Saturday, May 28, 2005


A 1950’s science fiction movie set brought to life. This was my first impression after a short trip to Brasília, the capital of Brazil.

I was also shocked that this modern urban and architectural wonder was built in an incredibly short period of time. Under the command of socialist Juscelino Kubitschek, Brazilian president from 1956-61, Brasília was built in the middle-of-nowhere in just over three years (1957-1960).

The science fiction movie remark is due to the widespread modernist architecture – that is, a rejection of past architectural traditions, tonnes of concrete, and buildings that belong in a futuristic utopia that was imagined 50 years ago.

It is evident that the urban planner, Lúcio Costa, had a clear priority: efficiency and functionality. The city is built with many freeways and roads that lack traffic lights, intersections and sidewalks. A driver’s heaven. A pedestrian’s hell.

The main avenue is lined with countless rectangular government ministries that lead up to three eccentric buildings that are positioned in a perfect triangle. This equilibrium symbolizes the balance of power between the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary. The city is filled with buildings, statues, monuments, etc. that intentionally serve both functional and symbolic roles for the nation’s capital.

For a student of political science, the city’s emphasis on administration is particularly fascinating. I also imagine that architects and urban planners would consider Brasília as an exceptional case study for analyzing what is right (and wrong) with modernism.

Despite being created with the most honourable of intentions and grand ambitions, the 45 year old city suffers from some serious problems.

Its socialist creators aimed to create class-uniting, self-contained residential communities for a city of 500,000 people. Yet in a short amount of time satellite towns popped up in the suburbs – one of which is already larger than Brasilia – reflecting Brazil’s strong social divide in a sprawling city of over 2 million people.

As mentioned, the city is ideal for car owners. Anyone who has to take public transport, mostly the poor, or simply wishes to walk, has to deal with a lack of sidewalks, extensive distances, and a dangerous absence of traffic lights and crosswalks.

The lack of people on the streets gives Brasília a colder, isolated feel. I found the city difficult to associate with what I imagined to be a livelier, colourful culture. And while there is a lot of grass and trees – an abundant 25 square meters per person - the overwhelming amount of concrete, roads and cars, overshadow this well intended initiative.

Admittedly, I was a bit sceptical when I found out that my first trip to Brazil was taking place in Brasilia, and not in Rio or Sao Paolo. Considering that it was a paid work trip, I was definitely not going to complain but enjoy it to the fullest. Moreover, had I not gone to Brasília for work I would have almost certainly not gone there on my own. The fact that one can visit the city’s main attractions in just a few hours made the trip particularly fulfilling.

I have long wanted to visit Brazil. And even more so considering a long rivalry between Argentina and Brazil recently began to evolve into a warm friendship. Although the soccer hatred is alive and well, ties between the two countries have begun to improve significantly, particularly under left-leaning presidents, Kirchner and Lula.

During visits to Buenos Aires over the years, I have personally witnessed the growing integration. Culturally, samba, caipirinhas and Brahma have made a significant impact on Argentina’s pulsating nightlife. Economically, Argentina imports just about every type of product imaginable from Brazil. And politically, growing cooperation has led to ambitious (although farfetched) calls to lead the creation of a South American Union.

Considering that Brazil almost has five times the population, three times the land mass, and over three times the wealth (in GDP terms) than Argentina, it is logical to expect a one-sided integration and influence. It is not surprising that Argentina has shown some concern regarding Brazil’s growing ambition in international organizations, particularly in its quest for a permanent seat on the security council. Argentina believes the seat should be shared between Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay and Argentina (members of Mercosur). Yesterday, Argentina’s foreign affairs Minister was quoted as saying that Brazil’s solo conquest for the seat, and betrayal of the regional alliance, is “elitist and hardly-democratic”. This came after a month or so of sour public exchanges between the two neighbours (Juanson picked up the story back on the 11th).

Given this complicated relationship, upon arriving in Brasilia I immediately made an effort to see how Argentina and Argentines are viewed. The response I got was generally negative, but almost always accompanied with some laughter, as if revealing that this rivalry is a relic of the past. Indeed, everyone I met was incredibly friendly and extremely tolerant with my horrible attempts at portuñol. Some also joked about not advertising the fact that I am Argentine, and instead playing the Canadian card.

The most memorable part of the trip was meeting a couple of people, of about my age, who work at the UNESCO office. They not only spoke perfect Spanish and had already initiated inspiring careers, but they also took time out of their busy lives to show me around the city. They demonstrated that you cannot simply judge a place by its architecture or natural scenery, but by the openness and generousity of its people.


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