Brasília: Constituent Power, Architecture, Urban Planning

These notes belong to the same project on constitutional spaces that Panu Minkkinen has been working on for some time, and this piece was first published on his own blog. He says there that these notes represent a first attempt to look at the intersections of constituted power, architecture, and urban planning. 

‘Plano piloto’

Perhaps the most iconographic ‘new capital’, that is, a city that is specifically built to be a seat of power, is Brazil’s federal capital Brasília. The plan to move the capital from Rio de Janeiro on the coast to the inland plateaus closer to the country’s geographical center was already initiated in the early 19th century. But it was only President Juscelino Kubitschek who began to put the plan into effect in the 1950s.

Lúcio Costa (r) with Oscar Niemeyer, Rio de Janeiro, 1958.

In 1957, architect Lúcio Costa won the design competition with his entry known as the ‘Plano Piloto’ (Plano Piloto 1991). The entry consisted of only 15 freehand sketches and 23 handwritten paragraphs, the sort of nonchalance that only a celebrity architect could afford. After winning the competition, Costa invited his former assistant and internationally renowned compatriot Oscar Niemeyer to design the capital’s major administrative buildings for which Brasília is, perhaps, best known. In addition, Roberto Burle Marx, a landscape architect and avantgarde artist, designed the gardens of many of the most important buildings.

In Costa’s entry, the first sketch of the city plan is simply two lines drawn into a cross. The administrative buildings were to be built on the vertical line called the ‘monumental axis’. In the subsequent sketches, the horizontal line of the cross would curve slightly upwards. This ‘residential axis’ would host a total of 108 superblocks or ‘superquadra’ to provide for housing for the capital’s politicians and civil servants. A large bus terminal would be built at the intersection of the two axes, and multi-lane motorways with vast curving interchanges would cross them both.

Sketches by Lúcio Costa (Plano Piloto 1991: 21).

At the bottom of the monumental axis, a triangular area marks a plaza, the ‘Praça dos Três Poderes’ (‘Plaza of the Three Powers’), hosting the buildings of the three main government branches: the National Congress Building, the presidential Palácio da Alvorada, and the Supreme Federal Court. Note once again how the plan suggests a design in which the three powers can be seen to check and balance each other. From there the monumental axis stretches upward as an ‘esplanade’ where the ministries and agencies of lesser importance are situated.

A sketch of the Plaza of the Three Powers by Niemeyer (Jodidio 2012: 57).

Areal view of the Praça dos Três Poderes. Brasília, 1960. Photo: Marcel Gautherot/Instituto Moreira Salles.

National Congress Building. Brasília, 1958. Photo: Marcel Gautherot/Instituto Moreira Salles.

The Esplanade of the Ministries under construction. Brasília, 1958. Photo: Marcel Gautherot/Instituto Moreira Salles.

Palácio da Alvorada. Brasília, 1962. Photo: Marcel Gautherot/Instituto Moreira Salles.

The aerial view

When looking at the city from above, its planned outline resembles a bird, a dragonfly, or maybe an airplane as the city centre is colloquially known (‘avião‘). This choice can be explained through several narratives, but one is particularly persuasive.

Brasília town plan by Lúcio Costa.

Le Corbusier was a major inspiration for Costa and Niemeyer, both before and during the planning and construction of Brasília. The master of the ‘esprit nouveau’ had close ties with Latin America, and he had already earlier supervised the design and building of the Ministry of National Education and Public Health (today known as the Gustavo Capanema Palace) in Rio, completed in 1943. With Le Corbusier as an official consultant, Costa was the main architect of that project, and Niemeyer was a young assistant in Costa’s office. Le Corbusier had originally visited Rio in 1929 on his tour of South America. He had first arrived in Buenos Aires where he met Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Saint-Exupéry had managed to establish a number of permanent flight routes across the continent on his Compagnie Générale Aéropostale. Le Corbusier, for his part, was mesmerised by the aerial perspectives that his flights on the Aéropostale routes provided.

The ‘bird’s-eye view’ from the airplane inspired Le Corbusier to such an extent that, in 1935, he published a short book called Aircraft (Le Corbusier 1935). Not only is it a modernist praise of the airplane as a technical innovation – the book has lovely photographs of airplanes of the time – but also of the ‘bird’s-eye view’ as a tool of urban planning:

By means of the airplane, we now have proof, recorded on the photographic plate, of the rightness of our desire to alter methods of architecture and city planning. With its eagle eye the airplane looks at the city. … The airplane instills, above all, a new conscience, the modern conscience. Cities, with their misery, must be torn down. They must be largely destroyed and fresh cities rebuilt. (Le Corbusier 1935: 11)

This type of ‘terraforming’, the ultimate weapon of colonisation, if you will, became the key planning ideology of the influential Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM) that Le Corbusier founded a year before his trip to Latin America (see e.g. Mumford 2000). The bird’s-eye view was, of course, not an entirely new idea. Already rather ancient surveying techniques allowed cartographers to develop maps that simulated the same effect. Through land surveying measurements, cartography could produce more or less accurate depictions of existing land formations. But it was less useful in planning.

