Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Margaret Mead ’17: Brasilia—Life After Design

Oscar Niemeyer was probably the only hardcore Communist who could claim he built a Catholic cathedral. He also designed a church in Belo Horizonte, but the Cathedral of Brasília ironically became one of his most recognizable works. For the atheist architect, it was more about location. He designed all the public buildings in Brasília, the utopian new capital city plopped down in the middle of the Brazilian desert in 1960. How livable do residents find a city born of ideological fervor fifty years after its founding? The answer is a decided “eh,” judging from the resident feedback recorded in Bart Simpson’s Brasília: Life After Design (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Margaret Mead Film Festival.

Brasília is a UNESCO World Heritage site, so case closed, right? Not so fast. Niemeyer’s monumental architecture is striking from afar, but living with it is a different matter. Indeed, you can see his Communist roots in those massive structures that dwarf individuals, like ants on a horizon. From an aerial view, the housing projects are appealingly geometrical, but they are rather drab up close.

Yet, according to residents’ complaints, it is Lúcio Costa’s urban planning that was particularly problematic. They claim the micro neighborhoods are effectively closed off and segregated, making social interaction difficult. Apparently, it is hard to meet people in Brasília, so many students and young professionals just while away the time roller-blading around the expansive public plazas.

It is a shame Bart Simpson (insert your own Simpsons joke here) never really challenges Niemeyer as an architect who built to intimidate or for his friendships with brutal dictators, including Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez. Instead, he offers us an immersive walking tour. Although this has the ostensive virtue of being nonjudgmental, is misleading in practice. The takeaway periodically peeking out of the doc is that Brasília is an impressive sight to gawk at as a visitor, but it has a wearying effect on residents.

Simpson tries to mix in several slice-of-life observational vignettes, but they do not exactly liven up the film. Frankly, viewers who just want to take in the architecture of Brasília would prefer the silent gaze of Heinz Emigholz’s commentary-free documentaries. The film is premised on a very insightful question—can average people live in someone else’s ideologically charged conception of utopia—but Simpson is rather lax at chasing down the answers, leaving the promise of the film unfulfilled. Anyone interested in architecture and Brazilian culture will leave Brasília: Life After Design wishing there was more to it when it screens this Saturday night (10/21), as part of this year’s Margaret Mead Film Festival at the American Museum of Natural History.