From unknown known spaces to known unknown places, the transition of space to place acquires a very small gap, this gap is the social interaction between human to human and human to space. These interactions are not planned unlike most of the young cities, and unfold themselves in the very being of it, in the most conscious space, which is unconsciously occupied. 

But there is always a sense of control that can be uncovered in the way our cities are planned, from the panopticon structures that provide surveillance to those unplanned corners which become spots for street life. It is almost unfair to limit the definition and meaning of what cities are and what constitutes cities.

Book in Focus: The Modernist City: An Anthropological Critique of Brasilia by James Holston - Sheet1
Book Cover- The Modernist City ©The University of Chicago Press

James Holston’s book, The Modernist City: An Anthropological Critique of Brasilia, is a case study of the capital of Brazil to understand modernist principles as the basis for designing a city. Holston presents a critical analysis of the structures and development of Brasilia. This book is an opportunity to not only the readers but the author as it reflects the existence of the controlled experiment, in order to clarify what modernism is about. 

One of the reasons this becomes a very important interdisciplinary read is as it doesn’t solely interest architecture critics but people from a different discipline such as sociology and anthropology. Another shining factor is that Holston didn’t join the post-modern debate and the “p” appears in the last few parts of the book. As an ethnography, it gives a sense of daily life from the city with well-chosen pictures and maps, as they provide a better understanding of what the city looks like.  

The book helps to simplify the idea of modernism and takes the readers on a journey from intellectual roots to planning and construction to aftermaths, and thus reflects a detailed nature of modernism and the modern with a clarification on how postmodern debate is so confusing. He very sharply turns the table, from its general understanding by suggesting that Brasilia is an architectural and sociologist pedigree is resolutely mainstream modernity, it is blueprint utopia. 

It is divided into three parts with multiple subsections that demonstrate the creation of totality, an idea of how a city looks like under modern planning. There is no other city that could be used as an example of a modern city whose planning so thoroughly accomplished its dream of total creation. 

Master Plan of Brasilia, 1957 ©Flickr

In some parts of the book, Holston focuses on how residents and citizens complain about the lack of social and street life in the city with uniformity as a concept to design and plan. But they also suggest that they are better economically than other older parts of Brazil. One of the major claims Holston makes is that modernist architecture embodies an anticapitalism and egalitarian social ideal where all live in the common good. Urban life is divided into its principal functions, these are separated in space according to a master plan. The city is divided and planned from a functional rationale which becomes evident in how it is and what are the aftermaths of the city. Drawing on the first mind of European Architect Avant-Garde, the city is divided into its principal functions, these are separated in space according to the master plan. 

The Architects Lucio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer had hidden roots of motive in transforming society by transforming spaces. To them the totality is the rationality to which the city should be subjected, its environment can be used to decontextualize functions. But Brasilia as Holston points out especially and as the name of one of the chapters in the book, The Death of the Streets, was defamiliarized due to the death of the streets, the absence of traditional reference points of physical and symbolic association. 

Rarely happens that architects get a chance to construct a whole new city from scratch which is based on an intangible idea, the case of Brasilia goes beyond the analysis of the city architecture style but as a response to time which demonstrates a particular kind of era. 

Holston’s book presents an idea of how spaces and architecture with its planning strategy can control the lives of people who will be occupying them and the ideology of how space is a matter not solely of structures building around but in the socio-cultural context in which it resides. Through the example and case study of Brasilia, Holston puts light on many important concepts that help readers to understand the fundamentals of modernism with an interdisciplinary approach. 

From the idea of surveillance to control, and to represent by making a statement through its planning process, cities are complex and unprecedented systems. Brasilia follows a utopian idea of being, where everything was planned to create an impact on society through structures, through the division and union of people. Because people make buildings for other people and hence also unconsciously implement an ideology through style.


  1. HOLSTON, J. (1989). The modernist city: an anthropological critique of Brasília. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

An Architecture and Design student, Aastha spends most her time studying fascinating architectural spaces. Every building tells a story, she says. When she's not reading about them, she's asking existential questions on pretty much everything. Life, Time and evenTruth. You name it.