The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Urban Literary Studies

Living Edition
| Editors: Jeremy Tambling

Brasília and the Literature It Has Inspired

  • Sophia BealEmail author
Living reference work entry

In 1960, Brazil’s government inaugurated Brasília, a futuristic capital built at the heart of the country. The new Federal District was meant to integrate the country from its core and serve as a symbol of innovation. In international art circles, Brasília is famous for its architecture and design, masterminded by urban planner Lucio Costa and architect Oscar Niemeyer. Within Brazil, the capital is well known additionally for its 1980s and 1990s post-punk rock music, which generated hit songs that have become part of a collective Brazilian identity. Many songs and films inspired by Brasília have gained national fame, particularly love songs and engagé documentaries. Lesser known, however, is the corpus of innovative prose and poetry inspired by the ambitious utopian city. The first part of this entry introduces Brasília chronologically, and the second part analyzes the literature it has inspired. Common threads throughout this corpus include efforts to demystify a flawed utopia, to engage the strangeness of the capital, and to work collaboratively in the creation of anthologies or across artistic genres.

Although Brasília officially became the national capital only in April 1960, the idea of building it dates back much further. Colonial Brazil’s first two capitals – Salvador and Rio de Janeiro, respectively – were coastal. The Brazilian independence movement known as the Inconfidentes Mineiros ordered, in 1789, that Brazil’s capital be moved to the country’s geographic center where it would be better protected and would more effectively unite the nation. Since the independence movement was unsuccessful, the plan was abandoned. The proposal of moving the capital to Brazil’s center emerged again in 1822, when Brazil finally did declare its independence. That year, a statesman advised that a new capital of the kingdom should be founded in the middle of Brazil, and he suggested that it be given the Latin form of the country’s name: Brasília. However, the proposal was ignored, and Rio de Janeiro continued to serve as the capital after independence. In 1883, the Italian priest Don Bosco, known for his prophetic visions, dreamed of a land of innumerous riches near a lake between the 15th and 20th parallels of the southern hemisphere. His dream catalyzed a string of mythical associations connected to Brasília. By the 1940s and 1950s, logistical shortcomings in Rio de Janeiro – traffic congestion, utility outages, and a lack of options for expansion due to the ocean and hills – reignited the former discussion of an inland capital (Evenson 1973: 9).

In 1956, Juscelino Kubitschek was sworn in as president of Brazil, and he made it his mission to make the transfer of the capital a reality. He opened up a contest for the best plan for Brasília, and despite elaborate entries by design firms, Costa’s far less detailed but more symbolically powerful entry won (Holston 1989: 60–74). Costa submitted 16 hand-sketched drawings accompanied by brief descriptions. One sheet included an image of a cross. It evoked the country’s Catholicism, and, more specifically, Portuguese explorers’ arrival in Brazil in 1500 when they built an enormous cross that inspired the colony’s first name: Land of the True Cross (el-Dahdah 2012: 274). A second image on the same page elaborated upon the first image, curving the horizontal axis so it resembled a hammock, one of Costa’s favorite symbols of Brazil (el-Dahdah 2005: 16–17). A third image on the page fleshed out the design further, portraying a city in the shape of a bird or airplane. Although almost none of the logistical aspects had been ironed out, Costa’s sequence of sketches synthesized the zeitgeist of the project: a city of possibility, ingenuity, grace, and upward mobility. Soon afterward, the other founding fathers of Brasília were selected: Oscar Niemeyer as architect, Athos Bulcão as sculptor and wall tile artist, and Roberto Burle Marx as landscape designer. Thus, a capital that for decades had existed in the imaginations of many began to become a reality. This achievement, however, required profound labor and a high price tag. The locale selected for Brasília was so isolated that, at the outset, building materials even had to be flown there, due to a lack of roads (Gouvêa 2005: 346).

Socially, Brasília constituted both a continuation and a rupture. It continued with a tradition in Brazil of using strategic planning to influence societal behavior. Examples include Mayor Pereira Passos’s Haussmann-style urban reforms in Rio de Janeiro from 1903 to 1906 (Murilo de Carvalho 1987) and Fordlândia, Henry Ford’s short-lived teetotaling town (1928–1934), which was meant to house Brazilian rubber cultivators working in service of the US car manufacturing industry (Grandin 2009). Moreover, Brasília follows a long list of planned national and provincial capitals. Among them are the District of Columbia in the United States, Abuja in Nigeria, La Plata in Argentina, Ankara in Turkey, Canberra in Australia, and – in Brazil – Aracaju in Sergipe and Belo Horizonte in Minas Gerais. Part of the mystique around Brasília came from the possibility of, much in the colonialist spirit, expanding civilization into a rural frontier and creating a city on a seemingly blank slate.

