How did the tube lines get their names? A history of London Underground in 12 lines

A very old tube map, at Aldwych in 2004. Image: Getty.

Most cities’ metro networks have boring names for their lines: colours or numbers or occasionally letters, simple labels that don’t tell you anything about them.

London’s tube lines, though, have names, and that gives them a degree of personality. What’s more evocative: Line 8, or the Bakerloo? The C train, or the Jubilee? Names are great, right?

Except – the names don’t. Make. Any. Sense. The Circle line isn’t a circle. We call the line that goes further south than any other the Northern line, and the Central line is one of literally all the lines that serve central London. The Victoria line goes to Victoria station, but so do two others, and which District exactly are we talking about here?

So – how did we end up with these obviously nonsensical names? What the hell happened?

Before we get going, I should warn you: I intended this as a quick listicle-style post. It didn’t work out that way, and what follows is more of a long-read on the history of the tube, one line at a time. Sorry about that. If you want to close this article now, I won’t judge you for it.

Still with me? Let’s roll.

Metropolitan line (1863)

Let’s start with an easy one. The Metropolitan Railway was the private company which built the first stretch of underground railway in London, helping commuters from the railway terminals at Paddington, Euston and King’s Cross reach the north west corner of the City at Farringdon Street.

Over the next few decades, the company’s network grew rapidly: reaching Hammersmith in 1864, Richmond in 1877, and joining up with a rival company to close a circle around central London by 1884. It also extended to the north west from a branch at Baker Street, scattering the new suburbs of “Metroland” along its path through Middlesex, into Herts and Bucks. At its greatest extent, the Met made it all the way to Verney Junction, more than 50 miles from Central London and basically in the middle of nowhere even now.

Verney Junction today. That’s the edge of Milton Keynes in the top right corner. Image: Google Maps.

Those outer branches are gone now, and much of the track the company laid is now served by other lines (Circle, District, Piccadilly, Jubilee), or even National Rail (in the form of the Chiltern Railways branch to Aylesbury).

But when the London Passenger Transport board swallowed much of London’s transport network in 1933, it retained the Metropolitan name for the core of the network, running around the north of central London, with branches to Barking, Hammersmith and points north west.

“But,” I hear you cry, “the Metropolitan line doesn’t go to Barking or Hammersmith!” Don’t worry, we’ll be coming back to that.

Harry Beck’s iconic first tube map. The Bakerloo, Piccadilly and (what is now) Northern are “lines”; the rest are still “railways”. Click to expand.

District line (1867)

The first stretch of what is now the District line opened in December 1867 from South Kensington to Westminster. Which was handy if you were a mid Victorian politician with a big house in Belgravia.

The company that built it was actually the Metropolitan District Railway – but since the vaguely parallel line to the north got to the Metropolitan bit of the name first, the new kid on the block became known simply as the District.

Anyway. This one, too, was for many years less of a single line than a network, and its tentacles gradually spread: to West Brompton in the west and Mansion House in the east by 1871; to Ealing, Hounslow and Wimbledon; and along London Tilbury & Southend Railway tracks to Upminster in 1902. In 1884, after the inner circle was completed, the two companies began running joint trains around the network: the Circle line was effectively there, even if nobody would be ready to admit it for another 60 years.


Northern line (1890)

The first section of the Northern Line opened between Stockwell and King William Street in the City in 1890. It was the first proper tube line (that is, a line built by boring a tunnel, rather than by cutting a trench and then sticking a roof on it). It wasn’t the Northern line yet: it was actually built by the City & South London Railway, which, let’s be honest about it, was a much more sensible name.

King William Street was abandoned in the hilariously short time of 10 years, replaced by Bank when the line extended north to Moorgate in 1900. By 1907 further extensions had taken the line to Euston and Clapham Common.

The same year a second company – the Charing Cross, Euston & Hampstead Railway, better known as the Hampstead Tube – ran its first trains from Strand (now Charing Cross) northwards to Golders Green and Highgate.  

