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architexts ISSN 1809-6298


This essay will examine some articles and documentaries released between the 1950s and the present time in the British Media about one of the most controversial contributions in the realms of architecture and urbanism, Brasília.

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MANGABEIRA, Daniel. Brasília through British Media. Arquitextos, São Paulo, year 14, n. 167.04, Vitruvius, apr. 2014 <>.

This essay will examine some articles and documentaries released between the 1950s and the present time in the British Media and also expose chronologically how these articles and videos created an atmosphere of scepticism, disbelief and prejudice around one of the most controversial urban contributions of the twentieth century, Brasília. The intention here is not to discuss the origins of criticism in the media field about Brasilia, but expose chronologically the articles published in the British media about the Brazilian capital. This little essay works as the basis for some questions that can be further developed and were not discussed here, for example: how the media shape and influence prejudices? How does each publication exposed in this essay have the power to influence an individual vision about the city? What is the background of the authors of the articles that compliment and criticize Brasilia? Personal or political view influenced such articles? There are other cities that have passed or are passing through the same situation? These questions have not been answered in this essay, but they do serve as a basis for further discussion on the subject here presented.


In the end of 1956 a national competition was announced in Brazil to choose the project that would be transformed into the new capital and constructed in three and a half years. Draw your own conclusions about the disproportion between the scheduled construction time and the time which was really needed to create a city from nothing.


On 22ndof March 1957, the jury’s choice for the overall scheme of the city was the project submitted by Lucio Costa in the last hour of the last day available for entries to the competition. The connection with the Queen’s lands starts here. One of the judges of the competition was the British Sir William Graham Holford (South African born), who had been President of the Royal Town Planning Institute, later became President of the Royal Institute of British Architects and was responsible for the immediately post war development around Leicester Square. He had worked as a consultant in urban projects for Canberra (Australia) and Pretoria (South Africa) (1) and was invited by NOVACAP to preside over the jury, together with the French André Sive and the North American Stamo Papadaki. This important position would apparently instigate the British Media to be interested in the Brasília topic, but the events show that in fact British Eyes weren’t givingmuch attention to the modern Brazilian architecture, nor much importance to Brazilian urban ideas.

It is comprehensible that there was difficulty in analysing Brasília at that time, so how to analyse something that is really different from what is previously known? One way to analyse it is by comparing the modern city with others, which were, by definition, completely different. There were some similar examples of modern cities, but not on such scale. The difficulty lay in the fact that this encouraged the emergence of stereotypes (which in fact happened), because it was challenging to write in an exempt way. Kevin Lynch used to say that “an object seen for the first time may be identified and related not because it is individually familiar, but because it conforms to a stereotype already constructed by the observer” (2). The unknown will be most of the time compared with something previously known and this is not a totally incorrect process.Nonetheless, it is arguable that this process will open doors that will only confirm what is already known but not fully understand the unknown. Brasília fitted this example. The stereotypes of Brasília were and in fact still are, more known than the real city.

The first article published in the United Kingdom about Brasília was released in 1957, nine months after the result of the Brazilian competition was announced. Its author was Sir William Holford, the president of the jury that chose Lucio Costa as the winner of the urban planning competition. The text was written in the first person, basically because the result of the competition demanded “continual discussion with press, public, competitors and officials, even over the period of judging” (3). The text wasn’t just adescriptionof the winner’s project; it was in fact a defence against those who criticised Lucio Costa’s project and an explanation from the jury. The purpose of the article wasn’t to inform the result and present the project, but to publish the justifications of Holford’s choice. It is noteworthy to say that Brasília was than being presented to the Britons for the first time, not as a unanimous project, but as a controversial one, which already needed be defended even before it was built.


