Travel Guide: Brasilia

by | 21. Jul 2013

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Pilot Masterplan by Lucio Costa.

Being not only the federal capital of Brazil, but also the acropolis of modernistic architecture and the playground of master architect and Pritzker Prize laureate Oscar Niemeyer, Brasilia is definitely a trip worthy for anyone with an itch for great proportions, concrete, master plans and socialistic architecture.

This travel guide takes you through some of the most important and impressive public buildings of Brasilia.

The master plan

Built on three men’s vision, planned and developed in just 41 months, Brasilia came about under the slogan of president Juscelino Kubitschek “50 years in 5” in 1960.

As early as 1827 the idea of a region-neutral capital to replace the southeastern Rio de Janeiro emerged and in 1891 this was stated in the country’s first republican constitution. But until president Juscelino Kubitschek’s election in 1956 and the hiring of master planner Lucio Costa and the young architect Oscar Niemeyer (1907-2012), the plan remained on the sketch board.

The city resembles the layout of an airplane, with government and administrative buildings as the body of the plane, while residential and shopping areas are placed in the wings. On ground gigantic boulevards and straight lined views dominate.

When Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin saw the city from above, he aptly pointed that he felt he had landed on a strange planet.

Brasilia – a monument of progress and equality

Brasilia is a monument of process, a demonstration of the skills of the Brazilian people and a textbook of modernistic space age architecture.

Oscar Niemeyer’s innovative and experimenting use of concrete and his monumental, symbolic idiom acquired from Le Corbusier, still stand as unique inspirations for architects today.

True to the modernistic vision architecture in itself wasn’t a goal, and for Niemeyer the vision was one of equality and a better future for mankind:

It is important that the architect think not only of architecture but of how architecture can solve the problems of the world. The architect’s role is to fight for a better world, where he can produce an architecture that serves everyone and not just a group of privileged people.

Congreso Nacional do Brasil (The National Congress of Brazil)
Architect: Oscar Niemeyer
Constructed: 1957 – 1964 

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Congresso Nacional del Brasil by Oscar Niemeyer, photo: Sara Schjødt Tørnsø.

Congresso Nacional do Brazil is composed of several buildings, characterized by the sleek twin towers (the Parliament office towers), the domed Senate building and bowl-shaped Champer of the Deputies.

Congresso Nacional do Brazil is located in the middle of the main street of Braslia, the Monumental Axis, and seen from Brasilia’s master Lúcio Costa’s Brazil TV Tower, the view is breathtaking.

The structure is placed a little to the left of the center axis, adding dynamism to the meticulous city plan.

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Monumental axis, photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The design of the building stands as the physical manifestation of Niemeyer’s goal of progress and equality and his conviction of architecture’s crucial part herein.

The two opposing halves, one a dome – the other a bowl, intersected by the two equivalent towers – the symbol of equality – is the architectural image of the work (hopefully) carried out inside.
Palacio do Planalto (Presidential office)
Architect: Oscar Niemeyer

Constructed: 1958 – April 21, 1960
Restoration: 2009 – 2010 

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Palacio do Planalto by Oscar Niemeyer, photo: Sara Schjødt Tørnsø.

Just behind the National Congress the grand plaza, Praça dos Três Poderes (the Three Power Square), is located.

Here you’ll find Niemeyer’s delicate and monumental Supremo Tribunal Federal (Supreme Federal Court) and the president’s office, the amazing Palacio do Planalto.

Clad in marble and granite, held in a simple and modern idiom underlined by the straight horizontal lining and the striking curved, feminine columns, which Niemeyer compared to feathers lightly landing on the ground, the cool and delicate façade exudes the calmness and overview needed when running a presidency.

The dominating ramp, a feature that recurs in several of Niemeyer’s projects, leaves you with the feeling of reverence and awe, openness and invitation. It is a majestic yet inviting building, exactly as the power in the new capital was envisioned.