Socially, the largest ruptures in Brasília are the superquadra residential units in the Plano Piloto and the stark social stratification, which was planned strategically. In Brasília, Costa’s superquadra residential units – the most positive innovation in Brasília (el-Dahdah 2005) – were meant to create more egalitarian neighborhoods in which all basic needs were within walking distance and in which people of different social classes lived harmoniously, protected from traffic and surrounded by greenery. In this sense, Brasília was meant, as its nickname, The Capital of Hope, suggests, to be more egalitarian than existing Brazilian cities. It failed in that mission. Ironically, though not surprisingly given the lack of housing regulations, Brasília became deeply economically segregated (Bursztyn and de Araújo 1997: 32). Prime real estate quickly went to the wealthy and housing speculation abounded. Moreover, although Brasília was designed for a population of 500,000, it expanded geographically and demographically far beyond projections. Officials had assumed that the many workers – primarily Northeastern Brazilian men who had fled calamitous droughts – would return to their home states upon the capital’s inauguration. However, these workers, in search of better prospects, mostly chose to stay. Manual laborers had been living in makeshift workers’ camps, often comprised of thousands of wooden shacks, which the government deemed unsightly and incongruous with their vision of Brasília. The government even flooded one workers’ camp, Vila Amaury, housing about 16,000 workers, in 1959, as part of the process of creating Brasília’s artificial Paranoá Lake. The flooding represented a draconian erasure of the capital’s least powerful residents from the city center. Brasília’s officials – especially during the military dictatorship (1964–1985) – destroyed the former workers’ camps, which had now expanded into informal neighborhoods. They did so in the name of order and progress (the positivist motto on Brazil’s flag), forcing inhabitants to massive government-sponsored low-income housing conglomerations. The government housing lacked in basic amenities and was located miles from the city center. These examples demonstrate that, despite the intentions of Costa’s superquadras, Brasília’s top-down urban planning has separated the rich and poor dramatically. Scholars have even gone so far as to liken Brasília to an apartheid. Urbanist Luiz Alberto de Campos Gouvêa argues that a “real social apartheid […] was created in a planned way in Brasília” (Gouvêa 1996: 233). Sociologist Brasilmar Ferreira Nunes contends that the way Brasília’s urban planning organizes social space could serve as a model for a Brazilian apartheid (Nunes 1997: 18).

Brasília also constituted both a continuation and a rupture aesthetically. The capital is saturated in the design components of international style architecture that began to appear in 1922 (Hitchcock and Johnson 1995). The city followed many of Le Corbusier’s Five Points of Architecture, particularly the first four: horizontal windows, load-bearing columns (pilotis) that raise a building off the ground, façades free from structural constraints, the absence of supporting walls, and roof gardens. Additional related features in Brazil’s Federal District were inspired by Le Corbusier: curtain walls, flat roofs, stark contrasts between horizontal and vertical volumes, the prominence of white walls, unfinished concrete, and brise soleil (or more precisely the Brazilian cobogós). Le Corbusier designed Chandigarh, the capital of the Indian states of Punjab and Haryana, which was under construction when Brazil’s capital was inaugurated and which shares its modernist aesthetics and utopian ideals. These capitals were meant to shock viewers and, thus, make them experience their surroundings afresh (Holston 1989: 6). In this way, Brasília has much in common with international examples of modernist comprehensive design, but in the context of Brazil, it felt utterly new.