Photograph by Le Corbusier. Caption: ‘Black and sinister tasks, acts of desperate courage; moribund nightmare.’ (Le Corbusier 1935: 69)

Aerial photography, on the other hand, enabled the process to be fully reversed (see Morshed 2002; Vidler 2003). We could now create something that didn’t exist at all by first designing it on top of a two-dimensional aerial image of a space that we need not even visit. The aerial image reduced all spatial complexities into a flat workable surface after which the design was easier to execute in unprecedented detail. Costa and Niemeyer’s ‘airplane’ (or ‘dragonfly’ or ‘bird’) is an excellent example of such aerial-based creation ex nihilo.

Brasília is often presented from this aerial perspective. But what if one entered from ground-level seemingly unaware of how the space had been designed? In 1974, Brazilian author Clarice Lispector wrote an essay based on a short lecture trip that she made to the capital from Rio de Janeiro. Lispector’s relation to Brasília is clearly ambivalent. At the same time as she criticises its man-made quality making, for example, comparisons with the raw and ‘natural’ beauty of Bahia, there is a majesty that she can’t quite turn away from:

Brasília is artificial. As artificial as the world must have been when it was created. When the world was created, it was necessary to create a human being especially for that world. We are all deformed through adapting to God’s freedom. We cannot say how we might have turned out if we had been created first, and the world had been deformed afterwards to meet our needs. (Lispector 1986: 136)

So in Brasília, the order of creation has been somehow set off track. Only God is free to create a world, and if man is to inhabit that world, she must be created only after the world so that she can adapt and ‘deform’ herself appropriately. Brasília, as beautiful as it may be, is, for Lispector, still an empty creation, perhaps because it can only be seen from above.

Anthropophagy vs anthropoemia

In 1928, just before Le Corbusier arrived in Brazil, the poet Oswald de Andrade published a poem called ‘Anthropophagic Manifesto’ (de Andrade 1991) that became extremely influential as the text that, through its cannibalistic metaphor, encapsulated the emerging modernist movement in Brazil. Its effects were not limited to literature because it was seen as a general cultural manifesto. The idea behind de Andrade’s poem was to differentiate Brazil from the west with the cannibalistic analogy that depicts the creation of a modern and cosmopolitan, but still authentically national, Brazilian culture. Relieved from simply reproducing second-rate copies of what the old world values, Brazilian culture would ‘devour’ both western and indigenous influences like a cannibal would ingest a respected enemy and offer instead something completely new:

The struggle between what we might call the Uncreated and the Creation – illustrated by the permanent contradiction between Man and his Taboo. Everyday love and the capitalist way of life. Cannibalism. Absorption of the sacred enemy. To transform him into a totem. The human adventure. The earthly goal. (de Andrade 1991: 43)

Although the main architectural representative of this avantgarde movement was Flávio de Carvalho (see Leite 2004), de Andrade influenced representatives of the modernist mainstream like Costa and Niemeyer, as well. But does Brazilian modernism, as it is represented in the spatial solutions of Brasília, produce something genuinely unique in terms of constituted power? Can we see anything ‘anthropophagic’ in Costa and Niemeyer’s visions of power? Or is ‘anthropophagy’ only present in the experiences of a lived or experienced space that came later? Historically we do know that even Le Corbusier had met some of the anthropophagic movement’s followers in Sao Paulo before he arrived in Rio.

In 1935, Claude Lévi-Strauss moved to São Paulo as a diplomat and doubled-up as Visiting Professor of Sociology at the local university. During his four years in Brazil, he also conducted fieldwork (the only fieldwork he ever did) by accompanying his wife Dina Lévi-Strauss (née Dreyfus) who, of the two, was actually the trained anthropologist.

Lévi-Strauss later systematised his fieldwork notes from Brazil and published them in 1955 as part of the celebrated memoir Tristes Tropiques. In one short section towards the end of the book, Lévi-Strauss questions whether the so-called primitive societies of the Amazonian jungle that practiced cannibalism should be seen as barbarous. If we view anthropophagy as cruel and barbarous, he asked, then how would that society view ours? And so Lévi-Strauss suggests a structural binary between two types of societies:

If we were to look at them from outside it would be tempting to distinguish two opposing types of society: those which practise cannibalism who believe, that is to say, that the only way to neutralize people who are the repositories of certain redoubtable powers, and even to turn them to one’s own advantage, is to absorb them into one’s own body. Second would come those which, like our own, adopt what might be called anthropoemia (from the Greek emein, to vomit). … They expel these formidable beings from the body public by isolating them for a time, or for ever, denying them all contact with humanity, in establishments devised for that express purpose. (Lévi-Strauss 1961: 386)

