Brasilia and Niemeyer — The Future Locked in the Past

Architect Oscar Niemeyer in the 1950s.

Architect Oscar Niemeyer in the 1950s.


Taking note of the death of Oscar Niemeyer at 104, those of us who have lived in Brasilia–his crowning creation–take pause for a moment. I lived there for two and a half years in the 1980s. Life for the middle class meant a strange existence in so-called “superquadras” — superblocks, all designed along the lateral sides of the airplane-shaped central city.

Life was odd, one needed a car to go most anywhere, the sidewalks often dead-ended at highways. Yet there was a magic it.

Every time I went to the foreign ministry and drove down the Eixao– the central highway– toward the Esplanade of of the Ministries — it felt like participating in a fabulous social experiment. And spending time (and being paid for it) at the Foreign Ministry — the Palacio do Itamaraty — was a gift. For me, Itamaraty is Niemeyer’s greatest monument.Palacio do Itamaraty

The views and the graceful curves gave unending pleasure. Yet, the architecture of Brasilia in sum always felt less than masterful — as if part of a Godard or maybe a Jacques Tati film.

Brasilia was locked into the 1960s or a vision of the 1960s conceived in the 1950s, dated even before it was completed. Yet, friends from Brasilia have remained friends forever. People needed one another there.

As for daily life, the nice thing was that as the buildings were slowly deteriorating, grass was literally growing between the cracks — nature triumphing over design.

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Filed under Brazil, Latin America

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