A Century-old Purpose, Always Postponed

by | May 5, 2010


Lucio Costa holding a topographer’s flag during his first visit to the new capital’s construction site, 1957. Photo by José Osvaldo de Meira Penna.


Dislocating the capital to Brazil’s interior highlands is a long standing project in the country’s history. The project was first linked to the transfer of the royal court from Lisbon to Portuguese America, where a metropolis would be established in what until then had been a colonial purveyor of goods. The transfer brought into question the very geography of an empire made of dominions in three continents and it often questioned Rio de Janeiro’s suitability, be it as a royal, imperial, or republican capital.

Until 1953, the quest for a worthy capital involved many factors such as the establishment of a Portuguese empire in the Americas, Portugal’s repudiation of an Ancien Régime monarchy in the South Atlantic, the formation of a counter hegemony in a former colony, or in the construction of a unified, republican, and modern Brazilian nation. As Lucio Costa—the architect of the final iteration of Brazil’s new capital—once put it: “it was a century-old purpose, always postponed.”1

One of the earliest references to the transfer of the Portuguese court away from Lisbon and across the Atlantic occured during the reign of Dom João IV (1640-1656) when due to Portugal’s fragility in the context of Spain’s enmity, an escape plan was hatched whereby the Portuguese royal family would, pending imminent threat, flee to the Brazilian captaincy of Pernambuco.2 A similar plan was suggested in 1736 by the diplomat Luís da Cunha. Portugal could only prosper, he believed, if the king moved to a land that offered all the resources he needed, while “in no way he needed those of Portugal.”3 By 1750, the formation of an economically integrated Luso-Brazilian empire became a political program and by 1797 the Secretary of Naval Affairs and Overseas Dominions Rodrigo de Souza Coutinho proposed an official redistribution of the empire. His fear was that “left by itself,” Portugal “would in a brief period become a province of Spain.”4 By 1803, Souza Coutinho’s views of Portugal “as neither the best nor the most essential part of the monarchy” proved as unpopular as they were premonitory.5 In 1807, a showdown between France and Britain over the Iberian peninsula took place. Prince Regent Dom João VI, fled, along with his court, from the threat of Napoleon’s invading army by sailing across the Atlantic under British protection. Having chosen a port city for what, after all, had always been a maritime nation, the Portuguese court was faced with the need to transform Rio de Janeiro into a ‘New Lisbon’ and, in the process, divest Portuguese America from its colonial identity. Dom João VI had, however, found Rio de Janeiro ill-suited for the royal family and regretted not having sufficient resources to transfer his capital inland, or so reported the British ambassador, Lord Strangford, to his king, George III.6

Among the first to publicly debate an opinion in favor of transferring the capital inland was the exiled journalist, Hipólito José da Costa, editor of Correio Braziliense, which was published between 1808 and 1822. From his exile in London, José da Costa perpetuated the idea of a ‘Brazil-centric’ Portuguese world and went so far as to find Rio de Janeiro “appropriate for commerce and other ends yet summarily inadequate as Brazil’s capital.”7 Citing the example of Washington D.C., José da Costa added that whatever difficulties exist in building a city from scratch far inland are “mere subterfuge,” considering “the facility with which cities are built in the United States of Northern America.”8

With Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, Dom João VI preferred not to return to Portugal. A year later, he promoted Brazil to the status of kingdom, thereby becoming king of a dual monarchy. This measure stood in the way of Oporto’s and Lisbon’s bourgeoisies, which sought to recuperate the hegemony they once had had over the colonies. Protest led to the 1820 Liberal Revolution of Oporto, and the king was ‘ordered’ by the Revolutionary Assembly (i.e., the Côrtes) to bring the Royal Court back to mainland Portugal. Dom João VI could no longer risk losing his continental dominion and on April 21, he finally departed for Lisbon, leaving behind his heir-apparent, Prince Pedro, who became regent of the Vice-Kingdom of Brazil.