The capital’s international style elements make it significantly different than other Brazilian urban areas. Most Brazilian cities at the time of Brasília’s inauguration were densely populated, had narrow streets, and contained dense rows of buildings along streets that opened onto squares containing buildings of church and state. These buildings tended to follow the Portuguese colonial, neoclassical, Baroque, eclectic, and beaux-arts styles. The Plano Piloto, which is the original airplane-shaped footprint of the capital, has more open areas than buildings, creating an expansiveness that is unlike other Brazilian cities. In the Plano Piloto, buildings tend to be low compared to other Brazilian city centers. Expansive lawns and an unobstructed view of the huge sky (frequently evoked in poetry and song) dominate. The monumental buildings appear as stand-alone objects, disconnected from a larger urban fabric. While vibrant street life is a main component of most Brazilian cities, Brasília’s residents, bar owners, restaurateurs, and shopkeepers have struggled to find new methods of creating a dynamic street life in a Plano Piloto that does not have traditional sidewalks, street corners, and urban density. The challenge of walking in Brasília (despite Le Corbusier’s insistence on increased mobility in the modern city) arises as a common trope in Brasília’s literature and music (Beal 2015).

Although Brasília was in large part inspired by Le Corbusier’s design strategies, it rejected the hard lines and mechanical severity of his architecture. Instead, the capital’s signature buildings are curvier and include more fields of color, especially in the form of bold tiled walls. For the most part, Brasília is divorced from local contexts and national artistic traditions. To many, it looks more like a The Jetsons set (an outdated vision of the future) than like a typical Brazilian city. However, certain elements (curves, wall tiles, and stained glass) are similar to the Brazilian Baroque architecture popular in the eighteenth century, particularly in churches. For instance, architect Carlos Alberto Naves’s Dom Bosco Sanctuary in Brasília has enormous blue-stained glass windows, which are as ornate as the gilded church interiors of the Brazilian Baroque. The adjustable brise soleil, with their slight curvature, created shade from the sun for those inside and broke up the monotony of large exterior walls, as did Baroque volutes.

Brasília surprised people and continues to surprise them both visually and verbally. When it was built, the capital prided itself on its logical design elements, such as the specific set of codes and acronyms used to name buildings, highways, and zones. For instance, SQN-203-D-107 is a typical Brasília address. For someone familiar with the capital’s codes, the address refers to apartment 107, in building D, of superquadra North 203, east of the Eixão Highway, three blocks from the central bus station, which is located at the heart of the city. However, for anyone else, these codes are confounding and add to the impersonal and emotionally cold components of the Plano Piloto.

To date, there is no exhaustive anthology of literary texts inspired by Brasília. But if there were it would begin with internationally acclaimed writer Clarice Lispector’s “Brasília: Five Days.” Her creative essay, or crônica in Portuguese, was inspired by her 5-day trip to the new capital in 1962 and later included in her 1964 collection A legião estrangeira [The Foreign Legion]. It is the most cited and beloved piece of creative writing about the capital to date, and it inspired Zuleica Porto and Sérgio Bazi’s short film Brasiliários (1986). The text registers, from the perplexed standpoint of the author, the sense of shock that Brasília elicits. Clarice avoids judging the city, as if its strangeness stood outside the realm of good or bad. Instead, through a series of surreal images, she contemplates how the capital makes her feel. She writes: “It was built with no place for rats. A whole part of us, the worst, exactly the part that is terrified of rats, that part has no place in Brasília. They wanted to refute that we are worthless. A construction that calculated room for the clouds. Hell understands me better” (Lispector 1964: 163). Clarice, in the text, upends readers’ expectations about syntax, spatial dimensions, time, and the boundaries between life and death, which perplex the reader in much the same way as Brasília perplexes the onlooker. Playing with a long history of utopias that dates back to Plato’s Republic, Clarice imagines a race of sparkling, blind, beautiful, and mostly barren ancient Brasília people who had inhabited the city in ancient times. That city’s ruins had been unearthed to form Brazil’s capital.

The word utopia derives from the Greek for “no place,” and a pun often repeated in Brasília’s literature reworks that idea, referring to the capital by the invented homophone Bras-ilha. The word ilha means “island” in Portuguese, and in this context, it emphasizes how the Plano Piloto and its adjacent areas are such an elite enclave that they are divorced from the rest of the Federal District. If in the original Greek, utopias referred to nonexistent societies, Brasília’s nickname suggests that the utopian lifestyle only exists for the upper crust of well-paid federal employees.