The CCE & HR had been established in 1891 as an independent company. But in 1900, it became a subsidiary of the Underground Electric Railways Company of London: the imaginatively-named holding company controlled by the ever so slightly dodgy American financier Charles Tyson Yerkes. The UERL, as it was known, also built the Piccadilly and the Bakerloo, and in 1914 bought up the City & South London, too. In the early 1920s, the company it added some fiddly bits of track at Camden and Kennington, allowing the Hampstead and South London tubes to run as a single network. Further extensions into the suburbs followed.

The growth of the Northern line. Image: Rbrw/Wikimedia Commons.

None of which explains how the whole thing came to be known as the Northern line. Various contractions for the Morden-Edgware route were tried (“Edgmor”, “Mordenware”, “Medgway”, “Edgmorden”), but all of those are obviously awful so none of them stuck.

Hilariously, the name that did stick is a reference to some extensions that never actually happened. In 1935, the London Passenger Transport Board published its New Works scheme, outlining ambitious extensions into the suburbs. A big part of that was the Northern Heights project, which would have joined the Moorgate-Finsbury Park route to lines onwards to Highgate, Alexandra Palace and Bushey Heath. It was all very exciting, except World War Two happened, the money disappeared, and much of the plan was abandoned.

A 1939 tube map showing the New Works project. Click to expand.

The result of this is we ended up with a Northern line which doesn’t include the northernmost parts of the network (the notably un-metropolitan village of Chesham, on the Metropolitan), but does include the southernmost (Morden).

Anyway, if you want to see what’s left of the Northern Heights plan, there’s a rather nice walk along the abandoned line from Finsbury Park to Highgate.

All that remains of Crouch End station, closed 1954. Image: Fezpp/Wikimedia Commons.

Waterloo & City line (1889)

Oh thank god, an easy one.

The London and South Western Railway built its station by Waterloo Bridge in 1848. The new line helpfully delivered passengers from Southampton and Richmond to within a couple of miles of their offices, only to then abandon them to fend for themselves.

By the 1890s, though, this was becoming annoying. So a new company – the Waterloo & City Railway Company; they really put effort into naming things in those days – got parliamentary permission to build a new tube line from Waterloo (as it was now known) to a new City station. The resulting railway opened in 1898, and was named after the company and its two stations.

City was renamed Bank in 1940, when somebody pointed out that having multiple names on single station complexes was stupid. Nobody has yet made the same argument for Monument.

Central line (1900)

The Central London Railway opened in 1900, from Shepherd’s Bush to the new station at Bank (a hive of activity for new railway companies in 1900, you’ll notice). Whether the name was chosen because it ran between the two existing east-west lines, or simply because it was a nifty bit of branding, sadly seems to be one of life’s little mysteries.

Anyway. It remained the Central London line even after integration into the London Transport Passenger Board network in 1933, but by 1937 had been shortened to simply the Central line in 1937.

That’s quite a boring story, though, so let’s talk about the path not taken. The initial plan was to increase the line’s capacity through turning loops at Shepherds Bush and its new eastern terminus at Liverpool Street: trains would have continued out of the station at one platform, done a quick spin and returned to the other before heading out again. (Some Northern line trains still do this at Kennington.) More excitingly, there were proposals for this magnificent loop line:

Image: Ed g2s/David Cane/Wikimedia Commons.

In the event of course it didn’t do either, but we did get extensions to the eastern and western suburbs. There’s even a loop of sorts from Leytonstone through Gants Hill, Hainult and Woodford back to Leytonstone. So that’s nice.

Bakerloo line (1906)

We all know where this one came from, right? The Baker Street & Waterloo Railway – another UERL subsidiary – opened its new line between Baker Street and Kennington Road (today’s Lambeth North) in March 1906. The abbreviated name caught on so quickly that the line’s official name was changed to the Bakerloo the following July, a mere four months after opening day.