In the following year, on 10 June 1958, the Manchester Guardian Journal (known today as The Guardian) published an article about an exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London about Brasilia (4). The title of the article, “Brasilia in model form” introduced correctly that Brasília was not completely built yet, but the text also emphasised that Brasília was not just a place under construction; it was a place which was also difficult to reach. The text stated: “Since this city, six hundred miles from the coast, will normally be approached by air, it is one of the few projects of which a model can give a realistic view” (5). In doing so, the real city began to be seen as a model or, should it be said that the model city could finally be seen as a real city? This strange and dangerous symbiosis created the permanent idea that Brasília was not a real city, but this wasn’t explicit, it was implicit and maybe not intentional. Even the figurative connection between the bow and arrow creating the shape of the city broke the concept that cities normally respond to the natural development of the society. Brasília was created artificially from nothing (6). It wasn’t a city created to react to the needs of a community or to the development of the commerce, and thus the concept of artificiality also became the identity through which Brasília was interpreted and presented to the world.

Palácio da Alvorada
Unkown authorship [Architectural Review]


Sir James Maude Richards wrote the third article about Brasília in Architectural Review Magazine one year later, in February 1959. The article focused on presenting the actual stage of the construction of the city at that time, but mainly revealed the buildings created by Oscar Niemeyer which had already been built: the Palácio da Alvorada (fig. 01) and a hotel (7). This article was superficial, but presented in a very concise text the journey from Brasilia’s conceptual idea up until to the last handled information. The Palácio da Alvorada was presented beautifully through black and white pictures (8), reinforcing the monumentality of the building but once more moving away from the perception that that building, that place, that space or that city, was something tangible. Brasília could easily be seen as a scenario, a place that appeared stunningly in the pictures but that was related neither to a liveable citynor to a real one.

Unfinished National Congress illustrating Brasília’s inauguration [The Times Journal, 1960]


When Brasília was launched, on 21st of April 1960, four British journals covered its inauguration. The Times limited itself to exposing some images of the city and in fact published almost nothing about it. The article was poor in facts and information about the inauguration (9). It is interesting to note that the journal announced the inauguration with pictures from the period of its construction. Brasília was then being presented as an unfinished city (fig. 02). Another journal, The Financial Times, focused on the superficial development of all issues related to the construction of the new capital, such as the social, political and economic environments, to give a broad view of what was happening in South America at that time. The article ended up presenting the consequences of such an attitude (construct a new city) for the future: “President Kubitschek (…) has taken this project so far that when his term of office ends early next year, his successors will have to carry on what would have been a theory for over a hundred of years and has become a realization in less than four” (10). The third journal to cover the Brazilian news, The Herald Tribune, didn’t publish any pictures of Brasília but presented the discrepancies of the brand new city: “Meanwhile, most of the city’s present population of 75000 lives in the temporary wooden houses of the nearby Free City, which will be demolished when Brasilia is full operation” (11).

The Sunday Times, the last journal to publish the Brazilian news, did it only three days after Brasília’s inauguration with the most flashy headline: “Brasilia: The Capital in the Forest” (12) and exposed the city as “the most carefully planned and modern city in the world, built in the inhabited interior of Brazil.” It cannot be said that this text was incorrect. In fact, one of the purposes of constructing the capital in the middle of the country was exactly to occupy part of the country that was underdeveloped and unoccupied. Brasília was indeed an isolated city far from the old capital Rio de Janeiro. Apart from these four main journals, it is important to say that nothing about Brasilia’s inauguration was found in The Guardian archives. Apparently this topic wasn’t discussed in this journal.

Brasília’s inauguration was not only covered by the general media, the ‘architectural media’ (13) also published some articles about it. Although the magazine Architectural Review published an enormous article about Brasília in 1959 (14), there was almost nothing in this magazine about the city when it was inaugurated. The only Brazilian topic covered was Rino Levi’s house at São Paulo and the only mention of Brasília was a tiny picture showing Oscar Niemeyer’s hotel. Nothing in fact was said about the city. In the same magazine, George Collins wrote an article about linear cities (15), but even though it was directly connected with this subject, Brasília wasn’t mentioned in the article. Having said this, it cannot be alleged that the “architectural media” completely ignored the inauguration. The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) journal published an article presenting images of the city still as a model (16) (fig.03). However, despite the beautiful pictures, the city continued to appear distant, surreal… still a model. Two things should be mentioned to clarify this last article. First, the author was, Sir William Holford, the president of the Jury, and thus it’s clear that the interest in Brasília was not completely isonomic or autonomous. The second important thing to be said about it is that the word Brasília wasn’t even mentioned in the index of the magazine, and Lucio Costa didn’t appear in the alphabetical index. The reference to the article was Oscar Niemeyer. In this case, either the architect was bigger than his creation, or the creation was not important enough for them to be treated as an independent topic.

