Brasília and the West Feature

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The Making of a Capital

As far back as 1808 Brazilian newspapers ran articles discussing Rio's inadequacies as a capital (Rio became the capital in 1763, following Brazil's first capital, Salvador), the argument being that contact with Pará and other states far from Rio was difficult. Also, Rio was right on the water, and an easy target for enemy invasion. In 1892 congress authorized an overland expedition to find a central locale where "a city could be constructed next to the headwaters of big rivers" and where "roads could be opened to all seaports." Within three months the expedition leaders had chosen a plateau in the southeastern Goiás region.

But it was not until the mid-1950s that Juscelino Kubitschek made the new capital part of his presidential campaign agenda, which was summarized in the motto "Fifty Years in Five." When he was elected in 1956, he quickly set the wheels in motion. Within a few days the site was selected (in Goiás, as proposed by the 1892 expedition), work committees were set up, and Niemeyer was put in charge of architectural and urban development. The design, called the Plano Piloto (Pilot, or Master, Plan), was the work of Lúcio Costa, chosen from an international contest. The concept was simple and original: "Brasília was conceived by the gesture of those who mark a place on a map: two axes intersecting at a right angle, that is, the sign of a cross mark." The Plano Piloto's most important gardens were to be created by famed landscape designer Roberto Burle Marx.

Among Costa's objectives were to do away with a central downtown, design highways that were as accident-free as possible, and ensure that the vast horizon would always be visible. Construction officially began in February 1957—with 3,000 workers on-site.

Building a modern seat of power for Latin America's largest nation was a monumental undertaking. Before paved roads were built, supplies had to be flown in from the eastern cities. The majority of the workers were immigrants from the Northeast, and unskilled. They learned fast and worked hard, however. Settlements of shacks and tents sprang up around the construction site. The largest, Freetown (now the suburb Nucleo Bandeirante), was home to close to 15,000 workers and their families.

In Rio, opposition to the new capital was heated. Debates in the senate turned into fistfights. Government employees feared that Rio's business would decline and its real-estate values would drop, and were reluctant to leave Rio's comforts and beaches. Kubitschek's government induced them with 100% salary increases, tax breaks, early retirement options, ridiculously low rents, and even discounts on home furnishings.

On April 21, 1960, the city was inaugurated. The day began with mass in the uncompleted cathedral and ended with a fireworks display, where the president's name burned in 15-foot-high letters. A new era of pioneering and colonization followed the realization of Kubitschek's vision of a "nation of the future," looking westward from the coast.

Updated: 2013-09-17

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