On April 21, 1960, Brazil’s capital left the beach. After having Salvador as its first capital city from 1549 to 1763 and then Rio de Janeiro for the next two centuries, the largest country in South America moved the seat of government to the countryside, to a region known as the Brazilian Highlands. Brasília was inaugurated that day as one of the most distinctive cities in Latin American, from its conception to its design. This modernist capital was recognized in 1987 as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO for its unique city plan, architectural and urban projects, and its role in developing the country’s interior region.

The city was planned in 1956 by Lúcio Costa, one of the most famous modernist architects and urbanists in Brazilian history, known for designing masterpieces like the Gustavo Capanema Palace and Parque Eduardo Guinle, both in Rio de Janeiro, and for being a scholar of Le Corbusier's work. Costa won a public contest looking for the best city master plans (or Plano Piloto —” Pilot Plan” — as it was called). The architect described his winning plan as “two axes crossing at right angles,” like “the sign of the cross.” Impressively, it took little over three years to build the city.

JK Bridge, in Brasília. Photo by Igor Augusto
JK Bridge, in Brasília. Photo by Igor Augusto

“Lúcio Costa wanted to apply modernist precepts in Brasília, but at the same time, he wished for a unique identity. He didn't want it to be just any city, so he started by drawing the cross,” explains architect and urbanist Gabriela de Souza Tenório, a professor at the School of Architecture and Urbanism at the University of Brasília (UnB). The modernist rules of the time were “to inhabit, work, recreate, and circulate” among these activities. Thus, Costa considered the city as a series of well-defined sectors (bank, hospital, administrative, residential areas, and so on), with plenty of space for cars, the most common means of transportation in his Plano Piloto.

Brasília native Túlio Gomes, an architect and interior designer, says that no substantial changes have been made to the city's original layout, listing the large open spaces as a key point of Costa’s design that give the modernist city the sense of fluidity it’s known for. “These large, open spaces weren’t made by chance. Costa was concerned with supporting circulation and contemplation,” explains Gomes, who worked with us on the design of the KOHLER® Experience Center in Brasília, the second in Brazil and the eleventh in the world.

KOHLER Experience Center in Brasília’s designer, Túlio Gomes
KOHLER Experience Center in Brasília

The city’s great monuments and iconic buildings were designed by Oscar Niemeyer, another preeminent modernist architect in Brazilian history. Costa was Niemeyer’s mentor, and the pair worked together on many other projects. Years before, Niemeyer was commissioned by Juscelino Kubitschek when he was mayor of Belo Horizonte to design what would become the city’s Pampulha Architectural Complex. By 1956, Kubitschek was president of Brazil and hired the architect to work on the new capital.

“Niemeyer's architecture has monumental scales, like his Supreme Federal Court Building, Congress and Presidential buildings, and water features and open-air works of art, which are also scattered everywhere,” says Gomes. He also points out that Brasília is also known for its abundance of parks and gardens, though they are the work of another genius, the renowned Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx.

The National Congress of Brazil building.  Photo by Anita Cavalcanti
The National Congress of Brazil building. Photo by Anita Cavalcanti

Ana Paula Passarelli, Marketing Manager at Kohler Brasil, highlights the importance of Niemeyer's creations for art in the country. “It’s impressive how Niemeyer's modernist designs managed to build a powerful identity for the city. For those who like architecture, it's a beautiful walk. You can learn a lot and really be inspired. It’s a place rich in art history,” she says.

Completed in 1970, the Cathedral of Brasília was designed by Oscar Niemeyer. Photo by Marisa Cornelsen
Completed in 1970, the Cathedral of Brasília was designed by Oscar Niemeyer. Photo by Marisa Cornelsen

Nowadays, Brasília and its metropolitan area (which goes beyond the Plano Piloto) is the third most populous city in the country and faces challenges like any other metropolis. One such challenge has to do with mobility, says Tenório. “The way of making a city that Brasília embraced is expensive and not very sustainable in terms of mobility. Modern cities can no longer afford to do things apart from each other, nor can spaces be so separated, since that requires much more movement around the city,” she explains. 

University of Brasilia Photo by Heloísa Oss Boll
University of Brasilia Photo by Heloísa Oss Boll

The way Brasília was conceived also makes the spontaneous occupation of public space a rarity. “There aren’t many people circulating outside of business hours, and everyday use of spaces isn’t that common,” Tenório says. “I teach students to draw neighborhoods and cities and usually say to them, ‘Brasília is beautiful, I love it, but we can't make another one like this.’”

Despite these challenges, Brasília remains an iconic exemplar of modernist city planning and an inspiration for architects and architecture buffs alike.