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Brasília: A national capital without a national museum

Valerie Fraser



In 1956 the Latin American correspondent of the Architectural Review, reporting on the winning design for a new Museum of Modern Art for Caracas by Oscar Niemeyer, commented that museums of modern art, like university cities had become a constituent feature of contemporary Latin American architecture. All the more strange, therefore, that the city of Brasília on which work began precisely in 1956, did not include plans for a major museum. In his competition entry for the design of Brasília the winning architect Lúcio Costa declared that the new city must, of course, be orderly and efficient, ‘but also a city of vitality and charm, conducive to reverie and intellectual speculation, capable of becoming not only the seat of Government, the administrative headquarters of the nation, but also a centre of culture which will attract to it the finest and most perceptive intellects in the country’. He argued that ‘it should be conceived of … not as an urbs … but as a civitas, having the virtues and attributes appropriate to a true capital city.’ Costa’s urban scheme was to include government palaces and ministries, a cathedral, a university, and industrial, financial, commercial, hotel and residential quarters. He designated an area for the ‘Entertainment Centre’ which, as he put it ‘has something in it of Piccadilly Circus, Times Square and the Champs Elysées’, and was to include cafés, theatres and a National Opera house. Between this central entertainments district and the university was to be a Cultural Centre comprising ‘Museums, Library, Planetarium, Academies, Institutes etc’ but the museums mentioned here were evidently envisaged as part of the complex as a whole, not as a special focus of civic or national pride. Unlike the National Opera, the Cultural Centre was not part of the initial building works, and Brasília still has no museum of national significance. This essay explores the question of whether this was accident, design or force of circumstance.

The idea of moving the capital of Brazil from the overcrowded coastal port of Rio de Janeiro to a new site in the interior had been suggested as early as 1789 when as part of the resistance to Portuguese rule the inhabitants of the mining province of Minas Gerais proposed a new capital, free from associations with the colonial regime. The idea surfaced periodically during the nineteenth century, again linked to Republican aspirations, until the young Brazilian Republic designated a great tract of land in the central Brazilian plateau as the ‘future federal district’ within which the new capital was to be sited, a determination enshrined in the Constitution of 1891. During the 1940s and early 1950s successive presidents again paid lip service to the idea of a new capital, commissioning surveys and reports until in 1955 an appropriate location was determined within the designated federal district on a rectangular site at the confluence of two rivers; but the possibility of building a city and transferring the capital still seemed a long way off. Then, later that same year, during his 1955 presidential election campaign Juscelino Kubitschek made the realisation of Brasília his central election promise. In fact he claimed not to have considered it seriously until someone asked him about it at a political rally in Goiás and on the spur of the moment he declared ‘I will implement the Constitution’. This may be part of the subsequent mythologisation of Brasília but President Kubitschek was a good as his word. The timing was hardly auspicious: President Vargas’ suicide in 1954 had left the country in political turmoil and Kubitschek was elected by so slim a majority that the army had to intervene to suppress a coup before he could be formally instated in 1956, but Kubitschek was determined, energetic and charismatic. He knew that if he did not make enough progress on Brasília during his five-year term of office the project would be abandoned by his successor. ‘Fifty Years’ Progress in Five’ was his famous slogan and he succeeded in increasing industrial production by 80% with an economic growth rate of 7% a year. At the end of Kubitschek’s five years Brazil had a self-sufficient motor industry, a national airline, and a brand new modern capital city.

A new capital city, but without a major museum. The lack of plans for a national museum for Brasília is curious given the preoccupation with museums elsewhere in Latin America, as noted earlier. It is even more curious in that design for the Museo de Arte Nacional in Caracas to which the Architectural Review refers was by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, a long-standing friend of Kubitschek who was closely involved in discussions on the lay-out and architecture of the new capital from the beginning. He it was who had recommended that the urban scheme be decided by competition, but Niemeyer was also an old friend of Costa, and a member of the jury, so the competition result is hardly surprising. (As Le Corbusier later remarked of architectural competitions : ‘Classic method of choosing your own favorites behind a reassuring “anonymity.”’) In fact it is hard to imagine that Kubitschek, Niemeyer and Costa did not discuss the whole project together in great detail from the outset. Niemeyer had just won the competition for his design for the new museum in Caracas; Costa was a man of immense erudition, a passionate modernist, but also an enthusiastic advocate of the art and architecture of colonial Brazil, who in 1933, in what must be one of the first such cases in the world, was behind the government decision to declare the entire colonial city of Ouro Preto in Minas Gerais a national monument. Kubitschek was a strong supporter of cultural and educational projects. In other words all three of the prime movers in the plans for Brasília would have had reasons to promote a scheme for a major national museum as an important part of the project, and yet not one of them did so.

The history of national museums in Latin America has yet to be written but for our purposes a few details will help to provide a context for the case of Brasília. In general terms the nineteenth century saw the creation of museums of national and natural history which were replaced in importance in the early years of the twentieth century by museums of fine art. This is true of both Spanish and Portuguese America even though their respective histories are rather different. In Spanish America the creation of museums of national and natural history was an integral part of the process of national construction that followed independence from Spain in the early years of the nineteenth century. The heroes of independence wanted to have their deeds commemorated in some public and permanent form, and they were also interested in asserting control over the new national territory by means of a thorough knowledge of its geography, geology, flora and fauna. In Chile, for example, which achieved independence in 1810, a museum of national history was founded in 1811 and in 1813 the liberator Bernardo O’Higgins began promoting the idea of a museum of Chilean natural history. Archaeological and ethnographic material also began to attract attention. In Peru, even before independence from Spain was secure, a decree of 1822 forbade the export of antiquities and recommended the foundation of a national museum. In 1825 Mexico’s first president, Guadalupe Victoria, founded the first national museum, a collection of archaeological material which was housed in the university. Elsewhere too, while decrees did not always translate into reality, there seems to have been a general consensus that museums had an important role to play in moulding the identity of a new nation.

