Imagine what it would be like touching down on another planet, and you'll have some idea of what confronts you when you first arrive in the capital of Brazil and stay in one of Brasilia hotels: there is a clinical, science-fiction logic at work in the city. Other visitors have had less kind things to say about the city. Simone de Beauvoir, visiting in 1963 with Jean-Paul Sartre in tow, described the place as "elegant monotony", while the Royal Institute of British Architects poked fun by renaming Brasília "The Moon's Backside".
The city of Brasilia was intended for a population of half a million by the year 2000. However, there are over two million people living in and around Brasília today and within twenty years this could easily double. There are also substantial and rapidly growing shantytowns - which are euphemistically named "pioneer settlements" - ringing the ultramodern city. Most of the people who live here do so for economic reasons. A large service sector followed the bureaucrats, diplomats and businessmen into the new city and, behind that, a whole trail of retailers and smaller merchants arrived to compete for the new markets. It also predictably led to the growing number of Brasilia hotels.
Brasilia's good points are all fairly obvious architectural ones, but there are other attractions, too. Magnificent sunsets send a golden glow over the rooftops of Brasilia hotels, condos, shacks and palaces and especially impressive are the twin concrete towers of the National Congress building; pleasant parks, popular for weekend picnics, encircle the entire city; and in the downtown zone, by the central bus station, the lively atmosphere revolves around a busy mess of people and trade. Brasilia's design also has a mystic side to it. On Brazilian Republic Day - April 21 - the sun rises through the concrete "H" shape of the parallel twin towers which poke out of the National Congress building, provoking images of a futuristic Stonehenge. Other curious theories associate modern Brasilia with the stars, with the lost city of Atlantis and with ancient Egypt's pyramids and temples. The aerial view of the city, a winged bird shape, is vaguely reminiscent of the mystical Egyptian ibis bird, and the cemetery is laid out in the shape of a spiral - life's symbol and essential pattern.
Brasilia can be as alienating as any city and, unlike most other Brazilian cities, people here seldom stop or smile to acknowledge a fellow human being. Moreover, on some very basic points, Brasilia has certainly failed as a planned city. Forty years on, although people are certainly grumbling less about the soullessness of Brasilia, no one would dream of comparing it to Paris, London or Rio for nightlife and entertainment. Many officials still arrive for work on Monday and leave for home on Thursday because they find the city either too oppressive or just plain boring at the weekend. At the most basic level, there's a distinct lack of decent but inexpensive Brasilia hotels, street-corner bars, and ad hoc market places, things which provide a major social hub elsewhere in Brazil. Instead, there are simply vast areas of empty space, massive and anonymous office or hotel blocks. Of course it is not as famous as other Latin resorts like Puerta Vallarta, Acapulco or even other Brazilian tourist attractions, however, there is a substantial middle class living and working happily there, mostly based around the university and the civil service.