The fiftieth anniversary celebrations for the capital city of Brasilia in 2010 were an occasion for many to comment on its operational and design deficiencies, as well as those of the Brazilian government itself. In an earlier piece about the anniversary we noted how demographic shifts have challenged the city’s original master plan. These sorts of discussions, while necessary, tend to obscure the city’s ambitious, Utopian origins. Brasilia’s designers, urban planner Lucio Costa and architect Oscar Niemeyer, had shaped it to embody the most progressive political, social, and aesthetic concepts. A new book of photographs by Marcel Gautherot, “Building Brasilia,” that documents the city’s construction and early years, evokes these ideals with great power.
Gautherot was a Paris-born photographer who trained as an architect and worked as an ethnographic photographer in the 1930’s, traveling within Mexico and Brazil to document traditional cultures. After serving in the French army in Senegal during World War II, he returned to Brazil and began a photography practice. There he crossed paths with Niemeyer, who would begin working with Costa on plans for the new city in 1956. At Niemeyer’s encouraging, Gautherot visited Brasilia repeatedly as it was under construction from 1957 to 1960, and then again several times in the 1970’s. While the bulk of his photographic oeuvre is comprised of ethnographic work, Gautherot’s photographs of Brasilia offer a thorough, cohesive portrait of the new city.