In 1956, Brazilian president Juscelino Kubitschek committed his government to the erection of a new federal capital in the country's remote interior, to be inaugurated before the end of his term of office. This constituted a major step toward achieving a two–centuries–old dream of spreading the country's population into the hinterland of Brazil. Through a national competition held the following year, an international jury selected the entry by Lucio Costa (1902—1998) for the urban design of the new city—the so–called Pilot Plan (Plano Piloto) of Brasilia.

A crucial feature of Costa's proposal was a sharp distinction between an administrative civitas of monumental character and the everyday urbs.1 On a monumental axis running east to west and lined by a sequence of public buildings, the Esplanade of Ministries abuts the capital's foremost civic space, the Three Power Plaza. Brasilia's residential quarters—which were meant for five hundred thousand inhabitants and included commerce, services, and educational and health facilities—were conceived in terms of neighborhood units and modulated in superblocks along an arched north–south freeway.

This division of the urban fabric between the civic space and the residential areas was highly deliberate. It was intended to make possible the speedy completion of the most prominent civic structures to create an emblematic vision of the nation's new capital. The strategy was effective. For the civitas, world renowned architect Oscar Niemeyer (1907—2012) and his team designed the executive, legislative, and judiciary palaces, Brasilia's celebrated icons. The most essential bureaucracy was accommodated without delay, and the population of the Federal District quickly jumped to about one hundred fifty thousand inhabitants after the inauguration in April 1960.


Half a century later, Brasilia is the fourth–largest metropolis in the country and the home of more than two and a half million citizens. Yet fewer than 10 percent are residents of the Pilot Plan area. While the original nucleus accommodates chiefly the upper middle classes, by far the greater portion of the population, covering a wider social range, lives in the twenty–seven satellite towns that now exist in the Federal District. Most of these are merged into one extensive multi–centered conurbation sprawling from the Pilot Plan toward the southwest, connected by a few expressways. With the exception of some neighborhoods teeming with high–rise apartment buildings, dispersion, low densities, and extensive empty lands are the rule. An insufficient mass transportation system, segregation, and neglected public spaces—problems not unusual in metropolitan areas—are much amplified in Brasilia by misguided urban policies.

Some of these shortcomings, such as road specialization and monofunctional zoning, were part and parcel of the Modern Movement ideals, which shaped the urban planning agenda of the 1950s. As a consequence, they are inherent traits of the Pilot Plan and its offspring, the satellite towns, and today they are in urgent need of revision.


Brasilia was built at a moment when the modernist agenda was under scrutiny; its principles were severely attacked by critics such as Bruno Zevi and Sibyl Moholy–Nagy even before its inauguration.2 On the other hand, Brasilia's completion in three and a half years was praised as an epic feat of self–determination by the Brazilian people, as reported by architectural historian Norma Evenson.3 Brasilia became a monument to its own building, and Oscar Niemeyer's palaces turned into new symbols of the nation.

Albeit more conceptually, Lucio Costa never ceased to defend his work. In 1961, in answer to criticisms about the Pilot Plan's lack of human scale, Costa argued that its qualities should be gauged while considering three different configurations: a monumental scale, a gregarious scale, and a residential scale. Thirteen years later, he added a fourth category: a bucolic scale.

In the early 1980s, an inter–institutional group of architects—from local government, the national monuments agency, and the university—made some efforts to assure systematic procedures for protection not only of the Pilot Plan but also of other areas of historical interest in the Federal District. However, it was Costa's report Brasilia Revisited, reinforcing the four scales as a leitmotif for preservation, that defined the parameters for the listing of the city as established in a short local statute in 1987. Although the four scales were initially intended to demonstrate that Brasilia was just a town like any other, they were paradoxically characterized as defining its uniqueness. Somehow it came to be presumed that the way the scales mix with one another determines the character to be maintained in different sectors.

This local statute was, in fact, meant to address UNESCO's legal requirements for the candidacy of Brasilia as a World Heritage Site, a title that was awarded in December 1987, thus making the Pilot Plan one of the first modernist sites on that list. As the ensemble was still incomplete, the International Council of Monuments and Sites recommended that additional legislation should be passed to "ensure the preservation of the urban creation of Costa and Niemeyer."4 Hence, a federal statute was issued in 1992 that enforces the same parameters as the local statute, founded not on a realistic appraisal of the actual city, but on its original design and Costa's four–scales justification. Leading to dire consequences, the federal statute consented to proposals for new buildings by the architects of Brasilia, Costa and Niemeyer, as necessary complements to the original Pilot Plan.5

Although the federal government obviously has a prominent presence in Brasilia, there is a lack of consistent guidelines for the maintenance of federal buildings and for expansion of the city. Moreover, urban policies and management are left entirely to the Federal District administration, which functions as an independent state with local political interests.


