Brasilia: the rise of a modern city

Atualizado: 7 de Set de 2020

"Brasília is built on the horizon line. Brasilia is artificial. As artificial as the world should have been when it was created. When the world was created, it was necessary to create a man, especially for that world... Creation is not an understanding, it is a new mystery... I see Brasilia the same way I see Rome: Brasilia began with a final simplification of ruins. Ivy has not yet grown."

(Clarice Lispector, The first beginnings of Brasilia, 1962)


The desire to take the Brazilian capital to the central region comes from colonial times, with the intention of avoiding maritime attacks to the former capital, Rio de Janeiro. But it was during the Empire that this idea began to take hold. In 1823, the "Patriarch of Independence" José Bonifácio de Andrada e Silva, reinforced the idea of bringing the Brazilian political power to the interior, suggesting for the first time the name "Brasília".

Fresco of Volpi portraying Don Bosco. Source: the author.

In 1883, the Italian Catholic priest Don Bosco dreamed that he was visiting South America and in his report, published in the book "The Biographical Memoirs of Saint John Bosco", he reported what he saw:

Between grades 15 and 20 there was a fairly long and wide cove, starting from a point where a lake formed. Then a voice said repeatedly, "When the mines are dug in the middle of these mountains, the promised land will appear here, from which milk and honey will flow. It will be an inconceivable wealth."

Don Bosco's dream ended up being interpreted as a prophecy of the place where the new capital of Brazil would be implanted. But the idea only began to be made feasible in 1891, when the determination of its area was included in the First Republic's Constitution. In 1892 a group of scientists, headed by the Belgian civil engineer Louis Ferdinand Cruls, was sent to explore the central plateau and make the demarcation of the area. The expedition became known as the "Cruls Mission". The team was composed of 22 members: the astronomers Henrique Morido and Oliveira Lacaille; the hygienist Antonio Martins de Azevedo Pimentel; the geologist Eugênio Hussak; the botanist Ernesto Ule; the doctor Pedro Gouveia; the pharmacist Alfredo José Abrante; the mechanics Eduardo Chartier and Francisco Souto; the military Augusto Trasso Fragola (doctor), Celestino Alves Bastos, Hastimphilo de Moura, Alépio Gama, Antônio Cavalcanti Albuquerque; and the auxiliaries Felicíssimo do Espirito Santo, Antônio Jacinto de Araújo Costa, João de Azevedo Peres Cuiabá, and José Paulo de Melo. They also counted on a military guard commanded by Pedro Pinto de Almeida. A survey was made on the topography, climate, geology, flora, fauna and material resources of the region. The area became known as Quadrilateral Cruls, the first version of the "cuadradinho", as the Brasilia's people call the map of the city.

Ground Zero _ Crossing of axes. Source:

The contest

The Urbanization Company of the New Capital (Novacap) was created to do all the organization and logistics of the work. The "National Contest for the Pilot Plan of the New Capital of Brazil" was launched in the same year, with the intention of selecting urban projects for the new city.

In 1955, Affonso Eduardo Reidy and Roberto Burle Marx suggested the coming of a foreigner who would be responsible for the coordination of the project. Le Corbusier had already shown interest through a correspondence sent to the president of the republic. However, the idea of assigning responsibility to someone from outside the country had already been dropped by Juscelino, due to the national character of the project.

It was fortune that the members of the committee, organizer of the competition, had opted for a national solution, convincing me of giving up the idea of an international competition. If my suggestion had prevailed - since the jury would also be composed of foreign authorities - it might have occurred that the judges, influenced by the beauty of a project, would end up rewarding it without regard to the peculiar character of the city that was to be built. Because Brasilia would not be an urban center in conventional standards, but a different achievement. It would be a city leaked in a new conception, both with respect to the intentions that guided its location and in relation to the socioeconomic meaning that should be reflected in the urban context that would compose the image. (KUBITSCHEK, 1975)

Kubitschek decides in 1956 to assign the position of Director of the Department of Architecture of the Urbanizing Company to Oscar Niemeyer, with the duty of designing the entire city. However, Niemeyer denied such a commitment and suggested two situations: 1. The launching of a national competition, with the support of the Institute of Architects of Brazil, to choose the best project; and 2. Commitment to design the main administrative buildings of the city. JK accepted the proposals and asked Novacap to prepare the Tender Protocol.

In August 1956, the Institute of Architects of Brazil sent the president a manifesto proposing, among other elements, the choice of the judging committee: 1 representative of the presidency of the republic; 1 of the engineers' class; 2 of the IAB; and 3 foreign urban planners, all appointed by the president of the republic. A list of possible foreign nominees was also suggested: Walter Gropius, Richard Neutra, Percy J. Marshall, Max Lock, Alvar Aalto, Clarence Stein, Le Corbusier, and Mario Pane. It is evident by the choice of these nominees that the new capital should be linked to modern international precepts.

In September of that same year the Tender Protocol, organized by Israel Pinheiro, Ernesto Silva, Oscar Niemeyer, Raul Pena Firme, and Roberto Lacombe, was published.

