Imagine a city in the future. Not specifically the real future, but more a Jetson’s future, with maybe a pinch of zombie apocalypse and a lot more dust.

That’s pretty much Brasilia.

As it turns out, I lived in the region surrounding Brasilia for about a year and a half shortly after the turn of the millennium. Then, years later on a backpacking trip, I returned. The result is that I’ve probably spent more time in this strange and intriguing city than almost another other foreign metropolis.

Photo via seier+seier
Photo via seier+seier

Some things about Brasilia are amazing. The city was conjured basically out of nothing in the heart of the country in the late 1950s and1960s. It’s the brain child of city planner Lúcio Costa and, perhaps more famously, architect Oscar Niemeyer.

The finished product is dazzling from a distance. The architecture is optimistic and whimsical, modernist but not cold. The Cathedral of Brasilia, while small, is a particular highlight; from the inside the almost-all-stained-glass building draws the eye upward, and from the outside it recalls a crown of thorns.

Photo via Xavier Donat
Photo via Xavier Donat

Other buildings, such as the domed National Library of Brasília look like they’re straight out of a science fiction movie.


Unfortunately, while individual pieces of Brasilia are almost dream-like, the overall result is more of a nightmare.

The problem is that the city was laid out entirely for cars. Much of it has no sidewalks, the spaces are vast, and walking around the center requires traversing blistering expanses of dirt that parallel noisey roads. The last time I visited, I ended up having to run across multiple streets that were effectively freeways.


A city planner I once met described Brasilia as an exercise in hubris. He’s probably right, though at the time the planners probably couldn’t have anticipated how unpleasant it would be to experience a city that would literally be impossible to get around on foot.

It’s also worth noting that in some of the residential blocks, Brasilia does function well. The overall shape of the city looks like an airplane from above, and in the residential “wings,” there are walkable, surprisingly pleasant neighborhoods with shops and shady streets. (On the other hand, limited housing supply has led to a number of poor satellite cities.)

Screenshot 2015-08-13 23.31.35

In any case, the result of being so spread out and so unfriendly for pedestrians is that Brasilia’s core — where most visitors will spend their time — doesn’t have many people strolling around. Yes, there are bustling areas such as the main bus station, but the walk from there to the National Congress building (below) is a lonely one. And the people who are walking around tend to be so spread out that it feels empty anyway.

Photo via Christoph Diewald
Photo via Christoph Diewald

It’s this emptiness that makes Brasilia feel post apocalyptic on the ground. There’s this incredible, gleaming city all around, and yet it feels startlingly, unnervingly vacant. It’s such an uncanny experience, and not even remotely like what I’ve seen in other cities, that it’s kind of worthwhile in and of itself.

Ultimately, Brasilia is a niche city. For architects, planners, and anyone interested in bold but failed urban experiences, it’s a must see.

— Jim Dalrymple II


Written by Jim Dalrymple II

Urbanism and travel writer. Also a journalist covering the news.


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