When the revolutionary delegates from Brazil to the Côrtes in Lisbon were cast aside in negotiations regarding the new Portuguese Constitution, they offered an amendment of their own, wherein Article 1 not only locates a capital in the “center of Brazil,” it also mentions the name of “Brasilia.”9 On September 21, 1821, with only a portion of the Brazilian delegates present, the Côrtes voted to abolish the Kingdom of Brazil, effectively stripping Rio de Janeiro of its royal privileges while subordinating all Brazilian provinces back to Lisbon. A few days later, the Côrtesordered the return of Prince Pedro who, faced with such intransigence, not only pronounced his famous “Fico” (“I stay”) but subsequently declared Brazil free from Lisbon’s liberal revolutionaries, promised a separate constitutional monarchy, and named himself Dom Pedro I, Emperor of Brazil.

One of the principal protagonists in the installation of Dom Pedro I’s government was José Bonifácio de Andrada e Silva who had been the only Brazilian delegate in Lisbon equipped with a territorial program that sought to unify Brazil’s disparate and quasi-independent provinces (independent from each other, that is). While addressing Brazil’s Constitutional Assembly on June 9, 1823, Andrada e Silva reiterated the reasons why a new capital would be both “useful and necessary,” suggesting the names of “Petropole or Brasilia,” and locating it along the southern latitude of 15 degrees.10 In 1825, the newspaper O Universal (published in Ouro Preto, Minas Gerais) featured an article in favor of a liberal immigration policy that would bring together “peoples of different political and religious opinions,” much as other countries such as the United States had.11 The article mentions the necessity to build a city in the country’s interior which would in time become the capital.

With the return of Dom Pedro I to Portugal, in order to claim his father’s throne, it was now up to Dom Pedro II to consolidate Brazil’s geopolitical territory. A young Francisco Adolfo de Varnhagen—who would eventually become his country’s principal 19th century historian—greatly contributed to the formation of an independent, albeit imperial, identity. The theme of the new capital’s location will recur throughout his life. Only a few months prior to his deaths in 1877, Varnhagen undertook an exploratory expedition in Brazil’s highlands and demarcated its location within a triangle formed by the three lagoons of Formosa, Feia, and Mestre d’Armas.12

With the advent of the Republic in 1889, concerns for salubrity, national security and territorial integrity became the principle tropes around which the need for a new capital was from then on argued. The new regime made it clear that Rio de Janeiro would only be the provisional seat of federal power. Under Article 3 of the 1891 Republican Constitution, the Union was granted a yet to be demarcated area equal to 5,560 square miles deep in the country’s interior. A law was also passed in May of 1892 to create the Comissão Exploradora do Planalto Central led by the director of Rio de Janeiro’s astronomic observatory and professor of geodesy and astronomy at the Escola Superior de Guerra— the Belgian-born Luiz Cruls. Equipped with theodolites, aneroid barometers, compasses, pedometers, meteorological instruments, cameras, guns, and tents, Cruls also took along with him astronomers, medical officers, a pharmacist a geologist, and a botanist. The expedition began in June 1892 and lasted until March 1893. The actual location proposed by Cruls (along lines of latitude between 15 and 16 degrees and longitude between 47 and 49 degrees). for the future Federal District coincided with the same latitude line of 15 degrees previously chosen by José Bonifácio de Andrada e Silva and barely outside Francisco Adolfo de Varhnhagen’s triangle.

Cruls’s introductory remarks in his report would ultimately define the master narrative subsequently employed by politicians and historians alike. A destiny for Brazil now had a recognizable image, which would repeatedly be legitimized as the target of successive vectors of desire, be they those of royal dislocations, republican integration, or national identity constructions. The newly demarcated Federal District thus became a symbolic national space used as a pretext for various political purposes. It was visually represented in official maps as a charged void in the middle of the country, often labeled “Quadrilátero Cruls” or, simply, “Future Federal District.”

