Brazil Builds a New Capital City Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Brazilian government built its capital city Brasília in the hope of increasing economic growth in the country’s vast interior and of increasing Brazil’s international status. Plans for the new city started with a bill sent to the Brazilian congress in 1956 and the formation of an urbanization agency to make the city a reality. Brasília replaced Rio de Janeiro as the center of Brazilian national government in the spring of 1960 and was named a United Nations world heritage site in 1987.

Summary of Event

The dream of a new home for Brazil’s capital had been in the minds of its citizens for decades. When the Portuguese first settled Brazil, the new immigrants clustered along the east coast, at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, and ignored the county’s vast interior to the west. Many of the country’s leaders believed that Brazil’s future in world politics and economics would require the development of the country as a whole, and not just its coastal areas. Juscelino Kubitschek, Brazil’s president, turned the dream into fruition. Brasilia, Brazil Architecture;Brasilia Urban planning;Brazil [kw]Brazil Builds a New Capital City (Apr. 18, 1956-Apr. 21, 1960) [kw]Capital City, Brazil Builds a New (Apr. 18, 1956-Apr. 21, 1960) [kw]City, Brazil Builds a New Capital (Apr. 18, 1956-Apr. 21, 1960) Brasilia, Brazil Architecture;Brasilia Urban planning;Brazil [g]Latin America;Apr. 18, 1956-Apr. 21, 1960: Brazil Builds a New Capital City[05180] [g]Brazil;Apr. 18, 1956-Apr. 21, 1960: Brazil Builds a New Capital City[05180] [c]Urban planning;Apr. 18, 1956-Apr. 21, 1960: Brazil Builds a New Capital City[05180] [c]Architecture;Apr. 18, 1956-Apr. 21, 1960: Brazil Builds a New Capital City[05180] [c]Government and politics;Apr. 18, 1956-Apr. 21, 1960: Brazil Builds a New Capital City[05180] [c]Social issues and reform;Apr. 18, 1956-Apr. 21, 1960: Brazil Builds a New Capital City[05180] Kubitschek, Juscelino Niemeyer, Oscar Pinheiro, Israel Costa, Lúcio

Kubitschek, the descendent of German immigrants, had studied medicine but ultimately turned to a career in politics. His political career progressed from his being mayor of Belo Horizonte in the state of Minas Gerais to becoming governor of that state. In both of these positions, Kubitschek developed a style of governing that would carry him to the presidency of Brazil. He set definite goals, worked long hours, and stayed in constant touch with the people he needed to govern successfully and get the job done. He adopted an economic plan called developmentalism, which centered on the creation of a new capital city in the middle of the country; the capital would lead to the rapid growth of Brazil’s interior. Moreover, in view of the poor record that many of the country’s publicly funded programs had achieved in the past, Kubitschek was determined to see this project finished during his term of office.

On April 18, 1956, the president sent the bill of Anapolis to the Brazilian congress. The bill set up an organization called NOVACAP NOVACAP (Companhia Urbanizadora da Nova Capital; new capital urbanization agency). Kubitschek named Israel Pinheiro, a close friend and a long-term political ally, to direct the actual construction of the new city. Pinheiro went on to become Brasília’s first mayor.

On September 19, bidding was opened on what was termed the pilot plan, and a national competition to select the plan was announced. Although only Brazilians could submit plans, architects worldwide participated in the process. The bid was won by Lúcio Costa, a well-known local urban planner. His submission, presented in a pen-and-ink sketch on which he had spent only 25 cruzeiros (Brazil’s basic monetary unit at the time), required just sixty-four hours of work.

The principal building designs incorporated in the pilot plan became the work of Oscar Niemeyer, also a close friend of Kubitschek. The immediate construction goal was to complete the buildings necessary for the government to function. The president’s selection of old and trusted associates to aid him on his project likely was motivated by his determination to have the new capital operating during his term of office. On April 21, 1960, Brasília was inaugurated. The office of the president, the legislature, and the judicial branch of government took their seats in the new city, and the president had met his immediate goal.

Brasília’s construction was marked by other accomplishments that supported the president’s economic concept of developmentalism. For example, thousands of workers (called candangos), many from the economically depressed northeast of Brazil, moved to the site to work in construction. Furthermore, labor began on a series of highways that would emanate from the new capital to major cities throughout the country. Untouched land in the uninhabited west was opened for agriculture and grazing. Also, the automobile industry developed locally in Brazil’s city of São Paulo, and the industry there was soon producing far more vehicles within the country than were being imported from foreign manufacturers.

