Concrete Bungle

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 July, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 July, 1994, 12:00am

IT could be a scene from a sci-fi movie, a city built in the shape of a plane, surrounded by a vast, empty savannah, where the streets have no names, only numbers, and residents are housed in super-blocks, all identical, each with its own school and filling station.

Where no one walks the streets because it is either too hot, too cold, or too far, and in any case each family owns two or three vehicles. And the rulers, when they do have to walk, use underground tunnels which take them from building to building.

This is Brasilia, the capital city that Brazilians love to hate; the seat of government where civil servants pine for the bars and beaches of Rio, more than 1,000 kilometres away. Even presidents hate it, but they are forced to live here during their five-year term.

Senators and congressmen are given huge salaries, enormous apartments and fast cars to try to make Brasilia bearable, but free air tickets for weekends away are among the most prized perks.

Brasilia, the city which was meant to be a showpiece, a symbol of a nation's future economic might, but which cost so much to build that it forced Brazil to the brink of bankruptcy.

Fly here from Rio, Manaus, Sao Paulo, Salvador, or any other Brazilian city, and your heart will sink as you touch down. This, with its thousands of acres of drab concrete and highways, surely can't still be Brazil. A flat, monotonous landscape, stretching to the horizon.

I allowed 24 hours for my visit. It was long enough. I left in empathy with the 700,000 residents of Brasilia, 80 per cent of whom are employed by the government, and the more than one million who scratch a living in the satellite towns, well out of sight.

Around half of Brasilia's population are under the age of 30 and while there are many restaurants to serve them, there are few night spots.

Yet this clinical citadel of political might is, nevertheless, a must-see if you visit Brazil and can spare those 24 hours.

For besides those depressingly grey super-blocks and government buildings, Brasilia has arguably some of the finest architecture, certainly some of the most futuristic, in the world. So impressive, and even controversial, that in 1987 UNESCO added it to the list of World Heritage Sites.

Arriving in Brasilia on a public holiday only compounded the feeling of isolation from the rest of Brazil. The bureaucrats had already made their getaway.

My hotel seemed deserted. I had the swimming pool to myself and the staff even had to unlock the fitness centre for me. A ghost town of 700,000. Where were they all? It was surreal.

I was on the fuselage of the ''plane'', near the tail. The fuselage comprises government offices and hotels. The wings are where the citizens live. I decided to have a look around the ''tarmac'', which could only be done by car.

Each super-block comprises 11 buildings, each six storeys high and identical, housing a total of 3,000 people, and each with its own filling station and school. No street names. Only numbers. But there are signs of urban boredom: graffiti.

Brasilia is probably the safest city in the country. Very little crime here. The security forces have a high profile with a nation's politicians in residence.

They are in evidence especially near the president's palace, the Palacio da Alvorado, a vast, mainly glass building surrounded by sprawling grounds.

A local resident told me: ''Presidents' wives hate to live there. It is too hot for them in the summer with all that glass. Many Brazilians don't like air-cons.'' Indeed, the last president, Collor De Melo, refused to live in it. Instead, he moved into a modest residence near the artificial lake which helps bring some humidity to the city.

He didn't have to spend a five-year term in Brasilia, as it turned out. Corruption saved him from that. He was impeached.

The palace is not open to the public, but many of the Heritage buildings are, such as the Cathedral, said to be the only round Catholic cathedral in the world.

It has a glass roof from which hang aluminium angels. No pews, either. The congregation sits on plastic seats, the kind you would expect to see in a works canteen. Outside are the haunting figures of the Four Evangelists, sculpted by Ceschiatti.

Nearby is Dom Bosco's Shrine, a chapel whose walls are made almost entirely of blue and violet stained glass, dwarfing worshippers. Then there is the Supreme Court, perhaps the world's most unlikely-looking home of justice, with water cascading from its arched walls. The Foreign Ministry appears to float in the middle of small lake.

The huge square under the shadow of the twin towers of the National Congress has a concrete tower looking very much like those used in firemen's drill. But this has been built for the use of pigeons, not fire-fighters.

What would people do on Sundays in an empty square? They need pigeons to feed. And pigeons they get. This is their purposely-built home.

Tens of thousands of peasants worked like ants to build this city from the barren plain in only three years. It became the capital of Brazil in 1960.

All fruit and flowering trees and even giant palms had to be flown in to camouflage the barren surroundings and to provide shade. The sun burns down at around 30 degrees Celsius in the long, dry, summer, but the winter temperatures plummet to two degrees and there are many asthmatics.

Brasilia's isolation - the nearest city of any size, Belo Horizonte, is 700 kilometres away - also means that shopping can be expensive. Gemstones, however, can be bought here at a reasonable price, as the area is rich in minerals. Beware of the street vendors, though, unless you can recognise a fake.

Brasilia may look alien, but many people in the area claim they have had contact with aliens, who are also attracted by the gemstones! The plains are a main source of quartz, and cults have moved into the savannah claiming the minerals act as a magnet for UFOs.

Last century a priest prophesied that a new civilisation would arise between parallels 15 and 16. Many believe Brasilia is the site.

Some 250 different cult religions have sprung up and a couple of hours drive from Brasilia, a cult town has been built, the perimeter in the shape of a pyramid, and 3,000 mystics have moved in.

But there are no samba drums in Brasilia pounding out the message of the prophet. I did, however, get to hear a brass band.