Other canonical Brazilian writers brilliantly portrayed the beginning of the capital. Like Lispector, they dodged the temptation to simply praise or vilify the city. The first and last stories of João Guimarães Rosa’s 1962 collection Primeiras estórias [First Stories] take place by the construction area of the new capital. These texts signal how urbanization did away with the rural settings and dialects that characterize much of Rosa’s work. The anthology’s last story, “As margens da alegria” [“The edges of happiness”], captures how Brasília’s construction involved the massive destruction of the cerrado (tropical savanna) ecoregion, negating the presumption that the Federal District was built on a tabula rasa. Too young to be captivated by the new capital as an icon of national grandeur, the young protagonist is drawn in, instead, by other aspects of the savanna, primarily birds and plants. He admires a turkey with the euphoric language one might expect to find in a praise piece to Brasília. Moreover, what he sees of the construction of the airport – huge equipment, dust, and commotion – scares him because it devastates the natural world with which he is enraptured (Beal 2013b: 80–82). The last story in the anthology “Os cimos” [“The Tops”] involves the same protagonist’s experience of feeling emotionally uplifted by the presence of a toucan on the outskirts of the same city. The new capital is never referred to by name in either of the two stories, echoing how the boy, who has no notion of nation building, perceives it as simply the “grande cidade” (great city) (2001: 49, 224). The desire to understand Brasília not only as a built environment but as a natural environment continues in the work of poet Nicolas Behr.

Another acclaimed Brazilian writer, Samuel Rawet, worked as an engineer in the construction of the capital. He wrote a few stories set in Brasília, such as “Uma carreira bem-sucedida” [“A successful career”] (1969), which was one of the first to approach the city from a queer perspective, a theme continued in the texts of Alexandre Ribondi. With the minimalist precision characteristic of Rawet’s work, the story recounts the troubled life of a bartender involved in the cruising that takes place at the Plano Piloto’s central bus station. As the story registers, already in the 1960s, the central bus station was the bustling heart of the city that facilitated human interaction. Yet it also symbolized the long commutes (the bartender exits the bus on the last stop) that aggravated workers’ quality of life.

The first literary book published in Brasília was Joanyr de Oliveira’s 1962 Poetas de Brasília poetry anthology, and 2 years later Almeida Fischer published Contistas de Brasília, an anthology of Brasília’s stories. As noted by journalist Paulo Paniago, Brasília’s literature, from its onset, embraced the idea of collectivity by uniting diverse voices in single volumes (Paniago 2012: 54). That tradition later continued in cultural magazines – notably Bric-a-Brac, which ran from 1986 to 1992, Nil Revista (2011–2012), and Traços (founded in 2015 and ongoing). The tradition of collective anthologies (either uniting texts by authors from Brasília or texts about Brasília and in most cases including both) has continued steadily throughout the decades. By way of comparison, there are over two dozen anthologies of Brasília’s literature, but only two novels about the construction of the new capital (José Geraldo Vieira’s Paralelo 16: Brasília [Parallel 16: Brasília], published in Vieira 1966, and João Almino’s Cidade Livre [Free City], published in Almino 2010). The early anthologies include many bland odes to Brasília. However, two of the more recent anthologies are more intriguing. 50 anos em seis – Brasília, prosa e poesia [50 Years in Six – Brasília, prose and poetry], published in 2010, compiles texts inspired by the strangeness of the Plano Piloto, including brilliant micro-stories by José Rezende Jr. Coletânea candanga [Candanga Collection – referring to both the contemporary meaning of a person from Brasília and in the earlier sense of one who built the city], published in 2008, engages the social injustice experienced in the peripheral administrative region of Ceilândia, which began as one of the aforementioned low-income housing conglomerations created by the military regime.

One of Brazil’s most famous poets, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, wrote the poem “Confronto” [“Confrontation”] in 1979. He did so purportedly after reading an article about how Ceilândia, with its population of 200,000, was Brazil’s largest favela (Jevan 2008: 190). In the poem, a luxurious Brasília and an impoverished Ceilândia stare at one another, as the two opposing sides of contemporary Brazilian urbanism. The poem asks which of these places will speak first, suggesting that they both have a valid story to tell about Brasília. Similarly, Rawet argued that Brasília could not realize its literary potential until those who had built it learned to read and write (qtd. Paniago 2012: 26). Today, Ceilândia is the largest of the 31 administrative regions that comprise Brasília, with a population of almost 400,000, which is larger than most midsized cities. Ceilândia’s artists now tell their own stories and constitute some of the capital’s best-known talent in filmmaking (Adirley Queirós) and rap (Câmbio Negro, Viela 17, and Cirurgia Moral). Most of their artistic production relates to social injustice in the capital.

