From 1956 to 1960, Brazilian architects, engineers and peasant laborers called candangos built a new capital, Brasília. This was the realization of a dream first voiced in 1827, just 5 years after the country became independent, when an advisor to Emporer Pedro I suggested that he move the capital from the colonial city of Rio de Janeiro, on the coast, to a new city in the interior.
Brasília, as it eventually came to be called, was a Brazilian version of Luso-Manifest Destiny. The new city was built on the legacy of the Bandeirantes, slave hunters and prospectors whose journeys into the South American interior in the 16th and 17th centuries extended Portuguese holdings – Brasil – at the expense of the Spanish crown.
President Juscelino Kubitschek asked Oscar Niemeyer to head up the team that would create the new capital. A native of Rio de Janeiro, Niemeyer was already an internationally renowned architect, his design for the United Nations Head Quarters in New York an immediate icon of post-war modernism. His designs for Brasília’s government buildings, plazas, monuments, and National Cathedral created something of a modernist theme park in Brasília, and in 1987 the city was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
For Brasília, Niemeyer collaborated with another celebrated Brazilian designer, Lucio Costa, whose plans for the city took the national dream into the air itself – from above, Brasília’s layout looks like a giant bow, loaded and aimed at the heart of the continent. Costa’s Brasília conformed to the modernist Athens Charter of 1933 almost to the letter, creating a city of functionalism and (for many) modern alienation. Landscaping was done by Roberto Burle Marx, another of the generation of Brazilian modernists whose work defined an era in South American history.
In the Plaza of the Three Powers, Bruno Giorgi’s sculpture, Os Candangos, memorialized the northeastern Brazilians who built the capital. In the national discourse of the time, these impoverished peasants were living symbols of Brazil’s colonial and agrarian past. By coming to Brasília and building the city, they were transformed into new pioneers who would settle the vast empty spaces of the country’s interior, from the dry plains of Brasília through the vast green desert of the Amazon. Unlike the North American slaves who built the White House and the U.S. Captiol buildings, the candangos were memorialized as part and parcel of Brasília’s futurist vision.
The architect must think that the world has to be a better place, that we can end poverty . . . . it is important that the architect think not only of architecture but of how architecture can solve the problems of the world . . . The architect has to always be political.
—Oscar Niemeyer, 2009
Meanwhile, in London, Sylvia Plath was pregnant again. Her husband, Ted Hughes, was having an affair with another woman, and they were destined to separate soon after the birth of their son, Nicholas. In the 13 months after Nick’s birth, Plath wrote most of the poems in her second collection, Ariel, and published her autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar. Then on February 11, 1963, Plath left her children sleeping in their room, sealed the door with wet towels, and committed suicide with oven gas in the kitchen.
Among the poems she wrote in this period was Brasilia, which was not published in Ariel. Like Zweig, Plath was thinking about the past and the future and the trouble with seeing it through.
Will they occur,
These people with torso of steel
Winged elbows and eyeholes
Of cloud to give them expression,
These super-people! –
And my baby a nail
Driven, driven in.
He shrieks in his grease
Bones nosing for distance.
And I, nearly extinct,
His three teeth cutting
Themselves on my thumb –
And the star,
The old story.
In the lane I meet sheep and wagons,
Red earth, motherly blood.
O You who eat
People like light rays, leave
Mirror safe, unredeemed
By the dove’s annihilation,
The power, the glory.
It was one of the coldest winters on record in England, and Sylvia Plath’s life was falling apart even as she was bringing new life on. How long she had intended to take leave of this life is not something we can know. She had attempted suicide before, and she was troubled by deep emotional struggles that went back to childhood. Her relationship with Hughes held some high points in her life, but now he had left her for another woman. What is clear, however, is that once she made her decision, she executed it with consummate intentionality. She meticulously protected her children as she took her own life.
Like Zweig, she left two works for posthumous publication, one pointing backwards, one pointing forward. The Bell Jar was on its way to publication; in this, her semi-autobiographical novel, she exposed a world she knew in the past, a world she tried to leave once before. As she died, the manuscript for Ariel and Other Poems, her masterwork, lay on the desk, each poem typed and left in the precise order she wanted for the book. The first word of the first poem, “Morning Song,” was “love.” The last word of the last poem, “Wintering,” was “spring.”