The Three Powers Plaza Model (Legislative, Executive and Judiciary Powers) presented in the article about Brasília’s inauguration [RIBA Journal]


In the following year (1961), the RIBA journal published a conversation between Robert Harbinson and George Balcombe (17). Harbinson was an Irish writer and Balcombe was living in Brasília, but the article didn’t say how long he had lived there. In the interview Balcombe said, “Brasília has the aspect of a city but the atmosphere of a building site.” The term ‘aspect’ being used to describe the city was even questioned by Harbinson. What is a city with the ‘aspect’ of a city? Is it a city in fact or a draft of a city? This is the sort of question that the article didn’t answer.


After the RIBA publication, the Architectural Review published in 1962 an article showing how the city was actually functioning (18). That was in fact the most factual article about Brasília, presenting all the incongruences, all the needs and also the achievements of the city. The article was written by David Crease and the ‘aspect’ of a model, copying Balcombe, was still there through the pictures (fig. 04), but the text richly explained how it was to live in a city which was only 2 years old. He said: “Brasilia is half a real city and half an unreal city. It has something of the Metropolis and something of the life of the frontier” and completed by saying “some criticisms (about Brasília) can be answered, some cannot and some not yet”.


In Brazil, the following years were marked by violations of human rights. In 1964 a coup d’etat with the apparent help of United States and United Kingdom gave to the militaries, almost 20 years of dictatorship. During this period Brasília lived the darkest years of its ‘life’.Former president Kubitschek represented the growth of a communist ideology in South America and Oscar Niemeyer always named himself a communist even though he shared different opinions with one of his main colleagues, Lucio Costa. The concept of an equalitarian city had in its roots communist ideas, so Brasília was considered by the militaries a mirror of this revolutionaryand unwelcome ideology. With such a background, one can imagine how the militaries treated Brasília and how the city was completely abandoned during this period. By way of information, the current president of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff was a political prisoner tortured during this military period.


In 1967 the magazine Architectural Review (which was sympathetic with the idea of townscape and walkable cities, where the buildings had a certain degree of modesty about the city) published one of the most iconic articles found in this research. With no author, the article presented some pictures (fig. 05) of a decrepit Brasília made by Prof. Buchanan.The title of the article was ‘The Moon’s backside’ (19) and the article said: “The city (…) like the moon, however, it has a dark side which the pictures never reveal. Readers who are unable to identify the place should turn the page upside down.” In the bottom of the page the answer was: “It’s Brasília, of course”. This article probably demonstrated the most strong and vehement characteristic of the British media, picturing Brasília as an unpleasant, strange, dirty, monumental and unreal modern city. The brashness and vastness of Brasília went against the idea of a liveable walking city defended by the magazine, during a certain time (20).

Pictures of the memorial to Juscelino Kubitschek, abandoned during the military dictatorship
Photo Colin Buchanan


In the 1970s, the only article covering Brasília as a topic, in fact didn’t say anything about the city. The Architecture Review published a project designed by the Smithsons for the British Embassy in Brasília (21). The project was never built. This decade was marked in the British news by the complete absence of articles related either to the discussion of Brasília urbanism or to Brasília architecture.


Almost 20 years after Brasília’s inauguration, and still under the military dictatorship, the BBC presented a documentary about the Brazilian Capital, exposing a tendentious and partial image of the city (22). With sentences such as “the reality is worse than anything” and “Brasilia is a façade” or “finished in 1960 and already falling to bits. Cracking stone work, planking concrete, rusting metal… a ceremony on slum.” or even “what Brasilia became in less than 20 years wasn’t the city of tomorrow at all, it was yesterday’s science fiction”, plus “the utopian buck stops here”, Robert Hughes in his program The Shock of the New (23), made the strongest and most incisive documentary about Brasília of all. The residential area was not even mentioned in the documentary, and nor was the commercial area. This documentary is not to be taken seriously, but the disseminated idea of a city only made for political aspirations and not for human needs was so strong, that this time the image of an unreal city was undeniably established in the British media. Brasília was definitely presented as an unsuccessful experiment, a modern experimentation condemned to failure.