The selection of the actual site for the future capital was ultimately hampered by competing government-sponsored railway projects, which diverted the expedition away from the newly demarcated Federal District. The Commission was finally dismantled in 1897 and Congress indefinitely postponed the need for further studies now that the republic seemed stable enough and no longer in need of the political currency that a capital city transfer project could yield. The project would episodically appear to no avail. It was not until the celebration of Brazil’s independence centenary, on September 7, 1922, that a foundational stone was laid near the town of Planaltina, well within Cruls’s Quadrilátero. This event immediately increased Planaltina’s real-estate property values, which eventually prompted local plantation owners to donate, in 1927, a portion of Fazenda Bananal to the municipality, in order to make it available to third party investors who would develop it in advance of the constitutionally mandated transfer project.13Although it never materialized, the foresight was incredibly accurate since, 30 years later, Brazil’s capital was indeed built on the grounds of the old Bananal plantation. The idea of Planaltina as the chosen site circulated widely enough to end up being suggested to Le Corbusier by the French artist Fernand Léger who informed the Franco-Swiss architect of Brazil’s desire to build a new city from scratch in the highlands.14 When Le Corbusier travelled to Brazil for the first time in 1929, “Planaltina” was again invoked by him as a “dream that has been on my mind.”15

The revolutionary events of 1930 resulted in Getúlio Vargas taking over the presidency and putting a de facto end to the country’s first republic. Brazil was now poised to assume a new identity no longer bound by a traditional vision of a state serving private oligarchic interests. The “Vargas Revolution,” as it was called, sought to define a new urban Brazil wary of its national security and willing to modernize its economic, social, and administrative structures. During Vargas’ first regime (1930-1937), discussions regarding the future capital occurred in reference to Brazil’s geopolitical redistribution and national security. Mário Augusto Teixeira de Freitas, Director of the Ministry of Education and Public Health’s Directorate of Information, Statistics, and Dissemination, suggested, for example, that the Brazilian territory be subdivided into thirty “units” which would involve moving, temporarily, the capital to Belo Horizonte before finally settling it in the Cruls Quadrilátero –where it would adopt the name of “Ibéria” or “Lusitania.”16

Four years into Vargas’ presidency, the National Assembly enacted a new constitution which stipulated under Article 4 of its “Transitional Dispositions” that “the Union’s Capital will be transferred to a central point in Brazil.”17 This short-lived Constitution kept alive the capital transfer idea in addition to legitimating Vargas’s otherwise provisory mandate. It determined, however, that the next presidential elections would occur in 1938 and excluded the possibility of a second consecutive term. Seeing no prospect for reelection and citing communist-fearing events, Vargas led the 1937 coup d’état, which inaugurated the Estado Novo, a more authoritarian version of his earlier regime (1937-1945). Yet another Constitution is enacted that year without, however, any mention of Brazil’s future capital.

With Vargas deposed in 1945, Congress reintroduced the question of the future capital under Article 4 of the 1946 Constitution’s “Transitional Dispositions.” General Djalma Polli Coelho was appointed head of a new demarcation commission, which submitted its report in 1948. The Cruls Quadrilátero was kept within a much wider territory equal to 297,230 square miles and the future capital would now have to be planned for a quarter million inhabitants.18 Polli Coelho’s report was debated in Congress but it would take another five years, and the re-election of Gétulio Vargas in 1951, before it was sanctioned by Decree Law no. 1803. On January 5, 1953, Congress finally authorized the executive branch to undertake the definitive studies for the site selection and increased the new capital’s population to half a million. Vargas created the Comissão de Localização da Nova Capital Federal (CLNCF) led by General Aguinaldo Caiado de Castro who contracted the U.S. firm Donald Belcher & Associates for the selection of five possible sites for the future capital. The Belcher Report was submitted in 1955 to CLNCF’s new chair, Field Marshal José Pessoa Cavalcanti de Albuquerque and among the five color-coded sites, the “castanho” site was finally chosen on April 15. The site featured temperate weather conditions, superior water quality, uninterrupted terrain, good drainage, and the potential to form lakes by damming two existing rivers, Paranoá and São Bartolomeu. Cavalcanti de Albuquerque had in the previous year also created a number of advisory sub-commissions including one for “urban planning”, which proposed a city named “Vera Cruz”, described as being not only “organic, monumental, political, and administrative” but also based on the garden city concepts of the British urbanist Ebenezer Howard.19 The sub-commission sent Le Corbusier an invitation to supervise the planning of the new Brazilian capital.20 The “world renowned architect”, as the invitation referred to him, was more than receptive to the idea. It had, after all, been “lingering” on his mind since the 1926. The Commission’s president, however, opposed the participation of a “foreign urbanist” and Le Corbusier did not go further than proposing propose a five stage process in which he would be responsible for the city’s schematic design and a “pilot plan,” as he called it.21 The use of the novel “pilot plan” terminology came to represent Le Corbusier’s only direct contribution to the final Brasilia project.

