The downside of Brasilia

on foot, you are immediately confronted by the unpleasant reality of what is to the pedestrian effectively a huge expanse of carpark and highway separating the areas you might want to be. The functional split between the ‘zones’ only makes this worse.

Again, this is urbanism rather than surveillance, but here are some more musings and pictures on the urban form of Brasilia. Yesterday, I posted a lot of conventionally attractive shots of the buildings around the monumental axis of Brasilia. However, leaving aside the wider question of whether Brasilia outside of the planned centre functions as a city, there is a rather less beautiful side to the core.

This mainly has to do with the practical consequences of the philosophy behind the plan and particularly with functional separation and transport. As I noted when I first arrived, the city is dominated by roads. 5-lane highways run down either side of the monumental axis, and it is crossed by two major motorways in deep cuttings, with all the attendant slipways. These probably look very attractive as bold curving lines on a plan. They may even function if you are traveling by car (or bus). But on foot, you are immediately confronted by the unpleasant reality of what is to the pedestrian effectively a huge expanse of carpark and highway separating the areas you might want to be. The functional split between the ‘zones’ only makes this worse. Say you are in the hotel zone that I was staying in and you want to go out for a meal and a drink. Well, that’s 30-minutes walk to the nearest residential centre (where most of the evening options are located). Sure, you can take a taxi, but why should you have to? All the sports clubs are in separate ‘club zones’ even further away from either hotel, commercial or residential districts.

Now, okay, so the residential districts have most of their facilities (not including clubs) within walking distance – I said in my first impressions blog entry that I could actually imagine living here with a young family. And I still could. Natives of Brasilia are fanatical about the place. The residential districts work. You don’t really have to go anywhere near the soulless and secured shopping centres or take your chances running across massive motorways with uncaring drivers trying their best to ignore you. There is a simple metro system which runs between the districts and the centre (though it was largely closed for the building of new stations when I was there). You can walk around, between and under the blocks. They don’t appear to be totally obsessed with security in the manner of Sao Paulo or indeed most other large Brazilian cities. The blocks have concierges but not fences, walls and gates. Most of the windows do not even have bars.

But there is a reason and a price for this too. The residential zones are simply not socially mixed. Just about everyone who lives in the big blocks is a government or big corporate office employee. The ordinary workers and the poor live elsewhere entirely, in one of the satellite cities of Brasilia, and are bussed in and out via the busy central bus station every day. At the bus station, you find glimpses of the ‘ordinary Brazil’ – the cheap lanchonetes and pastelerias (in fact probably the best pasteleria I have found in Brazil so far)!, sidewalk vendors of DVDs and knock-off jewelry, the beggars, the hungry and the desperate. In many ways I felt more comfortable there than in the dry Le Corbusian dreamspaces of the government buildings.

Anyway, here’s some pictures of the ‘real Brasilia’ – or what it looks like if you stop focusing on the architecture and take a wider view!

Brazilian modernism (2)

Not surveillance-related, but here’s some of the many, many pictures that I took whilst getting very sunburnt walking around the big open spaces under the huge skies of Brasilia last week. There are a couple more pictures of the Parliament complex in my report from my meeting there last week. My first set of photos of Niemeyer’s work from Sao Paulo can be found here.

At the Camara dos Deputados

I had a great meeting at the architecturally stunning Camara dos Deputados (the Brazilian equivalent of the British House of Commons or the House of Representatives in the USA), which almost made up for the fact that it was the only one of the three scheduled interviews that I had arranged that actually went ahead… it really does look like I will have to come back.

The parliamentary buildings in Brasilia, originally laid out by Lucio Costa. The Camara dos Depuados, by Oscar Niemeyer, is to the left.
The parliamentary buildings in Brasilia, originally laid out by Lucio Costa. The Camara dos Deputados, by Oscar Niemeyer, is to the right.

This meeting took place in the Comissao de Direitos Humanos e Minorias (the Commission for Human Rights and Minorities) and was with Federal Deputy and committee member, Pompeo de Mattos, the secretary of the Commission, Marcio Marques de Araujo, and Hebe Guimareas-Dalgaard, who works in the International Relations office and who served as translator.

The meeting covered all sorts of background issues around security in Brazil, and concentrated on Deputado de Mattos’s specialities in this area, which are in justice and drug-trafficking issues. Again, I won’t do more than summarize a few immediately important things here. There was a lot of talk of police corruption and some hair-raising stories of the ways in which military police officers in particular has become involved in selling equipment and ammunition, and of course the autodefesas communitarias that I have mentioned before. Interestingly though, it was the deputy’s opinion that the military police, despite having a ‘culture of violence’ inherited from their role as enforcers of the military dictatorship, were less corrupt (in an everyday way) than the civil police. The latter are even lower down the police food-chain and correspondingly more poorly paid and equipped.