The 1980s and the 1990s were also marked by a total absence of news about the city, but than in the beginning of twenty first century, The Observer published a travel list with the ten best places to go in Brazil (24). Even being the fifth on that list, Brasília’s description began weirdly. “Although many visitors find Brasilia a little soulless, it has to be on the list (…)” This was the type of preconception that was spread and already fixed on everybody’s mind. This preconception can be confirmed through Paul Robert Lloyd, a British blogger who visited Brasília in 2010. He said in his blog: “I arrived expecting to find a clean yet lifeless city. Instead I discovered a remarkably lively and fascinating metropolis.” This confirms that previous ideas of a soulless, clean and lifeless city were (and maybe still are) in the subconscious of those who somehow once heard about Brasília. Most of them may not even know the city, but have already created this pre-conceived idea about it.


In 2006, The Telegraph published an article entrusting Brasília, but using words like “odd capital” to describe it (25). The following sentence shows how British eyes were on other things and how distant Brasília was to their interest: “It's 1956. Elvis is singing Love Me Tender, IBM has a strange new invention called a hard disk and there's a crisis brewing in the Suez Canal. In a remote patch of bush in Brazil's vast interior, workers are clearing trees to build a new capital for the fifth largest country in the world”. The expressions used to refer to Brasília are repeatedly metaphorical and ironic.


The Centre for Brazilian Studies in London sponsored an exhibition in 2007 celebrating Niemeyer’s centenary. An article, written by Jonathan Glancey in The Guardian (26), pictured Brasília as a place worthy of being seen. In the same year, in the same journal, Brasília appears briefly, in an article about Ettore Sottsass (27). Once again the picturesque vision of the city in the jungle appears unpretentiously. The article said: “The Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer will be 100 this December. He was in his fifties while his great project, Brasilia, was realized in the jungle (…)”.


Five years ago an article in The Guardian exposed the security problems, traffic jams and social gaps present in the society, and exposed Brasília once more as a utopia that was rusted by reality (28). The article stated that criminality was growing on the outskirts of the city, but in fact, the place given as an example wasn’t even inside the Federal District. Besides the fact that the reference is not accurate, Brasília was never built to solve Brazilian social problems. To say “Brasília’s utopian dream is dead” is to create a condition that not even the city was thought to solve. Brasília was shaped to represent a new stage of development in the country; it was not created to solve the problem of a lack of houses or to answer to the social gap of the Brazilian society. This contradictory vision exceeded boundaries and the failure of social standards in Brazil was seen and mixed with the failure of the city itself and not as the failure of the policies applied by the government. Brasília was than symbolically connected with the failure of Brazilian policies.


Some articles about Brasília were released between 2009 and 2012. Sentences such as “Brasília (…) widely considered an architectural masterwork and an unparalleled urban catastrophe.” (29) or “The city today may resemble a skeleton coast of concrete hulks cast between parks of fraying grass (…)” (30) were always in the British media. Sometimes the articles didn’t give any possibility for the reader, for example: “Brasília – utopia or concrete carbuncle?” (31) There was no exist to this question, the answer would be always negative.


The last references to Brasília appeared in the British media last year. When Niemeyer died, journals and magazines in the UK cited Brasília. In an article, Norman Foster said “the city of Brasilia, for which Niemeyer designed the most significant monuments, was not simply designed, it was choreographed" (32).To top this essay off, the BBC published one of the hardest articles about Brasília on 7thof December of 2012. In the article, Ricky Burdett, Professor at the London School of Economics said: “The issue is not whether (Brasilia) it's a good city or a bad city - it is just not a city” (33) and he finished with a questionable sentence: “People run away on Thursday evenings and go to Sao Paulo and Rio to have fun”. The prejudices and misleading about Brasília, somehow, allowed this last article to go further. It is not about giving a bad opinion about Brasília anymore, but it is about inventing and creating a fiction about it.

