Blogs > Liberty and Power > Urban Planning Makes God Laugh

Sep 18, 2005 3:10 pm

Urban Planning Makes God Laugh

The Washington Post magazine has a travel piece on Brasilia, Brazil's capital, and a place that's always fascinated me even though I've never been there. Jane Jacobs offered it as the epitome of the modern, centrally planned metropolis--scientifically designed, rather than organically evolved. The results are hardly inviting:

The city of Brasilia, population 500,000, has never been known as a welcoming place. Reason, not human warmth, is the organizing principle here. The metropolis was born in the late 1950s, when Brazil's president, Juscelino Kubitschek, decided, with a conviction bordering on megalomania, that coastal Rio de Janeiro, with its choked, skinny streets and decaying vine-covered buildings, was unfit to be a capital. His impoverished nation needed to modernize."Fifty years' progress in five," the right-leaning nationalist proclaimed, before enlisting thousands of peasants to transform Brazil's most uncharted, unpeopled hinterland into a grand city inside of five years....

Kubitschek saw Brasilia as the beacon of a modernist world, and he hired a devoutly modern urban planner to make his vision a reality. Lucio Costa, a Brazilian, was a disciple of Le Corbusier, the influential mid-20th-century French architect/professor who eschewed all ornamentation as"bourgeois" and envisioned a high-tech egalitarian future in which all buildings were beautiful in their sleek simplicity. Corbusier famously decreed that houses should be"machines for living in." Costa, in turn, called for an"efficient" capital city in which the TV tower would be a monument, a downtown attraction occupying the same space, geographically and spiritually, that the Washington Monument does in D.C. The street grid in Brasilia would be shaped like an airplane, with two"wings" of avenues and a long thin spine -- the grassy Monumental Axis, lined with government buildings -- forming the core. The automobile, meanwhile, would spirit through the metropolis on its own uncluttered highways, and the open spaces would be protected in perpetuity, so that daily life could unfold in bucolic, pedestrian-friendly environs.

Brasilia did not turn out as planned. What I found was a city defined by its silences. Its core is a wealthy enclave in which building new structures is essentially outlawed. Few children play in the community parks -- they're too pristine -- and residents tend not to shop in their neighborhoods. In this spread-out car city, the shopping mall reigns supreme. A spirit of anomie enveloped the streets around me, and the suicide, divorce and pedestrain-fatality rates in Brasilia are longstanding sources of concern. Visiting there in the 1980s, Australian art critic Robert Hughes called the place"a museum of architectural ideas" and a"utopian horror."

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Perry C - 9/18/2005

I went to school for urban planning, I can tell you that most if not all of the folks that i was at school with really do not ascribe to that modernist trash the street and street life fad that eminated from Le Corbu.

Modernism worked well on small scale things (ie furniture) and interiors, but wreaks havoc on the outside world.