Photographs of the construction camps that preceded the modernist city.

The idea to build a capital city to radiate Brazilian sovereignty over the vast interior first emerged in the late 19th century. Its eventual location, in the state of Goiás, was prophesied by Catholic priest Joao Bosco, who dreamt of “a Promised Land, flowing with milk and honey … of inconceivable richness.”1 After the consolidation of the Brazilian Republic, successive heads of state returned to the project of developing the interior, usually by promoting specific extractive or agricultural industries. Kubitschek’s plan was different, as it relied solely on state power. Maps showed the future Federal District at the center of a modern, networked, and unified country. Distances to major cities were marked, signifying that the new capital (unlike coastal Rio de Janeiro) would be independent, liberated from historical constraints, yet connected to the country’s diverse populations. 


The government aimed to show that Brasília was creating a new class of enterprising workers, or modern pioneers. Early on, the national media used two terms to describe the builders of the new capital. Bandeirante, referring to the first residents of the Federal District (specifically NOVACAP employees), was derived from an old name for the Portuguese colonists who explored the hinterland. Candango started out as a derogatory word for uneducated, itinerant workers. Yet over time, as these workers were portrayed by the government as essential to the project of Brasília, the connotations of the word became celebratory. Candangos were symbols of upward mobility and national progress. By the end, newspapers were using bandeirente and candango interchangeably to mean anyone living in the Federal District.2

Kubitschek’s frequent visits symbolized a democratic utopia where the poor worked and lived alongside engineers, architects, and public officials. Brazilian modernity had two dimensions: technological progress, embodied in Niemeyer’s concrete architecture and Costa’s continuous freeways; and national solidarity, represented by the image of the heroic construction worker. Although in reality the city was segregated by class, interviews conducted years later revealed a nostalgia for the camaraderie of the construction years. “There wasn’t high society,” a bricklayer observed. 


  • 1. Cited in Ernesto Silva, Historia de Brasília: Um Sonho, Umea Esperaça, Uma Revalidate(Coordenada-Editora de Brasília, 1971), 34.
  • 2. James Holston, The Modernist City: An Anthropological Critique of Brasília (University of Chicago Press, 1989)