Inside, the building is a masterpiece of modern architecture. Lustrous columns and the beautifully curved access ramp between the first and second floor dominate the hall, lifting the public space from mere function to a state of the art of modernistic architecture.
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Photo courtesy: Agencia Brasil. Empresa Brasil de Comunicaçăo/ Wikimedia Commons.

The surrounding pool was added in 1991 to increase security and balance the humidity level and is not part of the original design.
Palacio da Alvorada (residence of the president of Brazil)
Architect: Oscar Niemeyer
Constructed: 1957 – 1958
Restoration: 2004- 2006

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Palacio da Alvorada,, photo cred: Secretaria de Imprensa e Porta-Voz da Presidência da República, .

Somewhat resembling the Palacio do Planalto, Palacio da Alvorada (the Palace of Dawn) was the first government building built in Brasilia and like Palacio do Planalto is based on the principles of simplicity and modernity.

The pillars, though, are somewhat heavier and its more organic façade send a quick thought in the direction of art nouveau master Antoni Gaudi.

The main feature in the entrance hall is a golden wall inscribed with the words of president Kubitschek:

From this central plateau, this vast loneliness that will soon become the center of national decisions, I look once more at the future of my country and foresee this dawn with an unshakeable faith in its great destiny – Juscelino Kubitschek, October 2, 1956
Catedral Metropolitana Nossa Senhora Aparecida (Cathedral of Brasilia)
Architect: Oscar Niemeyer
Constructed: 1958 – 1970
Restoration: 2009 – 2012

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Catedral Metropolitana Nosa Senhora Aparecida by Oscar Niemeyer, photo: Sara Schjødt Tørnsø.

The essence of this modern and beautiful Cathedral of Brasilia, which took more than 10 years to construct, are in the 16 concrete columns, weighing 90 tons each, the absence of dark corners, and a mouth-blown glass roof.

The cathedral is a hyperboloid structure, where strength and decoration go hand in hand. The architectural language is like the other Niemeyer projects, sleek and simple, but differs slightly from the profane buildings with its beautiful blue-green glass panels designed by French artist Marianne Peretti.

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Catedral Metropolitana Nosa Senhora Aparecida by Oscar Niemeyer, photo: Sara Schjødt Tørnsø.

The original panels were mouth-blown, with varying thickness, and high temperatures in the interior of the Cathedral had caused some to break. During the restoration from 2009 to 2012 both the exterior glazing and glass panels have been replaced.

Niemeyer wished to avoid the traditional darknees found in older religious buildings that according to the architect only serves as a reminiscent of sin, and chose in contrast to bathe the cathedral in light and color.

The building serves as a whispering gallery and the acoustic in the cathedral is amazing. Whisper your secrets to the walls and be sure anyone with an ear glued to the wall on the opposite side of the domed room will hear them. The acoustics also ensure that mass can be said without microphone.

Museo Nacional
Architect: Oscar Niemeyer
Inaugurated: 2006

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Museo Nacional by Oscar Niemeyer, photo: Sara Schjødt Tørnsø.

The Museo Nacional is one of Niemeyer’s later buildings, inaugurated in 2006. The museum is located on the Eixo Monumental next to the Cathedral of Brasilia, and forms together with another Niemeyer project, the National Library, the Cultural Complex of the Republic (Complexo Cultural da Republica).

14,500 square meters (156,000 sq ft) exhibit area, two 780-seat auditoriums, and a laboratory. All of it covered by a huge dome with ramps running in and out leaving an impression of an estranged UFO in Brazil.

By letting the ramp cut through the concrete and snaking its way round and in and out of the building, Niemeyer has created a piece of symbolic architecture, stating that once you dare enter the seemingly impenetrable world of art, the world might not be that impenetrable after all.

The museum mainly displays temporary art exhibitions.

More Niemeyer

Other works by Niemeyer on the list of not-to-miss.

The Palacio dos Arcos or Palacio dos Itamaraty (Ministry of External Relations). The building is especially beautiful in the evening with the water reflecting the lit pillars.

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Palacio dos Arcos by Oscar Niemeyer, photo: Sara Schjødt Tørnsø.

