Brasília and the Populist Frontier

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. 

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