Like Zweig, Plath thought she left a book pointing to a better future, but that wasn’t to be. The Ariel that was published under Ted Hughes’s editorial guidance was not the same book. The poems were reordered, others added, and a few, like Brasilia, removed. This Ariel was darker, seeming to foreshadow Plath’s end, but whatever the critics of Hughes’s intentions, this Ariel made Plath who she is today.
On March 31, 1964, the Brazilian military overthrew the democratically elected government. As the military took control, they created the model for the “bureaucratic authoritarian state” in the developing world. Niemeyer and Costa’s modernist visions were perverted into symbols of Latin America’s dark period, the capital’s bland functionality and order representing the kind of control that the military celebrated in its culture, the kind of functionality they wished to instill in the rest of the country.
Behind the gleaming white façades of Brasília’s futuristic vision, the Brazilian military contributed to the “dirty wars” against the left in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay. These regimes took the lives of tens of thousands of people who dreamed of a different kind of democracy than the region had known. Beyond those killed, many more were tortured, and hundreds of thousands were forced into exile. Niemeyer, a Communist and therefore enemy of the state, went into exile in Europe.
When the opposition movements eventually took power in the late 1980s and 1990s, the world was a very different place. Brasília was a bigger city, showing some age, surrounded by “satellite cities” and large favelas – the squatter settlements that the military tried to eradicate in Rio de Janeiro with less than efficient results. Costa’s rationally designed city had its flaws, its ups and downs, and its critics. For some, it seemed as if Brazil, and Brasília, had turned Zweig’s book into a joke: Brazil is the country of the future, and it always will be.
The future that Brasília promised, that Plath saw in her mind and in her children, didn’t work out according to the original plans. Yet life goes on. I will continue these themes in the next posting on the The truth and Brasília, 3: Faroeste Caboclo.
Notes and Credits
The critics of Brasília’s ambitious design and lofty principles are many. I am not one of them. I am writing to explore what Brasília means, not its shortcomings, and my approach should indicate that I believe the city’s meaning far outshines any of its shortcomings.
Lauro Cavalcanti provides a beautiful guide to Brazil’s modernist architecture that places Brasília in perspective. In Brasília, the government sought to “turn the state into a spectacle,” and Brasília is indeed the enactment of a dream. If you can’t go to Brasília but can find your way to New York, go to Lincoln Center, and you can witness Neimeyer and Brasília’s influence on one of the great cultural centers of the world.
Photo of the Praça dos Três Poderes, with the statue of Os Candangos, is from the Flickr site of Shelley Bernstein, aur2899. She works at the Brooklyn Museum (according to the Flickr “about”) and has a lot of pictures from Brasília and elsewhere. Her Brooklyn Museum blog posts are here.
The candangos are publicly memorialized in Brazil, in marked contrast to the North American squelching of the slave labor employed to build our own White House. Without suggesting that Brazil is any less racist than the U.S., or that either country has a better social model for dealing with its racial legacy, I point this out as a matter of historical interest. The reader may regard these facts as he or she wishes.
Niemeyer and Costa’s designs were political statements. They expressed political beliefs in modernity, order, and democracy in the layout of the city. Niemeyer himself was a Communist, whose architeture reflected his beliefs in a world of collective and individual democracy, the triumph of working people over the old regime and the capitalist governing class.
Oscar Niemeyer is 101 years old, and he is still working. The quotation in this posting is taken from an interview he did with Santiago Fernandez-Stelley for Vice magazine online, at some point in 2009. The interview can be seen on video at VBS.TV. The video of the interview is simply inspirational.
The photo of the Sylvia Plath tattoo is from a photobucket listing from PaperCuttt. I found it first on this site for literary tattoos. You can also find material from the same person at another livejournal channel. She notes that she altered the original slightly (“As I listened to the old bray of my heart….I am. I am. I am.”) but that it contains the same spirit.
