Critic’s Notebook: Brasilia’s embrace of the future seems so quaint


Can Brasilia really be just 50 years old?

When the new capital of Brazil was dedicated by President Juscelino Kubitschek on April 21, 1960, its grand avenues, laid out by Lucio Costa, and dramatic modernist buildings by architect Oscar Niemeyer seemed to symbolize one thing: the crisp newness of the modern world, unburdened by history or context.

In fact, Kubitschek was so eager to call attention to the city — built from scratch in a remote spot 600 miles inland from the old capital of Rio de Janeiro — that he held the dedication ceremony while most of Brasilia was still under a cloud of construction dust. The president was in a hurry not only to craft an up-to-date Brazilian identity but to mark a clean break with the nation’s complex past.

That attitude is so distant from our own that sorting through the lessons of Brasilia, as it’s tempting to do on an anniversary such as Tuesday’s, can begin to feel like archeology. To the extent that we are now designing brand-new cities at all, they tend to be marked more by wariness and anxiety — particularly about looming environmental disaster, terror attacks and global epidemics — than sweeping optimism.

If Brasilia embraced the future, in other words, today’s cities seem to be on guard against it.

Many of our freshly planned cities, in fact, are not new national capitals following a utopian blueprint but “eco-cities” that aim to protect urban residents from the threats posed by a degraded natural world.

Take Masdar City, which is rising on the edge of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates as a $22-billion proving ground for new kinds of green-design technology. Its planners, including the London firm Foster and Partners, hope that approach will not only make the city itself carbon-neutral but produce green materials and systems that can be exported around the world. Masdar is the urban-planning equivalent of a pharmaceutical lab, developing drugs to help sick cities get better.

China and other rising Asian powers are also conducting ambitious experiments in green urbanism. Dongtan, near Shanghai, was planned as a sustainable metropolis for more than half a million residents, though its construction has fallen behind schedule.

In San Francisco, city officials announced with some fanfare at the end of last year that they had reached a deal to buy Treasure Island, which sits in San Francisco Bay, from the U.S. Navy. Developers plan to turn it into a highly energy-efficient community, with housing for more than 6,000 people. But excitement about the deal is tempered by worries about what sea-level rise could mean for the island and its residents decades from now.

Planners in Venice, Italy, and New Orleans are engaged in similar calculations about water levels and storm surges. At the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the exhibition “Rising Currents: Projects for New York’s Waterfront” features proposals by four design teams to prepare New York, in the words of MOMA’s Barry Bergdoll, for “climatic changes to come.”

Even the reaction to the ash cloud produced in the last few days by an erupting volcano in Iceland suggests shifting attitudes toward cities. Several commentators in Europe have used the ash cloud and its effects on air travel as a pretext to revel in the notion of staying on the ground and close to home, rejecting the ideal of modern glamour that Brasilia once symbolized in favor of the local and the traditional.

Writing in the Guardian, Stuart Jeffries rhapsodized earlier this week about how much more peaceful and “bucolic” London has become with the airports closed. Alain de Botton, another British writer, was moved by ash-cloud hysteria to recommend that we try to recapture something called “camel pace,” which essentially means slowing ourselves down to mimic the way people traveled in a pre-modern age.

In a world without planes, De Botton noted, “Everything would, of course, go very slowly. It would take two days to reach Rome, a month before one finally sailed exultantly into Sydney harbor. And yet there would be benefits tied up in this languor.”

It is worth noting at this point that Lucio Costa, like Niemeyer a disciple of the modernist architect Le Corbusier, laid out Brasilia so that when seen from the air it resembles a jet plane. And on the ground the focus was on the very opposite of De Botton’s languor, with the city’s extra-wide avenues meant to make car travel as speedy and efficient as possible. Even if Peter Smithson and other architects have argued that the design of Brasilia is not quite as rigidly doctrinaire or predictable as its critics tend to claim, it remains the single purest example of Corbusian city planning.

The Brasilia anniversary comes at a moment when many of architecture’s fundamental preoccupations are shifting. For much if not all of the 20th century, architecture’s most deeply fraught relationship was with the past. Early modernist architecture sought in its most strident and thrilling form to wipe the historical slate clean.

Later, the story of 20th century architecture would include battles over slum clearance, urban renewal and historic preservation — in every case a struggle between the values of an architectural philosophy that prized novelty and cities that were full of or clogged with history, depending on one’s point of view.

All of that has changed almost completely. Architecture’s most troubled relationship is now with the future, thanks largely to doomsday scenarios about what human activity might be doing to the planet. If there is a new International Style to replace the legacy that Costa and Niemeyer inherited, it is an anxious environmentalism.

Worries about the fate of the planet, of course, are nothing new. Lately, though, ecological concerns first voiced by individual architects and writers decades ago have been taken up at a macro scale, in the realm of urbanism and city planning.

But the transformation is not just about a leap in perspective. It has also thoroughly changed the tenor of the way we talk about and plan cities.

Brasilia’s urbanism was not just thoroughly optimistic but expansive. The one we practice today is defensive enough to seem, for all its reliance on technology, nearly medieval.