Lévi-Strauss is here suggesting that what characterises the ‘old world’, ‘our’ world, with its asylums and prisons, is an anthropoemic culture, rather than the anthropophagic culture of de Andrade’s notion of Brasilian modernism. So the question that I would like to develop is, do the spatial solutions adopted in Brasília somehow suggest an antithesis to the, perhaps, anthropoemic practices of European capitalism? If the space of constituted power is based on such an idea of exclusion, of building palaces of power that decisively reject Rancière’s ‘those who have no part’, then do the solutions adopted in Brasília reflect some sort of anthropophagic ‘inclusion’?

Lévi-Strauss made no reference to, or acknowledgement of, de Andrade even though we know for sure that Dina Lévi-Strauss collaborated with members of the ‘anthropophagic movement’ at the time (Lévi-Strauss 1937). An ‘anthropoemic’ neglect? The Brazilian origins of Lévi-Strauss’s binary are also lost on Zygmund Bauman who brings it back to life in his own analysis of modernism (Bauman 2000: 98-104).

An ethnography?

The empirical dimension of a project that would investigate the spatial dimensions of ‘seats of power’ like Brasília could, perhaps, be best described as ‘ethnographies of constituted space’, bringing together the spatial emphasis that anthropologists like Setha Low (Low 2016) have developed with a constitutional ethnography (Scheppele 2004). Brazil has been studied with ethnographic methods before. Anthropologist James Holston’s book The Modernist City (Holston 1989) is a critical assessment of how Brasília betrayed its own modernist ideals, especially in relation to the working class builders that were recruited to complete the construction work.

My focus is, however, different. I’m interested in the institutions of constituted power. In Brasília, the space of constituted power would be studied through Lefebvre’s triad, focusing in particular on the ‘airplane’, i.e. the planned landscape and buildings that represent public power and the adjoining residential areas in Costa and Niemeyer’s original plans. So conceived space refers to the way in which the institutions of constituted power have been designed and organised in the plans for the capital, but also to changes that have taken place later as Brasília has grown from an administrative capital of 140.000 inhabitants in 1960 to a metropolis with a population now at 2.5 million. Perceived space refers to how the institutional framework of constituted power is then solidified (if it is) though and in everyday routines. Finally, in their own experiences of lived space, the inhabitants and users of space appropriate it in order to bypass the designs of urban planners and architects, and even to oppose them (e.g. the political pichação -graffitis which are considered to be a threat to the UNESCO world heritage site).


Andrade, Oswald de (1991) ‘Cannibalist Manifesto’, Latin American Literary Review, Vol. 19, No. 38: 38-47.

Bauman, Zygmunt (2000) Liquid Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Frampton, Kenneth (2010) Building Brasília. Photographs by Marcel Gautherot. London: Thames & Hudson.

Holston, James (1989) The Modernist City, An Anthropological Critique of Brasília. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Jodidio, Philip (2012) Niemeyer. Köln: Taschen.

Le Corbusier (1935) Aircraft. London: The Studio.

Leite, Rui Moreira (2004) ‘Flávio de Carvalho: Media Artist Avant la Lettre’, Leonardo, Vol. 37, No. 2: 150-157.

Lévi-Strauss, D[ina] (1937) ‘Société d’ethnographie et de folklore de São Paulo (Brésil)’, Journal de la Société des américanistes, Vol. 29, No. 2: 429-431.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude (1961) Tristes Tropiques. Trans. John Russell. First American ed. New York, NY: Criterion Books.

Lispector, Clarice (1986) ‘Five Days in Brasília’, p. 136-140, in Clarice Lispector, The Foreign Legion. Stories and Chronicles. Trans. Giovanni Pontiero. New York, NY: New Directions..

Low, Setha (2016) Spatializing Culture. The Ethnography of Space and Place. Abingdon: Routledge.

Morshed, Adnan (2002) ‘The Cultural Politics of Aerial Vision: Le Corbusier in Brazil (1929)’, Journal of Architectural Education, Vol. 55, No. 4: 201-210.

Mumford, Eric (2000) The CIAM Discourse on Urbanism, 1928-1960. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Plano Piloto (1991) Relatório de Plano Piloto de Brasília. Elaborado pelo ArPDF, CODEPLAN, DePHA. Brasília: GDF.

Scheppele, Kim Lane (2004) ‘Constitutional Ethnography: An Introduction’, Law and Society Review, Vol. 38, No. 3: 389-406.

Vidler, Anthony (2003) ‘Photourbanism: Planning the City from Above and from Below’, p. 35-45, in Gary Bridge and Sophie Watson (eds), A Companion to the City. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

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