Trecker’s Brazilian Travels, Day 2: Architectural colossus

June 13th, 2013

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Photo: Jamie Trecker / FOX Soccer

By Jamie Trecker

BRASILIA, BRAZIL

Raymond Chandler portrayed Los Angeles a sun-blasted city where dreams were scorched away. He could have been writing about Brasilia, a modernist fantasia where the heat and the light are unrelenting.

It’s winter, and the sun sets just after 5:30 here – but this is the hottest time of the year. There isn’t a trace of humidity in the air, and the red clay throws up whorls of dust that cake the streets and the buses. At noon, it is 27ºC and cloudless. Lucia Costa’s grand esplanades sweep five lanes of traffic to the Juscelino Kubitschek Bridge on the Eastern end, past the Cathedral, past the museum, and past the vast plazas of raw concrete.

Brasilia’s architect, Oscar Niemeyer, was many things: a genius, a modernist, and also, it appears, a brutalist. His expanses are meticulous, and his designs are awesome in the truest sense of the word. They are also unrelenting in the afternoon, with the heat reflecting off the white facades and up that perfect Roman surface.

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Photo: Jamie Trecker / FOX Soccer

Concrete was Niemeyer’s medium of choice, and it is everywhere in Brasilia. The roads are enormous, the plaza that sits behind the National Congress is carpeted in the stuff, and the only relief comes in the scrubby parks and the scattered trees the bureaucrats planted in front of their rows of domino-shaped offices. The idea behind those offices, according to Niemeyer’s biographer, was to reduce bureaucratic infighting; instead the arms race just spilled over into which office could jam more air conditioners into the tiny windows.

Neimeyer, Costa and Brasilia have been in the critical eye lately. Niemeyer is the subject of a glossy new book from Taschen – an art house better known for producing highbrow soft porn – as well as a glowing hagiography in the New York Review of Books. Brasilia will of course kick off the Confederations Cup and, with that, the countdown to the World Cup as well. And while this city is a marvel, one must wonder if it can overcome Niemeyer and Costa’s mistakes.

Brasilia was not built with pedestrians in mind. Niemeyer and Costa assumed everyone would have a car. It is also strictly segregated: seen from above, the city resembles an airplane. On the near wing sit the hotel and tourism zones, on the far wings, residential blocks. Down the spine are the monuments and the offices. Wonderful in theory, yes.

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Photo: Jamie Trecker / FOX Soccer

In practice, it makes the city difficult to traverse and devoid of some essential culture. What makes places like New York and Rio de Janeiro vibrant are their neighborhoods, where art and food jostle next to business and capital. Here, there sit vast empty spaces, and nights are particularly eerie.

One of the first plans for the World Cup was to finally install some sort of tram system in the city to link the far-flung quarters. That failed. Instead, the Garrincha Stadium swallowed a half billion dollars and the wings of this city remain quite far apart.

That may also be why Brasilia feels awesome, again, in the true sense of the word. It is amazing that such a glittering, scalding modernist jewel can feel so cold.

This piece is part of a series of pieces sponsored by the new Samsung Galaxy S4. The pictures that accompany this blog post were taken with it. I’m traveling across Brazil this month, and you should tell me what you’d like to hear about. Tweet me at @JamieTreckerFOX or use the #heytrecker hashtag @FOXSoccer.

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Photo: Jamie Trecker / FOX Soccer

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