Date: 1961
Owner: Wikimedia
Source Type: Buildings


Built circa 1960 to be a geographically central capital for Brazil, Brasilia is the most pronounced example of the architectural school of modernism that was very popular in Latin America from the late 1920s to the early 1960s. Designed by modernist architect Oscar Niemayer, the city was meant to embody the mix of practicality, economy, and simple elegance characteristic of modernism. Whereas the former capital of Rio de Janeiro was a hodgepodge of 450 years of building, Brasilia was to stand as visible proof that ordem e progresso, the longstanding goal of Brazilian elites, finally flourished. In a direct reflection of the machine age, the city is laid out in the shape of an airplane. In keeping with the school's belief that urban design could foster social progress, Brasilia's planners created residential superblocks that would minimalize class distinctions among residents and promote a sense of collective life. Yet the exigencies of urbanization soon overwhelmed the modernists' best laid plans and Brasilia emerged as four semi-distinct cities, three of which do not reflect any grand plan. Furthermore, many Brazilians consider the city heartless; methodically arranged buildings like the one pictured here just do not have the same 'soul' as Brazil's older urban centers.

Modernism caught on in Latin America only a few years after its emergence in Europe yet, according to scholar Mauro F. Guillen, Latin America co-opted modernist architecture at a time when it remained decidedly un-modern. Intellectual life, especially in Brazil and Mexico, was well ahead of technology and industry, but the modernist style meshed well with the visions of progress forwarded by technocratic politicians, many of whom were engineers that valued sound and economical designs (Guillen, 2004). In Mexico, architect Juan O'Gorman (who designed the UNAM library seen in the Scientific Institutions topic) fused elements of modernism with local art forms, especially that of muralists like Diego Rivera. Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx developed a style that historian Nancy Leys Stepan classified as tropical modernism, one that fused the abstract and stark shapes of modernism with plants from Brazil's tropical jungles. Stepan argued that Burle Marx's gardens and parks created a discordant space where the centuries-old Brazilian conflict between "civilization" and tropical nature were forced to interact, creating landscapes that were both bizarre and beautiful (Stepan 2001).

It is perhaps surprising that Buenos Aires, the richest and most modern early twentieth century Latin American city, did not take up modernism with the same gusto as Mexico and Brazil. Although the curricula of architecture degree programs were important in this regard, the nationalistic government of Juan Peron preferred building with colonial and classical designs that were considered better monuments of national glory (see the Museo de La Plata for an example of this style).

References: Guillen, Mauro F. "Modernism without Modernity: The Rise of Modernist Architecture in Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina, 1890-1940." In Latin American Research Review, vol. 39, no. 2 (2004), pp. 6-34.

Stepan, Nancy Leys. Picturing Tropical Nature. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001.

CITATION: Marcelo Metal. Palácio da Justiça, Brasília, Brazil. May, 2006.