In a country where paradoxes bloom like wild orchids, last week’s birthday bash for Brasília took the cake due to a clash between the city’s architect, Oscar Niemeyer, and a foreign guest of honor named Mickey (as in Mouse).

April 21 marked 50 years since Brazil’s capital moved from the Marvelous City of Rio de Janeiro, 600 miles into the dusty red heart of the country, a.k.a. the middle of nowhere.

Brasília was the brainchild of visionary president Juscelino Kubitschek (1956-1960), who famously vowed that the construction of this utopian new city would bring about “50 years of progress in five.” To carry out this massive undertaking, “JK” hired two young talents schooled in the streamlined style of Le Corbusier: urban planner Lucio Costa was entrusted with the airplane-shaped layout of the new city while architect Oscar Niemeyer attended to the design of its gleaming modernist buildings and monuments. Once their plans were approved, the new capital was built at breakneck pace so that Kubitschek himself could revel in the new city’s glory while still in power.

Oscar Niemeyer attended the opening festivities and 50 years later, at the impressive age of 102, he was on hand to celebrate the birthday of the city.
On April 21, 1960, more than 5,000 curious VIPs from Brazil and all over the globe flew in to fete the inauguration of the new and still unfinished city. Following a mass at the still incomplete Catedral Metropolitano and a brilliant fireworks display – in which Kubitschek’s name blazed in enormous letters across the sky – Brasília was officially declared Brazil’s “capital of the future” (a claim scoffed at by some, including the Royal Institute of British Architects, who famously referred to its futuristic palaces, monuments, and “sectors” as “the Moon’s backside”).

Oscar Niemeyer attended the opening festivities and 50 years later, at the impressive age of 102, he was on hand to celebrate the birthday of the city (from his office in Rio, he continues to supervise the completion of a couple of his originally planned (and still unfinished) buildings). But for those who think that the commemorative events might have caused the architect to shed a sentimental tear or two – think again.

A staunch, lifelong Communist, Niemeyer was more than a little irked by the fact that the Brasília’s main birthday event was a (Nestlé-sponsored) parade down to the city’s version of main street, the Esplanada dos Ministérios, which was inexplicably led by Disney characters such as Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, and (in a concession to Brazilian content) Zé Carioca, the wily, cachaça-drinking green and yellow parrot star who co-starred with Donald in 1940s films such as Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros.

These classic symbols of Capitalist America obviously rankled Niemeyer, whose original socialist goal in designing Brasília involved creating buildings that would break down barriers between citizens and create social equality. In an interview published last week in the Folha de São Paulo (which includes some terrific before and after photos), Niemeyer lamented the vast socio-economic discrepancies that are so pervasive in Brasília today:

“Brasília has changed a lot in relation to the climate of union and solidarity that reigned during the early days, when we were constructing its first public buildings. We experienced that time as if we were one big family without prejudice or inequalities… However, after Brasília was inaugurated, the money men came and everything changed: the most detestable vanity and individualism took hold. In the end, we all gradually ended up returning to the same bourgeois habits and attitudes that we had condemned.”

Ideologies aside, happy (belated) 50th birthday Brasília.