A City Contrived

BRASILIA, Brazil—In Brasília, there are no crowds, no congestion. Skyscrapers are forbidden and buildings are spread out. Major roads and neighborhoods have no names—they are numbered one, two, east, west. The city is partitioned into districts defined by their function: residential, commercial, political, touristic.

In Brasília, everything is perfect—and right from the start, I hate it.

Driving into the heart of Brazil’s capital, what first strikes me is the city’s serenity—a serenity only recently planned, built, and cultivated. It’s easy for me to see how there was nothing here before 1955. Monuments and ministries flank the Via 2 Sul but their whitewashed concrete makes them look like bleached Legos, interchangeable and transitory, ready to be picked up and tinkered with at anyone’s whim.

“Brasília,” says our petite half-Japanese tour guide in hushed tones of awe, “was the first city built not at random or around a strategy but on a philosophy.” She pauses: “Modernism!”

Then-president Juscelino Kubitschek was a fan of everything to do with the movement, she continues, from the sleek lines of its architecture to the progressiveness of its politics. In its broadest sense, modernism meant modernity for Kubitschek, who wanted a capital for his country that would shatter the stereotypes of a backwards Brazil and launch it onto the world stage.

Hence the monuments and the ministries, each built in strict adherence to the tenets of modernist architecture, and the partitioned districts, enforcing an artificial equality among Brasilia’s inhabitants. Hence the wide-open boulevards and swaths of nothing, because “human beings,” our guide claims, “have a necessity of space, to think and to progress”—and it’s OK if that means everything should be far apart. After all, you have to rely on automobiles and oil to acclimate to a modern world, a world in which the Brazilian economy, at least, is playing an increasingly important role.

And while the trip itself is fascinating, I still don’t like the city. It’s too tidy. It’s too pristine. When we descend a hill to visit the Congresso Nacional, the three roads leading to the entrance are lined by a succession of politicians’ cars, each one flawlessly parallel-parked. How do they do that?

Returning to São Paulo, my home base for the summer, I find that I’ve missed the honking and swearing and adrenaline-fueled driving, the high-rises next to botecas next to banks, the street vendors peddling their coxinhas and pipoca for two reais each. São Paulo is hardly the ideal city, and when I’m stuck in a hopeless traffic jam with pollution shrouding the streets and shiny new skyscrapers casting shadows over the shantytowns next door, I can see where Kubitschek was coming from in his grand scheme to start from scratch.

But it’s just these nuisances, these flaws, that keep me invested in São Paulo. There’s something to be said for hanging onto its inconsistencies rather than abandoning them to start again.

I understand Brasilia’s longing to stamp out the imperfections of the country it governs. But I agree with Italo Calvino when he wrote that cities should be made, like dreams, of desires and fears, not to be neutralized with sterility, but rather to reflect the people of which they are composed. “Sem graça,” my host family says about Brasília when we talk about it at dinner. I look this up later to find that it means tasteless, bland. But I understand somehow from the literal translation—“without grace”—and realize that this is what I’m looking for and what I find in cities like São Paulo. It’s in flawed cities, the cities I love: a certain type of grace.

Victoria A. Baena ’14 is a magazine writer in Mather House.

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