WRITING THE FUTURISTIC CITY

WRITING THE FUTURISTIC CITY: BRASÍLIA’S FIVE SEASONS OF LOVE

 

K. David Jackson

Yale University

 

The great cities of the world have a special relationship firmly established with the modern narrative. World cities have been brought to life by classic narratives vitally related to what distinguishes them, especially the great European capitals, whether Dublin’s Joyce, Prague’s Kafka, Paris’s Proust, Berlin’s Doblin, or London’s Woolf. The Tate Modern’s current exhibition “Global Cities” (2007) expands far beyond Europe to include the largest and most dynamic cities on all continents. Brazil, the world’s fifth largest country in area, has seen rapid urbanization, and its capital, Brasília, seems to have literally materialized out of nothing on the country’s central plateau, without any literature and only a series of notes in the historical record.

When Brasília was inaugurated on April 21, 1960 the city was the most audaciously futuristic ever designed and constructed as a national capital. There were no inhabitants and no roads. It could only be reached by airplane, and its palaces, ministries, and “superblocks” of residences seemed as strange as a brave new world. It was designed in the shape of a cross, or some say an airplane, and all its streets were one-way with no intersections. Street lamps used fluorescent lighting. In that same year, Simone de Beauvoir found Brasília to be an artificial city in the middle of a desert; she wrote about the recently inaugurated capital, “I’m leaving Brasília with the greatest pleasure… this city will never have a soul, heart, flesh or blood.”[1] One of Brazil’s greatest writers, Clarice Lispector, was already fascinated by the city in 1962 when she wrote: “Brasília is artificial, as artificial as the world must have been when it was created… Construction with space calculated for clouds.”[2]

The architect Oscar Niemeyer’s “Statement”[3] about planning the city shows that function gave rise to form. It was a project of high modernism, and function was primarily aesthetic and symbolic: useful structures would be capable of transmitting “beauty and emotion” permanently. Niemeyer described the challenge he faced as being the need to reconcile total freedom for the imagination with a unique character for both buildings and the overall design. Yet his novel design disguises within Brasília’s radical futurism the ghost of great world cities and their designs and development in history: the High Court was meant to have the “sobriety of the great squares of Europe” and the great concave and convex chambers of the National Congress were meant to realize Le Corbusier’s ideal of “correct and magnificent volumes assembled in light.”[4] In his book on the city in history, Lewis Mumford cites one of the vulnerabilities of the planned city, from Versailles to Washington, D.C., Canberra to Chandigarh, which is form without function. Whether composed of monumental Baroque façades, broad avenues, or geometrical designs, the planned city is not designed to change over time. It is the material realization of a pure idea, an architectural concept in which the useful or practical is a function of esthetic design and form.

Brasília, the futuristic capital city of Brazil, was officially opened by President Juscelino Kubitschek when it could be reached only by air or horseback. Brasília thus began its still brief existence as a paradox. It was planned as a vanguard of modern architecture where form and functionality would recast political and urban life in a planned and controlled space of aesthetic grandeur, where the individual would be minimized by the spatial grandiosity and the open horizons of the central plateau. Brasília opened as the mythical city of the New World, absent any human or social character, a space without any narrative of its own, as unoccupied as blank pages waiting for characteristic inscriptions that would in time allow it to join the other great capitals with a narrative space of its own. Its mythical dimension allowed André Malraux to see in it already “a resurrection of the architectural lyricism born in the Hellenic world,” and he called it “the capital of hope.” It seemed to him the “first capital of a new civilization” and “the most audacious city the West ever conceived.”[5]

