BRASÍLIA | THE BUILDINGS :: PALÁCIO DA ALVORADA (PALACE OF THE DAWN)

The Palace of the Dawn was the first major building completed in Brasília (the second was the Brasília Palace Hotel):

I think the Presidential Palace is one of Niemeyer’s most distinguished buildings. Those elegant, Space-Age columns set the tone for this masterpiece of Modern Architecture. This is what the future used to look like.

The best source I’ve found for information about the Alvorada’s genesis and construction is in Oscar Niemeyer Houses by Alan Hess (text) and Alan Weintraub (photographs).

Here’s a rather lengthy but informative quote from Houses:

Niemeyer also designed multiple housing for Brasilia. These included the superquadra apartment blocks intended for the middle class government employees, which closely followed the Corbusian vocabulary: a long six-story block raised on columns, set in a park-like setting. Other housing included two-story row houses and single-story attached homes, which were also flat-roofed blocks.

But his attention had turned first to the Alvorada Palace itself, the first official building of the new capital. Designed in 1956 and 1957, it was completed in late 1958. ‘Its location was not even fixed by the Pilot Plan [by Lucio Costa] yet, but we couldn’t wait. And we went, Israel Pinheiro [governor of Goias] and I, looking for a proper site, grass hitting our knees, throughout the cerrado.’

Niemeyer (centre), with Israel Pinheiro, selecting the site for the Alvorada Palace, Brasília, 1957.

Source > The Curves of Time: The Memoirs of Oscar Niemeyer. London: Phaidon Press, 2000/2007 : 117-18.

Though a residence, it is also an official governmental building with offices, meeting rooms and official function rooms. It set the theme that unified most of the other great Brasilia monuments: tapering space age columns create a porch around a rectangular glass box.

The Alvorada Palace sits to the east side of the city overlooking the artificial lake, well off the main axis that organizes all the other main buildings. It is three stories, 362 by 100 feet, with one story half-sunken into the greensward. The floating white marble-clad columns are reflected in pools. A wide porch, eighteen feet wide, floored in gleaming polished black granite, circles the building; the greenish glass walls framed in a metal grid and inset. This long veranda floats above the ground, delineating the distant horizon. A walkway on one side leads out to a separate chapel taking the form of a spiral coil.

The main floor is an official reception area, with lounges, offices, meeting rooms, banquet rooms, and kitchen. The upper floor is the official residence. The dynamic interpenetration of spaces seen in many Niemeyer residences is subdued here; a balconied two-story space connects the reception areas of the first and second floors, and two ceremonial rooms, the council chambers and music room, are two-story high spaces contained within the volume of the palace. The presidential quarters are a series of elegantly appointed rooms with floor-to-ceiling glass walls looking out toward the lake; a balcony with built-in marble benches stretches along part of the private quarters. The public and private rooms are clad in elegantly restrained materials composed in abstract modernist planes of gold ceramic tiles, mirrors, jacaranda wood panelling and flooring; tapestries, and plain plastered soffits, with interiors designed by Niemeyer’s daughter Anna Maria. Ramps replace interior stairs for formal entrances, a repeated motif that reinterprets Le Corbusier’s early influence. The sunken ground floor contains services areas and a theater.

The palace as built differed from the original design. The proportions of the glass block were originally shorter in height and longer in width; the sculptural columns tapered from a narrow base, widened at the middle, and then tapered to a point at the top; the final design lowered their center of gravity to emphasize the floating veranda. The roof was a promenade roof garden and included a free-form pavilion. An official entry ramp and marquee was eliminated, leaving the simplicity of the great colonnade.

‘With the Alvorada Palace, my objective was to find a solution which was not limited to the characteristics of a grand residence but a genuine palace with a spirit of monumentality and nobility,’ Niemeyer explained. ‘To achieve this, I used a structure which engenders the whole development of the construction by giving it lightness, dignity and this different appearance, as if it had been placed gently on the ground. Accordingly, the columns became slimmer at their extremities and, thanks to the system of arches on which they rest, the slabs have a thickness of 15 cm in the axis of each spacing … in my exploratory research on reinforced concrete, in particular regarding points of support, I terminated them in extremely thin points. The palaces appeared to scarcely touch the ground. I wanted them floating in the sky of the plateau,’ he wrote.

Even in the daring design, which became an emblem of ultramodernity, Niemeyer openly acknowledges its historical roots: ‘This palace suggested things of the past. The façade’s horizontal direction, the wide veranda protecting the building, even the little chapel by the edge of the composition, remind [us of] our old farm houses. Where other modernists rejected any references to the past, Niemeyer the iconoclast consciously mixed what others thought unmixable — the past and the future.

Of all Niemeyer’s memorable creations as a form giver, these lancet-tip arches of the Alvorada Palace proved to be his most widely popular and widely copied designs. ‘I remember my pleasure in designing the columns of the Alvorada Palace and my even greater pleasure in seeing them repeated everywhere. It was architectural surprise contrasting with dominant monotony.’ Versions of the Alvorada Palace are seen as banks, carwashes, post offices, retail buildings, power stations and a host of other buildings from Brazil to the United States, Greece, and Libya, reflecting the impact of his vision of modernism. ‘It didn’t bother me,’ he wrote. ‘Like in Pampulha, I accepted it, gratified it was proof that many people do like my work.’ At a time when the glass box skyscraper, although popular in the architecture profession, was boring much of the general population, Niemeyer’s soaring shapes captured the popular imagination.

Once he took up residence in 1958, Kubitschek would invite Niemeyer and his staff to the Alvorada Palace to talk into the night. Taking the architect aside to point out the shadowy palaces rising nearby, he would say, ‘Niemeyer, what beauty!’

- Alan Hess, Oscar Niemeyer Houses. New York: Rizzoli, 2006 : 34-36


1 January 1955

circa 1955: A modern church in the grounds of the presidential palace in Brasilia designed by Oscar Niemeyer. The church is connected to the palace by an underground hallway.

Photo > Kurt Severin/Three Lions/Getty Images

Photo > Michel Moch

designKULTUR: BRASÍLIA | THE BUILDINGS :: THE PALACE OF THE DAWN AS SEEN by ELIZABETH BISHOP in AUGUST 1958

designKULTUR: BRASÍLIA | THE BUILDINGS :: THE BRASÍLIA PALACE HOTEL AS SEEN by ELIZABETH BISHOP in AUGUST 1958

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