Paradoxically, however, political independence from Spain resulted in an increased dependence on France as the cultural role model. French urban planners redesigned the cities, French architects built palaces for the rich, and French artists came to direct the newly founded Academies of Art. These academies promoted the copying of European models, and where possible, they assembled collections of works of art suitable for this purpose (preferably French), often by donation from patriotic benefactors. Also the academies led to the professionalisation of artistic practice, the loosening of ties between artists and the Church, and the diversification of artistic patronage. Therefore the developing interest in collecting European art for pedagogical reasons, together with the increasing richness and diversity of home-grown art led, in turn, to a shift in interest from museums of natural and national history to museums of art. Chile again provides an early example in the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (National Museum of Fine Arts) in Santiago: founded by decree in 1880, it is one of the oldest such museums in Latin America. As well as Chilean art the collection includes Italian Renaissance drawings, paintings from the Italian Dutch and Flemish schools of the sixteenth and seventeeth centuries, and a collection of drawings of Chile by the German traveller-artist Mauricio Rugendas. Later the Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts) was built to house it. Designed by a French architect in the style of the Petit Trianon, it was inaugurated in 1910 to coincide with the celebrations marking the centenary of Independence.

Figure1: Caracas, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (now Galería de Arte Nacional); Carlos Raúl Villanueva, 1935


In Mexico after the Revolution of 1910 the half-built national theatre, begun in 1904 under the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz, was redesignated the Palace of Fine Arts. Although designed by an Italian, Adamo Boardi, the inspiration for this building had again been French, this time the Paris Opéra. Although it remained a theatre, the interior was adapted to serve as showcase for Mexican culture, the grand lobbies and foyers providing space for permanent and temporary art exhibitions. It was a long time in construction, finally opening its doors in 1934 to a heterogeneous interior design incorporating neo-Aztec architectural detail and murals by the three most famous of the Mexican artists of the day, Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco. In the same year Argentina opened its Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (National Museum of Fine Arts) in Buenos Aires, and in the following year, 1935, one of the last acts of President Vicente Gómez of Venezuela was to decree the construction of Venezuela’s first purpose-built national museum, the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, in Caracas. [figure1] This was designed by Carlos Raúl Villanueva (trained at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris) in an elegant neo-classical style, and was again a symbol of national aspiration. It is significant that in all these examples the new museum was located outside the older city centre, simultaneously demonstrating and promoting up-market urban expansion. From the beginning of the century museums were recognised as central features of city planning.

Brazil, as so often, is both like and unlike the rest of Latin America. To start with, its history is very different. In 1808, at the time when other countries were struggling to establish their independence from Spain, the King of Portugal moved from Lisbon to Brazil and made Rio de Janeiro into the capital of the Portuguese Empire. [...] In terms of cultural influence, however, Brazil was as dominated by France as anywhere else. On the transfer of the court to Rio the Portuguese aristocracy brought with them a wave of French tastes and fashions, and in 1816 the French Artistic Mission - a boat-load of painters, sculptors, architects, musicians and craftsmen - arrived to found the imperial Academy. They also brought a collection of more than 50 works of art (also French) to serve as models for students, a collection which provided the foundation for the later Museu Nacional de Belas Artes, (National Museum of Fine Arts). From 1908 this increasingly prestigious collection was housed in the new Academy of Fine Arts building on Avenida Rio Branco; as elsewhere in Latin America the design was derived from a Parisian prototype, in this case that of the Louvre, and the location was part of a deliberate programme of urban reorientation towards the south. Brazil’s National Museum had been founded by the Emperor himself in 1818 using as a basis the royal collection of specimens that had been sent from Brazil to Portugal during the previous two centuries and which returned to Rio de Janeiro with the court. Since 1892 the National Museum has been housed in a former royal palace (known locally as the Tropical Versailles) and its collections reflect its origins: palaeontology, anthropology, zoology and archaeology including, interestingly, a section of antiquities from Mexico and Peru. [figure 2]

Until the mid-twentieth century the history of museums in Brazil was thus much like that elsewhere in Latin America, with the fine art collections gradually gaining prestige at the expense of the older museums of national and natural history, but the 1950s marked a significant change of gear. The first important development was the foundation of Rio’s Museo de Arte Moderna (Museum of Modern Art, known by the acronym MAM) in 1948.[figure 3] It was initially housed a block away from the Academy of Fine Arts, in part of the ground floor of the revolutionary Ministry of Education building designed in 1936 by a team that included Lúcio Costa, Oscar Niemeyer and Affonso Reidy and for which Le Corbusier acted as consultant. In 1952 it was assigned its present site on the landfill beside Gloria Bay, again representing the southerly expansion of the city; the building was designed by Affonso Reidy in 1954, and Juscelino Kubitschek was a member of the consultative team. It was inaugurated in 1958 during his presidency and completed in 1962. The MAM is radical both architecturally and conceptually, and would have been among the most important examples referred to by the Architectural Review Latin America correspondent in 1956. The main exhibition block is rectilinear in plan, raised on pairs of V-shaped pilotis, the outer arms of which extend the full height of the building to create in effect an oblique colonnade. The ceiling is suspended from the roof beams, allowing the lateral walls to be made from continuous glass panelling and the exhibition space itself fully open-plan. Reidy designed it to be as little like a traditional museum as possible: he wanted it to be a vital educational and social force, rather than, as he put it, ‘a passive organism’. It incorporated an art school, a theatre and a restaurant as well as the museum, and the architectural emphasis is on transparency. The structure allows for uninterrupted views of the bay and mountains, both beneath and through the main body of the complex. It housed a magnificent range of modern Brazilian and non-Brazilian art, including works by Miró, Picasso, Dalí, Klee and Torres-García, almost all of which were destroyed in a disastrous fire of 1978.

