Brasilia and the Burial of Utopia : THE MODERNIST CITY: An Anthropological Critique of Brasilia <i> by James Holston (University of Chicago Press: $50, cloth; $18.95, paper; 432 pp., illustrated; 0-226-34978-0) </i>

<i> Hall, who teaches city planning at Berkeley, is author of "Cities of Tomorrow: An Intellectual History of Urban Planning and Design in the Twentieth Century" (Blackwell)</i>

The academic publishing world seems awash with books about postmodernism. Not only architectural critics--geographers and sociologists and general historical doomsayers also are banding to make it the hot topic of early 1990.

Many of their readers may find themselves more bemused at the end than when they started. For postmodernism seems to have become a kind of code word for everything these authors dislike in contemporary capitalism but cannot quite elucidate.

At least two hurrahs, therefore, for James Holston. An assistant professor at the University of Southern California, he utters the P-word only in his last couple of pages. His subject matter is at first sight specialized, even obscure: the creation in the late 1950s of the new Brazilian capital, in the empty plains about 600 miles from Rio de Janeiro. But, by dissecting the phenomenon that postmodernism supplanted, he indirectly illuminates the subject far more satisfactorily than any of his competitors so far.


Holston comes unusually well qualified, with a degree in both architecture and anthropology, so he can analyze Brasilia, as an architectural project, from the standpoint and with the techniques of an anthropologist. He argues that modernism--the architectural movement that began with Le Corbusier, Gropius and all the other heroes of the 1920s, culminated in the Congres Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM) in the 1930s, and effectively ended with the demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe project in St. Louis in 1972--had a very radical social and political intent: It was a project to replace capitalism by a new collectivist social order.

This, oddly, could happen under very different political regimes: It was true alike in the Soviet Union and in Fascist Italy in the 1920s, and (though he does not say this) in Social-Democratic Stockholm and London in the 1950s. It is also specifically true in Brasilia. Though President Juscelino Kubitschek, the city’s godfather, was a Latin American populist, the true begetter of the Brasilia plan was Oscar Niemeyer, doyen of Brazilian architects and an avowed Communist. He persuaded the competition jury to accept the plan of his teacher Lucio Costa, written on five index cards.

This plan, according to Holston, was the ultimate political achievement of the modern movement, “a CIAM city . . . the most complete example ever constructed of the architectural and planning tenets put forward in CIAM manifestoes”; it achieved the objective for which the pioneers of the modern movement had struggled in vain. Its hidden agenda was to create a totally new-built form as a shell for a new society, without reference to history: The past was simply to be abolished. “Brasilia,” he writes, “was built to be more than the symbol of this new age. Rather, its design and construction were intended as a means to create it by transforming Brazilian society.”

Brasilia thus embodied a fundamental premise of the modern movement: “total decontextualization,” in which a utopian future becomes the means to measure the present, without any sense of historical context. Costa introduces his plan, in disarmingly self-effacing fashion, as the carrier of a mythic idea that came to him almost as a vision: It provides a basis for a city created on a clean slate, without reference to the past.

Specifically, in this new city the traditional, heavily stratified Brazilian society would be replaced by a totally egalitarian one: In the uniform apartment blocks, governors and ambassadors would live as neighbors with janitors and laborers. The apartments marked a radical break with class-conscious tradition: Masters and servants would use the same entrances, even share the same spaces.

The traditional divisions between public and private space would be abolished; these blocks would be machines for collective public living. And the traditional street--the age-old essence of the division between public and private life--must likewise disappear; hence Brasilia’s eight-lane expressways, which act as social divisors rather than social integrators.

On this hidden agenda of modernism, Holston is extraordinarily persuasive. He illuminates, in a depth and with a subtlety no architectural critic ever has achieved, just what the true program of the modern architectural movement was. Why high-rise structures with curtain walls of glass? To erode the private life of the family, and collectivize the children down in the communal play spaces and creches. Why vast expressways and shopping centers? To emphasize the death of the street, and with it the subtle relationships between public and private space.


The aim was indeed radical, even subversive: “to restructure the institutional relationships between the public and the private domains of social life so that they are both entirely regulated by a comprehensive, state-sponsored master plan,” thus transforming the structure of capitalist society by stealth. Small wonder that modernism came into its own only in totalitarian regimes, or in municipal collectivist local states.

But in Brasilia, it could not work. The deep class structures of Brazil, subtly racial in origin, reasserted themselves. The manual workers who built the city, and were temporarily glorified as heroes, were banished from it; after epic fights, they were allowed to remain in distant satellite towns, totally segregated from middle-class Brasilian society, spending much of their meager salaries on long commutes.

The servants who remained in the superblocks, ironically, were cooped up in closet spaces far worse than the rooms they had enjoyed in traditional apartments. Some of this story has been told, and told well, in previous accounts of Brasilia. But Holston invests it, too, with new layers of meaning.

What is its significance for the project of postmodernism? Here, at the very end, Holston is tantalizingly and disappointingly laconic. Radical postmodernists argue that the new aesthetic requires a total social revolution for its achievement: an irony, since modernism itself tried to engineer just such a revolution through the effect of built forms on the psyche. Conservative postmodernists, led by Prince Charles, conversely call for a return to preindustrial-built forms. Both, Holston argues, are utopian: Either they ignore their own historical context, or, worse, they exacerbate the problems they purport to solve. And so, ironically, they fall into the same trap as the modernists before them.

That may be oversimplistic, a quality certainly not found elsewhere in this book. (If there is a criticism, it is that the style is often too academically inflated, too prolix and unnecessarily complex; qualities that doubtless reflect the book’s origin as a Ph.D. dissertation.) Modernism’s demise surely reflects a complex counter-reaction from a number of disparate forces: bored young architects seeking something new, angry tenants of public-housing projects revolting against the collectivist violence done on them, and, more subtly, a new Zeitgeist that elevates the whimsical and the ironic and the transient above the solid and the serious.

Certainly, the exposure of modernism’s failings in practice--especially through the serious media--played a critical role. But there was more to it than that. Perhaps, unconsciously, people came to appreciate the hidden agenda.


Whatever the cause, the triumph of postmodernism is surely an integral part of a huge political sea-change, marked also by the triumph of Thatcho-Reaganism and the toppling of collectivism in Eastern Europe.

There is much more to be written on it; Holston’s next book, maybe.