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Brasilia: The Capital City Built from Nothing in Three Short Years

For anyone not native to Brazil, it would be easy to mistake the country’s capital for one of its better-known cities. Rio de Janeiro is the city the giant South American country is most famous for–Sao Paolo is its largest in terms of population. However, it is neither of these coastal cities, but the centrally located Brasilia, which has earned the title of its nation’s capital. And the story of how Brasilia came to be is an interesting one. 

The history of Portugese settlers colonizing Brazil explains the coastal location of many of its largest cities. “Discovered” in the year 1500 by Pedro Alvarez Cabral, the Portugese used their newly conquered South American lands and its peoples to gain massive profit from trade back to Europe. This pattern focused the economy on the coast, where developed port cities thrive to this day. In the meantime, it came much more slowly to mainland Brazil, even as the port cities continued to follow European standards of advancement. 

In the centuries leading up to Brazil’s independence, the Portugese settlers continued this preference for remaining near the sea. While some, such as José Bonifácio de Andrade e Silva, proposed a mainland capital to prevent raids from the sea, this dream would not happen for another century. 

In the late 19th century and with the foundation of Brazil’s republican government, new interest in development of the mainland swept the country’s leaders. This was initially a profit-based motivation: Brazil’s history until the mid-20th century can be largely condensed to a series of leaders most focused on the continued cultivation of cash crops like tobacco and coffee. 

That being said, there were other benefits of a more centrally located capital. It would be seen as more neutral, rather than favoring the already-prosperous coastal cities. And creating a new city, untied to any province or area, would prevent any province or area from having undue power or representation in Brazil’s government. The idea of a centrally-located city designated as Brazil’s capital was actually core to the constitution on which the Republic was founded–but this article, written in 1891, wouldn’t have real-world effects until almost 60 years later. 

Juscelino Kubitschek
President of Brazile January 31, 1956 to January 31, 1961

It was Brazil’s elected president in 1956, Juscelino Kubitschek, who finally made the mainland capital Brasilia a reality. An radical thinker, Kubitschek had plans for his term that he called “fifty years in five.” He wanted Brazil to have the economic advancement of fifty years in the short span of five; not just on the coast, but everywhere in Brazil. Part of this plan included a neutrally-located capital to house the government. Centralizing the bureaucracy would help Kubitschek and future generations of leaders deal with matters all across the large country with more swiftness and ease. 

In 1957, a contest was held for the role of principal planner of the new capital of Brasilia. Lucio Costa won this popular contest, over five thousand other applicants. Two others, Oscar Neimeyer and Roberto Burle Marx, would assist with the architecture of non-public buildings and landscape design, respectively. 

Costa had a straightforward plan for Brazil’s shiny new capital. In essence, the city would be composed of two parts: one, a municipal center for the grand administrative buildings that would house the newly relocated government leaders and bureaucrats; the other, urban sprawl for over five hundred thousand inhabitants, organized into square blocks for quick construction. The even squares of these districts, which would be home to the future housing, industrial, and commercial centers of the city, would also make it easier to get around. It is, after all, easier to navigate new streets if everything is arrayed in a neat, orderly fashion. 

Costas’s plans envisioned an efficient, organized city. This organizational structure also meant that construction could be planned and put underway with great speed. The construction had complete funding under Kubitschek’s leadership and “fifty-in-five” plan, and construction began in late 1956. 

But despite Costas’s streamlining, the construction was by no means a simple or easy process–the human power necessary to build a major metropolitan area in just under four years is no mean feat. The construction took an enormous amount of manpower to complete, not to mention physical supplies and materials. Kubitschek and the engineers and architects he employed hired Brazilian workers from the poorer areas of the country, particularly the north and northeast. But the project’s planners did not accommodate the needs of this giant influx of people, and makeshift villages sprung up around the city where traveling “candango” workers lived. 

These unforeseen complications did not stall Kubitschek and Costas’s plans. The city grew out of the land at lightning speed, with wide streets, urban centers, apartment complexes, and government buildings sprouting from nothing seemingly in days. Neimeyer’s architectural style graced the city with a sense of elegance and beauty. In early 1960, Kubitchek declared the city of Brasilia open: a testament to the strength and ingenuity of the Brazilian people. 

Rallying behind Kubitschek’s call for national unity, the new capital was a source of pride for Brazilians during and at the end of its construction. Just three and a half years–41 months–to build a vast, sprawling urban center! 

It was easy to dream of the booms in the economy that Brazil would surely soon be the recipient of, especially in light of Kubitschek’s other infrastructure work. The president had directed funds and construction manpower to focus on a system of roads throughout the country’s mainland. Not only would these roads make travel throughout the giant country more accessible, goods and services would be able to move more freely, making them more available to a greater percentage of the growing population. Kubitschek had also supported various pieces of legislation that would allow car manufacturers to build factories in Brazil, adding jobs and making cars more affordable. 

During this time, Kubitchek’s popularity soared, and the construction of Brasilia could only be hailed as an overwhelming success. But such a sudden upheaval of the nation’s center of government, and lavish spending of the government’s funds, could not come without downsides. 

After Brasilia’s construction, the migrant workers that had done the hands-on work had little motivation to return home. Rather the opposite: they found themselves, many with their families, located right next to a city projected to be (if you believe Kubitschek and his plan) a booming area of prosperity and growth. Rumor had it that a new and better life could be forged in the nation’s shiny new capital. Unable to afford anything else, the candangos’ temporary, cheap living arrangements became permanent. A visible distinction could be seen between the new, rich city and the poor working class with proximity but no access to it.

As time passed, the millions of migrant workers packed into hastily constructed, low-quality homes had the unfortunate effect of highlighting the country’s social and economic problems. Kubitschek had intended Brasilia to be the symbol of a new era of national pride and unity, but in retrospect, it only made the economic gap between classes more apparent. As well, Kubitschek had borrowed heavily from international banks, a debt that would haunt the coming generations of the country. 

Today, Oscar Niemeyer’s architecture has had Brasilia named a world heritage site by Unesco in 1987. Even acknowledging the social and political problems present in its history, Brasilia’s refined buildings alongside its wide, manageable planning make it a visually appealing city. Unlike the United States’ Washington, D.C., Brasilia provides a neutral city to house the country’s government while also giving its inhabitants their own proportional representation in its congress. A fitting efficiency, given that Brasilia is still primarily a city of government bureaucracy and little else. 

Unfortunately for its two and a half million inhabitants, the straightforward planning of Lucio Costa, with work, housing, government, and commercial centers all in different districts, makes for an uninteresting city to live in. Despite its large population, there is little nightlife. The centers for dance, food, and the arts in Brazil continue to be the older coastal cities of Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro. And the satellite cities, born of overpopulation out of and on top of the migrant workers’ “temporary” homes, are overcrowded with poorer residents. These satellite cities often resemble shanty towns: the left-wing sympathetic Niemeyer never quite got to see his socio-economic dreams bear fruit in the city of his creation.

Brasilia, the city risen from nothing in three years, has a complicated history in its rapid birth and development. For many Brazilians, it is remembered as a symbol of what the country’s people can achieve, a monument to strength, urban development, and modernity. For others, Brasilia stands as a pretty but empty shell, housing the government but living as a physical manifestation of the problems that the same government has failed to fix. 

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