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Make Rio great again!

5 August 2016

‘After Rio, all other cities seem drab, the people in the streets monotonous, life too neat and uniform,’ wrote Stefan Zweig in 1941. The builders of Brasília in the decade that followed would have done well to heed his words. Yet even they do not come close to capturing the frigid, monumental emptiness of the place that in 1960 dislodged Rio as Brazil’s capital. The city Brasília supplanted has never recovered from the shock and humiliation of its demotion. ‘What state is Rio left in?’ asked a newspaper at the time. ‘Divorced, repudiated, simply abandoned after two centuries of marriage.’

Shortly after his election as president in 1955, Juscelino Kubitschek decided to give the nation a capital that would lend concrete form to the perennial claim that Brazil was the ‘country of tomorrow’. The site chosen represented a conscious rejection of Brazil’s past: a barren, semi-arid plateau in the centre of the country, a thousand kilometres or more from Rio and the other coastal cities that had formed the locus of Brazilian civilisation since the 16th century. In this quasi-Martian wilderness, Kubitschek commissioned the urban planner Lúcio Costa and the architect Oscar Niemeyer to produce a metropolis of the future.

The Monumental Axis in Brasília, seen from the TV tower.

The Monumental Axis in Brasília, seen from the TV tower. Photo: Cayambe/Wikimedia Commons (used under Creative Commons licence [CC. BY 3.0])

‘One cannot create a great city at will,’ said the 19th-century French writer Jean-Jacques Ampère. Kubitschek’s selection of Costa and Niemeyer bears this out. Both men thought in visionary terms with little concern for human behaviour. Costa intended the new city to show how man had made the automobile his instrument. Its vast central intersection was designed in the shape of an aeroplane ‘en route to the impossible utopia’. The rest of the city was divided into sectors, each one dedicated to a particular sphere of social or economic activity; naturally, there were to be none of the favelas that peppered the hills of Rio. Niemeyer was a devoted communist and an admirer of Fidel Castro. The square at the heart of his architectural scheme, the Plaza of the Three Powers, was a windswept shrine to state authority, the conjoined towers of the National Congress rising like a high altar in the middle. Kubitschek’s own slogan, ‘fifty years of progress in five’, itself had a whiff of Stalinism about it. So too did his careless attitude to the welfare of the labourers summoned from all corners of the country to build Brasília. Large numbers of them died in the scramble to create the city and were interred by mechanical diggers in construction sites.

In other countries, tyrants build cities in their own images. In Brazil, an elected government created a turnkey capital for a dictatorship. And so it came to pass. In 1964, four years after Brasília’s inauguration, the army overthrew Kubitschek’s successor-but-one, João Goulart, and instituted two decades of military rule. In Rio, there was noisy and continuous resistance to the military takeover. In faraway Brasília, Congress nodded through Goulart’s deposition and welcomed the generals into Niemeyer’s presidential palace. The new leaders of Brazil discovered in the capital an ideal place for the kind of government they sought to impose. It was far from the madding crowd of Rio. The wide boulevards were tailor-made for military parades. The columns of identikit ministries lining the Monumental Axis seemed to embody the new regime’s promise of order. The glass exterior of the presidential palace was suggestive not so much of official transparency as of the all-seeing power of the state. Brasília came to be, in the words of one commentator, a ‘city without public opinion’.

National Congress Building in Brasília, designed by Oscar Niemeyer and completed in 1960.

National Congress Building in Brasília, designed by Oscar Niemeyer and completed in 1960. Photo: Eurico Zimbres/Wikimedia Commons (used under Creative Commons licence [CC. BY 2.5])

Democracy was restored in 1985, but many of the problems that plague Brazil still stem from Brasília. The country is governed from a gated community, its inhabitants cut off from the rest of society and shielded from the poverty and inequality that are a daily reality in Rio. Some 40 per cent of Brasília’s labour force is employed in public administration and many more of its residents work in dependent industries. The city that was supposed to serve as a melting pot for peoples from all parts of Brazil has matured into a plantation for a self-serving, self-perpetuating elite. ‘They thought that, when they abandoned us, they were taking civilisation to the interior, but it was they who left civilisation behind,’ said the Rio politician Carlos Lacerda in 1960. To the world at large, Rio remains the embodiment of Brazil: a city of music, mountains, ocean, and life. A bid to attract the Olympics to Brasília in the 1990s did not leave the ground. Rio, by contrast, won the 2016 contest by a vote of two to one. Only the most committed concrete-fanciers make the trip to Brasília. Those who do encounter a city far removed from national stereotypes. The streets are bereft of people. The liveliest spot is the central bus station. One could hazard a guess why.

The corollary of Kubitschek’s policy has been the hollowing out of Rio. On the eve of the transfer, Rio was, in the words of the author Joaquim Ferreira dos Santos, ‘a charming and amusing party, with its mixture of politicians, beautiful women, intellectuals and young people’. The politicians – for all the opprobrium heaped on them – were an essential ingredient, with a natural interest in maintaining and improving the city that was home to them and Brazil’s window to the world. The removal of the politicians meant the removal of patronage. After 1960, manufacturers were encouraged to relocate inland, bringing deindustrialisation and unemployment. The city’s autonomy was weakened by a vindictive dictatorship, which in 1975 authorised the demolition of the historic Palácio Monroe, the former seat of the Senate and a triumph of eclecticism. Between 1960 and 2010, the proportion of the city’s residents living in favelas more than doubled. Rio now boasts the largest slum population of any Brazilian conurbation. As these ungoverned spaces grew, they fell into the hands of criminal gangs, which to this day rule much of Rio by Kalashnikov.

The daily stories of unfinished facilities, creaking infrastructure, and violent robberies in Rio on the eve of the Olympics are the fruits not of poor organisation or planning, but of decades of neglect and underinvestment. The much-vaunted Olympic ‘legacy’ will be hard to come by once the circus leaves town. There is one way in which the government can make amends: by restoring Rio to its place as Brazil’s capital.