Figure 2: Rio de Janeiro, Museu Nacional, previously Palácio de São Cristóvão; built 1809

Figure 3: Rio de Janeiro, Museu de Arte Moderna; architect: Affonso Reidy, 1954-1962


By 1954, however, Rio de Janeiro was not the only Brazilian city to boast important museums and a rich cultural life. São Paulo was Brazil’s fast-growing second city and during the decade prior to the foundation of Brasília it was to challenge Rio in two ways within the field of fine arts: with the foundation of the São Paulo Museu de Arte (Museum of Art, known as MASP) in 1947, and with the first International Bienal of São Paulo in 1951. The challenge could perhaps be seen as dating back to São Paulo’s famous Week of Modern Art in 1922, but this week of avant garde exhibitions and events, designed to awaken the coffee barons from their customary cultural conservatism, had had little long-term impact. The Museum of Art was a project better suited to their tastes. It was founded by the media magnate Francisco de Assis Chateaubriand who determined to establish in Brazil a collection of Old Master paintings of international significance. He succeeded. He put a lot of his own money in to begin with, he enticed David Rockefeller to contribute US$ 40,000, and he persuaded wealthy Brazilians, not just from São Paulo but from all over the country, to buy works of art in return for media coverage of their generosity. Chateaubriand and the museum’s first Director Pietro Maria Bardi bought paintings via European and North American dealers and within the first five years they had acquired works by Titian, Bronzino, Bosch, Rembrandt, Frans Hals, Velázquez, Constable, Gainsborough, Goya, Delacroix, Courbet, Manet, Cezanne, Renoir, Degas, Van Gogh, Lautrec, Gauguin, Léger, Utrillo, Bonnard, Picasso, Modigliani and Ernst. Initially the collection was housed in the headquarters of Chateaubriand’s Diários Associados newspapers but in 1957 work began on a permanent home for the museum. Lina Bo Bardi’s striking design, a large glazed box suspended from two great red arches above an open public area at street level, developed a number of ideas from Reidy’s Museum of Modern Art in Rio, including the emphasis on the social and educational aspects, and the decision to hang the works in open-plan galleries with glass walls to allow visitors to see the outside world, and vice versa. [figures 4 and 5] It was opened by HM Queen Elizabeth II in 1968. The Bienal, on the other hand, took up the radical intentions of the Week of Modern Art in more than architectural terms, and soon established itself as a leading international forum for modern art. The second Bienal of 1953 was already what has been called ‘one of the most comprehensive exhibitions of modern Western art ever mounted’, with for example a room of works by Picasso, including Guernica, a room of Klee, of de Stijl and Mondrian, a room of Italian Futurists, of Constructivism, and of Americans such as Calder and de Kooning. And it was housed in an architectural complex designed by Oscar Niemeyer.

Arquiteta: Lina Bo Bardi

Figure 4: São Paulo, Museu de Arte de São Paulo; architect: Lina Bo Bardi, 1957-1968

Figure 5: São Paulo, Museu de Arte de São Paulo, interior


So at the time of Brasília’s foundation Brazil had a number of outstanding collections housed in purpose-built museums in both traditional and modern styles. Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo were both thriving cultural centres, with major museums and a wealth of other lesser collections. Therefore, at one level the obvious explanation for the absence of a major national museum in Brasília is that it was not practicable to create a new museum of sufficient importance: it would have been extremely unpopular had there been any attempt to transfer one or more of the existing museums to the new capital, and it would have been extremely expensive and time-consuming to have tried to assemble - either by purchase or donation or both - a collection to rival that of either the MAM in Rio or the MASP. If a major collection of fine art was not feasible, the other possibility was a museum combining natural history, ethnography and national history, a museum that would provide a panorama of the history, geography, flora, fauna, peoples and cultures of Brazil.

Figure 6: Mexico City, Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Antropología; architect: Pedro Ramírez Váquez, 1960-1964


As we have seen, however, enthusiasm had moved away from this type of material and towards collections of fine art, although Mexico makes an interesting comparison in this context. Mexico’s first major modern museum in architectural terms was the famous Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Antropología (National Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, MNAA) on which work began in 1960. [figure 6] Post-Independence and especially post-Revolutionary Mexico found strength in the knowledge that it possessed a rich and ancient past, cultures which, in line with traditional Mediterranean-oriented archaeology, expressed themselves in monumental stone architecture and sculpture. The purpose of the MNAA was to link this impressive material with the present - the Olmec, Zapotec and Aztec artefacts with the equally diverse customs and cultures of contemporary Mexican Indians - in the setting of a modern museum as part of a larger nationalist project. In this area Brazil could not compete. It had no stony antiquity comparable to that of Mexico to provide material for an archaeological museum full of statues, stelae, altars and stone tablets that could suggest a past equivalent to that of Greece or Rome or Egypt, and although Amazonian culture might have been of interest to some a display of the tools and accoutrements of tribal peoples was hardly appropriate to a new capital designed to conquer the interior, a national symbol of modernity and progress.

But I believe that the reasons for the lack of a major national museum in Brasília are by no means all negative. Museums involve a celebration of and nostalgia for the past and Brasília was deliberately created as a place with no history, no past, no preconceptions, because it was intended to mark a new beginning for Brazil. In his Report Costa makes no mention of Brazil or Brazil’s history apart from a prefatory reference to the original suggestion by ‘the Patriarch’ José Bonifacio in 1823 that the capital of Brazil should be transferred to the state of Goiás and rechristened Brasília. Brasília was deliberately designed to be a break with the past. It has been described as a negation of Brazil’s traditional crowded, organic and disorderly urban forms, and of Brazil’s condition of underdevelopment, so evident in the favelas of the larger cities. Neither does Costa’s plan make any reference to the history and theory of town planning, past or present, on which it draws although it was evidently conceived as a modernist city very much in line with the Le Corbusian tenets of the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM) Charter of Athens of 1933.

