THE FORM OF BRASÍLIA by Emanuele Guidi

In 1957 the urbanist Lúcio Costa submitted an entry to the Brasilia masterplan competition under the title Plano Piloto (pilot plan). The first of Costa’s series of informal drawings was a very simple sketch representing the symbol of the cross; a primary form which seemed to have been produced by an intuitive gesture and which conveyed the attempt to take control of the broad and empty land where Brasilia was to be built. The two simple orthogonal axes in fact worked as a sort of Cartesian plane that developed into a highly articulated and structured capital city with a recognizable form. What Pier Paolo Pasolini defined as the forma della città seems to find its very representation in Lúcio Costa’s drawings and in Brasilia itself.The Italian director and intellectual, looking at the cities of Orte and Sabaudia, claimed that the original ‘form of the city’ emerged in contrast to the surrounding natural landscape and that its essence was ruined by further urban developments; the results of the booming capitalist and consumerist society of the 1960s. From this point of view, Brasilia – which had been conceived just a few years earlier as a modern administrative city for an increasingly motorized population – was inevitably going to take a different direction from that planned by Costa. The original idea of producing a city that could alternate monumental and residential spaces, and therefore fulfil its function as bureaucratic capital whilst still ‘establishing a sense of community’ 1 clashed with the capitalistic way of life that arose in the following decades. In this sense, what came under attack was not the planned, monumental form of Brasilia as represented by the initial symbol of the cross, but precisely those urban features that were intended to produce a particular way of living the city. The aims of guaranteeing efficient mobility in the city and creating a milieu of proximity amongst its inhabitants by way of so-called Superquadras resulted in a rigid system that was gradually undermined by small gestures of appropriation.

Silvia Marzall’s research2 focuses precisely on those everyday practices which, in the long run, were able to reinvent the functions and meanings of spaces. To use Michel de Certeau’s definitions, there is a contraposition between the overall ‘strategy’ of the planner – who designs, organises, codifies and produces both social and private spaces – and the small ‘tactics’ of the inhabitants – who reinterpret, modify, subvert and produce a new form of space out of the given environment. Rather than judging the modernist project’s inability to envisage and adapt to social and economic transformations, Silvia Marzall’s practice clearly demonstrates a curiosity towards the forms of adaptation and invention that are necessary for living – and surviving – within the bounds of a totally planned urban space. This contraposition is not to be understood as a struggle between good and evil, but as a constant process of negotiation among different forces; a process that generates an ongoing transformation of the city’s texture. What emerges in the artist’s work3 is how individual initiatives as well as smaller forms of group organization provide evidence of an unequal social and economic reality, which, to paraphrase Costa himself, cannot be resolved simply by urbanism. It is in fact consumerist ways of life and capitalistic-driven behavioural patterns that transform the city more than a well-planned urban space. In many cases, even the ‘tactics’ enacted by private citizens have been adopted to increase forms of exclusion instead of operating in favour of a collective project. Costa’s pilotis, for example, which were meant to elevate the buildings and liberate the ground, turning it into a shareable and public space, have slowly been deprived of their actual meaning; through subtle forms of appropriation the passages have increasingly been closed off, producing invisible but effective borders between the different social classes that inhabit Brasilia.

In her approach to the city of Brasilia, Silvia Marzall works on different scales in a sort of effort to inhabit different points of view. Just as Pasolini framed the entire skyline of the city he was looking at with his camera, Marzall researches the total form of Brasilia by making use of popular software such as Google Maps. As she states: ‘The first thing you look at when you have the possibility to use such a tool is your place of origin’; consciously or not, the bird’s eye view provided by this software not only furnished the artist with a new perception of the city she comes from, but also allowed her to occupy the gaze of the planner Lúcio Costa. From this perspective Silvia Marzall frames the monumental axis of Brasilia so as to emphasise the grandeur of the city in contrast to something that usually remains invisible within the city texture: an infinite number of small paths, which are drawn onto the garden that separates the two huge highways, emerge as the evidence of unexpected human activity. These almost invisible lines are traced by the labourers who come from the satellite cities of Brasilia and are obliged to walk from the bus terminus to the city centre.

