By Arnout Nuijt
Brasilia is a unique city in Brazil and the world. It is the biggest of a long line of planned capital cities in the country, among which Belo Horizonte, Palmas, Boa Vista and Goiânia. Internationally the city is often compared to Canberra, Australia’s federal capital, but Brasilia is much larger and more utopian in concept. And where Canberra may have been conveniently located between Australia’s main two urban centers Sydney and Melbourne, Brasilia on the other hand is situated right in the middle of Brazil, or, to many, right in the middle of nowhere.
Brasilia in 2012 has a population of about 2,6 million (3,7 million in its metropolitan area), making it the fourth largest city in Brazil. Founded only 52 years ago, Brasilia has the honor of being the largest city in the world that did not exist at the beginning of the 20th century.
Juscelino Kubitschek, aka as JK (pronounce zyota ka), President of Brazil from 1956 to 1961, ordered the construction of Brasilia, thus fulfilling a clause in the country’s first republican constitution of 1891. This clause stipulated that the capital should be moved from Rio de Janeiro to a place close to the center of the country. The city was planned and developed from 1956 by a threesome of modernist designers: Lúcio Costa as the principal urban planner, Oscar Niemeyer as the principal architect and Roberto Burle Marx as the landscape designer. Together, they worked out their plans to make Brasilia not just any capital city, but a modernist inspired utopian dream.
The city is built around an artificial lake, Paranoá, that was built to increase the amount of water available to the city. The lake is a great venue for water sports and it boasts the second largest marina in Brazil. A monumental axis, concentrating most government buildings, ministries and a cathedral splits the main part of the city in two wings. From the sky the city may appear like a plane or butterfly. The famous government ministries are all exactly identical, which may be confusing to the visitor. But they are – with their copper colored glass facades – no doubt the best looking buildings and appear still surprisingly modern on the outside.
In fact, especially Niemeyer was inspired by the same leftwing thinking that gave birth to a new form of city planning all over Europe and parts of Asia after World War Two. In the communist cities of Eastern Europe and in the social-democratic cities in Western Europe, similarly designed neighborhoods sprang up or sometimes even complete new towns. That’s why you may encounter the same sort of apartment blocks as in Brasilia’s residential areas in the outlying districts of Prague, Amsterdam and Paris. To many European visitors the apartment blocks feel awkwardly normal – except for the lush tropical vegetation, the climate and the Brazilians sounds of course! In a way the design of Brasilia is a nice tropical adaptation of European ideas about city development.
The latest generation of government building has less appeal. Niemeyer, still living and designing, now delivers new buildings that are large and looming concrete structures, covered with dark glass, that give the buildings an intimidating appearance. His latest designs are therefore out of touch with the design of government offices in other world capitals, where the trend is to show more openness and to bring in the light.
Brasilia, well, at least its two original wing shaped halves, is also a very middle class city, owing to the high number of well paid federal officials it houses. Again this gives the city a slightly more European feel than other Brazilian cities. On the other hand, Brasilia is also a place that people tend to avoid. Even the highest ranking politicians tend to stay as little as possible in town and fly in and out all the time, to their home bases or to the main business centers Sao Paulo and Rio.
On April 22 of 1960 Brasilia formally became Brazil’s federal capital. The first citizens were literally flown in, as there were no good roads connecting the city to the rest of the country. But as early as 1960 there were almost 140,000 pioneering residents in the new Federal District. The city grew incredibly fast for a new town and by 1970 it had grown to more than 537,000 people, surpassing its planned capacity for only 500,000 inhabitants. Several satellite cities have been created over the years to house even more inhabitants, both inside and outside the boundaries of the Federal District. Residents of Brasilia are known as brasilienses or candangos, the latter referring to those not born in the city.
This gigantic tour de force that created Brazil’s new capital city in the middle of nowhere, had one nasty side effect: the transfer of ministries, government workers and related agencies from Rio de Janeiro lead directly to the decay of the marvelous city.
If Brasilia is the destination of your business visit to Brazil, you are likely to come for business with the government and not with private companies. As the federal capital, Brasilia is the seat of all three branches of the Brazilian government. The city also hosts the headquarters of many Brazilian companies, but still around 60% of GDP is made in the government sector. Services account for another 30%, while industry, trade and a tiny bit of agribusiness complete the picture.
Two business sectors that are important to the Federal District are telecommunications, a sector formerly dominated by the state. The head offices of Telebrás, as well as its private spin off, Brasil Telecom, are located in the city. Banking is another important sector. The headquarters of Banco do Brasil and the Caixa Econômica Federal, both federally owned, and the Banco de Brasília, run by the city, have joined Brazil’s Central Bank in Brasilia.
So the public sector and state owned companies still rule in Brasilia. This capital city is not yet one of the biggest business centers of the country and it will never beat São Paulo or Rio de Janeiro. But something appears to be changing. The city has the highest per capita income among Brazilian cities and an above average education level. Venture capitals funds have been founded in the city and there is a small but flourishing IT sector. The world renowned Embrapa agricultural research center is located in the city and biotech start ups have made some success. Investors have been flocking to these sectors recently.
Brasilia’s economy is bound to be more balanced in the future. Its central location in the country, the city’s cheapness as compared to Sao Paulo and Rio and its role as capital of a Brazil that will be more and more influential in the world as a political, economic and even military power, will no doubt give it more than a steady growth as business destination.