Costa’s Plano Piloto for Brasília is clearly based on the four functions of the city as defined by the Charter of Athens: dwellings, recreation, work and transport. [figure 7] The ‘work’ function in the plan for Brasília is dominated by the workings of government: the Government Palace, the Supreme Court and the Congress building are grouped around the triangular Plaça dos Três Poderes, Plaza of the Three Powers, at the apex of the Monumental Axis. [figure 8] Down this Monumental Axis are arranged other key buildings: the government ministries, the cathedral and, at the far end, the headquarters of the army, all laid out amongst endless grassy parks. The dwellings are arranged along a transverse axis which crosses the Monumental Axis at its mid point, and the transport system, which in Brasília means a network of roads, highways and superhighways, links these two zones of work and residence together with a gigantic interchange at the central crossing point. The forth function, recreation, is understood largely in terms of sport, with facilities incorporated into the residential districts and areas of parkland. Costa’s centralised entertainments district, including a national opera house, theatres, cinemas, bars and cafés, is located at the point at which the Monumental or ‘work’ axis crosses the ‘dwelling’ axis.

It is interesting just how compelling a mantra the four functions of the city has been in twentieth century thinking on urban planning and development and yet how limited and limiting a framework it provides. In practice, plans based on these four functions prioritise work, housing, and the communication between them, while recreation is interpreted largely as sport and so in spatial terms it is slotted into the spare green spaces between the other three functions. Education does not fit easily into one of the four functions and so, to an even greater degree than recreation, it tends to be marginalised. In The Radiant City of 1935 Le Corbusier in fact relegates education to separate satellites outside the central urban complex. In The City of Tomorrow of 1924, however, before the idea of the four functions had solidified, Le Corbusier included, near the centre of his Contemporary City, a district which was to comprise ‘Education, and Civic Centre, Universities, Museums of Art and Industry, Public Services, County Hall’ as well as extensive sports grounds.

Figure 7: Brasília, plan

Figure 8: Brasília, view of Monumental Axis. Photo: Nelson Kon.


But The City of Tomorrow also sows the seeds for the later simplification. Dividing the day neatly into eight hours sleep, eight hours work and eight hours recreation Le Corbusier interprets the last as sport and accordingly requires that the city planner ensure that sporting facilities are available within walking distance of everyone’s home. Apart from sport, the only other recreational activity he seems to acknowledge, apart from growing vegetables, is that of relaxing on the patio or ‘hanging garden’ in the fresh air, enjoying the view (presumably of others playing tennis), and listening to music on the gramophone; the other civic, communal and educational activities are not mentioned again. José Luis Sert, whose Can Our Cities Survive? of 1942 is a sort of exegesis of CIAM beliefs and of the 1933 Athens Charter in particular, at some points seems to extend the four functions to allow for rather more than work, rest, travel and play.

‘Strategic sites in the city should be occupied by civic centers with facilities designed to stimulate the noblest propensities of the spirit - places for advanced research, for meditation, for the contemplation of works of art, for the cultivation of the mind.’

This implies, as in Le Corbusier, that museums might be included in such civic centres but Sert too leaves the idea unexplored. The following sentence suggests, somewhat obscurely, that the lay-out of the city also had a part to play.

‘Throughout the whole city, the most diverse elements composing the urban whole should conform to the scale imposed by man, providing scope for his highest aspirations.’

The idea that the urban environment itself could ‘stimulate the noblest propensities of the spirit’ is of course central to Le Corbusier’s thinking. In the Plan Voisin for Paris included in The City of Tomorrow he describes how the improvements will look once the disorderly old city centre is cleared away: ‘imagine all this junk, which till now has lain spread over the soil like a dry crust, cleaned off and carted away and replaced by immense clear crystals of glass’. He envisages ‘the majestic rhythm of vertical surfaces receding into the distance in a noble perspective and outlining pure forms. From one skyscraper to another the relationship of voids to solids is established.’ In fact his vision of the new Paris also has museum-like features, where the past is, as he terms it, ‘rescued’. The slums and ‘junk’ will be cleared away but the old churches will be preserved as isolated monuments, ‘surrounded by verdure: what could be more charming!… Similarly the “Voisin” plan shows, still standing among the masses of foliage of the new parks, certain historical monuments, arcades, doorways, carefully preserved because they are pages out of history or works of art.’ In this way the Voisin scheme ‘safeguards the relics of the past and enshrines them harmoniously in a framework of trees and woods. For material things too must die, and these green parks with their relics are in some sort cemeteries, carefully tended, in which people may breathe, dream and learn.’ The architecture of past and present alike is conceived as forms in space, like a sculpture park where the individual can wander at will and appreciate the architecture as an observer, either as historically evocative or as pure form. It is an extraordinary vision of a city.

Holston has argued that Brasília was designed as a modernist city in that it was to be a complete break both with the past, and also with the present in its urban manifestations elsewhere in Brazil. He also argues that it was a modernist city in that, at least as far as the organisation of housing was concerned, it was intended to function as a ‘social condenser’ where, by living together the differences between rich and poor would, it was believed, be reduced. In his Report Costa’s view was that the grouping of the housing blocks ‘will, while favouring coexistence of social groups, avoid any undue and undesirable stratification of society’. Brasília is also perhaps a modernist city in that it was an attempt to reject the cultural and social hierarchies implied by museums. This would make the fact that it is without a museum into a virtue rather than an absence, as an application of the anti-museum ideology of so many modernists. After all, the Futurists had proclaimed as early as 1909 that they would ‘destroy the museums, libraries, academies of every kind’.