Kubitschek’s success was not without its critics. It was felt that far too much government money was spent on the construction of the city, at the expense of the country’s other critical economic needs. The capital’s buildings were rushed to completion, sometimes at the cost of quality and utility. The lack of thorough and careful accounting of the costs of the new city led to accusations of corruption within the system. Many of the legislators and civil servants, comfortable only in their own Rio de Janeiro environs, resented having to move to the country’s center, with its lack of Rio de Janeiro’s familiar ambiance, particularly its ocean life, lively sidewalks, beautiful beaches, and outdoor cafés.

Perhaps the single biggest complaint registered against Kubitschek’s grand plan was the failure to provide adequate permanent residences for Brazil’s poor. While the design of the principal government buildings, including the president’s palace, drew admiration for Niemeyer, the city’s newly arrived workers crowded into slums, which came to be known as “squatments.” Government officials charged with meeting the timetables for completion of the new city ignored the development of these living spaces; one slum area, Free Town, soon became a permanent part of the city’s profile.

Often the squatments extended into areas originally designated for development. Such was the case with the so-called social security invasion, when squatters took over empty areas set aside for employees of the social security hospital. Initially, the squatters encountered a resistant government, which tore down squatters’ shacks. Gradually, however, officials conceded to the squatters, let them keep the space, and the social security invasion became a permanent part of the city. In effect, the conditions in the older coastal cities that encouraged the poor to move to Brasília in the first place were soon duplicated within the new capital.


While Brasília did not retain the image of monumental splendor that Kubitschek and his associates had envisioned in their initial planning, its creation had a profound effect on Brazil’s subsequent development. Niemeyer’s prize-winning government buildings in the city’s planned center shares space with the crowded slums in the city found throughout the globe in developing countries.

Brazil’s development reflected its gradual expansion into its interior. In 1987, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) named Brasília a world heritage site. By the start of the twenty-first century, forty years after its founding, the capital and its surrounding federal district had a population of two million citizens. Even though compromises were made to the overall plan for Brasília, Kubitschek was regarded by most Brazilians as a hero when left office in 1961. He had changed the face of Brazil during his presidency. Brasilia, Brazil Architecture;Brasilia Urban planning;Brazil

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Alexander, Robert J. Juscelino Kubitschek and the Development of Brazil. Athens: Ohio University Center for International Studies, 1991. Alexander provides an incisive overview of the contributions made by the former president of Brazil in his goal of leading Brazil to international power and prestige.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Daddah, Fares el-. “Brasília, Scale and Monumentality: Brasília and Other Urban Projects.” In Shaping the City: Studies in History, Theory, and Urban Design, edited by Edward Robbins and Rodolphe El-Khoury. New York: Routledge, 2004. Discusses the vastness of Brasília and its construction in the context of urban design projects around the world.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davidson, Frank P., and Kathleen Lusk Brooke, comps. Building the World: An Encyclopedia of the Great Engineering Projects in History. 2 vols. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2006. A comprehensive collection of articles outlining the greatest international engineering feats, including the building of Brasília.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Epstein, David G. Brasília: Plan and Reality—A Study of Planned and Spontaneous Urban Development. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973. Epstein, a social anthropologist, provides a detailed analysis of both the social classes and the unplanned individual neighborhoods that developed in Brasília following its founding.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gordon, Lincoln. Brazil’s Second Chance: En Route Toward the First World. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2001. Gordon, an economist and a former U.S. ambassador to Brazil, provides a comprehensive study of Brazil’s economy during the second half of the twentieth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lejeune, Jean-François, ed. Cruelty and Utopia: Cities and Landscapes of Latin America. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2005. A unique look at the shaping of modern cities in Latin America, including the cities of Brasília and Rio de Janeiro. A critical assessment and study of how colonialism and a European design and cultural sensibility influenced the making of South and Central American cities.

Hayek Opposes Centralized Economic Planning

Construction of Levittown Is Announced

Le Corbusier Designs and Builds Chandigarh

Saarinen Designs Kennedy Airport’s TWA Terminal

Kahn Blends Architecture and Urban Planning in Dacca

Reston, Virginia, Exemplifies the Planned Community

Expo 67 Features Innovative Architecture

Categories: History