Extra branches to the north appeared in the following decades. The first was to Queen’s Park, where it joined the London & North Western Railway’s suburban line to Watford. Another took over the Stanmore branch of the Metropolitan line in 1939, to simplify the massively over-complicated Metropolitan line.

Since then, of course, the Watford service has been cut back to Harrow & Wealdstone, while the Stanmore one has switched lines. And the various proposed southern extensions have never appeared at all: the line still terminates at Elephant & Castle, as it has since August 1906. If we’re lucky, though, that should change within the next 20 years or so.


Piccadilly line (1906)

Big year for new tubes, 1906: that December, the Great Northern, Piccadilly & Brompton Railway (GNP&BR), yet another UERL subsidiary, opened a new line from Finsbury Park to Hammersmith. The name reflects the fact that it ran from the Great Northern station in Finsbury Park, through central London, under Piccadilly, to Brompton and points west.

This looks like a relatively smooth one from a modern perspective: rather than opening in bits, the entire central London section of the modern line appeared in one go. Actually, though, it was the result of two earlier schemes – the Great Northern & Strand route from Finsbury Park to Aldwych, and the Brompton & Piccadilly Circus one from the west to Piccadilly – stitched together, with a connection between them under the West End.

What titan of the tube managed to bring these two proposals together, I hear you ask? That’d be Charles Tyson Yerkes, the American financier who founded UERL in 1902. His company, you’ll have noticed, if you’ve been paying attention, managed to build three separate lines; it also acquired and electrified the District. He probably had more impact on the tube than any other individual.

The lines that Yerkes built, as of 1907. Image: David Cane/Wikimedia Commons.

Yerkes, though, never lived to see the network he did so much to build: he died in 1905, when only one of his proposed routes (the Hampstead) existed. Pity, in some ways: correlation isn’t causation, but it is notable that his death comes at almost exactly the point when private companies stopped digging major new tube lines under central London. After the Piccadilly, it would be sixty years before the next appeared, and that would be the work of the public sector.

Before we get to that, though, a brief interlude:

Circle line (1949)

The Circle line was actually finished in the 1880s, but only became a separate line on the map in 1949. It was called the Circle line because, well, it was a circle – or rather a loop, since it’s much longer east-west than it is north-south, and the western end is noticeably fatter than the eastern.

It stayed a circle until 2009, when TfL decided to break it: since then trains have started at Edgware Road, travelled anti-clockwise around central London, passed Edward Road again and continued onto Hammersmith.

This had the advantage of adding extra trains on the Hammersmith branch. It also removed a flat junction (that is, where trains cross each other’s paths) at Edgware Road, thus allowing higher frequency services. But it’s not been popular with everyone and the 2010 UKIP manifesto promised to turn it back again.

Definitely not a circle: a geographically accurate map of the Circle line. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Anyway – UKIP didn’t win the 2010 general election, for some reason, so the Circle line remains a spiral, or possibly a teacup.

Victoria line (1968)

The passing of Charles Tyson Yerkes marked the end of the great era of the swashbuckling speculative railway magnate. Over the next few decades, various proposals for new lines through central London didn’t come off, and the network’s expansion focused instead on the suburbs – often, indeed, created those suburbs as it went. (There was also the matter of two world wars to contend with, which was a bit of a distraction on the whole.) 

Anyway: after World War II, everything changed. In 1948, the London Passenger Transport Board was nationalised as the London Transport Executive: for the first time, planning and building new tube lines would be the job of the state. What’s more, the city had stopped growing, thanks to the metropolitan green belt (indeed, its population was actually falling). So, when the authorities came to plan the first new central London tube line in half a century, its main function would not be to serve new destinations: rather, it was intended to relieve over-crowding on the existing network.