Brasília in its futuristic incarnation of 1960 was the ghostly presence and unfulfilled form of a long-standing architectonic and geo-utopian dream of a capital city in the interior, and author João Almino reviews the notable historical references to a long-nurtured desire to build a new capital in the interior in a retrospective essay.[6] In the early nineteenth century, both the independence movement in Minas Gerais and the 1817 revolutionaries in Pernambuco defended the idea of establishing a national capital in the interior on the central plateau. Nationalist politician Hipólito José da Costa, exiled in London in 1808, placed the future capital at the head of great rivers in the interior, whereas the actual placement of Brasília would correspond by an uncanny coincidence with a suggestion of José Bonifácio de Andrade e Silva in 1821, before the declaration of independence, that the future capital be located at approximately fifteen degrees latitude and that it be called “Petrópole, Brasília or some other name.” The historian and diplomat Francisco Varnhagen suggested in 1849 that countries with capital cities in the interior have greater culture, wealth, and population through the promotion of communication, commerce, agriculture, and industry. According to Tomás Coelho in 1877, a capital on the high plain would represent a locus of authority from which orders would “descend,” irradiating to the far corners of Brazil. Legal proposals to move the capital began in 1852 and continued through the constitutions of 1891, 1934, and 1946, followed by technical studies for its precise location. A foundation stone to mark a possible location of the future capital was laid on September 7, 1922, on the centenary of Brazil’s independence. The definitive location was chosen on April 15, 1955, and during construction the stone from 1922 was located within the actual Federal District.

Brazil’s great author Machado de Assis, in a newspaper column on January 22, 1893, saw the inevitability of a new capital and expressed his hope that it would gain its own population right away and that it would be habitable. Here the great writer put his finger on perhaps the main and most persistent doubt that is still present in the Brazilian mind as regards Brasília: who are the permanent residents and how do they survive in an artificial city? Perhaps referring to the strangeness of Brasília and its bizarre politics, a São Paulo newspaper cartoon (July 6, 2007) jokes that anyone in Brasília who is not already from outer space must have been abducted.

The Utopian city, once inaugurated, had to face reality, and its futuristic spaces and designs were suddenly filled with all the problems of Brazilian society, as the influx of population began to change the design and uses of the city. There was a confrontation between architectural order and civic chaos, between bureaucracy and democracy in the daily life that sprang up, seemingly irrationally, in the few public spaces and sidewalks. Nature had been reinvented in Brasília, so that everyday activities, such as visiting the supermarket, became noble architectural excursions. Because the wide horizons and open spaces reduced the sense and image of human occupation, the city filled with migrants whose identity now became uncertain, open, and multiple. There was neither past nor future, only imagination and change. In daily life, however, citizens were obliged to face the high levels of violence, poverty, and instability that are the realities of urban Brazil. They lived lives in transition, in search of new identities to match the futuristic environment: either they would find a way to survive the city, or it would consume them, obliging them to return to their place of origin.

João Almino holds the rank of ambassador in the Brazilian diplomatic corps, Itamaraty, which is housed in one of the architectural gems of Brasília.[7] Almino was, like everyone else, a newcomer to the capital. His novels set in Brasília are the first narratives to portray new residents of the city, adjusting to a different life in a futuristic setting. The novel As cinco estações do amor (“The Five Seasons of Love,” 2001) is his third, after Samba-enredo (“Theme-Samba,” 1994) and Idéias para onde passar o fim do mundo (“Ideas for Where to Spend the End of the World,”1987). The three novels, whose characters embody the experience of life in Brasília, have precedents in Brazilian urban literature. Almino’s narrator Ana, who looks out over Brasília’s Lake Paranoá, has been considered a companion to Machado de Assis’ characters Brás Cubas, in Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, or Rubião in Quincas Borba, who contemplate the Bay of Botafogo from their city residences. The influence of Portuguese realist Eça de Queirós has been seen in his circle of intellectuals and writers who were alienated from the bourgeois society of their time. [8] In twentieth-century Brazil, Almino’s novel finds a parallel in Oswald de Andrade’s portrait of the modernist city of São Paulo in 1922, with its psychological portrait of the character Alma, who struggles in urban depths of passions and betrayals. [9] Almino’s Ana also brings to mind Clarice Lispector’s heroines, who are existentially alienated from their useless, bourgeois lives as housewives in mid-century Rio de Janeiro. In Almino’s Brasília, coming of age from the 1960s to the next turn of the century, urban characters continue to interact with the capital’s idiosyncrasies, fighting to avoid meaninglessness and artificiality in their new lives. The group of friends in the novel, whose lives scatter and change unpredictably, call themselves “The Useless Ones.” Ana’s narrative weaves together the personal stories of these characters, who feel rootless and alienated in the futuristic environment. The Five Seasons of Love is a novel about change, adaptation, and survival under unexpected and strange circumstances.