It is interesting to note that during the first years of Brasília, the architectural magazines and journals were the main vehicle of communication between Brasília and the public in general. The late 20thcentury was marked by an almost total absence of news related to Brasília in such types ofmedia and in the 21stcentury, the architectural media simply forgot or did not pay attention to the city. Instead of it, the general media, such as The Guardian, The Telegraph and BBC were largely responsible for putting Brasília and its architecture in the media again. Confirming also the disinterest of British ‘architectural’ media about Brasília.

Brasilia undoubtedly evokes antagonistic opinions. This essay does not want to defend Brasília, but intends to analyzeand understand the process by which the British media, step by step, formed (intentionally and unintentionally) the image of that city. As it was said atthe beginning of this essay, the analyses should havebeen done in an exempt way, evaluating seriously the implications of creating anunreal image of Brasília.

Most of the time, unrealistic, incorrect or misleading interpretations of Brasília made by the British media,just reinforcedand increased the distance between the real city and the city formed to conveniently fit the sensationalist needs of a media hungry for flashy headlines, also amplifying the judgment, in a broad way, between what was good and bad.Additionally it would be interesting to explore how the media forms and influences preconceptions, but this research has not been developed in this essay.

To clarify the principles that have formed the actual image that British have about Brasília helps to better understand how the preconceptions about this city were formed and sometimes invented, but not entirely clarify how the media form preconceptions in general. Brasília is definitely not perfect, but it is certainly real, with allcontradictions inherent to a city in a country also full of ambiguities.


Braga, Milton (2010), O Concurso de Brasília, São Paulo: CosacNaify, pp. 17.

Lynch, Kevin (1960) The Image of the City, London: The MIT Press, p. 06.

Holford, William G. (December 1957) The Architectural Review 122 “Brasilia”, London: AR Press, pp. 397

This information was found online, without mentioning the author’s name.


According to Lucio Costa, “Brasília was created as a deliberate act of possession, the gesture of pioneers acting in the spirit of their colonial traditions.” In Xavier, Alberto and Katinski, Julio. Antologia Crítica (2012), Sao Paulo: CosacNaify

Xavier, Alberto and Katinsky, Julio (2012) Brasília: AntologiaCrítica, São Paulo: CosacNaify

Richards, James M. (February 1959 The Architectural Review 125 “Brasilia”, pp. 94

It is not said the author of the pictures in the magazine, not even in the final index

Text and pictures of the article had no author

No author(April 1960) The Financial Times, no page.

Gleason, Gene (April 1960) Herald Tribune, no page

No Author (April 1960) The Sunday Times, no page.

‘Architectural Media’ refers to newspaper and magazines specialized in Architecture.

Richard, J. M. (1959) ‘Brasilia’, Architecture Review, vol. 125, pp. 94

Collins, G. R. (1960) ‘Cities on the line’, Architecture Review, vol. 128, pp. 341-45

Holford, W. (1960) ‘Brasilia’, RIBA Journal, vol. 67, pp. 154-59

Harbinson, R. and Balcombe, G. (1961) ‘Conversation in Brasilia’,RIBA Journal, vol. 68, pp. 490-94

Crease, D. (1962) ‘Progress in Brasilia’, Architecture Review, vol. 131, pp. 256-62

From the article ‘The moons backside’, RIBA Journal, vol. 74, pp. 250-51

Comment added by Professor John Bold in the presentation of this essay, during class.

Smithson, P. and A. (1975) ‘Unbuilt in Brasilia’, The Architectural Review website

Hughes, R. (1980) ‘Brasilia’, BBC Documentaries

Other sources also relate this documentary to the ‘Civilization Series’ created by BBC. The BBC website doesn’t give clear information about it, but as Robert Hughes got famous with the polemic program ‘Shock of the new’, it seams logical that this documentary is part of his program and not part of ‘Civilization Series’.

Gree, T. (2000) ‘Brazil’s best kept secret’, The Observer

No author (2006) ‘Nuts about Brasilia’, The Telegraph

Article written by Jonathan Glancey, titled ‘Building Sites’

Article written by Bayley, titled ‘Age annot wither him’

Article written by Rory Carroll and Tom Phillips, titled ‘Trouble in utopia as the real Brazil spills into Niemeyer's masterpiece’

Article written in 2009 by David Usborne titled ‘Architect, 101, denied chance to add final flourish to city he created’ at The Independent

Article written in 2010 by Simon Reid-Henry in The Guardian and titled ‘Bold Brasilia at 50’

Article written in 2012 by RajanDatar at BBC and titled ‘Brasilia: utopia or concrete carbuncle’

Published in the Guardian in an article titled ‘Oscar Niemeyer: architects and critics pay tribute’

Published in 2012 at BBC News in the article ‘Niemeyer’s Brasilia: Does it work as a city?’



