The Twentieth Century Society

Review: René Burri: Brasilia photographs 1960-1993

Arthur Rüegg (ed) (University of Chicago Press, £64)

Reviewed by Henrietta Billings

This richly illustrated hardback charts the construction and inauguration of Brasilia in the late 1950s through the eyes of celebrated Swiss photographer and Magnum member, René Burri. A timely publication which follows Brasilia’s 50th anniversary in April 2010, it comprises a unique collection of superb black and white and colour prints of the emergence of the new capital. It is easy to see why the monumental and iconic buildings as well as the cross formation layout of the city with vast open spaces, devised by urban planner Lucio Costa, put the city firmly on the modernist map.

Burri’s arresting and sometimes intimate portraits also capture the epic scale and ambition of building a city from scratch, including snapshots of civil servants and construction workers hurrying to the official inauguration of the city, pictures of the architect Oscar Niemeyer at work, and the construction of 28 twin-storey towers of the Secretariat in 1960. Many of the photographs in this new book have never been published before.

Designed for a population of 500,000 and planned in minute detail by Niemeyer and Costa, Brasilia today continues to be analysed across the world as a modernist urban planning project. Rarely have the 20th-century principles of urbanism, as expressed by Le Corbusier, been applied on such a scale, and this achievement itself helped the city to gain UNESCO world heritage status in 1987. The book also includes snapshots of international media coverage at the time, celebrating the emergence of the city from virgin rainforest in central Brazil. The authors point out that this contrasts with analysis of the city today which is critical of the strict separation of uses that prevented the emergence of mixed use urban spaces, and has given rise to huge levels of traffic congestion as the population now pushes 2.5 million.

Regardless of its shortcomings, the construction of Brasilia was a landmark in town planning and architectural history. This book manages to capture the vision, execution and excitement of the emergence of this modernist urban planning utopia.

Published January 2012