Motivated by an image of industrial progress, the newly elected President in 1955, Juscelino Kubitschek, finally began implementing the project of a new capital for Brazil, which was, in essence, the perfect pretext for the building of highways and thereby access hitherto unexploited areas of the country. The so called “JK era” revitalized the image of the country’s modernity through architecture, which by then had become Brazil’s most internationally recognized cultural production (aside from Bossa Nova).

A few months into his presidency, on September 24, 1956, Kubitschek approved the statute of the national development company, Companhia Urbanizadora da Nova Capital do Brasil (NOVACAP), which was given three principal responsibilities: 1) to plan and execute the localization, urbanization, and construction of the future capital and to dispose of the Federal District’s real-estate as foreseen by law; 2) to execute all services that are of Federal, State, and Municipal competence; and 3) to practice all that is required to fulfill the social objectives provided in the statute and authorized by its board.22 Five months later, the runway for a commercial airport was being paved and a temporary terminal built. Housing for 3000 workers had also been erected, as were the temporary shelters for NOVACAP and its functionaries. Prior to even designing the city itself, public buildings were well underway, such as the provisory presidential residences (Catetinho 1 and Catetinho 2), the permanent presidential palace (Alvorada Palace) and a hotel (Brasilia Palace Hotel). These projects had all been designed by Oscar Niemeyer who, as head of NOVACAP’s Architecture and Urbanism Department, was responsible for designing the future capital’s principal buildings. A national design competition was also organized for the city’s “pilot plan”. Of the 63 registered participants, 26 presented projects that were evaluated by the jury on March 12, 1957. The jury deliberated until March 16 when it pronounced Lucio Costa’s entry as the winner.23 Among the other twenty five entries, far more complex and detailed projects were proposed but none was able to encapsulate a variety of cultural tendencies as well as Costa’s project. In pragmatic terms, it was the only entry that took into consideration the building of the city in only three years by making clear the position, size, and outline of buildings which could plausibly be built in the middle of nowhere. Having located the footprint of all buildings, their size, and their relationships, NOVACAP (i.e., Oscar Niemeyer) could subsequently take over with ease and without altering the given image of the city.

Brasilia was finally conceived, designed and built well within the five year span of Kubitschek’s presidency. The construction process from start to finish took 1,310 days and its execution was the result of beliefs, ideals, and the personal dedication of workers, architects, urbanists, engineers, politicians, and administrators whose engagement guaranteed the project’s completion in time for its inauguration on April 21, 1960. On that day, all government officials and foreign ambassadors made the trip to the event and so did thousands of people who caused the city’s first traffic congestion. Festivities had, in fact, begun the day before at four in the afternoon on the Plaza of the Three Powers, where Kubitschek received the keys to the city from the head of NOVACAP, Israel Pinheiro. A mass was celebrated that night and at midnight Brasilia became Brazil’s new capital. By morning, ambassadors began presenting their credentials while federal agencies began the process of their permanent installation. That evening twenty tons of fireworks were consumed while workers partied on the Plaza and dignitaries dined in tails in the presidential palace. Postponing Brazil’s capital transfer project was, from then on, no longer possible.


1 Lucio Costa, “For Brazilian Students of Architecture Residing in the United Sates,” sound cassette recorded in 1983, (Casa de Lucio Costa Archives).