The Pilot Plan shall cover:

  1. The basic layout of the city, indicating the layout of the main elements of the urban structure, location, and interconnection of the various sectors, centers, facilities and services, distribution of free spaces and communication routes (scale 1: 25,000);

  2. Justification report

It was also set that the city would have a population of 500,000 inhabitants and an area of 5,000 km2.

26 teams signed up, totaling 62 participants. After analyzing the whole, the jurors eliminated 16 projects, leaving only 10 for a more in-depth analysis. Among the selected projects were those of Lúcio Costa, Nei da Rocha e Silva, M.MM. Roberto, Henrique Mindlin, Paulo Camargo, and Construtec.

The international jury consisted of Sir William Holford, the British Government's Urban Planning Adviser and planner of the capital of Rhodesia; André Sive from France; and Stamo Papadaki from New York University. Sir William was the one who suggested the early elimination of the 16 projects in order to facilitate the judgment of the 10 selected ones. After that, the choice of the best project was given to Lucio Costa almost immediately.

In conversation with Sir William Holford, on the occasion of my visit to the exhibition, I had the opportunity to know the reasons that determined that "hurry" in the judgment of the work. He told me that the matter, in fact, should not delay. Either a project was good or it was not, and it became clear at first glance. When he had examined the work, there was one that had caught his eye. It was that of Lucio Costa. It was presented without any concern of getting highlighted. It was on a plain sheet of paper, drawn by hand, with a few scribbles, and accompanied by an exhibition, as a defense of the project. (KUBITSCHEK, 1975)

Those placed were:

5th place (1): Milton Ghiraldini and team

5th place (2): Vilanova Artigas and team

5th place (3): Henrique Mindlin and Giancarlo Palanti

3rd and 4th place: M.M.M. Roberto and team

3rd and 4th places: Rino Levi and team

2nd place: Boruch Milman and team

1st place: Lucio Costa

Croquis by Lúcio Costa. SOURCE:

Unlike the other projects, Lúcio Costa's was presented only with hand-drawn sketches of the Pilot Plan and a justification report of 24 pages, the minimum required by the Tender Protocol. The proposal consisted of the crossing of two axes, one of them arched to facilitate the water drainage, resulting in the now known airplane form. Along the East-West axis are arranged all the public-administrative buildings and the sectors of leisure, commerce, hotels, banking, etc. The north-south axis houses the residential sectors, known as Superquadras (superblocks, in Portuguese). At the intersection of the two axes is the road terminal that distributes traffic to the axes. The road network of the residential axes consists of high-speed lanes and side lanes for local traffic.

Road map of Lúcio Costa. Source:

The arched road is the one that gives the city the shape of an airplane. This is the predominantly residential axis, where the superblocks are located, divided between South Wing and North Wing. The monumental axis, East-West, houses the public buildings and the palace of the Federal Government on the east side; the road terminal and the TV Tower in the center, and the local government buildings on the west side.

Croqui _ Monumental axis. Source:

In addition to planning the city that would be home to the nation's capital, Lucio Costa also predicted how the soul of Brasilia would be:

A city planned for orderly and efficient work but at the same time a lively and pleasant city, proper to daydreaming and intellectual speculation, capable of becoming, in time, a center of government and administration, a focus of culture of the most lucid and sensitive areas of the country. Lucio Costa

The superblocks

SQS 308 (Super block 308, model). SOURCE: o autor.

The intention of Lúcio Costa was to create social spaces where social interaction prevailed. For this reason, the buildings are not very high and have a free ground floor, through pilotis, giving physical and visual permeability. Between a block and another, there is a greenery belt, without fences, again aiming at creating community bonds.

Super block scheme. Source:

As in the rest of the city, pedestrian traffic is disconnected from vehicles inside the super-blocks, both of which are at some point connected to the road system that leads to other parts of the city. They are made up of 11 apartment blocks that follow a rational implementation that ensures adequate ventilation and insulation. The buildings do not have a main facade, without discrimination between the front and the bottom.

SQS 308 apartment building. Source: o autor.
"As for the residential problem, the solution was to create a continuous sequence of large blocks arranged in double or single order, on both sides of the road band, and framed by a large, heavily forested belt, large trees, prevailing in each block certain plant species with grassy ground and an intermittent supplementary curtain of shrubs and foliage..." Lucio Costa

Every four blocks characterize a neighborhood unit, where urban equipment necessary for modern life, such as primary schools, playgrounds, churches, vicinal trade, etc., are arranged between the buildings. Between a neighborhood unit and another, there is larger equipment, intended for a greater number of users, such as supermarkets, cinemas and daycare centers.

Neighborhood unit. Source:

Brasilia as a piece of art

Oscar Niemeyer. Source: Arquivo Público do Distrito Federal

With the urban planning of Lúcio Costa, the responsibility of designing all the monumental buildings was conferred to Oscar Niemeyer. The architect was the author of the most outstanding works of the Brazilian capital: the National Congress, the Alvorada and Planalto Palaces, the Federal Supreme Court and the Brasília Cathedral. To complete the work, were also part of the team figures such as Roberto Burle Marx, who designed the gardens and squares, and Athos Bulcão, with its tile panels that give a unique identity to Brasilia.

Itamaraty Palace _ Oscar Niemeyer. Source: o autor.
Panel of Athos Bulcão in the Church Our Lady of Fátima. Source: o autor.


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em português