One of the city’s trump cards is perhaps the booming commercial and agribusiness hub of Goiania, the capital the state of Goiás, only a short drive away. Together, Brasilia and Goiania (and the medium sized towns lying between them) could in the long run grow into a major economic powerhouse of Brazil, combining agribusiness, finance and government sectors.
No one arrives in Brasilia other than by plane, unless you are driving from nearby Goiania. Brasilia International Airport (BSB) connects the capital to all major Brazilian cities, but just very few international destinations (Panama, Lisbon, Miami, Atlanta and Bogota). It is the third most important airport in Brazil in terms of passengers and aircraft movements. It has recently been privatized and is awaiting expansion. The lack of direct flights to and from most world capitals will have you transfer in one of the five before mentioned foreign airports or in Rio or Sao Paulo international airports. That should not be a problem as there are many daily flights from those cities to Brasilia.
To get to your hotel you can take a regular taxi here, unlike in Sao Paulo, Rio and other places, where it is advisable to book a safer cooperative radio taxi on your way out of the airport arrivals hall. Brasilia feels pleasantly relaxed when you fly in from Rio or Sao Paulo. Be prepared for a relatively long drive to your hotel though. As in every major city of Brazil, traffic is increasing heavily because of the country’s new found and better spread wealth. The wide and until recently quiet car lanes of Brasilia may now suddenly fill up with car owners of the new middle class.
If you are in town for just a couple days forget studying street plans and hang back in your taxi until you reach your destination. Streets have no names in Brasilia and appear to have secret codes, identifying them in North Wing, South Wing, commercial sectors, residential areas, hotel or embassy sectors.
The taxi ride will not set you back a lot. Brasilia is much cheaper than Rio and Sao Paulo. According to Mercer’s 2012 cost of living index, Brasilia ranks 33nd worldwide, behind São Paulo (12th place) and Rio de Janeiro (13th). Bring cash in your pocket as taxis are hardly equipped with credit card machines.
For a capital city of such an important country, Brasilia offers surprisingly few four star hotels (just three actually according to the Quatro Rodas Guide 2012) and none of the five star category. Yet there are lots of foreign dignitaries coming in. The highest vips (government members) may often stay at the residences of their respective ambassadors of course, but the rest focus mainly on the twin Royal Tulip Alvorada and Golden Tulip Alvorada hotel, a complex designed by Japanese-Brazilian architect Ruy Ohtake.
The first is the most luxurious and slightly more expensive one, with rooms overlooking the pool area and Paranoá Lake. The second is more lively and offers rooms suitable for long stay. The complex may feel a bit out of center, but it is also very quiet and the place has a relaxing atmosphere. While you are rubbing shoulders with diplomats, foreign and national politicians, you may pride yourself that your next door neighbor, a few hundred meters away, is President Dilma Rousseff at her Alvorada Palace.
The other international four star option is the Melia hotel, close to the ministries. The same Spanish hotel group has a string of Tryp hotels all over town, a more economical option. Two Mercure hotels are also present here. Several locally owned luxury and moderate comfort hotels offer good options too.
One other hotel is definitely worth mentioning: the Brasilia Palace, the first hotel of the city and designed by Niemeyer himself. The place once burned down and was left scarred and abandoned for several years. Now, renovated again and with a good restaurant, its sits quietly next to the Golden Tulip Alvorada complex, sharing the same good view and relaxing location by the lake.
For a full overview of hotels in Brasilia just go to booking.com and make your reservations.
The prices of hotel rooms in Brasilia are reasonable, even in the four star region. They cannot be compared with the outrageous prices you are obliged to pay in Rio and Sao Paulo. As we expect the city to grown both in size, business life and political importance, we also expect more hotels opening up by both foreign and national chains. The French Accor group has announced a huge investment in the Brazilian hotel sector, so bet on Sofitel and Novotel to turn up in Brasilia.
The city has its share of rodizio meat grills, like Fogo do Chão and Porcão and no doubt your local contacts will want to bring you there. There are plenty of good eateries all over town. One restaurant worth mentioning is Aquavit, set up by a former Danish diplomat turned chef and using mainly indigenous Brazilian ingredients for his dishes. For a traditional and regional food experience you should try a picadinha meat dish. One of the best places to have picadinha soul food is reportedly Fred restaurant in the South Wing.
Brasilia feels much safer than Rio, that’s for sure. But crime has been rising too and one should be careful here as well. The two wings together still mainly house a middle class and civil servant community. It’s possible to walk around at night among the apartment blocks if you know where you are going. But it’s always advisable to take a taxi.
Brasilia is not really a place to hang around and spend a couple of extra days after work. But if you must, there are a couple of options for a weekend outing. The Chapada dos Veadeiros is a national park with wildlife and several waterfalls. Itiquira Falls is another, just over 100 km from Brasilia. Pirenopolis, a town located 150 km from Brasilia, is well known for its waterfalls, Portuguese colonial architecture and a popular festival called Festa do Divino Espirito Santo. More interesting may be Goiás Velho, an old colonial town and former capital of the state of Goiás, filled with Portuguese architecture.
October 1st 2012. All rights reserved by Brazil Weekly/Rotterdam Week