Iconography and Politics

“Brasilia is a miracle,” said Lucio Costa, the chief architect of Brasilia. Conceived in 1957 and built under the presidency of Juscelino Kubitscheck, the city is often regarded as a utopian paradigm; thus it’s nickname, the Capital of Hope. The simplicity and boldness of Brasilia’s design filtered through different artistic mediums and eventually became both a national and international icon. At the same time, it was a reflection of Brazil’s social and political atmosphere in the 1960’s. The relationship between Brasilia’s architectural motif, and its resultant iconography, combined with the seemingly stable government at the time resulted in a new national and international pride.

Towards the end of Gertulio Vargas’ political career and life, the government started showing some instability. After his death by suicide in 1954, Brazil went through three non-elected Presidents in a period of less than a year and a half. In 1956, Juscelino Kubitscheck was elected president and successfully served his term. Kubitshceck was succeeded by Janiao Quadros in 1961, who lasted less than a year in office, and set the grounds for the turmoil that eventually led to the military coup in 1964 and the dictatorship that followed for the next two decades. In a span of 10 years, Brazil had seven presidents. In the midst of this chaos, the fact that Kubitscheck was elected by the people, served until the end of his term and managed to bring a certain degree of economic, political and social stability, made his presidency seemingly steady, especially when compared to its predecessors, and thus culminated in the creation of a new capital.

Brasilia was the hope for stability in an unstable country. Its utopic design represented the desire of the people and the government to achieve a nationwide unity to project internationally. In his book The Modernist City: An anthropological critique of Brasilia, John Holston analyses the construction of Brasilia. He states that if the city “could serve as an example of progress for the rest of the nation, it would be possible not only to generalize its innovations, but also to propel the country as a whole into the planned future it embodies.” Fernando Luiz Lara discusses the same topic in his essay Brazilianization or Brasilianization? and states “In that sense, Brazilianization would be the nation influencing the city while Brasilianization refers to the city influencing the rest of the country.” The unstable political situation in Brazil created the fertile grounds, and the desire for a new, utopic, and hopeful future to look forward to.

In 1957, the government held a competition for the design of a new capital, and Lucio Costa won it with his master plan called Plano Piloto (Figure 1). The proposal for Brasilia was fairly simple; it consisted of two axes that intersect perpendicularly (Figure 2). The vertical axis was for public buildings, and the horizontal one was for residences. Two embankments in the vertical axis carried the government buildings. The buildings in this core, designed by Lucio Costa with his colleague and friend Oscar Niemeyer were recognized internationally because of their innovative structures, their monumentality, and their harmonious relation to the broader master plan. Holston says Brasilia’s monumental architecture showed the world Brazil’s “strength and power”, allowing the city to become an icon of the nation.

One particular building in the second embankment, Palacio da Alvorada, (Figure 3) the official residence of the President of Brazil, fully absorbed the essence of the plan and incorporated it into its structure. The column that holds the president’s household developed from the sketch of the plan (Figure 4) and is now known as the Niemeyer Column. Its geometry became an icon, and was used in various artistic and political forms to show the power of the National Capital. In the second embankment, known as the Plaza of the Three Powers the idea of a horizontal and vertical axis intersecting at a low point is seen in the heights and arrangements of the buildings. (Figure 5).

The Brasilia master plan “cross” penetrated different areas in the political and artistic realms. For example, its geometry became the coat of arms of the city (Figure 6). It was also seen in the murals of the restaurant in the Brasilia Palace Hotel (Figure 7), and in the Igreja Nossa Senhora de Fatima (Figure 8), both important buildings of the city. The decision of Oscar Niemeyer to use the Plano Piloto as the design parameter to follow for the buildings throughout the city gave Brasilia the necessary tools to represent the power of the government nationally, and to represent Brazil internationally. Luiz Lara asserts that “it is impossible to imagine the country without the powerful symbolism of its modern lines. The city Brasilianized the nation as much as the nation Brazilianized the city.”

