The transient periphery in Modernist Brasilia
by: Eduarda Aun
Globally known as the materialization of the modern movement not only for its iconic architecture, but also for its urban design, Brasilia was conceived based on the precepts of the Athens Charter, which provided for a decentralized model of city based on the four main functions of the urban man: to inhabit, to work, to recreate and to circulate (Corbusier 29). Among them, perhaps to circulate assumes rather importance in the context of this study, where 50 years after the inauguration of the city, Brasília is not only the Pilot Plan proposed by Lucio Costa, the distances between center and periphery are not only physical and mobility plays an important role in the production of the city we know today.
Mobility here assumes different connotations, depending on the context, whether in the physical movements of people in the urban environment, or in the shifts of individuals or groups through a system of social hierarchy. What are the forces that move or keep center and periphery separate, and what are the traces that the latter leaves in the city? Between the come and go from a bus, what does the peripheral passenger take, and what does it leave?
Brasília was born from the transfer of the capital from Rio de Janeiro to the center of Brazil, and Lucio Costa’s plan presupposed the city as a civic and monumental center, which should correspond to the image of power and modernity, adequate to the new capital of the country. Therefore, he inserts in his plan, the urban, geographical and conceptual centrality: the connection between the various sectors, the intersection of the urban design and the meeting point of people. It is precisely at the intersection of the Monumental and Road axes where there is the main bus station, a Rodoviária, which divides the plane into north and south, east and west (see fig.1).
Unlike other cities, where as the city expands, the poorer populations are increasingly suppressed from the center, in a planned city like Brasilia, the center is born distinct and far from the periphery in the very conception of Lucio Costa, who anticipates a cosmopolitan center to the images of the Champs Elysées in Paris. In 1957, when the construction of Brasília began, thousands of workers from all regions of the country were attracted to the capital, eager to make the project of President Juscelino Kubitschek a reality. Attending to his calls on the radio, newspapers and magazines of the time, they were seduced by the possibility of employment and the desire to participate in the almost utopian but intensely propagated task (Gabriele 149). While the city was being built from the intersection of the two main axes, and the center was consolidated, another reality — that of camps and temporary installations –, continued to grow at the same pace.
The separation between center and periphery in Brasília arises even before the city’s inauguration, where the workers who came to help build a city that had neither been idealized nor built for them, were soon displaced from the center and settled in remote camps, often violently removed from informal settlements. In this way, “the mechanisms of repression, removal and social stratification were present in the dream of the modern city that embraced the ideal of modernity as progress, participation and solidarity” (Miranda 7).
Thus, the first satellite cities emerge kilometers away from the center and, consequently, from most jobs, services and quality public spaces, expressing in a clearer and sharper way than other Brazilian metropolises, the disparity between center and peripheral areas. Where its center concentrates less than 10% of the residents of the Federal District, but 70% of its jobs, its social inequality index is higher than in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro (Derntl 377). The disparities are manifested mainly in economic terms, where the per capita income in the Pilot Plan is R$ 5,569.46, while in Estrutural it is R$ 521.80, ten times lower. Yet this indicator also reveals racial inequality (see map below), where the lower the income, the more black the population. These differences are expressed in social and infrastructure terms as well. Access to schools and hospitals is deficient in these regions, as are cultural or leisure options, which are concentrated in the Pilot Plan.
In Brasília, the city expresses spatially, through its functions and internal structure, its social relations (Paviani apud Miranda 10). In this scenario, the division is marked by the long physical and social distances that separate the nobler and less privileged classes in the Federal District. The upper class, which commutes by car, rarely encounters the reality of the lower class directly (although recognizes its signs), which lives far away and commutes by an inefficient public transportation (Bomtempo). “Such inhuman environment promotes social exclusion by limiting interaction, preventing the ‘unexpected’, and controlling access and use, resulting in a sterile urbanity” (Hehl apud Bomtempo). In a city governed by voids and distances (physical and metaphorical), to circulate becomes not only one of the four functions of the urban dweller, but also the most striking of the peripheral dweller. The bus, or buzão, becomes the means to reach the rodô (bus station) and consequently the center of urban activities and attention.
The bus station therefore becomes a facilitator of connection between the peripheries and the center of the city, and the bus becomes a means by which the periphery travels the city and encounters the center. In Brasilia, the use of buses by the masses is inevitable and cultural, assuming a language that is exclusive to the capital, being referred to as baú, buzão, zebrinha, which configure an identity and familiarity. The daily journeys of the peripheral population are perceived in the congestion of the highways between the dispersed urban nuclei and the central area, often marked by the loud music; by passers-by who leave their tracks on the wide lawns of the Esplanade of the Ministries towards the bus station; and by the other marks along the city, that determine territories and that create meaning in graphisms, street vendors, beggars or artistic groups who experience the city daily.