Juscelino Kubitschek Memorial

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Juscelino Kubitschek Memorial, photo: Sara Schjødt Tørnsø.

Otherwise referred to as the JK Memorial it houses not just the former president, but also his private library and several personal belongings. Climb to the top and get a great view of the city and its monument buildings.

And last but not least the Palacio da Justica (Ministry of Justice) and its water cascading from between the arches, also located on the Monumental Axis.

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Palacio da Justica, photo: Wikimedia Commons.

New in Brasilia

Even though one and the same man formed most of Brasilia’s iconic architecture, Niemeyer isn’t the only architect to excel in Brasilia. Here is a small dose on newer and interesting projects worth seeking out.

Alphaville Brasilia Club House by DOMO Arquitetos
Year: 2012 

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Alphaville Brasilia Club House, photo: DOMO Arquitetos.

DOMO Arquitetos have designed this clubhouse in the lower area of a residential condominium in the outskirts of Brasilia. The dominating roof structure hovering above pivoting doors makes a beautifully balanced and complete project.

See more about Aphaville Brasilia Club House on DOMO Arquitetos

Welcome Center
Architects: Rocco, Vidal + Arquitetos
Year: 2012

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Welcome Center, photo: Rocco Design Architects, Vidal y Asociados arquitetos.

A stunning 2 thousand square meters steel grid on top of 7 concrete blades accompanied by the great staircase form Alphaville’s welcome center, a gated community in the outskirts of Brasilia.
Sebrae Headquarters
Architect: Gruposp
Year: 2010

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Sebrae Headquater, photo: Nelson Kon.

Swirling concrete structures, grid roof, reflecting waters and the ideal of openness in the public areas makes Sebrae’s Headquater a fittingly new addition to Brasilia’s large office park.
Osler House by
Architect: Marcio Kogan
Year: 2008

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Here at we don’t do a lot of one-family-homes but here is an exception. Dozens of buildings in Brasilia, here among Planalto Palace, Itamaraty and the National Theater are clad in modular tile panels by Brazilian painter and sculptor Athos Bulcão, and the Osler House has been lucky to get included in this exclusive club.

Along with the great window panel, the concrete structure, rotating wooden panels and careful landscape planning the Osler House makes a wonderful contemporary interpretation of Brasilia’s design characteristics.

See more on Marcio Kogan’s website

Legislative Chamber of the Federal District
Architects: Projeto Paulista Arquitetura
Year: 1989

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Legislative Chamber of the Federal District, photo: Nelson Kon.

The Legislative Chamber of the Federal District is a newer member of the public buildings on the Monumental Axis, adding a light touch of color – almost a whiff of postmodernism – to the traditional Brazilian modernism.

See more on Projeto Paulista Arquitetura (in Portuguese)

Brasilia 2060 – a new master plan

Brasilia is loved for its architecture, but hated for its lack of urban life facilities and inhumane scale. Everyone agrees that the city needs an upgrade meeting the needs of the citizens and industries of today.

But there is great dispute over who and how this is done. Brasilia Government has contracted consulting company Jurong from Singapore to outline the next 50 years of Brasilia, and this is a controversial choice causing a great stir among architects and planners in the region.

Albert Dubler, president of the UIA (International Union of Architects):

“The perplexing thing is that, if there are people here could do the project, why go to Singapore?”

What is more disturbing is, that the contract was forged without any pubic consultation or competition.

Get the full report from our colleagues at

Architects and urban planners demonstrate in the name of Costa and Niemeyer


Brasilia was planned and developed on order from president Juscelino Kubitschek from 1956 with Lúcio Costa as the principal urban planner, Oscar Niemeyer as principal architect and Roberto Burle Marx as landscape designer.

The city was planned to house 500.000 citizens, but has today grown to about 2 mio., including the satellite cities. The development of the area continues after the original plan after exact legislative compliance here among restrictions on the building’s maximum height, the width of the streets, etc.

Brasilia is on the UNESCO’s World Heritage List.