And so, in 1948, the agency in charge of the newly nationalised-transport network, the British Transport Commission – the London Transport Executive’s Dad, basically – proposed a new south-west to north-east line, running from Victoria to Walthamstow. The plan won parliamentary permission in 1955, construction began in 1962, and the first trains ran in September 1968. By that point, proposals for a southern extension to Brixton had already been approved; that bit opened in 1972.

In other words, it now took nearly a quarter of a century to build a new tube line. This was exactly the kind of breakneck scheduling that would later give us Crossrail.

But what of its name? During planning the line was known as Route 8 or Route C (references, one assumes, to long forgotten consultation documents), but those would obviously never have survived contact with the Tube Map. There were attempts to name it the Walvic line (Walthamstow-Victoria) or, more pleasingly, the Viking line (Victoria-King’s Cross). 

Despite the fact that this latter name is brilliant, the authorities decided to be boring as hell and name it the Victoria line: this was presumably to advertise the fact that its main function was to improve links between Victoria station and the West End. And so, half a century on, we can do nothing but mourn the loss of the Viking line.

Jubilee line (1979)

The Jubbly, too, was created to relieve the existing network. In fact, it did so before it was even conceived as a new line: it started life in 1939, when the London Passenger Transport Board extended the Bakerloo line through a new tunnel from Baker Street to Finchley Road; beyond that, it took over Metropolitan line services to Stanmore, thus relieving pressure on Baker Street. 

After the war, various official sounding bodies proposed all sorts of ideas to expand the central London network, and with south-west to north-east travel dealt with by the Victoria line, north-west to south-east was next on the list. 

The original plan, discussed in the mid 1960s, would have seen the Stanmore branch connected to a new line, via Bond Street and Charing Cross; it would then continue under the Strand and Fleet Street to Cannon Street and Fenchurch Street, before heading on to pathetically under tube-d south east London. This line, in reference one of the key streets in served, and the buried river after which it was named, would be known as the Fleet Line. 

Various proposals for the Fleet Line, dating from the mid 1970s. Image: London Reconnections/public domain.

Except, everything went wrong. Construction began in 1971, even as the Victoria line was being polished off – but the various fiscal crises of that decade meant that the government decided to build it in stages, with the first stage only running as far as Charing Cross. Since the new line didn’t actually make it as far as Fleet Street, and since sucking up to royalty was all the rage, the proposed name was abandoned. The line instead opened as the Jubilee Line, coloured silver on the map, to reference the fact that 1977 was the queen’s Silver Jubilee.

Which would make sense were it not for the fact that it didn’t actually open until 1979. 

Anyway. It was another 11 years before plans to extend the line were finally agreed, and by 1990, London’s economic geography had changed. Improving links in the City and connecting up south east London were now less of a priority than serving the South Bank and Canary Wharf. So when the extension finally opened in 1999, it never went near Fleet Street at all. Perhaps they got the name right after all.

Hammersmith & City line (1990)

This, like the Circle, is actually one of the oldest bits of the network, but for most of its history it was just a part of the Metropolitan line.

That line was always a bit over-complicated, however, and eventually someone noticed that – since all the Metropolitan line’s Hammersmith trains went to Barking, and since all its Barking trains went to Hammersmith – it really might as well be shown as a separate line. The Hammersmith & City made its first appearance on the tube map in its own salmon pink in 1990.

There doesn’t seem to be an interesting story behind the name. Presumably they wanted to highlight that this was the Hammersmith branch, but it was nonetheless a pretty lazy choice of name for a line that runs from Hammersmith to the City, not least since the District line runs from Hammersmith to the City as well. Oh, and unlike the Waterloo & City line, it doesn’t even have the excuse of serving a station once known as City.

Ah well. Not everyone can be creative, I suppose.

Elizabeth line (2019)

Oh, for heaven's sake. Image: Getty.

And so we reach the end of our journey, a line that’s named after the Queen. Or rather, another line that’s named after the bloody Queen, because apparently having one line named after an event in her life, and another after her great great grandmother, wasn’t good enough for her. So instead of Crossrail, the Elizabeth line it will be, even though she’s still alive, because naming transport infrastructure after people who are still breathing in and out is definitely not a creepy thing to do. 