It is at the Bus Station and in particular in the adjacent South Amusement Sector, better known as Conic, where today we see these social practices — very different from those foreseen in his plan, a chaos amid the Cartesian rational of Lucio Costa. A variety of characters, including skaters, craftsmen, bohemians, graffiti artists, street vendors, prostitutes and unionists who have been transforming the space, converting movie theaters into religious temples, sidewalks into skate lanes, squares into markets, stairs into podiums, walls into galleries (Rezende 5). Lucio Costa did not anticipate the participation and integration of other classes, but rather the high state bureaucracy in that region, appropriated differently from that conceived by him in his plan. “This is all very different from what I had imagined for this urban center, as an exquisite, cosmopolitan thing … they took care of what was not designed for them,” Lucio Costa in Jornal do Brasil, November 1984. The growth and dynamics of cities react to the ordering of spontaneity and urban life, suggesting that the inhabitant is the main transforming agent of space.
In his 1957 plan, Lucio Costa had conceived sophisticated and cosmopolitan spaces, where bookstores, restaurants, cafes, tea houses, bars and nightclubs were planned in an attempt to bring together different groups of students, businessmen and different types of professionals. In fact, after the inauguration of the city in the 60s, the first users of the central spaces of the city were the downtown residents. At the time, Brasilia had approximately 90,000 inhabitants, the majority living in the Pilot Plan, still in the process of being established, and a few satellite cities. Therefore, Conic was in fact far and difficult to access (Nunes 19).
Thus, soon after its inauguration, Conic attracted embassies still in phase of implantation in the city, while their headquarters were still being constructed. The presence of institutions in the sector attracted art cinemas, cafes, bookstores, restaurants and more sophisticated shops and an audience that was in line with Lucio Costa’s expectations. However, the opening of shopping malls and the consolidation of other commercial and entertainment spaces led to a decentralization of leisure and cultural activities and the transfer of embassies and administrative activities generated a process of emptying of the functions of the sector. Consequently, nightclubs and bars began to appear, triggering its “degradation”, as it daunts the Pilot Plan’s middle class and is forgotten by the local authorities (Nunes 19).
The sector’s abandoned conditions culminated in an attractive void for the sector that combined to the proximity to the commercial and hotel sector, traditional prostitution points, favored the installation of bars, nightclubs and brothels in Conic. Its morphological composition, which formed alleys and narrow, almost labyrinthine passages, favored drug consumption and dealing, and the abandoned and littered galleries did not inhibit occupation by homeless people.
The urban imaginary that was formed further alienated the Pilot Plan’s middle class, allowing the appropriation of other groups that were familiar with the simplicity of the disposition of the stores and with the possibility of appropriating the space without the feeling that they were invading a private territory. A population devoid of theaters, community centers and quality public spaces in their own satellite cities, found in Conic conditions to manifest and be represented in the city center that originally had not included them, which happened in different ways.
First, the abandonment and neglect that Conic witnessed, and the consequent devaluation of the properties, favored the occupation of popular stores, but also of “alternative” stores, which could not afford the high commercial spaces throughout the Pilot Plan, nor the shopping centers. This allowed the installation of comic book stores, T-shirt and skate shops, but also African beauty salons, spray paint shops, specific hip-hop culture clothing or national black appreciation and tradition T-shirts stores. The presence of these stores attracted groups linked to these movements, which, in turn, appropriated the physical space in various cultural, graphic, dance and music manifestations, among others, coming from the fringes of Brasilia. According to rapper and music producer Gog, “hip-hop created an industry of its own, selling music and clothing of the style”.
Once in the center of the city, supported by a local economy and creating more sustainable bonds with space, the social and spatial appropriation by different groups was facilitated. Not only the common spaces (composed by differences in level and concrete floors) were occupied by skaters , but also the border between public and private was reached, where walls of the buildings served as screens for the different typically urban graphic manifestations, such as graffiti, tagging, stencil and wheat-paste collages (see fig.2).
Although these practices are common in urban contexts around the world and common in other areas of Brasilia, Conic is a unique space in the city center that concentrates the works of several artists, perhaps for two main reasons. The first would be for its architecture and internal morphology, introverted and almost impermeable, allowing manifestations that are generally considered subversive. The second reason is due to its proximity to the bus station, point of convergence of all the neighborhoods and satellite cities, from where these practices commonly origin — at least traditionally.
As the bus, the various cultural manifestations in Conic become a means of mobility from the periphery to the center. The shops of black culture, the hip-hop universe clothing and slang, graffiti, tagging and other graphics in the poorly preserved walls, and the Brazilian and African rhythms in the parties that take place in Conic are all materialization of the presence of underrepresented groups in the creation of their own centrality.
