WHAT TO SEE (AND HOW TO SEE IT), Part 1
For the armchair modernist, Brasilia is a mythic land of iconic architecture. It's hard to conceive, from coffee table books, the breathtaking sweep of Costa and Niemeyer's vision. Even the widest panoramic lens can't capture the visual epic of the Federal District. Our flight into Brasilia landed after dark, so it wasn't until our first cab ride in the morning, as we ventured into the city, that it really hit us. All these buildings are right next to each other. One after the other, we passed icons of modernism. The parabolic curves of the Palacio do Planalto (the presidential offices), Bruno Giorgi's sculpture "Os Guerreiros" ("The Warriors"), Congreso Nacional (the congress building, with its UN-style tower and half domes that my friend Jim dubbed "God's contact lenses"). These are flanked by rows of identical office buildings which, in the absence of these grand gestures, would seem Orwellian and oppressive. Juxtaposed with these magnificent buildings, however, they are almost a relief from the visual stimulation. And that's just the start. You keep moving forward and you see the Catedral Metropolitana, the Museo Nacional, the national library, Teatro Nacional... You realize that you, like Toto, most certainly are not in Kansas.
When we arrived in Brasilia, we happened to stop in at the office of tourism in the airport. Tucked away at the far end of the lower level, it's not exactly obvious. (Also, it may move - the airport was undergoing major renovation in May 2013.) The nice man at the desk spoke in fractured English that I completed with my tragic Portuguese. He offered us city maps and quickly pegged us as architectural tourists. He offered to arrange a 3-hour tour the next day. Paul and I jumped on this. For R$90 per person (about $45 each), a van would pick us up at our hotel for an English language tour. I was put on the phone with an English speaking man who explained the details. The tour would cover the major landmarks of the Federal District, plus a few outliers. Cab fare to get between landmarks alone would have easily totaled R$75, so this turned out to be a great deal, and I highly recommend it.
Because our tour didn't begin until 1 pm, Paul and I decided to hit a few of the landmarks not on the itinerary in the morning. We visited the Museo Nacional, with its spectacularly cantilevered ramp, first. (Photo above; free admission.) The building contains galleries and an auditorium on the ground level. There was an interesting exhibition of South American graphic design from the 1920s and 1930s on view there. The upper level was dedicated to a large commemorative exhibition of Brazilian art.
The dramatic, sweeping ramp to a mezzanine level was more interesting than much of the art, but we had our favorites, including a video installation and colorful lithographs by Athos Bulcao. As it happened, Bulcao also had a connection to the Brasilia Palace Hotel: the large mural in the event hall was a Bulcao design.
After about an hour at the museum, we strolled across the plaza to the Biblioteca Nacional (national library). This sounds much cooler than it is. Inside, it was basically several floors of students with laptops and tablets quietly working, even though the fantastic brise soleil on the exterior was probably originally developed to protect books from light.
Our guided tour turned out to be a whirlwind of Brasilia's greatest hits. Once we picked up a few fellow tourists from other hotels, we began at the Kubitschek Memorial. For a Yankee, this was helpful, because our guide gave us a lesson on the first president's legacy, conspiracy theories about his death, and Brazilian history, giving us essential context with which we could appreciate significance of the capital city. The memorial itself, a later design by Niemeyer, is both a museum and a tomb. Kubitschek's remains are housed in the building. There is a dignity and solemnity to the structure: low and dimly lit, it inspires reverence and thoughtful consideration.
The statue of Kubitschek outside, high on a pedestal and under a sweeping arch, is a powerful salute to the man Niemeyer held as a dear friend. The tour only allowed about 15 minutes inside, which was too brief. I would have liked more time to explore. (Note: there was an additional R$10 charge per person to enter, as this memorial is privately operated.)
The tour proceeded to an area of Brasilia where the offices of the military were located. The only stop here was the peculiar Quartel General do Exercito, landscaped by Burle Marx, that features a sort of bandshell for military ceremonies. Whatever its precise purpose, it is a thrilling piece of architecture.
The next stop was one of the structures I most looked forward to: Santuario Dom Bosco. Designed by Carlos Alberto Naves, a student of Niemeyer's, this church dedicated to Brasilia's patron saint is situated in a cramped, urban neighborhood. Unassuming from the exterior, and hidden by landscaping, you'd miss it if you didn't know it was there. But this is one destination not to be missed. Essentially a cube, the church is one large open room. Only the 80 Gothic arches around the perimeter support the ceiling. Those arches contain stunning stained glass in 12 shades of blue, and those windows provide the only light inside during the day. In the center of the ceiling, the 2.5-ton chandelier comprises 7,500 pieces of Murano glass. When you step inside, it's almost like you are going underwater. Everything and everyone is tinted blue. It's like a thrilling modernist version of the sublime Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, except the expanse of the room is much larger. Your breath escapes you, you feel yourself drawn into the room and embraced by the light.
When I travel, I look for what I call "God moments" - instances when what I am experiencing (whether they be encounters with natural wonders, art, food, or people) fills me with confidence that there is a divine power looking out for us. There, in Santuario Dom Bosco, I was absolutely certain that God was present. I could have stayed in that serene chamber for the rest of the day and been quite content.