Le Corbusier is again an important figure here. Costa and Niemeyer would have been very familiar with Le Corbusier’s disdain for all things academic and stuffy from his writings, from his lectures in Rio and São Paulo in 1929, and from working with him on the Ministry of Education building in Rio in 1937. The influence of Le Corbusier’s iconoclastic attitudes can be seen in Costa’s own essay of 1936 justifying the new (Le Corbusian) architecture, where he condemns ‘the artificialities of fake academic grandeur’, preferring the truthfulness of the plain forms that result from the application of modern construction techniques. Le Corbusier’s attitudes are notoriously flexible and although as we have seen in 1924 he had suggested that architectural ‘relics’ could be preserved amongst the crystal towers of his modern plan for the centre of Paris, the following year, in The Decorative Art of Today, he argued that ‘nothing from the past is directly of use to us’ and attacked museums because they ‘are not a fundamental component of human life like bread, drink, religion, orthography’. He condemned them for presenting a very partial and elitist view of history, preserving only what has been considered, arbitrarily, to be rare and precious. Museums were a manifestation of a lack of confidence and direction from which earlier cultures had not suffered.

Interestingly too, the development of museums is related to the fragmentation of the arts. Costa saw as the high points of cultural history those rare moments when ‘architecture, sculpture and painting formed one cohesive body, a living organism, impossible to disaggregate’. Only once paintings have moved from the walls on to canvases can they be collected and privatised. The modernist city could provide an opportunity to return to a fully integrated, more democratic form of artistic expression. In Latin America, as in post-Revolutionary Russia, this strand of thinking led to the promotion of public forms of artistic expression, of which the most famous example was the Mexican muralist movement where art was introduced first on to internal walls in public buildings and then on to the street facades.

The desire for a more democratic, accessible type of art springs from the same roots as the desire for a more democratic and inclusive education system which lay behind the university city projects in Latin America; and of course these, the most ambitious ex nihilo urban developments in Latin America apart from Brasília, provided an ideal venue for public art integrated into the urban environment. In the University City of Mexico on which work began in 1950 the planners’ intentions were clear: the urban environment should include art as a part of the overall educational experience. The results are not entirely successful - the architecture and murals sometimes engage in rather uncomfortably aggressive debate - but it was an enormously influential manifestation of the principle of art as an integral part of urban space, art on the street, as a part of daily experience. In Venezuela where in 1944 plans were drawn up for the University City of Caracas, the impetus was similar. The dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez is not generally remembered for his enlightened policies but he supported architect Carl Raúl Villanueva’s ambitious plans to build a University City that would also be an educationally enriching environment. Villanueva once said that just as lions belong in the jungle and not in zoos, so art belongs on the street and not in museums, and he put the principle into practice in his architectural designs for the university. He commissioned works from a range of Venezuelan and other artists, including Léger, Vasarely, Arp, Pevsner and Calder, and designed the buildings to act as a setting for murals, mosaics and sculpture in a way that genuinely succeeds in blurring the boundaries between architecture and art, and in integrating art into the urban context.

Brasília was in many ways a development of ideas explored in these University Cities. It was designed as a complete, life-enhancing environment. Like the University Cities only on a larger scale, it was intended to encourage the growth of a new type of society that would in turn encourage the social, technological and economic development of the country as a whole; somewhat paradoxically, the modernist city would lead to the modernisation of the nation. Le Corbusier’s idea that ‘architecture and city planning can be great educators’ was widely believed. Plans for Brasília did not, however, include plans for integrating the arts of painting and sculpture. This issue was debated during an Extraordinary Congress of Art Critics who visited the city in September of 1959 and William Holford, a key member of the jury that decided on Costa’s plan in 1956, was among their number. His views on the matter, published the following year in Niemeyer’s influential Le Corbusian journal Módulo, make it clear that he opposed any ‘artificial synthesis of the arts’. He pointed out that Le Corbusier had argued, in relation to the chapel at Ronchamp, that ‘architecture is itself a synthesis of the arts’. His views are worth quoting at length because they almost certainly represent those of Niemeyer and Costa who would have found it hard to argue against the possibility of lucrative commissions for fellow-Brazilians:

‘Where an architect has already produced a unity of plan and function, such as Brasilia, it would be folly to open a Pandora’s box of discordant symbols, to break that unity. One must surely wait for individual works of art to grow with the populated city, and out of it. They cannot be satisfactorily displayed, like advertisements, in advance. The city is for men, and among them will be artists. At this stage one cannot commission large numbers of works of art; one can only create the conditions in which art can flourish.’

Costa and Niemeyer talk about Brasília in the same way that Le Corbusier talks about the Plan Voisin, rather as a sculpture park, where the plan and the architecture are not so much experienced, as observed and appreciated for their formal qualities from a position of detachment. Of his architecture for Brasília Niemeyer said that his

‘special concern was to find - without functional limitations - a beautiful clear-cut structure that would define the characteristics of the main buildings … within the indispensable criterion of simplicity and nobility. … Plastic beauty alone is the guiding, dominating spirit, with its permanent message of grace and poetry.’

When describing his Congress building the emphasis is very much on abstract visual qualities:

‘architecture was made to function in urbanization, in building volumes, in open spaces, in visual depth, in perspective and, particularly, in the attempt to give it an outspoken monumental aspect by simplifying its elements and adopting pure geometric features.’

Costa, in his Report, seems to stand even further removed from the physical reality of the built environment in repeatedly stressing the importance of the visibility of the twin axes. He gives various reasons for setting the Cathedral back from the monumental axis or Mall, but the most important ‘is of an architectural nature: the Mall’s perspective must be undisturbed up to a point beyond the central platform, where the two radial arteries cross each other.’ And in a particularly telling passage that concludes his description of the Entertainment Centre and the Bus Station, centrally located above the intersection of the two axes, he writes:

‘One-way traffic forces the buses to make a detour on leaving the road under the platform; this gives the tra vellers their last view of the monumental radial artery before the bus enters the residential artery, and is a psychologically satisfactory way of saying farewell to the national Capital.’