Throughout the years, Conic has become a very political space, given the possibility of political representation in the narrower sense of the word (due to the presence of unions and political parties), but also for being an outcast space that is ignored by the government, which conditioned various social manifestations of resistance, that are generally marginalized. Its neglect by local authorities allowed the use and appropriation of many diverse groups and especially disadvantaged classes and races that have few spaces of representation in the center of the city. Shop owners and music producers, as well as graffiti artists, dance groups, mcs and passers-by who have their origin in satellite cities find in Conic the opportunity for artistic and political expression that nowhere else in the Pilot Plan offer — Conic is ultimately, where the periphery meets the center (see fig. 3).
Caldeira (385) views these representations not only as artistic productions, but also as urban performances, in which a marginalized population is given visibility through new forms of political agency. Throughout the past few decades in Brasilia, as in many other Brazilian cities, we have watched the privatization of our everyday lives, where walls are raised and all sorts of surveillance are created. Public spaces become a result of that phenomenon, becoming leftover territories, “lands of nobody”. In this sense, for a part of the population, they are considered tense and dangerous, but are exactly where subalterns encounter the possibility of producing the city.
According to her, in a very transgressive manner, they “destabilize old modus vivendi and its systems of signs, social relations and rules of public space” (Caldeira 400), exposing discrimination but unintentionally. Rather than reflecting about a certain condition and wanting to be included into society, these groups resist assimilation and integration, where their acts are not gestures towards social inclusion, but clear signs of transgression, in its own internal dynamics.
For Sandoval (13), these social practices are actually convenient actions that open opportunities to reconfigure reality rather than feelings of loss and powerlessness in the face of the endless struggle for recognition. By constantly appropriating the everyday space, the periphery inhabitant “appropriates, adapts, makes adequate, assigns values, impressions, readings that construct not only the projected space, but also becomes an agent responsible for action” (Sandoval e Saboia 13). The inhabitant builds and rebuilds his own space in the everyday scene.
However, even if these groups do not intend to change the structures of society, they want to leave their mark in the city, for whatever reasons they may have. Therefore, the urban is also produced by their fluid presence marked in space — in the music they listen to in the bus, in the slangs that are picked up in informal conversations and in the graffiti throughout the buildings. We might not see the characters that live on the margins of society, but we see their transient signs in space — the presence in their absence — denouncing social and spatial inequalities of the city.
In recent years, however, graffiti has gained much popularity for its ironic and witty character and for the somewhat charm it causes to some places, intrinsic to the contemporary urban experience. Yet, not all expressions of urban art are applauded (pixo or tagging being one of them), and within the graffiti movement itself there are certain themes that are preferred. This is due, in part, to the “quality” of art, which might be related to the access of certain graffiti artists to higher education or other painting techniques, which less privileged classes do not have access to and which often reflect their styles or representation themes. If graffiti is no longer considered a marginalized practice, pixo is still considered vandalism. While this has some to do with aesthetics, it also has a relation with who produces each and the gap or distance between classes in Brazilian society.
Although Conic is not going through a gentrification process in the traditional sense, it is interesting to perceive how the graffiti that have been established more recently are authored by an upper middle class from the Pilot Plan and from other neighborhoods, to the detriment of a former peripheral lower class (see fig. 4). Moreover, this has to do not with the elitism of a group that has been promoting cultural events in that space, but with the own appropriation of a popular practice by an elite, a phenomenon that has happened to other urban cultural practices, like chorinho in Brazil or other musical genres, such as jazz, in the United States, for example.
What over the years, due to the abandonment and neglect in addition to an internalized architecture, had been the scene for manifestation and representation of groups that have little representation in the city center, is now being disputed with other groups. By means of a traditionally underground aesthetics, yet held by mainstream artists, Conic begins to attract groups that did not frequent the space before, now perceived to be a cool and underground atmosphere, but less and less frequented by the masses, but by an “alternative” middle class.
This cultural appropriation is very common not only in Brazil, but also in other parts of the world within the most diverse sociocultural manifestations, in graphic art and music, from the common street vendor to the gourmet food truck, where an elite appropriates a popular or informal practice. This marginalized population that finds in culture itself, means of manifestation and in these everyday informalities the production of the city, has to invent new ways to create centralities and to be included, only then to be again excluded, in this continuous process of push and pull. The city reproduces our social structures in its own dynamics — not only in the built environment and formal institutions, but also in ephemeral and transient interactions. A continuous come and go, within the bus. Give and take, within their culture.
 Pilot Plan (Plano Piloto) is Lucio Costa’s plan for Brasília and the central neighborhood of the capital.
 Estrutural is a satellite city of Brasilia that is born around one of the city’s dumps, attracting recycling scavengers that began to settle there.
 Buzão and rodô are slangs, that originate from ônibus (bus) and rodoviária (bus station).
 Conic was the name of the construction company that built one of the buildings in the South Amusement Sector. The signage with its name was very iconic and since then, the entire sector is known as Conic.
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