Since the outset, there has been a division in the literary production of Brasília’s center and periphery, and more government funding has been dedicated to the art produced in the Plano Piloto than to that of the low-income periphery. The Northeasterners who built Brasília brought with them many of the art forms of their regions, including cordel poetry, narrative rhyming ballads generally published in the form of chapbooks with a woodblock print illustrating the cover. Cordel poetry, such as that of Gustavo Dourado, praises the capital’s founding fathers, tells the origin story of Brasília, and describes social injustice. This poetry rarely has circulated beyond the periphery or received government funding. The pairing of erudite internationalist architecture and Northeastern-inspired folk arts marks one of Brasília’s many juxtapositions.

In the 1980s, the Plano Piloto became a hotbed for Brazilian rock music, known as BRock. This genre benefited from the capital’s cosmopolitan makeup, since the children of diplomats doing tours in Europe and the United States brought back cassette tapes of bands such as the Sex Pistols and the Dead Kennedys, thus piquing interest in a genre nothing like Brazilian Popular Music. This scene’s hero was Renato Russo the lead man of the band Legião Urbana. His band’s songs became the soundtrack of a Brazilian middle-class generation trying to find its bearings in a newly democratic Brazil in which conspicuous consumption eclipsed the political causes that had preoccupied the previous generation. Although most of his songs are not set in Brasília, a few (such as “Eduardo e Mônica” and “Faroeste Caboclo” [“Caboclo Western”]) are and continue to be national classics. If Brasília’s architecture felt too sleek and emotionally austere for many, Russo’s songs gave the capital a pulsing heart. They were among the first nationally famous texts to humanize Brasília as a city of love, dreams, heartbreak, and social division.

The local writer who has been the most successful at capturing the strangeness of the planned capital is Behr. Since 1977, when he began distributing mimeographed chapbooks in Brasília’s public spaces and buses, he has been writing joke poems, satires, a creative guidebook, riddles, and miniature poems with Brasília as his muse. He is a master of wordplay and of returning the strangeness to terms and customs that locals take for granted. He continues a trend, begun by Lispector, of envisioning Brasília as belonging both to the realm of myth and reality. If Brasília’s architecture were meant to make viewers see space afresh, Behr’s poetry achieves the same effect of defamiliarizing how people perceive the capital (Beal 2013a: 37–40, 47–48, 51–52). His work has been the subject of nonfiction books (Furiati and Maria 2012; Marcelo 2004) and is often referenced in the literature of other Brasília writers (such as poets Chico Alvim and Augusto Rodrigues and prose writer Daniel Cariello). A compilation of a selection of Behr’s previously published poetry about Brasília written from 1977 to 2017 – Brasilírica (2017) serves as an excellent introduction to his Brasília poetry. He has authored over two dozen books about Brasília. Moreover, the capital’s population sees Behr as their unofficial poet laureate, and he enjoys a local celebrity few other Brazilian poets possess. Dolls in his likeness can even be purchased at newsstands, and a mosaic (by artist Gougon) on a library wall reproduces one of his most beloved poems: “Naquela noite” (“That Night”).

Novelist and diplomat João Almino wrote what he termed a Brasília quintet of novels. In most of these novels, Brasília stands as a metonym for urban life everywhere, and its specific attributes are not central to the plot. However, the exception is his 2010 Cidade Livre, the second novel to recount the epic story of Brasília’s creation. In it, he capture’s Brasília’s unique identity as a mythical outpost for religious sects (the most notorious being the Valley of Dawn in Planaltina, a religious community of 10,000 people), its social stratification, and workers’ ambivalence about both building the greatest mega-project in the country’s history and being priced out of living there.

The twenty-first-century trends of holding literary soirees (saraus) and slam poetry events and of self-publishing (although Lispector and Behr self-published their Brasília texts decades prior) have made way for the writing of previously marginalized Brasília voices. Examples of this new generation include Meimei Bastos (poet) and Cristiane Sobral (poet and prose writer) both of whom write with visceral emotion about social exclusion and about solidarity among peripheral black women. Fighting against a long history of elitism and racism in the publishing industry in Brazil (Dalcastagnè 2002: 34), this new generation of writers, by drawing on their personal experiences, tells a story of Brasília that is also their own story. While aspects of this story are universal, others speak directly to the legacy of top-down urban planning and the social and spatial divisions that it created in Brazil’s capital.


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© The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of MinnesotaMinneapolisUSA