Costa evidently envisages the Capital as somewhere to be admired from afar; its plan, the primordial sign of the cross on the empty landscape, is ornamented with pure abstract forms, beautiful in their noble simplicity, which can best be appreciated from a distance. When Simone de Beauvoir visited Brasília she recognised this empty park-like feel, remarking acerbically, ‘What possible interest could there be in wandering about?’

The two most frequent criticisms of Brasília are that Niemeyer’s architecture is no more than monumental sculpture, and that it is all on such a gigantic scale that the visitor to the Monumental Centre is dwarfed by the vistas, the huge plazas, and the imposing buildings. If, however, taking these two together, Brasília is understood as an enormous sculpture park then perhaps it makes better sense: a complete environment, where architecture assumes both the visual qualities of abstract painting and the volumetric qualities of geometric sculpture to produce a modern version of the fully-integrated artistic milieu Costa admired, a sort of monumental museum. In fact in an exhibition on Brasília in the Grand Palais in Paris in 1963 architectural elements from the most important buildings in Brasília were displayed ‘like statuary’. [figure 9] The phrase is Niemeyer’s own, and it was he, perhaps not surprisingly, who designed the exhibition. This is a cerebral view of architecture, an architecture which, as Le Corbusier would have it, could ‘magnify ideas’. Brasília was built on an ambitious scale and was intended to magnify Brazil and the Brazilians’ view of themselves. As we have seen, Costa and Niemeyer adhered to the doctrines of Le Corbusier and the CIAM in believing that architecture and city planning were the supreme expression and essential basis of all civilised society. The CIAM Charter of Athens had stressed the importance of both architecture and plan:

‘architecture is responsible for the well-being and beauty of the city. It is architecture that sees to its creation and improvement, and it is architecture’s task to choose and distribute the various elements whose felicitous proportions will constitute a harmonious and lasting work.’

Nevertheless ‘the soul of the city will be brought to life by the lucidity of the plan.’

Figure 9: Sketch by Oscar Niemeyer for the installation of the Brasília exhibition in the Grand Palais, Paris, 1963, showing the columns of the Alvorada and Planalto palaces and of the Cathedral. (Módulo, 33, Rio de Janeiro, June/ July 1963, p 8) (courtesy, Fundação Oscar Niemeyer)


In any consideration of Brasília the plan is of paramount importance. While Costa, Niemeyer and Kubitschek sought to distance Brasília from the past and from the rest of Brazil, they simultaneously sought to implant it into the soul of Brazil and to nurture for it a mytho-history that was both suitably autonomous and specific to the site and also sufficiently general to capture the imagination of the nation. This process began with Kubitschek’s apparently unpremeditated decision to build the city and was reinforced by Costa’s apparently spontaneous idea for the plan. At the beginning of his report he apologises for the cursory nature of his competition entry, explaining ‘I am merely liberating my mind from a possible solution which sprang to it as a complete picture, but one which I had not sought.’ The plan was to be the making of Brasília as the locus of myth. ‘It was born of that initial gesture which anyone would make when pointing to a given place, or taking possession of it: the drawing of two axes crossing each other at right angles, in the sign of the Cross.’ [figure 10] Brasília is thus an act of creation and possession; it also marks the heart of Brazil, the cross roads at which the country will come together, from where the new Brazil will grow. Costa then modified his rectilinear cross by making the transverse arm curved, both to adapt it to the local topography and also ‘to make the sign fit into the equilateral triangle which outlines the area to be urbanized’ combining different elements in a mythicised idea of unity.

Figure 10: Brasília, Lúcio Costa’s first sketches, Plano Piloto 1956 (courtesy, Arquivo Público do Distrito Federal)


Costa’s curved north-south axis animates the design in a remarkable way, opening it up to the most diverse readings. The plan has proved to be - at a symbolic level at least - phenomenally successful. Some capital cities are rendered distinctive by their ancient origins, while others - Buenos Aires or Paris - for their well-established reputations as centres of culture and sophistication. Closer to home Rio de Janeiro, the capital Brasília was to replace, is associated with the hedonism of carnival and with its singularly dramatic landscape features. Brasília could of course lay no claim to history or to culture, high or popular, nor were the empty cerrado scrub lands of the high plateau of the Federal district, or even the vast, beautiful skies sufficient to give a topographical identity to the city. Costa’s plan, however, does. It is most commonly described as an aeroplane, the Praça dos Três Poderes the cockpit, the ministries the passenger seats and the curved north-south residential districts, of course, the wings. As a city dominated by its system of highways for cars and shaped like an aeroplane it neatly combines two key images of modernity, and points to the improved communications between the various regions of Brazil and with the rest of the world that Brasília was designed to promote.

But Costa’s plan has also been described as a bird, a more poetic metaphor for the city, suggesting, beauty, grace and liberty. And as a butterfly. In Costa’s preliminary sketch of the cross with curved arms enclosed within a triangle it is also, more subversively but unmistakably, a bow and arrow. Even the way in which Costa has traced over the lines again, thickening and coarsening them, suggests a primitive petroglyphic character, as if to remind the ultra-modern city that there is an alternative and much more ancient history of Brazil which can never be completely eradicated. This same multivalent cross-within-triangle sketch also evokes both the crucifix and Leonardo’s Vitruvian man, an anthropomorphic form with its extremities touching the corners of the geometrical shape. Originally Brasília’s image was that of a very masculine place, built and inhabited by gutsy frontiersmen, but more recently this has given way to a gentler, more domestic idea, reflecting the way Brasília has been accepted and incorporated into Brazil’s sense of itself. As a mark of this domestication of Brasília it is perhaps not surprising, therefore, to find that the plan has now been subjected to yet another reading: that of a perfectly-formed woman, reclining with arms outstretched, and, in guide-book language, ‘sensually bathed in the brilliance of a tropical sun’. Savage, modern, natural, mechanical, male, female: the imagery of Brasília’s plan is all inclusive. It is interesting too that several of the key buildings in the monumental heart of Brasília have generated iconographic interpretations based on simple formal assonance. The famous linked towers of the National Congress offices are seen as representing an H for Humanity, the military headquarters are M-shaped, while the Cathedral is variously described as an inverted chalice, or as praying hands, or as a crown. In this way Brasília has developed its own myths and meanings which are perhaps a substitute for the more orthodox history, and heterogeneous mix of buildings, including museums, that provide older cities with a sense of identity.

