Brasília has been called many things. Art critic Robert Hughes proclaimed the high-modernist capital, designed by Oscar Niemeyer and Lúcio Costa, a “utopian horror.” At the time of its inauguration in 1960, French novelist André Malraux christened it the “Capital of Hope,” though he also remarked that it would one day make for beautiful ruins.
Fifty-three years on, and after Niemeyer’s death on December 5, 2012, Brasília is in many ways a museum of ideas long since discarded by planners and architects. A city built for 500,000, it is now home to 2.5 million and ringed with favelas. It is a place designed for cars where less than half the population owns one, and yet it still manages to be choked with traffic jams. On the ground, you get the impression that the future that was supposed to belong here has been ambushed.
In this maligned metropolis, Dutch photographer Iwan Baan has found his perfect subject. Having documented the city since 2010, he says he is most interested “in how buildings take on a life of their own once the architect has left.” He includes the untidy details architects often deplore: power lines, street furniture, the stresses of time, people – essentially, the lived-in reality of the place.
In an offhanded way, his camera conveys the enigmatic allure of Brasilia’s unglamorous pockets. Many images illustrate the shortsightedness in accommodating basic needs: the tensions between monumental scale and vast spaces that overwhelm human proportions and any meaningful use of public space. But Baan also locates the city’s pulse in the improvisations residents have made, whether that means taking cover from rain beneath the Saturn-like ring of the National Museum of the Republic (pictured) or setting up a warren of make-shift kiosks at the base of the radio tower. In effect, his shots give voice to how a young city, one quite aware of its faults but proud nonetheless, that is writing itself into being. In that, Baan has captured the ambiguous truth of Brasília beyond all of the name-calling.
Christopher Frey is a former resident of Rio De Janeiro and current editor-in-chief of Hazlitt magazine in Toronto.