In this context it is worth referring to Richard Long, who, in 1967 – exactly ten years after the conception of Plano Piloto – made his first walk resulting in a straight line in the grass (A Line Made by Walking, England, 1967). After thirty years, Pawel Althamer also produced his ‘sculpture’ for Skulptur Project by walking in a field of grass until he had traced a straight line (Path, Münster, 2007). For Richard Long the act of walking ‘provided an ideal means… to explore relationships between time, distance, geography and measurement.’4 Althamer, on the other hand, was struck by the way the residents of Münster always followed the official paths for pedestrians and cyclists in the parks, without invading any green area. The work by Althamer therefore becomes a small gesture of subversion that opens up a space for the alternative.

Silvia Marzall’s work falls within the conceptual sphere of the aforementioned works, not just in terms of legacy, but because it re-employs their intuitions. The dense grid of walking lines that she highlights becomes a new temporal and spatial unit of measurement for rethinking Brasilia. At the same time it makes it clear that the ‘alternative’ is often an automatism produced by the city itself; the paths created by the workers are not in fact a rebellious act like Althamer’s, but rather a spontaneous reaction to a lack that was not envisaged in the original project and that the present city administrators have not been able to recognise. This new grid becomes an unofficial cartography of the capital and shows how a silent urban life has developed in parallel to the official one.

At this point Silvia Marzall changes perspective and re-enacts the gesture of walking to cover some of the paths created by the Brazilian workers whilst also documenting, through a series of photographs, their traces on the grass and their points of view in the surrounding landscape. By deciding to walk along the same routes she abandons the top-down gaze of the planner and immerses herself in urban reality; ‘The ordinary practitioners of the city live “down below” below the thresholds at which visibility begins. They walk – an elementary form of this experience of the city; they are walkers “Wandersmaenner”, whose bodies follow the thicks and thins of an urban “text” they write without being able to read it. These practitioners make use of spaces that cannot be seen’.5 The routes that Silvia Marzall spots are not flagged up in any official map and her photographic documentation becomes a sort of Google Maps ‘street view’ to be inhabited by the viewer. The pictures depicting Oscar Niemeyer’s National Congress near the small paths are paradigmatic of Silvia Marzall’s interest, which understands this urban space as a result of author-created narratives and anonymous translations. The form of Costa’s bureaucratic city, one that ‘will never have the characteristics of a spontaneous city’6, is attacked from this very perspective. Invisible needs and urgent requirements find their own spatial solutions and necessarily generate conflicts and tensions. And yet the artist doesn’t see these transformations as external acts of aggression, but as inescapable parts of the city that need to be acknowledged as such if the meanings they carry are to be uncovered.

‘… And yet I think this humble little road is worth defending with the same obstinacy, with the same good will and rigorousness with which one defends a great artist’s work … by choosing the form of the city, its structure, as subject for this program, I have decided to make a defence of one city, because I want to defend something that is not sanctioned, that’s not codified, which nobody defends, which was the creation of the people themselves …’7
Pier Paolo Pasolini

©Emanuele Guidi
Manteuffelstr. 58
10999 Berlin

1 — Juan Antonio Zapatel: ‘Regarding the Superquadra: An Interview with Lucio Costa’ , in Farès el-Dahdah: Lucio Costa, Brasília’s Superquadra, Munich 2005, p. 22.
2 — Silvia Marzall: ‘Grid and Net Structures: Brasília – a Pilot Plan of Modernity and Its Alternative Uses’, Master thesis and artistic research, Berlin 2010.
3 — Silvia Marzall: belveder: Photo installation, 2010. über blick: Drawinginstallation, 2010.
4 — Richard Long:, Bristol 2000.
5 — Michel de Certeau: ‘The Practice of Everyday Life’, Berkeley 1984, p. 93.
6 — Juan Antonio Zapatel, Ibid., p.22.
7 — Pier Paolo Pasolini: ‘La Forma della Città’, 1973, (A film by Pier Paolo Pasolini and Paolo Brunatto).

ÜBER BLICK, 2010, Drawing Installation, Paper, crayon, MDF-pedestall, 325 x 27 cm