Invisible Cities – Julia Lima


by Julia Lima

In 1933, during a cruise that would last more than a month, various architects and thinkers participated of the IV International Congress of Modern Architecture (ICMA), discussing the city and the principles of architecture and urbanism. The result of this trip is the famous Athens Letters – a document created with the collaboration of the congress participants –, written by Le Corbusier, which stipulated the premises for modern urban planning, a new configuration of cities through their separation into sectors.

The modern city is functional: it raises itself and functions supported by its use – where one sleeps, where one produces, where there is fun and all the displacement amongst these different spaces. It is curious to note that amongst these urban project principles there was no space dedicated to politics, as there was in the Greek cities, or places for idleness for that matter.

These cannons were, ironically, appropriated for the creation of Brasilia, the political capital of the country, in the 1950’s. Lucio Costa was responsible for creating and concretizing a city-state thought about from its basic vocations: work, housing, circulation and leisure – which would surpass the Europeans, becoming in truth a state project on the frontier of the vanguard. An apparently brilliant and radical solution, when put into practice the utilitarian organization seemed to serve more as a way to control the man who works for eight hours, plays for eight hours and sleeps for eight hours. The citizen occupies each area at the pertinent moment, becoming functional. There is no subversion of the use of space or freedom for its transformation.

The bankruptcy of the modernist model, or at least its inadequacy in other contexts, did not end in Brasilia. It is almost comical to imagine what Le Corbusier would say about the bizarre Chinese fashion of speedy replications of western cities. A miraculous economic expansion, fed by megalomania and rivalries, which unleashed a wave of gigantic simulacra that multiply, almost uninhabited, across China: there is a Paris a few hours from Shanghai, which even has an imitation of the landmark tower at a scale of 3:1, and a population that is not even one thousand people; a counterfeited version of New York was erected close to Beijing (costing approximately 50 billion dollars), which today has an occupancy rate of less than 30%, a falsification of Venice with artificial channels, a Tower of London, small Swiss towns, Dutch and Austrian villages – there are more than ten cities that seem to have appeared out of an unusual crossbreeding of Las Vegas and the Epcot Centre, creating small urban aberrations that are practically abandoned from birth.

These “cities” are reconstructed by the will of rulers who admire the European and North American urban models, investing obscene amounts of money to try to prove their power to overcome the West.  Will the cities of the future be the same as the past; copied like cheap rip off brand name bags that will soon be put aside? What would Caetano Veloso say when stepping for the first time into a Manhattan that is still under construction but already abandoned?

Julia Lima is a curator and researcher and lives in São Paulo, a monstrosity that we tenderly call a city, and which does not resemble the Corbusian ideal in any way: cluttered, saturated, uneven and promiscuous.