Dezeen Magazine

National Congress in Brazil

"The architecture does matter in the storming of the National Congress"

The bemusement of the rioters who made their way into Brasília's National Congress this month pointed to an increasing disaffection with architectural symbols of power, writes Will Wiles.

On 8 January, supporters of defeated Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro swarmed the heart of the nation's capital, Brasília, in a mass protest that turned into a rampage of vandalism. On first impression, it looked like an uncanny replay of almost exactly two years earlier, when supporters of defeated American president Donald Trump overran the United States Capitol.

There were important differences between these events, most significantly the fact that Brazil had already inaugurated its new president when its parliament buildings were overrun, and its lawmakers were elsewhere. The potential for mischief, violence, or even a serious threat to the transfer of power, was thus greatly diminished. But the comparison was irresistible; patterns are pretty, and the contrast between the settings of the events – the neoclassical grandeur of Capitol Hill against the modernist grandeur of Three Powers Square – only served to heighten the temptation.

The drama of the moment was emphasised by the sculptural power of the spaces

After 6 January 2021, I wrote in the art magazine Apollo that the surreal scenes produced by the Trumpist insurrection – shamans in the Senate chamber and so on – served to reveal the United States Capitol Building. They pierced the fog of familiarity and mystique around it, letting us look with fresh eyes.

In North America and Europe, the Brazilian capital is much less familiar – unless of course you are at all interested in architecture, as Lucio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer's Brasília is one of the 20th century's greatest works of architecture. As pictures emerged of a river of people ascending the ramp of the National Congress palace, the drama of the moment was emphasised by the sculptural power of the spaces, and in the architecture circles of the Global North, there was a bit of a tendency towards an "I know her!" reaction. Recognition of the setting got in the way of an appraisal of what was happening.

Once this reaction filtered through to headlines on architecture sites such as "Three Niemeyer buildings ransacked by protestors supporting former Brazilian president Bolsonaro", the foregrounding of the background came across as name-droppy and faintly ridiculous. As the architecture writer and critic Tim Abrahams pointed out on Twitter, it would be absurd to cover other stories that way: "Knife attacker downed by French police in Jacques Ignace Hittorff-designed railway station".

This is quite right, of course. But it's hard to move on from the thought that, on some level or other, the architecture does matter in the storming of the National Congress, that it's not simply a mute container for events.

Obviously if you want to protest lawmakers – or even to threaten or usurp them – then the place where they gather is the place you go. And those places often generate self-reinforcing loops of metonymy and symbolism, built with reference to symbols and then becoming a symbol in their own right. Indian commentators, for instance, sometimes use "Lutyens" – in reference to the architect of New Delhi – as shorthand for a particular kind of political in-group, the same way Americans might say "Beltway".

Brasília, Washington DC and New Delhi are planned capitals, and in planned capitals these symbolic systems take on extra weight, as they are written into the landscape itself. Kenneth Frampton used the word "geomantic" to describe Costa's Brasília plan, meaning "divination using the earth", a nation writing its own destiny into the ground. And in a sense this is true of all planned capitals, regardless of their architectural garb.

To occupy those spaces, to visibly possess them, is a gesture that has potent symbolic power in itself

Pierre L'Enfant and Thomas Ustick Walter reached for classical precedents in Washington; Costa and Niemeyer for the more primal authority of axial symmetry and pure geometry. Either way, the aim is to imprint authority, and what simpler way to do that than orient a plan so that the centre of authority is literally at the focus. Brasília is more or less a constitutional org chart that can be seen from space: Three Powers Square is in fact an equilateral triangle, giving equal relations to the congress, supreme court and presidency, with the congress at its head.

To occupy those spaces, to visibly possess them, is a gesture that has potent symbolic power in itself, even when that gesture is a futile and self-defeating outburst of political disappointment, as appears to have been the case in Brasília.

Both events responded to election defeats, and both were inspired by right-wing leaders with an ambiguous attitude towards democratic legitimacy: the people are paramount, but only their people; democracy exists to legitimise them, and if it fails then it is not democracy. Such thought processes are not exclusive to the right, but it is the right that has so far produced these mass expressions of rejection or repudiation, straying beyond marching and into invading.

For those on the winning sides of the elections – and, more generally, for those who care about respecting election results and the peaceful transfer of power, and even for neutral observers – these symbolic violations have a way of reinforcing the symbolic power of the architecture.

But for the perpetrators, any satisfaction to be obtained was short-lived. The architecture was a kind of bait-and-switch. The box that promised to contain vital machinery proved to be empty. The princess is in another castle.

This may explain a feature the two January riots had in common: the strange air of bewilderment that seemed to come over the perpetrators once their objective was achieved and the symbolic locus of power was occupied. In the US Capitol there was a frightening core that apparently intended hostage-taking or even murder, but the mass of invaders just wandered about in stupefied triumph. The same bafflement could be seen in Brasília, where the mob channelled its frustrations into vandalism and shuffled off into mass arrests.

There is a spreading perception that systems no longer fully make sense

It's natural to deplore these events and fear what they might portend in the future. But that bewilderment is, I think, something that can be recognised far beyond those right-wing movements, and is increasingly colouring politics of all kinds: a kind of uncontrolled skid, a sudden loss of traction. There is a spreading perception that systems no longer fully make sense. The levers are not hooked up. The symbol is empty.

Of course, this is no more than a perception, and it depends on where you stand: for many, the restoration of order in Brasília and the change of government that preceded it will have shown the durability of Brazilian democracy, and the difference made by ordinary voters. The rioters obviously no longer had that feeling – their perception, fermented elsewhere, was that power no longer resides at the locus of the diagram, at the head of the axis, at the centre of the radial lines.

In this respect, an important component of modern democracy has seeped away from the geometry of constitutional order and into the network's hall of mirrors. An urgent question, at least partly architectural, is what can be done to bring it back.

Will Wiles is a design writer and the author of four novels, most recently The Last Blade Priest.

The photography is by Andrew Prokos.