New City, Old Urbanism

Cities in the New World followed a relatively simple logic that involved gridded streets and a central public space. In both North and South America, the evidence of this development pattern is most readily apparent in smaller towns and cities, where grids remain regular and humanly scaled, and town squares and plazas mayores are alive and well. Urban development has largely erased or obscured the original layouts of larger cities on both continents, but the real difference between the impact that the form had can best be seen in how they build cities today.

In North America, for instance, the meandering suburban road, splintered with cul-de-sacs, has become the favored layout, while South American suburbs often maintain the urban grid, often extending the original further and further into the hinterland. Even more than the grid, though, the plaza mayor is encoded in the DNA of Latin American cities. Since the conquests of the Portuguese and the Spanish began reshaping the continent through colonization and subsequent urbanization, every settlement -- from the smallest of towns to enormous cities like Buenos Aires and São Paulo -- has been centered around one of these compact public spaces. So while contemporary North American towns and neighborhoods are usually built around retail clusters, when it is time to build a new city down South, the plaza mayor remains the central feature.

The image at the top of this post is an aerial photograph of the central area of Palmas, Brazil. Founded in 1989 after Brazil created the new state of Tocantins by separating the northern and southern territories of Goias, everything about this city is new. Still, as the aerial shows, the central feature of this rigidly-plotted micropolis (pop. 187,000) maintains the traditional form of the South American city, with an unrelenting grid and a visibly dominant central plaza that plays host to several important government offices.

It is, by all photographic accounts, a very green and spacious place. By all written accounts, it's also one of the most economically robust cities in the country at the moment. But cashflows and palm fronds aside, what earns Palmas its reputation as a modern-day Brasilia are its public buildings. Hubris is immediately visible in Palmas' architecture. The government house and administrative buildings spaced evenly across the massive plaza mayor are a delightful and at times shocking mix of modernist elegance and Las Vegas kitch. In short, the Brazilians have done it again: they've built a capital from scratch.

As an outside observer, it seems to me that Palmas might be the most Brazilian of Brazilian cities as this southern juggernaut enters the 21st century struggling to gain more than just a regional foothold in the global economic/power structure. After all, Palmas is a city that remains true to tradition while making it seem distinctly modern. The eccelctic plaza and broad, tree-lined avenues look fresh and exciting, even though they are variations on a theme started in the 1500s (or earlier, depending on how you look at it). The architecture and the sheer expansiveness of the place are daring and ambitious in and of themselves. Palmas is a city with something to prove, and a plan on how to do it.

Really...just look at it.

(Photos from Panoramio users jpncerrado, GILMAR QUEIROZ, Rodrigo Goncalves Luz, and Ronaldo Mitt. Don't forget -- clicking on the images takes you to the full-color originals.)


Boom time in Brazil (BBC News)


Wendy said...

Interesting post. What's particularly interesting is this is somewhat of a departure for Brazilian cities.

Historically, they were much less plaza-centred and grid-like than their spanish-american counterparts (if I remember right). Brazil's cities tended to randomly sprawl and spiral out, rather than be placed on a grid.

Also Brasilia when it was built as the new capital had its functional challenges. The designers wanted an automobile based city rather than a pedestrian based one.

So designing Palmas more as a grid, and with greater attention to public space is perhaps a new urban design direction for Brazil. Since Brazilians use public transit a lot, I hope Palmas embraces that.

Brendan said...

You just schooled me! Heh...guess I need to brush up on my research skills. And my Brazilian urbanism in general.

This really does change things, doesn't it? I wonder what it was that made the Brazilian planners behind Palmas' design decide to follow continental tradition instead of national tradition.

Something to ponder...

Anonymous said...

Congratulations for your post!

Living myself in a spanish colonial old quarter in Panama I really appreciate your thoughts. Especially when most of our latin american modern cities have forgotten those basic fundamentals in their pursuit of a so called progress. What is ironic about it all, as you mention, is that people will always be people, and deep inside we yearn for the same things. We can´t forget we are humans, after all, even when cars have ended up defining the way we live and de facto ruling our lives.

One of the key things I hope forces humanity back into their original scale is the increased cost of living. I think most citizens are re discovering the pleasures of walking to do grocery shoping or to their favorite restaurant, even in Panama where owning a car seems to be a necessary evil. Scaling back seems to be the only solution to increasing oil prices and many other collateral effects.

I joke often about Casco Antiguo being the only organized area in Panama City, where streets have numbers and avenues letters. Modern Panama city is so "creative" in its layout that most Panamanian give addreses based on landmarks. When given an address in Casco Viejo like A Avenue, 2nd street... they get completly lost!

But once they get there and enjoy cocktails at a Plaza under the stars, they breathe deeply and relax. Suddenly, you get the sense they remember...