Landmark anniversary for Brasilia leaves architect 'sad'

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The Independent Online

Brazil's futuristic capital Brasilia celebrates its 50th anniversary Wednesday, but the architect behind many of its grandiose concrete buildings says he is sad the city fell short of his egalitarian vision.

"Brasilia has changed a lot" from the original "well thought-out" conception, said Oscar Niemeyer, who at 102 years is still drafting and imagining projects in his office in the onetime capital Rio de Janeiro.

Overpopulation, Brazil's enthusiastic adoption of consumerism, and the resulting vast gap between the well-paid public service elite and the struggling service workers catering to them have undermined the hopes Niemeyer, a fierce communist, once had for Brasilia.

"The deep social divisions present in the new capital leave me sad," he said.

Laid out in the form of an airplane (with the government's executive buildings constituting the "cockpit" and offices and residences stretching out into the "wings"), Brasilia today elicits both wonder and unease in visitors.

It resembles a retro-future scene straight from "The Jetsons" or a Jacques Tati film, with UFO-looking domes, ministries atop square ponds, elegant spires and blocky offices deployed along improbably broad avenues where Brazil's normally vibrant flora has been all but razed to fit the rigid, clean lines and vast empty spaces.

But it also reveals the fatal flaw in its designers' plan: the overpopulation of a city originally built for 600,000 residents which today is home to more than four times that, 2.6 million people.

That means frustrating peak-hour traffic jams and cars parked egregiously along curbs, pedestrians risking their lives crossing roads not meant for pedestrian passage and restaurants and shops located inside locales devoid of charm.

"It's obvious that I understand the problems derive from a metropolis that has grown and that unfortunately reflects the capitalist regime with all its vices and injustices," Niemeyer said.

Thought up in the 1950s as a symbol of Brazil's aspirations of federal unity and national integration, planning of the city in the unpopulated center of Brazil was handed over to Niemeyer, the late urban planner Lucio Costa, and landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx, who vowed to build a different sort of capital.

They succeeded to such a point that Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin exclaimed on a visit in 1961: "I feel like I've stepped onto another planet, not Earth."

Niemeyer, in his fragile old age, was unable to travel to Brasilia to attend ceremonies marking the half-century anniversary of the city he helped bring into the world.

His fear of flying, and the impossibility of him making the 1,400 kilometer (840-mile) car journey to the capital, meant he would watch the celebrations on television, he told AFP in an e-mail interview.

He said staying home would also allow him the time to work on his next jobs, including designing a football stadium "of a rather surprising form."

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