Transdisciplinary Design

Brasília: dare to speculate, dare to implement

Posted by Isabella Brandalise on October 28, 2014

What if an uncanny city popped up in the middle of nowhere? What if the city plan was so radical that a country’s entire political structure was shifted? Such is the case for Brasília, the capital of Brazil. What started as two lines on a paper manifested into a concrete masterpiece. Brasília is an example of speculation that was actually implemented.

Brasília is an important case study for the following reasons. First, its radical speculation leaves an emblematic legacy on both modernist and overall architecture. Second, the political nature of such a project highlights the cultural and sociological significance of its execution. Finally, it is the human interaction with the physical implementation that animates the impact of the original design. Our intent is not to criticize or question the validity of the project, rather to extend the discussion of speculation and transformative change.

The Brazilian government, in the 1950s, decided to move the federal capital from Rio de Janeiro to the geographic center of the country and to name it Brasília. The urban plan was chosen from an open contest and the city was inaugurated on April 21, 1960.


The selected project, by Lucio Costa, stands out in its disruption and provocation. It is an example of speculative design because it imagined a completely new structure for people to interact with their city. The zoning of the city is divided into five functions: housing, work, recreation, traffic and a public core. The Plano Piloto master plan – named because the city from above follows the shape of an airplane – is defined by the essential structure of the crossing of two axes. It is a clear illustration of a modernist urban plan. Rupture, distanciation and decontextualization are fundamental aspects of urban modernism. James Holston points out: “the modernist strategy of defamiliarization intends to make the city strange. It consists in the attempt to impose a new urban order through a set of transformations that negate previous expectations about urban life.”[1] The controversy and speculation of this utopian organization lie not only in the urban plan, but in the fact that the plan would physically and emotionally transform Brazilian society.

“The journey to Brasília across the Central Plateau of Brazil is one of separation. It confronts the traveler with the separation of modernist Brasília from the familiar Brazil: from densely packed settlements along the coast to the emptiness of the interior; from layers of congestion and clutter in the big cities to the silent horizons of the plateau; from small town squares with their markets and conversations to the empty spaces of Brasília without squares or markets; from civilization to the frontier; from underdevelopment to the incongruously modern.”[2]

Specifically, the design and construction of Brasília radically re-defined the infrastructure of the federal government. Intended as a way to populate the center of the country and to relocate to a safer location, Brasília is an example of design as a geopolitical tool. Imagine, just for a second, what a weighty proposition that is. Capital cities are grounded in tremendous history, tradition and infrastructure. To simply create a new city and to do so with such modernist design is groundbreaking.

Washington, DC can be used as a comparison in the design of capital cities. DC was also conceived as a ground-up urban plan, but it was done so at the beginning of the country’s history. The creation of a capital city was designated in the Constitution and the urban plans of Frenchman Pierre L’Enfant were carried out into the city that it is today. To suddenly relocate all of the federal buildings, monuments, senators, congressmen, workers, and supporting industries to the middle of a cornfield in Kansas would be unimaginable!

The creation of Brasília was a political strategy; an “instrument of change.”[3] Juscelino Kubitschek, the Brazilian president from 1956–1961, built his entire campaign on the realization of Brasília. He demonstrated to the world that the engine of a government could be totally relocated and that he could implement “integration through interiorization.”[4] Furthermore, the architecture of the main federal buildings and monuments – by Oscar Niemeyer – was an outward discourse of power. The starkness of the modernist design and the use of empty space created a notion of a landscape of objects and contributes immensely to the strong image of the city.

©2011 Joana Franca ©2010 Joana França

Despite the definitive and rigid aspects of its urban plan, Brasília became alive by the uses and appropriations of its inhabitants. The design and intentionality of Costa’s plan has its limits. Architecture is a field of possibilities and restrictions.[5] People’s tactics and ways of operation in the urban space result in a constant update of the top-down master plan.[6] Facing the strangeness of Brasília, inhabitants continually make small changes and subversions in order “to familiarize a defamiliarized city”, as well as to “reassert the social processes and cultural values utopia intended to deny”.[7] There are infinite examples of everyday subversive bottom-up tactics in Brasília, such as pop-up commerce to service the expectations of business and government zones; restaurants that occupy more outdoor space than regulated; commercial establishments that invert the main entrance so that they could directly access the street; occupation of empty spaces; and multi-purpose buildings with mixed uses in residential zones.

Ultimately what makes the case of Brasília so unique is that it’s a product of strange conditions and players. It demonstrates that speculative design can be used as a top-down strategy to realize imagined futures. However, projections of design and intentionality can only go so far. It is the inhabitants that truly create an urban space. They are the ones that, through their actions, continually speculate and project what their future can be.

©2010 Joana França ©2010 Joana França


[1–4, 7] Holston, James. The modernist city: an anthropological critique of Brasília. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1989.
[5] Holanda, Frederico de. Dez mandamentos da arquitetura. Brasília: FRBH, 2013.
[6] Certeau, Michel de. A invenção do cotidiano: artes de fazer. Petrópolis: Vozes, 1994.


All photos by Joana França.