In order to be prepared for the 2014 World Cup, Brazil spent $11 billion on 12 new and refurbished stadiums, airport terminals, and control centers to boost public security surveillance, but it isn’t the first time the country has embarked on a large-scale architecture project. In 1956, the city of Brasilia was conceived and developed by architects Oscar Niemeyer and Lucio Costa in order to move the federal capital from Rio de Janeiro to a more central location. The “planned city,” which today looks like a retro-futuristic dream, has long divided critics and stirred debate.
Brasilia’s utopian city plan and modernist architecture is as polarizing as the 2014 World Cup, where many people in Brazil believe $11 billion would have been better spent on hospitals, schools, and public services. Brasilia is a UNESCO World Heritage site because of its superquadras, elegant open lawns, and space-age buildings. On the other hand, the city has been called a mid-century modernist theme park. Art critic Robert Hughes said, “Nothing dates faster than people's fantasies about the future. This (Brasilia) is what you get when perfectly decent, intelligent, and talented men start thinking in terms of space rather than place.” Oscar Niemeyer and other modernist architects left their mark all over Brazil, and the mind-bending buildings, with their curves and domes, steep inclines and sense of fantasy, are some of the country’s most prominent landmarks.
7 Brasilia TV Tower, Brasilia
Designed by Lucio Costa, the Brazil TV Tower is the third tallest structure in Brazil and the tallest tower in Latin America. It was completed in 1967, five years after Seattle’s Space Needle, and there is an echo of that building’s progressive design in Costa’s approach. In 1987, the TV Channel Bandeirantes added another 6-meters to the tower, bringing its total height to 218 meters. The Brasilia TV Tower is one of the most recognized and celebrated architectural structures in Brazil. The tower has a 75-meter high observation deck, which is the best place to see Brasilia and affords an excellent view of Three Powers Square and the monuments along Monumental Axis.
6 Alvorada Palace, Brasilia
Brasilia was founded in 1960 to serve as the new national capital of Brazil. The first building to be inaugurated was the Palacio da Alvorada. The building was initially referred to as the Presidential Palace, but Brazilian President Juscelino Kubitscheck called it Palacio de Alvadora, meaning “Palace of the Dawn.” He is quoted as saying, “What is Brasilia, if not the dawn of a new day for Brazil.”
Niemeyer used a combination of marble, glass, and water to illustrate the cultural and technical progress of the country. The symmetry of the columns reference the Doric or Ionic pillars of Ancient Greece, but the unique curvature points to a utopian modernity; the columns don’t stand alone, but are connected on the ground in a fluid vortex. The glass and water not only reflect and repeat the symmetry of the columns, magnifying the palace’s “utopian modernity,” but they also add an impressionistic lightness to the building.
5 SESC Pompeia Cultural Center, Sao Paulo
Lina Bo Bardi was Brazil’s most famous female modernist architect. However, she has also been called the most underrated architect of the 20th century. According to BBC Culture, “Unlike Niemeyer, Costa and Brazil’s more famous modernists, Bo Bardi insisted on the importance, even the supremacy, of Brazil’s own culture, which too many elite Brazilians dismissed in favor of internationalism that was really just Europeanism.” This idea is best conceptualized in the SESC Pompei Cultural Center. Completed in 1980, the social and cultural center was adapted from an old oil drum factory. Instead of tearing down the preexisting concrete structure, Bo Bardi revamped and integrated it into an open urban space; the "community space" functions to breakdown class divisions in a city and country known for its divisions.
4 The Copan Building: Sao Paulo
Constructed between 1952 and 1966, the Copan Building is one of Niemeyer’s most famous contributions to modern Brazilian architecture. The 38-story landmark in gritty downtown Sao Paulo features two of Niemeyer’s classic motifs: curves and concrete. The structure swerves like a giant, sinuous wave. Looking at the Edificio Copan, one can’t help but think that Niemeyer wanted to Bend it like Beckham. The building features 1,160 apartments and is home to roughly 4,000 residents; in fact, it’s so large that the Sao Paulo City Hall gave the Copan its own Zip code. The ground floor atrium is home to 70 businesses including a travel agency, church, restaurants, barbershops, and Mad Men-style bars unchanged since the ‘60s.
3 Brazilian National Congress: Brasilia
Located on Monument Axis, Brasilia’s main thoroughfare, the Brazilian National Congress looks like a fusion of Disney World’s Tommorowland and one of Georgio de Chirico’s metaphysical landscape paintings. According to The Guardian, the slopes and curves in Niemeyer’s buildings were attempts to show his devotion to the female form, and despite being the official seat of government there is something faintly sexualized and reproductive about the architecture of the Brazilian National Congress.
Niemeyer designed the Brazilian National Congress between 1957 and 1964. The complex is comprised of several buildings. The domed Senate building is on the left, the bowl-shaped Chamber of Deputies is on the right, and the Parliament office tower is in the center. The design is supposed to yield a feeling of balance, with two opposing sides intersected by a symbol of unity, and it accomplishes that goal. At the same time, the Parliament office towers look slightly phallic, while both the Senate and Chamber of Deputies resemble an egg.
2 Cathedral of Brasilia, Brasilia
Completed in 1970 after twelve years of construction, the Cathedral of Brasilia or Catedral Metropolitana Nossa Senhora Aparecida is a concrete-framed, hyperboloid structure with a glass roof. The cathedral's 16 concrete columns each weigh 90 tons; according to Niemeyer, they are designed to be like hands reaching up towards heaven. Hyperboloid structures curve inward rather than outward, and this is what gives the Cathedral of Brasilia its space-age quality. Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi experimented with hyperboloid forms as well.
The cathedral welcomes nearly 100,000 visitors each year. In 2012, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of Brasilia, major renovations were begun on the church. While the cathedral is an aesthetic wonder, the design isn't the perfect marriage of form and function; poor acoustics make it difficult to hear the homilies, and the roof and glass exterior create heat that’s not properly offset by ventilation.
1 Niteroi Contemporary Art Museum: Niteroi, Rio de Janeiro
Designed by Oscar Niemeyer and structural engineer Bruno Contarini, the Niteroi Contemporary Art Museum is set on a cliff-side. Windows in the viewing gallery overlook Rio de Janeiro, Sugarloaf Mountain, and Guanabara Bay. The saucer-shaped museum has more than a passing resemblance to a classic UFO. In fact, in the film Oscar Niemeyer, An Architect Committed to His Century, Niemeyer flies over Rio de Janeiro in a UFO and lands on the museum site, forcing us to answer a sort of meta-question: is the UFO the origin of the museum, or does the museum turn into a UFO once it closes to the public for the night? According to Niemeyer, the 8,800 square foot reflecting pool surrounds the cylindrical base of the museum “like a flower.” What type of flower it is remains to seen, but one can assume it’s a species from The Day of the Triffids.