I can’t help but notice that this is the third time running this has happened. Victoria, not Viking; Jubilee, not Fleet; now Elizabeth, not Crossrail. Since the integration of the tube network under the London Passenger Transport Board in 1933, the city authorities have succeeded in creating precisely no new major underground railways without naming them after the royal family. 

And this is why we will never have true equality in Britain.

This bloody country. 

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason.

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Brasília at 60: Behind one of the world’s most intriguing planned cities

The Brazilian Congress was designed as a nod to the scales of justice. (Kazuo Okubo)

This article appears on CityMetric courtesy of Blueprint magazine.

The drive down the central axis of Brasília’s Plano Piloto is unlike any other. Vast, sometimes lush fields of grass are surrounded by some of Oscar Niemeyer’s finest works: a stark, white, domed theatre, a cathedral shaped like a crown of thorns, an army of glass and teal-shuttered administrative buildings culminating in the postcard image of two white towers, flanked by two semi-spheres, one of which is upturned in a nod to the scales of justice – the Brazilian Congress. The buildings are beautiful, but it’s really the scale of this so-called Monumental Axis that makes it incredible: huge open spaces, tall towers rising on the horizon, and a sky so blue and boundless it appears coloured in.

Today, the city designed to be Brazil’s capital looks as otherworldly as it did 60 years ago, on 21 April 1960, when architects Lúcio Costa and Niemeyer unveiled it to the world at the behest of then-president Juscelino Kubitschek. “Brasília is the dream of all Brazilians,” Niemeyer told philosopher Marshall Berman in the latter’s 1982 book All That Is Solid Melts into Air – a sprawling, modern capital, enlivening the once semi-deserted central plane of a sleeping giant of a nation. It was at once a clever ploy to facilitate development and a utopia of modernism. But it also became – and remains – a city of contrasts and disparities, ivory towers of government looming over favelas of abject poverty.


Famously designed in the shape of an airplane – or a cross, depending on who you ask – the Brasília we know today was the result of a public competition won by Costa, as the urban planner, and Niemeyer, helming the buildings. “There were dozens of candidates of the highest quality from all over the country that applied,” remembers Professor Carlos Lemos, from the School of Architecture and Urbanism at the University of São Paulo. In his 90s today, Lemos was left in charge of Niemeyer’s São Paulo practice in the late 1950s when the boss all but moved to central Brazil to build a new capital. “When the result came out there was a bit of a letdown because many architects had worked extremely hard to solve this puzzle: how to build a country’s capital,” says Lemos. “And in the end it was an incredibly simple project that was selected.”

Though Brasília is quintessentially a modernist city, the notion that the capital of Brazil should be moved to the interior from the historic coastal capital of Rio de Janeiro had been around since at least the mid-18th century. The name “Brasília” was already being used as a then-mythological unifying central capital since at least 1822, and the location of a future city – the approximate mathematical centre of the Brazilian territory – was selected and enshrined in the country’s first constitution in 1891 after it obtained independence from Portugal.

It wasn’t until 1956 and the election of Kubitschek that concrete plans were drawn up and construction began. “The story of Brasília is a completely mythological narrative,” explains historian Walkiria Freitas, undertaking a research fellowship on Brazilian modernism at the Federal University of the State of Rio de Janeiro (UNIRIO). “It’s all seen as a single homogenous story to push for the construction of a new powerhouse nation in Brazil, and look at territorial unity as a key force. For Kubitschek, building Brasília was just the start of the occupation of the central plains of the country with large-scale agriculture, which is a big driver of wealth in Brazil today.”