Brasília the city is ever present, underlying the stories of the characters in The Five Seasons of Love. They live by the forms, spaces, and circumstances of the city around them, in which Utopian design confronts the demands of a growing population and the dynamics of contemporary urban life imported into the awaiting buildings and avenues. Change, whether social, personal, or political, marks the lives of all the characters. Personal change dominates the narration by a young woman who came to Brasília from a small town in Minas Gerais. Throughout her narrative, Ana is sorting and throwing out papers from her former life, which remind her of her ex-husband Eduardo, as she searches for a self that has been lost in the dissolution of the marriage and in her solitary life as a retired university professor. By ridding herself of accumulated papers, she symbolically erases all memory of the past, which she plans to recreate on blank pages, which are Brasília. Only the present moment holds together the stories of all the other characters, especially the “Useless Ones,” her educated friends who meet in a local restaurant and bar.

Brasília’s empty newness abolishes historical and personal memory. Change is already present in Ana’s psychology in an alter–ego, the bold, confident, and assertive Diana, who may suddenly appear at any time. When she is Ana, however, she discards her previous identity, tries to be like the new city she has adopted by starting over, and empties out her previous life of its commitments and emotions:

For an instant I still recall the adventure that brought me to the Central Plateau, as if to fulfill a mission. It occurs to me that from the beginning the monumental structure of Brasília defined the limits of that adventure of mine. Brasília is the heavy streaks of rain on the window, the noisy cars passing, the loneliness of a big city, death, unrequited love, anguish…

The city propels Ana into the future and makes her believe that the only possible view of life is instantaneism, “the acceleration of time doesn’t allow us any option,” she comments. When she looks at the horizon she witnesses what Lispector saw as calculated space, a Magritte transparency in surface reality:

Everything in Brasília can be seen at a glance. In the clear skies and generous light, one’s eyes see not just the horizon in the distance but also the dividing line between the city and the country. Predictable layout, expected curves. Behind this wide-open light and the evidence of what is planned, a mystery nevertheless persists.

When she goes out, the cityscape signals to her, monumentalizing the anonymity and emptiness she feels inside:

I take Monument Avenue. Ahead of me, the neon quadrilateral at the National Shopping Center is lit. The red in the ads appears to continue into the sky. Across the crimson horizon the clouds trace spiral figures in smoke. Right in the center, an enormous reddish-gray question mark. In the middle of the sky and my life. A passing foreboding, that comes to me as a distraction…

It is the autumn of the flowering quaresmas; in the still-green trees and grass. The clouds may unload more rain at any moment. But soon the long dry winter should begin; dreaded by all, except me, because the dryness agrees with my temperament, just like these empty vistas, punctuated by figures that crisscross them like little lost ants…

By the end of its first decade of existence, Brasília is already suffocating from the poverty and pressure of the eighteen satellite cities surrounding it and from the military dictatorship running the country. The satellite cities of Taguatinga and Ceilândia reach more than double the population of the capital, while Gama, Sobradinho, Planaltina, Guará, and Samambaia each pass the 100,000 mark by the 1990s. Examples of decay, crime, and change fill the streets and Ana’s narrative. All new arrivals are viewed with suspicion. Ana’s apartment is assaulted by thieves, perhaps involved with her cook’s son. Her friends in the club of “The Useless Ones” have nearly all left the city. When Helena left to join a revolutionary group in the interior, security agents searched for her in Ana’s apartment. Joana married a Rio entrepreneur and became a society matron when the rest of the Useless were still dressing like hippies. Norberto, a former boyfriend, left for San Francisco and returned as a woman to share Ana’s house; the change of sex surprised Ana, and was not without its humorous side as she watched “Berta” awkwardly learn feminine ways. New political, psychological, and sexual identities belong in Brasília.

