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René Burri’s ‘Brasília’ and the Emotional Conflict of Purpose-Built Cities

Iconic Swiss photographer René Burri created pictures of the time which are both subtle artistic masterclasses and emotional time capsules.
Iconic Swiss photographer René Burri created pictures of the time which are both subtle artistic masterclasses and emotional time capsules. By Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons / Erling Mandelmann

In 1956, urban planner Lúcio Costa, embarked on a daunting task alongside Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer. They were entrusted to plan, design, and lead the construction of a brand new capital city for South America’s largest nation from scratch. Under the initiative of Brazil’s then-president Juscelino Kubitschek and his “Fifty Years in Five” program — which aimed to catalyze 50 years of progress and development for the country in only five — the two set out to realize a massive vision that would, in the hopes of its organizers, allow Brazil to forge a new, modern identity in the latter half of the century.

Although the city has continued to expand since its formal inauguration in 1960, those embryonic years and the sentiments surrounding them are a fascinating case study of human responses to the possibilities of the future. Fortunately, armed with a camera and profound ability to discern the sentiments of his time, the iconic Swiss photographer René Burri created pictures of the time which are both subtle artistic masterclasses and emotional time capsules.

The most prominent feature of Burri’s photos in Brasília is the clear use of distinct angles of elevation. Although photographers often vary the angles from which they take photos for individual images, it is rare that an entire project exhibits such a strong directionality in this regard. What this means is that with very few exceptions, there is a significant positive or negative angle of elevation between the camera and the subject of the image. Although this angle is primarily upward-facing — a technique Burri achieved by shooting close to the ground — there is also a collection of aerial images within the project that are unique in that they are both downward facing and, unlike all other images, in color.

Burri’s style of picturing the relationship between people and their inhabited (or soon to be) environments is in sharp contrast to that of many other photographers’, most notably Nadav Kander’s, largely because of their differing messages, indicating photography’s often greater power of artistic expression than informative and objective documentation. Highlighting displacement and feelings of loss along China’s Yangtze River, Kander photographed scenes such that people appeared small alongside large infrastructure creations: Burry did precisely the opposite. Throughout his series of images in Brasília, the Swiss photographer elevates people alongside the important buildings that constituted Brazil’s new capital city. In the images, these people are often the subjects, making the new capital the background. Moreover, given Burri’s frequently employed upward-facing angle, the people in his images are sometimes physically larger in the foreground than the buildings behind them. Thus, rather than portraying people as controlled by forces beyond their control, as Kander did, Burri’s images empower people in the pursuit of new frontiers and ideas, looking not only outward but, more importantly, upward.

However, with uncharted territory comes feelings of the inevitable unknown. As such, there is often a resounding emptiness throughout Burri’s images. This emptiness emanates not only from the wide and open swaths of unused land yet to be constructed on, but also from Burri’s unique use of the sky. In several of the project’s images, the sky occupies well more than half of the entire photo, a technique that, employed by an amateur, would make many photography teachers scoff. This perception is because, broadly, the sky in photography is considered to be “wasted space” that could be used to emphasize other compositional elements instead. Unless the sky is the subject of the image, as in the case of a photo of a sunset, for example, it typically looks similar in every photo and thus adds little value. Nevertheless, the sky is utterly essential to the cumulative power of Burri’s interpretation of Brasília at the time because it helps depict the new city with an aura of both boundless possibility and uncertainty.

Although Brasília was the new capital city being watched by curious global observers in the mid-20th century, similar phenomena are occurring today on entirely different continents. Due to concerns such as overcrowding and pollution, the governments of both Egypt and Indonesia have begun construction on new, entirely purpose-built capital cities. And although these new cities are bound to be unique in their own important ways, the curious observer can find a potential window into the minds of both their creators and first inhabitants in Burri’s work.

—Alexander J. Gerstenhaber’s Column “F4: The World in Pictures” is an appreciation of the photography that tells untold stories about the joys, hardships, and realities of the world’s people. He can be reached at

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