Several authors (2010) Do Concreto ao Papel, Brasília: SantaféIdéias e Comunicação


Banerji, R. (2012) ‘Niemeyer’s Brasilia: Does it work as a city?’,BBC News

Bayley, S. (2007) ‘Age annot wither him’, The Observer

Carroll R. (2008) ‘Trouble in utopia as the real Brazil spills into Niemeyer's master’, The Guardian

Cumming, L. (2001) ‘Pleasure before politics’, The Observer

Datar, R. (2012), ‘Brasilia: utopia or concrete carbuncle’, BBC News

Glancey, J. (2006) ‘Building for the future’, The Guardian

Glancey, J. (2007) ‘Building Sites’, The Guardian

Glancey, J. (2007) ‘To Brasilia and beyond’, The Guardian

Gree, T. (2000) ‘Brazil’s best kept secret’, The Observer

Lloyd, P. (2011) ‘Remembering Brasilia’, Paul Lloyd Blog

Malagamba, D. (2009) ‘DuccioMalabamga – Brasilia’, Arc Space

Moore, R. (2012) ‘Oscar Niemeyer, an appreciation’, The Observer

No author (2006) ‘Nuts about Brasilia’, The Telegraph

Reid-Henry, S. (2010) ‘Bold Brasilia at 50’, The Guardian

Smithson, P. and A. (1975) ‘Unbuilt in Brasilia’, The Architectural Review

Usborne, D. (2009) ‘Architect, 101, denied chance to add final flourish’, The Independent

Wainwright, O. (2012) ‘Oscar Niemeyer, the man behind the monuments’, The Guardian

Wainwright, O. (2012) ‘Oscar Niemeyer: architects and critics pay tribute’, The Guardian

Documentaries and film

Belmondo, J. – actor (1964) ‘L’homme de Rio’, Shots filmed in Brasilia

Hughes, R. (1980) ‘Brasilia’, BBC Documentaries – The Shock of the New

about the author

Daniel Mangabeira da Vinha was born in Itabuna, Brazil (1974), and got his degree in Architecture and Urban Planning from the Universidade de Brasília, UnB, in 1999. In 2013 he completed his Master of Arts in Architecture (MA.Arch) at the University of Westminster, London, UK. His final project was awarded Distinction. In 2003 he was part of the organizing comitee of the Brasília Architecture Biennial. Between 2008 and 2010 he was Cultural Director at the Brazilian Institute of Architects in Brasília (IAB-DF). Between 2009 and 2011 he was a council member of the Athos Bulcão foundation. He was also part of juries in competitions in Brazil and part of the jury for the online competition Core 77 in New York in 2012.


167.04 media
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original: english



167.00 exposição

O desenho e a construção

Território de Contato, módulo 02: Nicolas Robbio e Marcos Acayaba

Marta Bogéa and Abilio Guerra

167.01 visão estrangeira

Max Bense

Mobilidade e inteligência brasileira

Ana Luiza Nobre

167.02 arqueologia paulista

As ruínas do Sítio do Morro

Um importante moinho de trigo da era das bandeiras

Francisco Andrade

167.03 cultura brasileira


Arquitetura brasileira em transe

Eduardo Pierrotti Rossetti

167.05 poesía y arquitectura

Las cosas que ahora se ven

Imaginario de los artefactos y la indumentaria en el tango

Mario Sabugo

167.06 ambiente

Meio ambiente, espaço e sociedade

O trabalho do arquiteto e urbanista nas condições históricas atuais

Manoel Lemes da Silva Neto

167.07 acessibilidade

Mobilidade urbana e o papel da microacessibilidade às estações de trem

O caso da Estação Santo Amaro, SP

Yara Baiardi and Angélica Benatti Alvim


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