Viewed from a jet above the city, Brasilia bursts into view as the striking image described in the classic 1970s literature: that of the ultimate modernist city. Like an abstract painting, Brasilia’s dramatic city plan spreads boldly across the Brazilian landscape, from the red soil crisscrossed by strings of asphalt over the flat planalto, to the orderly superquadras protected by the arms of the lake–both of which contrast so eloquently with the quilt pattern of the cidades satellites. However, while the literature of the 1970s celebrated Brasilia’s bold plan as a brilliant conceptual project, they dismissed it as a city for the living. Indeed, the literature of the period lambasted the city as a failure of modernist central planning utopias. Brasilia was criticized for its antiseptic living blocks, for its reliance on highways that disassociated people from walkable streets and neighborhoods, for creating monumental public spaces that served as iconic symbols while alienating visitors, and for over-planning every aspect of urban life so that the city’s inhabitants could not redefine the city on their own terms. The criticism was so unforgiving that Brasilia, the great modernist experiment, was proclaimed by critics to be the great modernist failure.

    This view of Brasilia has become so ingrained in western scholarship, it is rarely questioned. But what has happened to Brasilia in the intervening decades? Is it still the monumental but uninhabitable city described by its critics in the 1970s, or has it grown into something else? We can revisit some of the arguments of these critics. Hundreds of thousands of people have migrated to the booming capital looking for jobs that were not available in their hometowns. What city did they find and what city has it become?

    Looking for answers, Professors Fernando Lara (architecture) and Stella Nair (history of art) traveled to Brazil last summer with eight graduate students whose trips were funded by an Experiential Learning Fund from the International Institute. They were joined by 12 more students from the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning who were doing a Studio Abroad with Professor Lara.

    One of the major criticisms of Brasilia was the antiseptic quality of the super blocks: the neighborhoods for private life. These highly organized sectors were derided for their sparse amenities and general emptiness. However, today, these sectors are thriving. Restaurants and bars are filled with patrons; apartment buildings are noisy with children playing on the grass and couples talking intimately as they walk along sidewalks. What caused the dramatic change? The main factor is time. The small young trees planted at the city’s inception have grown into large shady canopies. Stores that address the specific needs of the local inhabitants have thrived and multiplied. These dramatic changes highlight the fact that no city can be judged at its inception. Instead, Brasilia, like all cities, needed time to develop and evolve.

    Another major criticism of Brasilia was its reliance on highways. Brasilia, critics proclaimed, was a failure due to its dependence on highways and broad streets rather than pathways for pedestrians and bike riders. Indeed, one must use a car, bus, or taxi to get anywhere in the city. For those who dislike being in automobiles, Brasilia will never be admired. However, its system of roads is efficient and rarely congested. In fact, it is a shining success when compared to many other highway-driven cities, such as Los Angeles. Brasilia’s success in this regard reveals a troubling assumption made by its critics, one that goes to the heart of western expectations of a Latin American city. For planners in the United States and Northern Europe, Latin American cities are understood as gridded cities, with a central plaza and streets filled with people selling their wares or enjoying outdoor cafes. However, many of these images are based on the evolution of urban planning in Spanish-speaking cities in Latin America. Portugal and its colonial settlements in Brazil never followed this type of urban development. Portuguese and Brazilian cities rarely had central plazas or gridded streets. Instead, planning tended to be organic, following access to ports, with the population centers hugging the coasts. Hence, to criticize Brasilia for not having central plazas filled with local inhabitants and streets filled with more pedestrians than cars, is to ignore Brazilian urban planning history and to level unfair expectations.

    This geographic imbalance also relates to the criticism of monumental public spaces in Brasilia. These heavenly iconic spaces are not bustling with people like in the Zocalo in Mexico City, or the Huaycaypata in Cuzco, Peru. Instead, the major pubic spaces in Brasilia serve as expansive places to showcase iconic buildings. They are not meant to be inhabited by crowds, but to be seen through car windows by those driving by, or by small groups of people who have arrived with the sole purpose to view the architectural monuments to Brazil’s future, much as one stands to view an artwork in a museum. In effect, Brasilia has transformed our understanding of public space and monumental buildings in Latin America. However, this is not unique: one must only look at Chandigarh, India or Dacca, Bangladesh to see other examples of using space and architecture as showcases for national identity rather than experiential plazas. Brasilia is not a failure in its public space; rather it redefines it in an entirely different way than people’s expectations.

    The intent of these monumental places brings us to the final major criticism of Brasilia—that of its thorough planning, or as some argue, its over-planning. Brasilia has been criticized for trying to plan all aspects of daily life, from the personal to the professional, from that of workers to that of the highest official, leaving little room for the imagination or for individual choice.

    For example, in Brasilia, thousands of federal employees were forced to move to the new (and still quite empty) capital in the 1960s and 1970s. Many complained that they had a hard time appropriating spaces so foreign from the ones they were used to, and could not wait to return to their hometowns after retiring. But people do adapt to their environments, and as the city grew in the 1980s and 1990s, the new immigrants, along with the generation born in Brasilia (Brasilienses), shaped their built environment. They found spaces to play soccer where their friends could watch. They flocked to the main north-south axis when it was closed to traffic on Sundays to skate, bike ride, and rollerblade. The less fortunate started new peripheral cities called satellites and commuted to the plano piloto every day to work. And, in this car-driven city, they even began to promote the very un-Brazilian notion of respecting pedestrians. They flocked to neighborhood pubs that they could walk to, rather than drive, and they learned to hit the breaks every time someone stepped on the pedestrian cross walk—something that does not happen in any other Brazilian city. Brasilienses have created a very new type of a Brazilian city, one that starts with a modernist plan and ends with the desires of its inhabitants.

    Brasilia is not a perfect city, and like all cities it has aspects that don’t work. Like everywhere in Brazil, inequalities exist, as do spatial exclusions and frustration with the slow pace of necessary transformation. But what is most interesting is how Brazilians have adapted to these challenges, and how they have brought Brazilian traditions from across the country with them to Brasilia while developing new urban practices. Also like everywhere in Brazil, bars spread their tables out onto the sidewalks, and social life flourishes in public spaces—only in Brasilia it is within a rich modernist design that stretches across the Brazilian plain. Indeed, in our explorations of the city we found that the people have Brazilianized Brasilia.

    Fernando Lara is an assistant professor of architecture at U-M. His teaching and research interests include housing, modernist spatiality, and architectural design methods. His current research includes an analysis of housing markets in Brazil with emphasis on the permanence of modernist spatiality. He currently teaches courses in design studies and peripheral modernisms, and leads a design studio.

    Stella Nair, a former Michigan Society of Fellows, currently is an assistant professor of Latin American Visual Culture at the University of California at Riverside. Her scholarly interests include material culture studies, postcolonial theory, vernacular architecture, and construction technology, with a special focus on indigenous visual culture in the Andes before and after the European invasion.