Kubitschek, Costa and Niemeyer intended Brasília as a rejection of Brazil’s condition of underdevelopment, as a rejection of the social and cultural hierarchies of the past. Brasília represented the new Brazil of the future. If, in line with modernist theories, the art of the past has nothing to offer to the future, a museum of such art would undermine the theory on which Brasília was built. A museum of modern art would not be appropriate either, on two counts: first, to put modern art into a museum inevitably implies changing it from an art of the present to an art of the past. Second, since modernism also implies the democratisation of culture then to establish a museum of modern art in a modernist city would be a contradiction in terms. The alternative, to bring art - in the sense of painting and sculpture - out on to the streets, was not addressed in the planning of Brasília: of the few pieces of sculpture designed for the Monumental Centre only one or two are now of more than historical interest, and for a national symbol such as Brasília it would have been inappropriate to have imported foreign works as Villanueva had done in the University City in Caracas. This was obviously very important to Kubitschek, who could proudly boast that

‘the architectural features of Brasília … reflect the high degree of civilization in my country, just as Greek and Latin architecture and sculpture reflected the magnitude of Greek and Roman civilizations. We imported neither architects nor town-planning experts to design Brasília. We planned and built it with our own native talents - Niemeyer and Lúcio Costa - and the laborers who erected it, from the contractor down to the ‘candango’ (unskilled workers from the drought-ridden northeast of Brazil), were all our own people. This is why Brasília depicts, more eloquently than words can convey, our level of civilization and our enterprising spirit’.

This I suggest is why Brasília was designed without a museum. Rome and Athens were seen as works of art in their own right, places which were understood, rightly or wrongly, to have had no need for museums. So too Brasília represented the nation’s culture: in line with Le Corbusier’s ideas, the architecture was pure and self-sufficient, the city itself encoded all the meaning it needed.

Forty years on and Brasília still has no significant national museums. As if to underline its self-sufficiency and cultural autonomy the two small museums on the Monumental Axis are the Museum of the City of Brasília and the Kubitschek Memorial Museum, both of which celebrate the (virgin) birth of the city. The former was part of Costa’s plan; it is located beneath the Plaza of the Three Powers, the cockpit of the plane, the head of the bird, and has as its focal point a large model of the city, with plans and photographs of its construction. This is now complemented further down the Monumental Axis by the Kubitschek Memorial Museum which includes a mortuary chapel with Kubitschek’s tomb, and a museum with medals, memorabilia and photographs of Kubitschek overseeing the construction of Brasília. On the street outside the museum stands Kubitschek’s own Ford Galaxy, enshrined in a perspex box. These museums pay very little attention to the subsequent history of the city. Brasília was intended as an inspiring modernist environment, where the perfection of its plan and its architecture would render museums unnecessary. In practice, as Holston has argued, the citizens have subverted the original intentions by adapting the housing blocks to suit their own ideas of social and domestic life, while the Monumental Centre has, in effect, become a museum of modern architecture and of modernity, all laid out to acres of grass as in a sculpture park. As Le Corbusier said, ‘material things too must die, and these green parks with their relics are in some sort cemeteries, carefully tended, in which people may breathe, dream and learn.’

Juscelino Kubitscheck's Ford Galaxy ; exhibited in front of the Memorial Juscelino Kubitscheck, Brasília. Photo: Joanne Bernstein 2004



M. Santiago, ‘Museum in Caracas’, Architectural Review, 119 (1956), p. 273.

Costa’s Report is printed in full by William Holford, the English representative on the jury, in ‘Brasilia’, Architectural Review, 122 (1957), pp. 394-402, pp. 399- 402.

Norma Evenson, ‘Brasilia: “Yesterday’s City of Tomorrow”’, in H. W. Eldridge (ed.), World Capitals, (Anchor Press/ Doubleday, New York, 1975), pp. 470-506, pp. 472-73.

Ibid., pp. 474-75.

Simon Collier, Harold Blakemore & Thomas Skidmore (eds.), The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Latin America and the Caribbean, (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1985), p. 272. I discuss the building of Brasília in more detail in Building the New World: Modern Architecture in Latin America 1930-1970, (Verso, London and New York, 2000), chapter 3.

Le Corbusier, When the Cathedrals were White, (Routledge, London, 1947), p. 21.

Miguel Laborde, Santiago: Lugares con Historia, (Contrapunto, Santiago, 1990), p. 25.

Grete Mostny, Los museos de Chile, (Editorial Nacional Gabriela Mistral, Santiago, 1975), p. 16.

Rogger Ravines, Los Museos del Perú, (Instituto Nacional de Cultura, Lima, 1989), p. 23.

Flor Palma Flores, Museos de la Ciudad de México, Guía Ilustrada/ Museums of Mexico City, Illustrated Guide, Trillas, (Mexico DF, 1996), p. 7.

Mostny, Los museos de Chile, p. 51.

Laborde, Santiago, p. 110.

Palma Flores, Museos de la Ciudad de México, p. 43.

Buenos Aires: Guía de Arquitectura, (Agencia Española de Cooperación Internacional/ Junta de Andalusía/ Municipalidad de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires, Buenos Aires/ Seville, 1994), p.186.