Brasília's great lawn was inspired by the National Mall in Washington, DC. (Shutterstock)

Costa and Niemeyer’s Brasília has its roots in Le Corbusier’s seminal Athens Charter (1933), and in that sense, it is not unique in its vision, but is arguably the most complete example of this philosophy ever built. It is the Ville Radieuse, according to the French master’s vision: a linear city based upon the abstract shape of the human body with head, spine, arms and legs. The design maintained the idea of high-rise housing blocks, free circulation and abundant green spaces proposed in his earlier work. Costa, though, described Brasília as an airplane, with the official government buildings and palaces located at the cockpit — perhaps a nod to the modernity and development the capital was meant to deliver to rural Brazil. “It’s a city without street corners,” says Lemos. “No one could imagine how a city without street crossing could possibly work.”

The city is heaving with symbolic value, as a marker of the transformation of Brazilian society. “The Plaza, and the central axis where the ministries are is a space worthy of a great capital,” says Lemos. “Certainly, Costa thought about Washington, DC, when he envisioned this area. The great lawn – which is often dry because it doesn’t rain there – surrounded by buildings of the highest architectural quality is a space of unimaginable grandiosity.”

Costa and Niemeyer carefully crafted a space where all three branches of government are equally represented: a triangle is formed by the Supreme Court, the Planalto Palace – where the Presidential offices are – and the Itamaraty Palace, home of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, all in the shadow of the Congress and Senate towers beyond. There is very little landscaping – it’s rumoured that Niemeyer didn’t want to overshadow his work by adding plants, thus bringing to an end what had previously been a very fruitful relationship with landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx. The sparsity of vegetation and the vastness of the central plains ultimately add to the sense of almost ethereal immensity.


The Cathedral of Brasília is shaped like a crown of thorns. (Shutterstock)

Any city would have struggled to live up to the lofty goals to which Brasília was built – of an egalitarian, functional, developed Shangri-La of the tropics, free of the corruption and poverty that that blighted the rest the Brazil. The mere presence of inhabitants occupying these rarefied spaces and interacting with the theoretical narrative behind them would create a paradox making it impossible to implement the architect’s utopian vision, because a city can be a symbol, but it will also always be a living, changing environment. This paradox only grew stronger when Brasília was listed by the Brazilian National Institute of Historic and Artistic Heritage (IPHAN) and subsequently when it became a UNESCO World Heritage Centre. The original Pilot Plan, the part shaped like an airplane, is stuck, rigid and immutable, while the surrounding areas change and grow to accommodate the growing population.

Though the “cockpit” of Brasília’s airplane is the city’s postcard image, it is defined by Costa’s vision for the residential areas, located in the “wings”. In his original plan, Costa envisioned a series of super blocks – residential blocks with mixed-income, high-density housing designed by Niemeyer, and services like schools, shops, churches and entertainment all arranged around a shared internal square or park. These are essentially villages within the city and are extremely popular to this day.

These superblocks were designed “to transform, both architecturally and socially, an urban way of life established in pre-industrial cities,” according to James Holston in his 1989 book The Modernist City: An Anthropological Critique of Brasília. However, because Kubitschek’s building plan involved inaugurating Brasília no later than 1960 (his final year in office), most of the super blocks were never completed. In fact, only one, the now-famous 107 South block, was finished according to Costa’s plan and with Niemeyer’s design. “This mixed-income project was supposed to drive a democratisation of urban spaces in Brasília,” explains Freitas. “This did not work. From an urbanism point of view, the greatest discrepancy between what was proposed for Brasília and what it is today is housing.”


Brasília will never be a very green city: It is impossible to get around without cars and public transport is extremely limited. (Kazuo Okubo)

From its inception, and because of myriad government plans to retain control over the land in the Pilot Plan and its surroundings, real estate speculation was and remains rampant. Additionally, Costa’s plan only accounted for a population of 500,000 people moving into Brasília, but because of a bounty of jobs in construction in the early years and opportunity for service workers later on, workers from all over the country quickly poured into the capital, looking for a piece of the promised land. Today there are over two million inhabitants in Brasília. “They sold the city as a symbol of opportunity, of modernity, and it was very attractive to Brazilians,” says Freitas, “so from the very beginning Brasília buckled under the weight of its inhabitants, many of whom were unwanted. That’s how the Satellite Cities emerged.”

