After the overcrowding of Rio de Janeiro and due to government structures’ scattered location, there was a vote to design a new Capital on a barren plateau in the country’s heartland. The new Capital would be in Brasilia, and development began in 1956. Lucio Costa spearheaded the project as the chief urban planner and Oscar Niemeyer as the principal architect with a 2.8 trillion US dollars budget. It formally became Brazil’s Capital in 1960 and is the seat of all three Brazilian governing bodies. Niemeyer’s modern architecture designs crowned the city a Unesco World Heritage site in 1987. 

Palacio da Alvorada by Oscar Niemeyer: Residence of the President - Sheet1
Palacio da Alvorada Facade with Water mirror ©Dezeen

Brasilia would be free from all colonial legacy, without baroque and classical architecture, and without slums as part of Niemeyer’s communist principles. It was a new city of clean lines, rational planning, and plenty of open space, with circulation pathways accessible to vehicles, not pedestrians making it radically different from all the previous Capital’s problems. Among the renowned architect group who settled in Rio de Janeiro in the 1940s-50s, the presidency elected Oscar Niemeyer to develop the most significant structural experiments due to his expertise with modernist principles. Elegantly caressing the ground, the pilotis of the Palácio da Alvorada unite aesthetics and structural solutions. 

The Palácio da Alvorada is the President of Brazil’s official residence since the inauguration of Juscelino Kubitschek. The Palace is located in the National Capital of Brasília and situated on a peninsula that overlooks the Paranoa lake. Commissioned to Oscar Niemeyer, the building was designed and built between 1957 and 1958. It is one of several modernist buildings designed by Niemeyer in the new Capital, including government offices and the cathedral, as part of his masterplan for Brasília in the modernist style. It remains an iconic design methodology structure acting as a frame of reference for historians and architects with a piquing interest in modernism. Today, it is among Brazil’s National Historic Heritage Sites. 

Initially known as the Presidential Palace, the current name “Palácio da Alvorada”, which translates to “Palace of Dawn”, is derived from a quote by its first occupying President that translates to “What is Brasília, if not the dawn of a new day for Brazil?”. The Palace became a symbol of Brazilian architecture’s modernist movement and exemplified its cultural and technical progress. Its columns emblematise the city and are present in the Republic’s Capital’s flag and coat of arms. Apart from its irrefutable historical significance, it remains a part of popular culture, including one reference where previous former President Michel Temer and his family moved out of the building, fearing that the structure harbours ghosts.

Among Le Corbusier’s five modern architecture points, pilotis are perhaps the most used element in modern Brazilian architecture and typified in Niemeyer’s works. Slim, bold, occasionally gravity-defying and innovative, his palatial columns highlighted his ability to transform his designs into experimental labs. The Palace’s conceptual design drew on the principles of simplicity and modernity. Niemeyer used a combination of marble, glass and water in his minimal material palette. The marble columns’ symmetry combines with the reflections in the glass facade, and the surrounding waterbody performs the role of a mirror. The columns touch the ground at singular sharp points, making the building appear to be floating.

Palacio da Alvorada by Oscar Niemeyer: Residence of the President - Sheet2
Palacio da Alvorada Facade with Water mirror © Gonzalo Viramonte
Palacio da Alvorada by Oscar Niemeyer: Residence of the President - Sheet3
Palacio da Alvorada sectional view ©Gonzalo Viramonte

The 7,000-square-metre area of the Palácio de Alvorada circulated within three floors: the basement, landing and the second floor. Its distinctive facade features a colonnade of swooping concrete elements, scaled down to create a cross-shaped vase. Located in the Palace’s adjacent buildings within the site boundary are the chapel and the heliport. The basement level hosts the recreational spaces, utilities, medical centre, and administrative structure. In contrast, the ground floor houses all the President’s staterooms for his official receptions and formal areas to entertain visitors and dignitaries.

The Palace’s Entrance Hall features a golden wall inscribed with a quote from President Kubitschek that reads: “From this central plateau, this vast loneliness that will soon become the centre of national decisions, I look once more at the future of my country and foresee this dawn with an unshakeable faith in its great destiny”.[2] The furnishings of the Stateroom include a combination of contemporary and antique decor. The main wall is made of Bahia rosewood, locally known as jacarandá-da-baía. The art incorporates sacred 18th-century baroque works of Saint Mary Magdalene and Saint Teresa of Ávila and a Kennedy Bahia tapestry. 

The library’s book collection comprises 3,406 literary works that range from arts, philosophy, politics and literature to general and Brazilian history. The Mezzanine acts as a circulation space between the Entrance Hall, the Library and the Noble Room. The Dining Room was added during the 1992 expansion and hosted Chippendale furniture. Additionally, the wall furnishings include two Baroque-style angels from Minas Gerais and an 18th-century set of porcelain from the East India Company. During the ground floor expansion, a contemporary space was included and furnished with Mies van der Rohe’s works. The last two sections display antique and modern Brazilian pieces, with some elements of imported furniture. 

Palacio da Alvorada by Oscar Niemeyer: Residence of the President - Sheet4
Palacio da Alvorada Presidential Room ©Gonzalo Viramonte

The second floor is the Palace’s residential space, with the presidential apartment consisting of four suites, two guest apartments, and other private rooms. In 2004, Brazil’s First Lady Marisa Letícia directed the most extensive and historical restoration in the Palace’s history. The palace renovation took two years to complete at the cost of 18.4 million dollars. Restoration experts conducted extensive research to restore the rooms and décor to their original styles, including furniture. They replaced electric and central air conditioning systems and redid the floor and ceiling work. The restoration was part of an ongoing heritage site project under the National Institute of Historical and Artistic Heritage and funded with private corporations’ funds as a tax-exemption attempt.

Today, the Palacio da Alvorada is emblematic of 70 years of Brazilian history, seeing the rise and fall of communism, neoliberalism, and to some extent-democracy. The Capital and the building could not fulfil the purpose that Niemeyer had intended for them. Brasilia remains a strictly zoned city with no pedestrianisation or mixed-use design, only slightly less barren than at the time of its inauguration. A city once designed for equity now houses the country’s one per cent and records some of the most obscene wealth disparity numbers. Niemeyer’s political and ideological vision remains incomplete, but the Palace continues to watch over the Capital, fossilising every instance of history it lives – an example of beautiful architecture and the failings of the generations that occupied it.   

Citation: 

  1. “Palácio Da Alvorada.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 19 Aug. 2020, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pal%C3%A1cio_da_Alvorada. 
  2. “Palácio Da Alvorada.” Infogalactic, infogalactic.com/info/Pal%C3%A1cio_da_Alvorada. 
Aasiya Maaviah
Author

Aasiya is an aspiring creative professional with a Masters in Architecture and Urban Design from Columbia University GSAPP. She is an avid feminist, climate change activist, and an amateur guitarist. The excitement of knowing that proper design will help meet an individual’s requirements is the only sentiment she holds as her own.

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