2 Alexandre José de Mello Moraes, História da Trasladação da Corte Portugueza para o Brasil em 1807-1808 (Rio de Janeiro: E. Dupont Editor, 1872), 18-20.

3 Luís da Cunha, Instruções Políticas (1736), (Lisbon: Edição Abílio Diniz Silva, 2001), 372.

4 D. Rodrigo de Souza Coutinho, “Memória sobre o melhoramento dos domínios de sua Majestade na América,” Textos Políticos, Económicos e financeiros (1783-1811) (Lisbon: Banco de Portugal, 1993), 48.

5 Dom Rodrigo de Souza Coutinho, “Quadro da situação política da europa, apresentado ao Principe por Dom Rodrigo de Souza Coutinho,” 16 August 1803, in Ângelo Pereira, Dom João VI, Príncipe e Rei I (Lisbon: Empresa Nacional de Publicidade, 1953), 131.

6 Viscount Strangford, Letter to George III, 24 July 1808; cited in Serviço de Documentação, Antecedentes Históricos 1549-1896, 34.

7 Hipólito José da Costa; cited in Antonio Martins de Azevedo Pimentel, A Nova Capital Federal e o Planalto Central do Brazil (Rio de Janeiro: Typ. da Papelaria e Impressora S.A., 1894), 5.

8 Hipólito José da Costa, Correio Brasiliense, vol. X (1813); cited in Serviço de Documentação, Antecedentes Históricos1549-1896, 115.

9 Aditamento ao projeto de constituição para faze-la aplicavel ao reino do Brazil (Lisbon: Typographia Rollandiana, 1822); cited in Antonio Martins de Azevedo Pimentel, “Historico da mudança da capital federal,” Revista do Instituto Historico e Geographico Brazileiro, LXXIII, Part I (1910): 284.

10 José Bonifácio de Andrada e Silva, Memória de José Bonifácio apresentada à Assembléia Constituinte e Legislativa do Brasil, 9 June 1823; cited in Serviço de Documentação, Antecedentes Históricos 1549-1896, 118.

11 O Universal, 15 August 1825; cited in Serviço de Documentação, Antecedentes Históricos 1549-1896, 133.

12 Francisco Adolfo Varnhagem, A questão da capital: maritima ou no interior? (Vienna: Carlos Gerold, 1877).

13 Based on the municipal records of Planaltina, on 30 November 1927, the owners of Fazenda Bananal, Gabriel Campos Guimarães, Francisca da Ressurreição Lobo, Deodato do Amaral Louly, Minervina de Souza Louly, donated a portion of their plantation to the city of Planaltina so that it may be allotted and made available as a “propaganda for Brazil’s Central Plateau.” Link: (consulted on 1 November 2009).

14 Fernand Léger, Letter to Le Corbusier, 1926 (Paris: Fondation Le Corbusier Archives, U.2.9.1).

15 Le Corbusier, Letter to Paulo Prado, 28 July 1929 (Paris: Fondation Le Corbusier Archives, C.3.5.288).

16 Mário Augusto Teixeira de Freitas, “O Reajustamento territorial do quadro politico do Brasil” (1932); cited in Serviço de Documentação, Antecedentes Históricos 1896-1945, 206.

17 Constituição da República dos Estados Unidos do Brasil (16 July 1934).

18 Comissão de Estudos para a Localização da Nova Capital do Brasil, Relatório técnico (Rio de Janeiro: Gráfica Barlow, 1948).

19 José Pessoa Cavalcanti de Albuquerque, Nova Metrópole do Brasil (Rio de Janeiro: Imprensa do Exército, 1958), 192.

20 Hugo Gontier, Telegram to Le Corbusier, 2 June 1955 (Fondation Le Corbusier Archives, I1.1.XX.7).

21 Albuquerque, Nova Metrópole do Brasil, 189.

22 Federal Law No. 2874, of 19 September 1956.

23 Ernesto Silva, História de Brasília (Brasilia: Editora de Brasilia, 1970), 157.

Spring | Summer 2010Volume IX, Number 2

Author name English bio for author

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