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Day 18: Brasília

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The Palace of Congress, Brazil's Houses of Parliament.
Michael Palin - BrazilThere are criticisms of its vision. Some ask how two men of the people like Niemeyer and Costa could have built a city so dependent on a road network. Public transport is almost entirely confined to buses. Its location, isolated from the rest of Brazil, was heavily criticized by some, though Brazil is so enormous that anywhere you put a capital would be far away from someone. The whole point of the new capital was that it had to appear neutral, unpartisan, far enough away from existing centres of power like Rio and Săo Paulo to deflect accusations of outside influence. Brasília had to be all things to all Brazilians. This admirable objective is symbolized by a mighty black flagpole at one end of the square. Its shaft is made up of a sheaf of twenty-six separate metal strips, representing the twenty-six states that make up the Republic. The Brazilian flag it carries is the biggest flying flag in the world, measuring seventy by one hundred metres. Such is the strain on this huge area of fabric that it rips regularly and at the end of each month the flag has to be replaced and a new one hoisted. In true federal spirit the bill for the new flag is sent, by rotation, around each of the twenty-six states in turn.

The Three Powers Square was not originally a part of the grand plan. It was designed by Lúcio Costa as a tribute to Tancredo Neves, the first popularly elected President after the twenty years of the dictatorship came to an end in 1985. Neves was, however, not a well man and he died on the first evening of his Presidency.

The square sends out mixed messages. The Niemeyer pavilions have their own lightness and grace, alongside which the huge likeness of President Kubitschek makes him look rather dour and cross, whereas in reality he was supposed to be humorous and charismatic. And the intention of the square as a whole, lumping together an unholy assortment of buildings, flagpoles and statues to celebrate a kind of grand destiny, defies coherence. The space is just too big. As the sun climbs into a cloudless sky I'm also painfully aware that there is no cover, no shade in Three Powers Square. I turn to go when one of the statues catches my eye. It's striking and rather different. A pair of tall, abstract figures, their arms merged one with the other and both holding long thin staffs.

It's called Os Candangos and it commemorates the thousands of migrant workers who built Brasília. They came predominantly from the traditionally poorest part of Brazil – Nordeste, the North-East. Though no longer the wealth-generating powerhouse it used to be, the North-East of Brazil is a vital supplier of labour for the new and expanding Brazilian economy. There are many rumours about it – that violence is worse there than anywhere else in Brazil, that the beaches are beautiful, that the lifestyle is lazy. Whatever the truth is, there's only one way to find out.
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 18: Brasília
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Brasília
  • Book page no: 84

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  • Sightseeing
  • Day 5 
  • Around the World in 80 Days
  • Day 18 
  • Full Circle
  • Day 16 
  • Pole to Pole