it does seem to put joie de vivre first and heritage, tradition, authority and precedent second.

I can walk up to any of these buildings. They're not surrounded with tank-traps, ramps, fences and rising bollards. Here at the heart of the Brazilian state there's hardly a policeman to be seen. Two brightly uniformed guards with ceremonial swords are all that would stop me climbing the few steps into the Presidential Palace. It's January and Congress is not in session, which might explain the light-touch security, but it is refreshing to see power unadorned by any hint of triumphalism. That, it seems to me, is the success of Brasília. It could only have been like this by starting from scratch, with a clean slate. By starting in the middle of nowhere the creators of the new capital were able to build something unlike anywhere else.
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The Supremo Tribunal Federal Building, seat of Brazil's Judiciary.
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 18: Brasília
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Brasília
  • Book page no: 83

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