Brasilia - The Milton Keynes of Brazil? - Days 428-9
Our first impressions when we arrived in Brasilia; had we come to the Milton Keynes of Brazil? Not that we saw any concrete cows mind you.
Interestingly, both Brasilia and Milton Keynes were planned from scratch and located in central positions in their respective countries. Both look quite manicured, urban tidiness with modern square buildings, neat lawns by the roadside, with areas represented by codes; ‘H3 Monks Way’ in Milton Keynes and ‘Via W3 Sul’ in Brasilia. But we find these metropolises as a bit faceless and soulless really.
Both places were executed in the 1960s. Milton Keynes was designed and built as a fully planned “city” back then, but unfortunately, despite applying for city status three times, her Royal Highness still hasn’t decreed it so. Brasilia, on the other hand, was founded in April 1960, to serve as the new national capital, taking the title away from Rio de Janeiro. This was initiated by President Juscelino Kubitschek de Oliveria, known as JK.
By the time we got to our Airbnb yesterday, all we wanted to do was to shower and then go and have something to eat. Today we went out to explore. We both are interested in architecture, in layman's’ terms and had heard about Oscar Niemeyer’s design of the Cathedral as well as his input into the design of the actual city, The layout of the city is fascinating, like an aeroplane with the wings being the residential areas for the bureaucrats and the body for where they work.
Our first port of call was the National Congress buildings, another of Niemeyer’s designs, with its twin towers and two dishes, one convex and the other concave, where the Senate and House of Representatives meet. As we arrived, we were invited in and informed that a tour would start in 15 minutes. Even though this was in Portuguese, there was a pamphlet in English that we could follow as we walked around.
It was interesting to see where the politicians meet and are interviewed, the glass cabinets displaying presents gifted from various countries (none from the United Kingdom), the 27 flags representing the states and the Federal District and the ‘Tunnel of Time’ which connect the main building to one of the Annexes. There was an exhibition here portraying elements of the historical path of the Senate since its creation in 1824.
When we saw photos of the 81 senators, we were dismayed to see that there was not a true representation of the people. If there were, we would have seen pictures of 6 Africans for 7.5% of the country’s black population. Also a significant imbalance between men and women in Congress. Brazil ranks 32nd among the 33 Latin American and Caribbean countries according to the proportion of women in the National Congress. Oh dear, come on Jair Bolsonaro, you have a lot to do.
We had a nice chat with our young tour guide about this. She also was troubled about the imbalance and sadly said that there was an undercurrent of racism in the country that is not spoken about. Damn, we thought Brazil was better than this.
Next, on our tour, we were taken into the galleries of the Plenary Halls, both empty as the parliament is in recess. Each senator has their own chair, table with a microphone, a fingerprint scanner and electronic voting button. The ceiling of the Senate dome is decorated with 135,000 aluminium platelets which apparently improves the lighting and acoustics and looks good too.
We were getting hungry, so Tim found a recommended restaurant on google maps. When we got to the destination, it seemed that the restaurant was in the Ministry of Culture’s building. We had to sign in at reception, show our ID, have our photo taken, given a pass and then were escorted to the office cafeteria! Oh, Tim knows how to treat a girl!
The large plates were covered over, we thought this was just to keep them clean, but when we both took one, we were told to put them back and take a small plate. Why? I have not a clue. There was not much of a non-meat choice, so it was a piece of avocado and sweetcorn (which wasn’t very sweet) for me. Tim had a bit more than that, and we did have a plate of delicious fresh fruit afterwards. This together with fresh orange juice and a cup of coffee came to £3 altogether! I think in the UK’s Capital just the fruit would have cost that.
Next stop was Niemeyer’s Cathedral, which he received the Pritzker Prize for in 1988. It has sixteen white concrete columns rising towards each other and then curves out like a crown. At the entrance, as if guarding the building, are four bronze sculptures of saints, each 3m high. As we entered via a slope taking us underground, we were astonished by the beautiful simplicity of the cathedral, so light and spacious. The whole of the dome is covered in stained glass windows in hues of blue, white and green like waves and three angels are suspended from the ceiling. I really liked the place, a far cry from the gaudy, opulent church we visited in Pelourinho.
Just next door was the next interesting piece of Architecture, again, another of Niemeyer’s designs; the Museu Nacional. A large white dome with a long straight ramp taking you into the belly of the spaceship with another curved ramp wrapping around the building like a ring of Saturn. We entered the building, but no Martians to greet us, just a large empty space that is being transformed into areas for art exhibitions. We walked up another ramp taking us to an exhibition called The Popular Woodcut (thanks 'google translate') with a range of litho and wood prints. Themes of the devil and a woman, musicians, farmers and gaúchos and much more adorned the walls. Most were in black and white and inspired me to get going with doing more drawing.
We have both thoroughly enjoyed the art sessions that we have had around the world, but, despite lugging our paint pots, brushes and paper around with us, we are just not using them. I must admit, there is a sense of unease, of not being good enough, a hesitance. Come on Lindsey, just get on with it, a small drawing each day, just like my writing. Day one of our travels I wrote 3 lines, now I can’t stop writing!
We left the building, then Tim noticed that at ground level there was another door to enter. Cool air welcomed us, and we went in a room with small and large screens showing films of a lady holding or carrying on her head a large transparent crystal. She was in Japan, we recognised some of the places, and wore various flowing long dresses looking somewhat spaced out. There were some beanbags on the floor, so we both plonked ourselves down to relax and watch this woman swanning around.
As we were about to leave, Tim noticed another screen of her in a garden that we visited in Himeji. She was carefully walking across some stepping stones with the crystal balancing on her head then suddenly it slipped. The next shot was of it laying on a rock in two pieces. I must confess, we both burst out laughing and still had the giggles as we left the museum.
Carrying along the main Eixo Monumental towards TV Tower, we were looking forward to reaching the 75m-high observation deck giving us a decent overview of the city, and the Fonte Da Torre, with its 21 spouts, three vertical sprays including one that jets water to 50m high. Oh dear, not a drop, bone dry. No fountains to admire today and the TV tower had scaffolding covering the bottom, and tape stopping visitors like us to enter it. In fact, it looks run down. What a shame.
We miss the cosiness of older cities that organically have grown over the years with different styles of buildings, the gutsiness that cities usually bring. They need to mature like a fine wine. Perhaps Milton Keynes and Brasilia are like Beaujolais Nouveau, it’s a matter of taste.