The inadequacies of the civil police has led many Mayors of larger towns and cities to introduce so-called ‘Municipal Guards’ – basically private security given some official status. They have few powers but are basically there to increase the visibility of security, a kind of prophylactic community policing. The problem is however that the official police and the massive private security sector are thoroughly intermixed already. Many officers moonlight as private security guards, which leads to all kinds of conflicts of interest.

Deputado de Mattos was certainly not obsessed with the inadequacies of the police however. Serious and organized crime associated with drug-trafficking paralyzes the everyday life of poorer areas of large cities in Brazil. Despite the fears of the rich over crime, it is the poorest that suffer most. He described the drug gangs as being the major obstacle to any positive change in Brazilian cities. However he didn’t see any militaristic solution – fighting a war against the drug gangs would only lead to more violence. The only solution to the problems of both crime and the poverty from which it emerges is social inclusion. The favelados must be provided with the same opportunities and infrastructure as everyone else. The need schools, hospitals, transport, and so on. Programs like Bolsa Familia, however well-intentioned, make no fundamental difference, he argued – contradicting, as most people with whom I have talked have done, the assessment of external organisations like the World Bank.

However providing such opportunities is not easy, and not just because of the costs. The drug-gangs actively resist any attempt by the state to introduce services, to the extent of intimidating or even killing construction workers. And this shouldn’t be in any way romanticized as some kind of popular resistance of the poor to the imposition of unwanted state interference – this is an attempt to maintain the rule of fear and violence. Somehow, one can never get away from the security issue in Brazil.

Leaving the Camara dos Deputados, looking past the parliamentary buildings up towards the Esplanada dos Ministerios, with all the government Ministries lined up in identical blocks.
Leaving the Camara dos Deputados, looking past the parliamentary buildings up towards the Esplanada dos Ministerios, with all the government Ministries lined up in identical blocks.

(Thanks to Deputado Pompeo de Mattos, who as you will see if you check out his website is quite a character. He is fiercely proud of his southern ‘gaucho’ roots, and writes poetry to that effect. He is also – and I don’t say this very often of politicians – a genuinely nice guy. Thanks also to Marcio Marques de Araujo and to Hebe Guimares-Dalgaard without whom the meeting would have been impossible).

In Brasilia: monumental space and… hip-hop?

I am now in Brasilia, where I have a number of interviews with parliamentarians, and officials from government Ministries and the federal police. The hotel I am staying in is right off the main monumental axis, in the northern hotel district. It is in some ways, the total opposite of where I was in Sampa, being masterplanned, spacious and with visible greenery. But it is a masterplan typical of Le Corbusier and his acolytes, that seems totally lacking in any flexibility or consideration for people not traveling by what they thought would be mankind’s liberation: the private car. So it is almost impossible to walk to a decent bar or cheap restaurant in the evening. You have to get a cab (or a bus if you know where you are going), to another ‘district’ for such things. The spaces are large and clearly designed to be monumental, but actually they fail in both being genuinely impressive and in being accessible. That is not to say that there are not some amazing buildings – of course there are many of Oscar Niemeyer’s greatest creations – but it is a place that looks better from the godlike view of the plan, or the selective gaze of the tourist brochure, than being within it as an ordinary person.

The taxi from the airport took a route through some of the contemporaneously planned and built residential districts. If it wasn’t for the semi-tropical vegetation, it could have been the Netherlands… long lines of similar 60s housing blocks, broken into neighbourhoods, each with its own little row of shops and restaurants, and divided by little parks and other community facilities. The blocks show quite a lot of variation in design and are certainly not all exactly the same, nor are they so large that they become inhuman in scale. With all the trees, and the facilities within walking distance, this really did seem like it wouldn’t be a bad – if not really an exciting – place to live. Which is exactly what I feel about many places in the Netherlands! For today, calm and unexciting is exactly what I need!

Strangely enough however, almost the first thing I came across when I got here was a local-government organised (and state petrochemicals company, Petrobras-sponsored) hip-hop festival, right on the main axis in the shadow of the TV Tower. So as the sun went down (if we could have seen it through the clouds) and the lights of the city blinked behind the hemispheres and towers of the Parliament building, I was getting down (well, tapping my feet) to some phat beats and conscious lyrics about the hardship and violence of life in the ‘periferia’ from the likes of Liberdade Condicional, and other favela stars. This, if nothing else so far, made me feel rather more hopeful for the future. For this evening only, the periferia had come right into the centre and was, symbolically at least, at the heart of Brazilian democracy.