Iris Peruga, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de Caracas Cincuentenario: Una Historia, (Museo Nacional de Arte, Caracas, 1988), p. 16.

Dawn Ades, Art in Latin America, (South Bank Centre/ Yale University Press, London, 1989), p. 48.

Rio de Janeiro, (Michelin, Rio de Janeiro, 1990), p. 179.

Ibid., pp. 203-204.

Klaus Franck, The Works of Affonso Eduardo Reidy, (Tiranti, London, 1960), p. 66.; Yves Bruand, Arquitetura contemporânea no Brasil, (Editorial Perspectiva, São Paulo, 1981), pp. 237-240.

Rio de Janeiro, p. 217.

Museum of Art: São Paulo, (Newsweek/ Mondadori, New York, 1981), p. 9.

Leonor Amarante, As Bienais de São Paulo, 1951-1987, (Projeto, São Paulo, 1989), p. 12.

Museum of Art: São Paulo, p. 12.

Paula Cabo, ResignifyingModernity: Clark, Oiticica and Categories of the Modern in Brazil, unpublished PhD, (University of Essex, 1996), p. 87.

Lina Bo Bardi & Aldo Van Eyck, Museu de Arte de São Paulo/ São Paulo Art Museum, (Editorial Blau, São Paulo, 1997).

Guy Brett, in Dawn Ades, Art in Latin America, pp. 254-5.

Gilbert Chase, Contemporary Art in Latin America, (Free Press, New York, 1970), p. 235.

James Holston, The Modernist City: An Anthropological Critique of Brasília, (Chicago University Press, Chicago, 1989), p. 65.

Ibid., p. 25.

Ibid., pp. 31-58.

Ulrich Conrads (ed.), Programmes and Manifestoes on 20th Century Architecture, (Lund Humphries, London, 1970), p. 139; see also José Luis Sert, Can Our Cities Survive? An ABC of Urban Problems, their Analysis, their Solutions, (Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA, 1944)

Kenneth Frampton, Modern Architecture: A Critical History, (Thames and Hudson, London, 1992), p. 180.

Le Corbusier, The City of Tomorrow, (Dover, New York, 1987), p. 174.

Ibid., p. 199.

Ibid., p. 205.

Sert, Can Our Cities Survive? p. 229.

Ibid., p. 229.

Le Corbusier, The City of Tomorrow, p. 281.

Ibid., p. 282.

Ibid., p. 287.

Ibid., p. 287.

Ibid., p. 287.

Holston, The Modernist City, p. 38.

Architectural Review, 122, (1957), p. 401.

Charles Harrison & Paul Wood (eds.), Art in Theory 1900-1990, (Blackwell, Oxford, 1992), p. 147.

These were published in 1930; Precisions on the Present State of Architecture and City Planning, (MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 1991).

Lúcio Costa, ‘Razões da nova arquitetura’ [1936] in Alberto Xavier (ed.), Arquitetura Moderna Brasileira: Depoimento de uma geração, (Associação Brasileira de Ensino de Arquitetura, São Paulo, 1987), p. 37.

Le Corbusier, The Decorative Art of Today, (Architectural Press, London, 1987), p. 16.

Ibid., p. 18

Costa, ‘Razões da nova arquitetura’ p. 29; Le Corbusier pursues a similar line in 1937 in When the Cathedrals were White.

Jorge Alberto Manrique, ‘El Futuro Radiante: La Ciudad Universitaria’ in La Arquitectura Mexicana del Siglo XX, Fernando González Gortázar (ed.), (Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes, Mexico DF, 1994), pp. 125-147.

Obras de Arte de la Ciudad Universitaria de Caracas, (Universidad Central de Venezuela, Caracas, 1991), p. 82.

Le Corbusier, When the Cathedrals were White, p. 37.

William Holford, ‘Problems and Perspectives of Brasília’, Módulo, 17, 3, (April 1960), unpaginated English translation of the main Portuguese text. The title of this journal, founded by Niemeyer, makes his debt to Le Corbusier’s Le Modulor quite clear.

Evenson, ‘Brasilia: “Yesterday’s City of Tomorrow”’, p. 498.

Willy Stäubli, Brasília, (Leonard Hill, London, 1966), p. 23.

William Holford, Architectural Review, 122, (1957), p. 400.

Ibid., p. 400.

Quoted in ‘Planned Cities, Capital Punishments’, The Economist, 20 December 1997, pp. 81-83, p. 83.

Oscar Niemeyer, ‘Exposicão de Brasília em Paris’, Módulo, 33, Rio de Janeiro, (June/ July 1963), p. 8.

Le Corbusier, Precisions, p. 218.

Conrads (ed.), Programmes and Manifestoes, p. 144.

Ibid., p. 142.

Holford, Architectural Review, 122, (1957), p 399.



Brasília Tourist Guide, (Nova Imagem, Brasília, 1995), p. 4.

Juscelino Kubitschek, foreword to Willy Stäubli, Brasília, p. 7.

Le Corbusier, The City of Tomorrow, p. 287.



Originally published as

"Brasília: a national capital without a national museum",  in

The Architecture of the Museum, Manchester University Press,  2003.



Valerie Fraser specialises in the art and architecture of Latin America and Spain with particular emphasis on the early colonial period and the 20th/21st centuries. Her books include The Architecture of Conquest:Building in the Viceroyalty of Peru, 1535-1635; Drawing the Line: Art and Cultural Identity in Contemporary Latin America and, most recent, Building the New World: Studies in the Modern Architecture, 1930-1960.  She has also edited a collection of essays on colonial art, which will appear in 2004. She is the co-Director with Dawn Ades, of the University of Essex Collection of Latin American Art (UECLAA), which will be housed in the new firstsite gallery, and is Director of a project funded by the AHRB to put the collection on-line in the form of a fully-illustrated, searchable catalogue.