In late 1956, president Juscelino Kubitschek attended a groundbreaking ceremony for the new capital city he had pledged to build on Brazil’s central plateau. In photos he is surrounded by officials, journalists, construction workers, and religious leaders on a makeshift stage beneath a monumental cross of unfinished timber. The shape of a cross would appear again in the 1957 sketch by Lucio Costa that became Brasília’s master plan, with its two axes symbolically connecting the country. Famous for its boldness and simplicity, Costa’s drawing set the tone for a project of unprecedented scale, and when Brasília was inaugurated as the capital, just three years later, it was hailed as a transcendent work of modernist architecture and planning. But among the visual records of Brasília’s construction there is another cross, no less important, formed by the intersection of two dirt roads reaching across an empty plateau. Aerial photos show Costa’s plan being realized by workers on the Brazilian frontier. Though rarely viewed today, these images circulated widely in the late 1950s as part of an effort to situate Brasília as the embodiment of a new national identity. To understand how the city functions symbolically, we can look beyond its modernist reputation to its brief but fascinating prehistory as a construction camp.
Rarely viewed today, these images circulated widely in the late 1950s as part of an effort to situate Brasília as the embodiment of a new national identity.
That first presidential visit was featured in the inaugural issue of Revista Brasília, a monthly magazine that employed two full-time photographers and a staff of journalists to construct the foundational myths on which Kubitschek staked the future of Brazil. Some 6,000 copies of each issue were distributed to government offices, libraries, and newsstands across the country, to rally public support for the project and justify the expense to Congress. Another 1,000 copies circulated abroad. The magazine ran for five years, and its archive is an incredibly rich trove of early representations of Brasília. The city is seen as a place of opportunity and heroic enterprise: migrant workers arrive on buses, move piles of materials, and inscribe new roads and barracks on the newly cleared land. Signs point to unbuilt monuments. In settlements on the edge of the future capital, workers mix socially across class lines, united by a frontier sense of camaraderie. The immensity of the plateau frames a country in the process of reinventing itself.
The idea to build a capital city to radiate Brazilian sovereignty over the vast interior first emerged in the late 19th century. Its eventual location, in the state of Goiás, was prophesied by Catholic priest Joao Bosco, who dreamt of “a Promised Land, flowing with milk and honey … of inconceivable richness.” 1 After the consolidation of the Brazilian Republic, successive heads of state returned to the project of developing the interior, usually by promoting specific extractive or agricultural industries. Kubitschek’s plan was different, as it relied solely on state power. Maps showed the future Federal District at the center of a modern, networked, and unified country. Distances to major cities were marked, signifying that the new capital (unlike coastal Rio de Janeiro) would be independent, liberated from historical constraints, yet connected to the country’s diverse populations. Kubitschek campaigned on a promise to produce “fifty years of development in five” through public investments in infrastructure, and he hired the preeminent modernist designers Oscar Niemeyer, Roberto Burle Marx, and Lucio Costa to make it real. Brasília thus initiated a political and planning paradigm used in many postcolonial contexts, especially in African nations as they gained independence. Between 1962 and 1975, Nigeria, Botswana, Cote D’Ivoire, Tanzania, Zambia, and Cameroon all built new capitals in their interior. Behind every ambitious and symbolically loaded formal master plan were the workers who brought it to life and infused these cities with populism.
Behind every ambitious and symbolically loaded formal master plan were the workers who brought it to life and infused these cities with populism.
Roughly 40,000 people lived on site during the first phase of Brasília’s construction, in three types of settlements that ringed the edge of the Pilot Plan. First, there were camps run by the state-backed Companhia Urbanizadora da Nova Capital, known as NOVACAP. Residency was restricted to state employees, who were mostly middle-class engineers, architects, and contractors, living in single-story wood structures along dirt road grids. The initial settlement, Vila Planalto, was supposed to be cleared for open space after the inauguration of the capital city, but it still stands today. The architecture here resembles the low-rise casas populares designed by Oscar Niemeyer and built throughout the northern neighborhoods of the Pilot Plan, with inverted sloped roofs, large partially screened patios, and generous front yards. As the Pilot Plan progressed, rather than build more camps, NOVACAP housed its employees in the completed casa popular neighborhoods. Incipient urbanism was a frequent motif in Revista Brasília. Often contrasted with photographs of the open plain, these neighborhoods represented the emergence of a familiar domesticity in unfamiliar territory.
Second were the camps that housed the majority of the workforce, the contract laborers. The government owned all of the land in the Federal District, but certain areas were set aside for the use of private companies, and the structures in these camps were built and owned by residents. The largest settlement, Núcleo Bandeirante, was organized along three main streets lined with buildings made of wood, corrugated metal, and whatever other materials the residents could procure. Here the urban fabric was more organic and less ordered than at Vila Planalto. Núcleo Bandeirante’s original name, Cidade Livre, or “free city,” signaled the unrestricted access it provided to migrants. Anyone could move to this boomtown and tap the resources that flowed from the federal government. Cidade Livre quickly became the social heart of the construction camps, and luminaries like Kubitschek, Costa, and Niemeyer made frequent evening visits. 2
As word spread, workers arrived from across Brazil, especially from the poorer northern states. 3 Dozens of small, ad-hoc communities — the third type of settlement — emerged near construction sites, along the banks of creeks, and in cleared areas of the scrubland, to house migrants working low-wage jobs who couldn’t afford to live in Núcleo Bandeirante. These sites, too, were heavily documented by Revista photographers, so that the government could showcase the economic mobility generated by the project (and quiet critics skeptical of the expense). Nearly all of these informal camps were razed when the construction boom was over; some were later drowned by the creation of Lake Paranoa.