Brasília’s pure modernity is strong in material and spirit, however, in spite of the social problems imposed on it, and is capable of offering a resurrection, as Malraux perceived, through the lyricism of its forms. Its new residents can discover and partake of this redeeming quality. Ana must discover the inner strength emanating from the city by a questioning and analysis of herself and the world around her through her narrative; she holds forth with the social world of friends, domestic servants, household pets, while continuing to discard her past and search for a fundamental point of new beginnings:

My youth is lost. The Brasília of my dream of the future is dead. I recognize myself in the façades of its prematurely old buildings, in its unstable and decadent modernity… I have no desire to leave Brasília, or even leave the house. I don’t need to. From here I see everything, feel everything, though it may be from the inside of the bell jar that I created to preserve my discretionary space. It’s quite true that there is no difference between remaining locked up here or in Taimbé. I have this view over the Paranoá Lake, but I prefer to see nature on television. Perhaps I have gone crazy, this is how I live. I don’t need to move. I don’t want to see anyone. I lock myself in with my memories… I want to capture the moment, to start from zero. Without any baggage from the past. Without history, without direction.

The empty depths of Brasília’s vast spaces and horizon miniaturize Ana into just another lost ant on the vast plateau; she sets fire to her papers and attempts suicide, in the abstract anonymous emptiness of form without content:

A terrible black vision of the world surrounds me. I have been devoured by life. I am the most miserable of creatures. A black slave. A destitute and mistreated woman. A street urchin. Landless. A dying Jane Doe in a charity hospital. An unknown pauper’s body left to a teaching hospital, then dissected in an anatomy class

The vigilance and caring of Ana’s neighbor, Carlos, however, saves her life and offers her hope in the security of a changed identity that enables her to begin life again in the artificial city. Others are not so fortunate, however: Helena never returns from the guerilla insurgency at Araguaia, and Berta, formerly Norberto, who takes her identity cards, is murdered in a hate crime. For Ana, a few weeks back in her hometown, Taimbé, are enough to convince her that her life and the new city’s are now inseparable, and her only imperative is to accept the moment and live again. She accepts that personal change and new beginnings are possible, although at great cost, even in a futuristic city:

In the Pilot Plan, roots take flight and beat their wings like butterflies. Who can guarantee that I am not artificial like Brasília? Taimbé is here, in my meeting Carlos. Minas is on the terrace of this house where Carlos and I are small town lovers. Where we are matters more than where we are going, or whence we have come. … I have to rid myself of this weight, to begin the new century.

Ana’s narrative tribulations are the basis for re-education in the life she must lead on her own in the futuristic city. She must learn to overcome the weaknesses of Brasília’s Utopian, ultramodern design and vast spaces: form without substance, function versus pure idea, grandeur against intimacy. She has struggled with the urgency to create a new authenticity out of an almost metaphysical artificiality, and her narrative recapitulates the challenge facing migrants to the world’s new global cities, a bet on life and the power to renew ourselves:

Building a city from nothing is a bet on life. I want to live on the frontier that advances across the immense emptiness. To rebuild myself out of the ashes.

The Five Seasons of Love is a narrative for Brasília, the city, and the coming of age of its new citizens. Almino’s novel of change, suffering, sacrifice, and adaptation answers the question everyone asked about a city built without inhabitants: how can anyone live there? It carries the once futuristic city across the millennium after four decades and tells the epic, mythical story of a first generation who had to learn how to live in it, starting from the vast emptiness and the centuries-old appeal of the central plateau.

New Haven

2007

[1] Lettres à Nelson Algren : un amour transatlantique, 1947-1964, texte établi, traduit de l’anglais et annoté par Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir, Paris, Gallimard, 1997, 525.
[2] “Brasília,” Jornal de Brasília, Jun. 20, 1970.
[3] “Depoimento,” Modulo 9, Rio de Janeiro, Feb. 1958, 3-6

[4] “Corolário Brasileiro,” Forma 7-8 Rio de Janeiro, Mar.-April 1931, 20-22.

[5] André Malraux, Palavras no Brasil, org. and trad. Edson Rosa da Silva, Rio de Janeiro, Funarte, 1998.

[6] João Almino, “O mito de Brasília e a literatura,” Estudos Avançados21.59 (2007).

[7] There is a tradition in Brazil of distinguished authors who are also diplomats, including novelist João Guimarães Rosa and poet João Cabral de Melo Neto.

[8] “Pesadelos brasileiros no cenário da capital da República,” O Estadão, São Paulo (7-7-2001).

[9] See Walnice Nogueira Galvão, Musas sob Assédio: literatura e indústria cultural no Brasil, São Paulo, Senac, 2005, 83-84.


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