At an artistic and international level, the fascination with Brasilia became evident in the creation of Broyhill Premier’s Brasilia Furniture Collection. Broyhill Premier was a furniture design company in North Carolina that was fascinated by the iconography of Brasilia, and decided to implement it in a furniture collection. It used the Niemeyer Column geometry as table stands, armrests, seat backs and drawers. Its furniture, just like the city, was the “dynamic embodiment of the new way of life” (Broyhill). Furthermore, the company believed that their collection was “a new look in furniture” (Broyhill). In a way, just like the collection, this is what Brasilia was, a “new look” for Brazil.

While the city received architectural and international recognition, it was not as impeccable as its reputation. The site for the construction of Brasilia was the geographic center of the country. Kubitscheck wanted to relocate the capital to create a national identity, rather than focus on the major Brazilian cities: Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. However, precisely because of how far it was from these cities, it was difficult to access. Holston discusses how its location was a “separation from the country it represents.”

This “separation” was not only geographic, but also economic. Brasilia’s utopic intent aimed to create a “perfect social coexistence” (Hoslton). This would be achieved by creating a metropolis in which housing conditions were equal for everybody. This mission is embodied in the supersquadra, a housing typology that was conceived for this city. The supersquadra apartment blocks are all equal: same façade, same height, same facilities, all constructed on pillars, all provided with garages and constructed of the same material to “prevent hateful differentiation of social classes” (Holston).

The intent of Brasilia to be a paradise became even more problematic when it was actually built. The similarity of the buildings in the supersquadras was incredibly disorienting, and still causes people to easily get lost and confused. The lack of corners also contributed to its odd nature. The proportions of the width of a street to the height of the buildings was off. Lastly, the city was so big, it was impossible to move around it without a car. As Fernando Luiz Lara says, “the city has been praised as the embodiment of hope and criticized as the materialization of despair.”

The fast construction of the city led many to believe that there was corruption in the government, and this eventually led people to elect the candidate of the President’s opposing party by a landslide in 1961, just a year after the city had been inaugurated. If Brasilia was a success or not is a matter of discussion. For just after four years of the creation of the capital, the country would fall under a military dictatorship that would rule for almost two decades.

Whether Brasilia was built as a sign of prosperity or as a last attempt by the government to seem powerful, it certainly achieved the goal of generating a national unity, a national hope, and a national project. Its iconography has lasted decades, and still represents Brazil’s strength, power, and unity to the outside world.


Colquhoun, A. (2002). Modern Architecture. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Holston, J. (1989). The modernist city: An anthropological critique of Brasilia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Lara, Fernando Luiz. “Brazilizanization or Brasilianization? The First Fifty Years of Brasilia.” PORTAL 5 (2009-2010)

Kuilman, Marten. (2011) Quadralectic Architecture: A panoramic Review. Falcon Press

Schemo D. (June 16, 1988) Lucio Costa Is Dead at 96; Planned Futuristic Brasilia. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com


Figure 1:  Costa, L. (1957) Plano Piloto Sketches

Figure 2: Costa, L. (1957) Plano Piloto

Figure 3: Niemeyer, O. (1960) Column Sketch for Palacio da Alvorada

Figure 4: Costa, L. and Niemeyer, O. (1960) Plaza of the Three Powers [Building]

               Image by Marcelo Vieira

Figure 5: Niemeyer, O. (1960), Palacio da Alvorada [Building]

   Image by Leonel Ponce

Figure 6: Coat of arms of the Federal District, Brazil

  Public image, published and commissioned by the Brazilian Government

Figure 7: Bulcao, A. (1960) Mural on Igreja Nossa Senhora de Fatima  [Mural]

               Image by Francisco Aragao

Figure 8: Bulcao, A. (1960) Mural on Brasilia Palace Hotel Restaurant [Mural]

  Image by Fernando Stankuns

Figure 9: Brasilia by Broyhill Furniture Factories Inc. Advertisement, Lenoir, North Carolina

Figure 10: Brasilia at 62’ World Fair Advertisement

                 Image by Brasilia Connection