With respect to preservation in Brasilia, few buildings are listed individually, and regulatory protection remains vague, without detailed guidelines for current conservation. Combined with the problems that stem from administrative disarray, a pervading admiration for the work of Costa and Niemeyer and a reverence for their original designs constantly impede commonsense solutions to the city's problems. In the name of heritage, grave mistakes in planning—such as high–speed freeways that crisscross the urban fabric dangerously—are defended by preservationists, while massive low–quality housing projects are built at great distances from the city center, for the sake of maintaining an unsullied image of the Pilot Plan.

Niemeyer took full advantage of the provision that allowed him to design freely the "necessary complements" to the original Pilot Plan. As a result, the last twenty–five years were witness to a series of his interventions, each clearly undertaken as a new enterprise without reference to the existing context. One extreme instance was the 2009 proposal (never built) that included a 100 meter obelisk in the middle of the Esplanade of Ministries, which fortunately received a negative public response.6

With such a dearth of viable directives, real estate interests and gentrification, along with the genuine awareness in the population of its importance, have somehow successfully preserved the Pilot Plan's unique traits, especially its green spaces.

The Pilot Plan's representative ensemble and the functional mix in the residential neighborhood units are innovative and successful experiments. Nevertheless, much of their small–scale detailing remains to be implemented, or at least improved; walkways, parking lots, street furniture, and other elements essential to urban life should be carefully designed. Public debate and new proposals, preferably generated by competitions, are also needed to address the monofunctional areas in the center of the city, to rehabilitate areas such as the consolidated Commercial Sector and complete other areas, such as the vacant Hotels Sector.

As the main presence in the country's capital, the federal administration should keep control of its assets and suitably plan for the physical growth of its institutions. A specific agency to deal with these issues should be established. A consistent conservation management plan, with policy guidance that could facilitate and manage change in the future, is imperative and could be a highly useful tool to promote decision making, overcoming personalistic, ad hoc solutions. As with other World Heritage Sites, such a plan would become an official document that guides governmental agencies and local governing bodies. It would define context and balance cultural and social significance with appropriate policies, providing a road map for the preservation of the capital complex and setting. It would help establish a proper relationship between the Pilot Plan area and its surrounding metropolitan areas, recognizing that they are dependent on each other and should be planned as a single entity.

Brasilia is a showcase of the challenges faced when dealing with the modern city. It is hindered by imprecise definitions of cultural heritage values and an obsession with its founding fathers, instead of taking into account today's material and social realities. Above and beyond its illustrious core, it is a dynamic and pulsating city. Its true qualities are still to be thoroughly assessed, as much as its many failures, old and new, must be faced and overcome. In other words, Brasilia is not just a civitas; preservationist consciousness must also embrace its greater context, including its urbs.

Danilo Matoso Macedo is an architect and urban planner based in Brasilia. Sylvia Ficher is an architectural historian and professor at the University of Brasilia.

1. In 1957, Lucio Costa expressed this concept of the town: "It should not be envisaged merely as an organism capable of performing adequately and effortlessly the vital functions of any modern city, not merely as an urbs, but as a civitas, possessing the attributes inherent to a capital." In Lucio Costa, Report of the Pilot Plan for Brasília (Brasilia: GDF, 1991), 77.
2. Bruno Zevi, "Inchiesta su Brasilia: Sei? Sulla nuova capitale sudamericana," L'Architettura: Cronache e Storia, n. 51, (Jan. 1960): 608—19; and Sibyl Moholy– Nagy, "Brasilia: Majestic Concept or Autocratic Monument?" Progressive Architecture 40, no. 10 (Oct. 1959): 88—89.
3. Norma Evenson, Two Brazilian Capitals (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973).
4. ICOMOS, World Heritage List, No. 445: Advisory Body Evaluation (Paris: UNESCO World Heritage Center, 1986).
5. IPHAN, Portaria no. 314/1992.
6. The entire proposal was named Sovereignty Plaza and included a Memorial to the Presidents and a Monument to Sovereignty. For a full account of the episode, see Danilo Matoso Macedo, "Praça da Soberania: Crônica de uma polêmica," 2009.