I have long been greatly motivated by the poetry and writing of Sylvia Plath. As I mentioned in the introduction to this series of posts, her Collected Poems was one of two English language books I brought to Brazil in 1992 for my year of doctoral reserach in Belém. Over my life I have read many books on her and her life. These resources include: the poems themselves. Anne Stevenson, Bitter Fame; Jacqueline Rose, The Haunting of Sylvia Plath; Linda Wagner, Critical Essays on Sylvia Plath; and Erica Wagner, Ariel’s Gift. I’ve tried to read as much as possible, and to work through the thicket of political controversy around her work and life. I also read Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters and have some to a deeper appreciation of how Sylvia Plath affected all those around her. The tragedy of her son’s suicide last year brought me a several days of stark reflection on emotions, depression, and the struggle of human consiousness and life against itself.
12 responses to “The truth and Brasília, 2: Torsos of Steel”
Brilliant post, John.
Thanks so much for sharing:)
your seamless transition from anthropological architecture to Sylvia Plath to, well, i guess political architecture… sublime, my friend.
i learned a lot about this place i knew as “Brazil”. you give good school. 🙂
B: thanks! I’ll have you know that in the wake of my moving and unpacking, I have managed to fashioned a lot of newspaper stuffing into an entire origami rock quarry. Seems boulders are the limit of my origami talents.
M: You’re welcome. I’ve got to work on doing something funnier soon. I was telling my friend the other day that I thought the health care reform bill was so inbred it could only be described as a German Shepherd with hip displacement… maybe there’s something there. Then again, maybe I’ll just do a poem of Caspar the Friendly Ghost puns. Favorite sauce? Boodelaise. Orientation? Boosexual. Caspar + math pun ghost logic? Boolean. This is bad. Really bad. Ok time to take a shower.
i’m for one very thankful that your showers can’t wash your wicked sense of humor down the drain. 🙂
you never have to work at being a smart laugh yanno, you were born with the stuff.
Wow! I’m so impressed. This is a fantastic post – full of intriguing detail, point-of-view, and so well written. Keep it coming! Best, Michael
Thanks Michael, I appreciate the close reading and your compliments here. This was #2 in a 3-part series on Brasilia. More Brasil on “Tamba-Taja,” which is a story based on a trip I took in the Amazon in 1993. And there will be more to come from some oral history data I have from work in Belem. Cheers, John
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Thank you for this helpful post. I am currently writing on Plath and Brasilia and found your insights on the city really enlightening. I will include a reference to your blog. I am not aware that Plath was pregnant in winter of 1962/3 in London. This must be speculation only. As far as we know ‘Brasila’ was not included in Plath’s last ordering for Ariel so it is not correct to say that Hughes removed it.
Hi Lucy, thank you for visiting my lately neglected site. I don’t recall my exact source on the ordering for Ariel – could you send your reference to me and I might add an editorial correction on this posting. I appreciate the correction. Please let me know how/where you’re referencing this post, just something to keep for me out of interest. I haven’t written much lately but yesterday did make a post of a poem. I have another one ready to post after an edit – just have trouble finding time. I’d like to start working less and writing more, or rather writing this more since writing other stuff is mainly what I do for business anyway.
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Thank u for your insights on the poem Brasilia and the capital city of Brasilia. I had interpreted this poem as a religious theme. Torsos of steel and winged elbows I imagined was the summoning of angels for battle like archangel Michael & describing the angels as super-people. And my baby a nail driven in relates to the crucifixion of Christ. Bones nosing for distancing I felt were the exposure of bones when hung on the cross. And the star, the old story I felt represented the star of Bethlehem and that old Christmas story of the Nativity. In the lane I meet sheep and wagons, as in the Nativity the angels first announced the birth of Christ to shepherds. Red earth, motherly blood, again back to the crucifixion and Mother Mary witnessing her son, her bloodline hanging on the cross. I feel Plath is speaking of God when she states “O You (capitalized) who eat people like light rays.” God is also portrayed as rays of light and all people must eventually die. Plath asks God to leave this one, Jesus, don’t redeem him back to heaven through the crucifixion (dove’s annihilation) keep the power, the glory (this is the ending of the Lord’s Prayer) here alive on earth where it is still needed. Just my thoughts.