The early issues of Revista Brasília reveal a mediation between primitive life on the plateau and the technological and cultural ambitions of the future city. Hundreds of photos show simple encampments and unfinished infrastructures covered in red dust. Yet we also see monumental steel structures and the soon-to-be iconic motifs of Niemeyer’s cast-on-site concrete facades. The magazine’s layouts juxtaposed images from both categories, as if to position Brasília as the site of a spatially and temporally compressed teleology of progress.
A constant theme in these pages is the relationship between workers and the architectural masterpieces they were constructing. Workers were shown as participants in a heroic national project.
Another constant theme in these pages is the relationship between workers and the architectural masterpieces they were constructing, often by hand. Photos of men laying rebar in what would become the Congressional Assembly Hall, pouring concrete on the plaza in front of the future Palace of Justice, and laying tiles on Avenida Monumental implied that Brasília was not a project by and for elites, but rather a collaboration across Brazil’s stratified classes. Workers were shown as participants in a heroic national project. Niemeyer observed that building in a remote, informal setting, with largely untrained laborers, rather than “heavy industry with systems of prefabrication,” gave him “an almost unlimited plastic freedom.” He described an architectural Eden, free from the limits imposed by cities, with their industrialists and bourgeoisie, and their modern regulations and attitudes. His pursuit of Eden’s fruits, though, depended on the backing of Brazil’s bureaucracy and Kubitschek’s blank check. 4
While Brasilia is known today for its daring and formally experimental monuments, the design scheme also included many common buildings that were not much different from prototypes in the camps. Brasília’s first primary school, designed by NOVACAP architects in Candangolandia, and Kubitschek’s personal residence, Catetinho, designed by Niemeyer, were both wood structures assembled in the rapid, provisional style common to the camps. (Indeed, the media played up the fact that Catetinho was built in ten days, to signal Kubitschek’s participation in the discomforts of frontier life.) 5 Yet these buildings shared a formal language with the concrete low-rise residences in the Pilot Plan, adapting modernist tropes such as pilotis and elevated exterior walkways to provisional architecture.
Starting in the second year, the back cover of each issue of Revista Brasília featured a collage of images from the early days of construction, layered with a line drawing by Costa or Niemeyer. In one typical collage, a migrant worker walking on a dusty road, with a bag over his shoulder, was superimposed on a residential superblock rising from the plateau. The ideology that made Brasília possible — the myth of an empty landscape superseded by a futuristic city, of humanity emerging from an uncertain and primitive existence into the light of modernity — was constructed here.
The government aimed to show that Brasília was creating a new class of enterprising workers, or modern pioneers. Early on, the national media used two terms to describe the builders of the new capital. Bandeirante, referring to the first residents of the Federal District (specifically NOVACAP employees), was derived from an old name for the Portuguese colonists who explored the hinterland. Candango started out as a derogatory word for uneducated, itinerant workers. Yet over time, as these workers were portrayed by the government as essential to the project of Brasília, the connotations of the word became celebratory. Candangos were symbols of upward mobility and national progress. By the end, newspapers were using bandeirente and candango interchangeably to mean anyone living in the Federal District. 6
The ideology that made Brasília possible — the myth of an empty landscape superseded by a futuristic city — was constructed here.
Kubitschek’s frequent visits symbolized a democratic utopia where the poor worked and lived alongside engineers, architects, and public officials. Brazilian modernity had two dimensions: technological progress, embodied in Niemeyer’s concrete architecture and Costa’s continuous freeways; and national solidarity, represented by the image of the heroic construction worker. Although in reality the city was segregated by class, interviews conducted years later revealed a nostalgia for the camaraderie of the construction years. “There wasn’t high society,” a bricklayer observed. “Engineers lived in their own camps, [but] what was unusual about Brasília was that you saw that the engineer had the same appearance as the worker, dressed in casual pants, boots and all.” 7 Photos of Núcleo Bandeirante were the first images of street life in Brasília to reach a wide public. The informal but energetic urban scenes gave visual expression to the collective excitement and ethos of equality that Kubitschek hoped to encode in the future city.
After the capital was inaugurated, the camps disappeared from the pages of Revista Brasília, but they were still there on the plateau. Neimeyer and Costa had envisioned that workers would live within the Pilot Plan, so that the camps could be dismantled, but those social ambitions were defeated. Some workers were forcibly removed when the Paranoa River Valley was flooded to create a lake for the 140,000 inhabitants of the new capital city. Others, including those who lived in Núcleo Bandeirante, used the solidarity they had formed during the construction years to organize and resist eviction. Their houses stayed in place, but they were exiled from the myth of Brasília. Construction camps that had been marketed by the government as a prophetic city-before-the city were reframed as a blight on the landscape — the city outside the city.
After the capital was inaugurated, workers used the solidarity they had formed during the construction years to organize and resist eviction.
Now protected under UNESCO world heritage rules, the neighborhoods that evolved from these construction camps are restricted to their original footprint, and historicized with plaques, murals, and landmark designations for the original timber buildings. Peripheral to modern Brasília, they are static fragments, engulfed in the growing highway infrastructure. In contrast, the central neighborhoods of the Pilot Plan are always contemporary and new; their monuments rise from the plateau as a collection of autonomous modernist objects, an urban rupture with history. The construction workers’ neighborhoods are no more than a few years older the central city, but they are perceived differently, because of their original framing.
Nevertheless, the architectural and ideological power of Brasília depends on these construction camps. Candangos built the city and the city’s origin myth, its frontier imaginary. This is the history that Brasília emerges from and against which it distinguishes itself as modern.