These satellite suburbs are technically neighbouring cities to Costa’s original planned area and vary immensely in quality, ranging from middle-class commuter neighbourhoods to some of the most deprived favelas in the country. Plenty of the poorest areas are the direct result of forced removals of marginalised populations who were seen to be blighting the immaculate Pilot Plan with their illegal, often makeshift settlements. “Some argue that Brasília as it was imagined in the Athens Plan was a good project for a city, but that given the reality of the country it generated a highly segregated city that doesn’t work,” says Freitas. “Ultimately it is a city made for cars, not people, with a total separation of class by urban area.”


The JK Memorial honors former Brazilian President Juscelino Kubitschek, founder of Brasília. (Kazuo Okubo)

Planning an entire city will always be a challenge because inevitably the one is forced to envision how the city will be used not only in the immediate future, but in the decades and even centuries to come. But countries are still designing dedicated cities, even capitals. Myanmar inaugurated it’s “seat of king’s” planned capital Naypyidaw in 2006, to replace the historic capital Yangon. Like with Brasília, the move placed the administrative capital closer to the geographical centre of the country, but unlike Brasília, there were limited plans to populate the city, and images of deserted six-lane motorways and empty stadiums became emblematic of the city. Today, less than a million people live in Naypyidaw, while Yangon remains the defacto leading city with over 7 million inhabitants.

Egypt, which announced it would be relocating its administrative capital to a new site 45 kilometres away from Cairo, will be looking at Brasília  as a blueprint. Government buildings and foreign embassies will be relocated from central Cairo to the new development, in hopes of relieving congestion and overcrowding in the existing capital. The city is currently home to an estimated 18 million people, but that figure is expected to double by 2050. However, there are already notable differences in the two plans: Egypt’s new capital is almost entirely privately funded, while Brasília  was a government funded endeavour; Egypt’s new capital will not open until at least 2050, while Brasília  was completed in a rush in four years. There are striking similarities too, though, with residential areas being centred around smaller parks with shops and services, with the central administrative services running down the middle. The project is being helmed by SOM, the firm behind the Burj Khalifa and so many other steel and glass skyscrapers.

Because the project is in its early stages, it’s unclear if the new capital will be able to avoid some of the pitfalls that Brasília  encountered. “The same criticisms that are being levelled at the Egyptian capital: that it is a vanity project, that it’s diverting resources needed elsewhere in the country, were levelled at Brasília and Kubitschek,” explains Freitas. Egypt, like Brazil, is a country marred by inequality, and it seems unlikely that a privately funded for-profit new capital will prioritise addressing these fundamental concerns. But ultimately, the building of a capital is as much about creating a new icon to revitalise a country’s image than it is about building a functional city.

Today, shortcomings in Brasília’s original masterplan are more apparent than ever as environmental concerns are forcing us to reassess how we live. Brasília will never be a very green city: the air is so dry and hot. It is impossible to get around the city without cars, and public transport is extremely limited, but this problematic car-centric vision was designed into the very fabric of the city.


A statue outside the Federal Supreme Court. (Kazuo Okubo)

In April, on the day Brasília officially completed six decades as the capital, the local government announced plans to relax strict zoning and conservation regulations to permit new construction in the area around Brasília ’s central axis. The idea is that by relaxing restrictions some of the satellite cities and hubs around the preserved Pilot Plan might benefit economically and some of the inequality inherent to the city might be eased, where historically most of the growth has been contained within the historic centre. But there is growing concern amid the population and experts about what that would mean for the Costa and Niemeyer’s beloved nucleus. “The proposal is a dismantling of all the protection of the conservation area,” explains Freitas. “As a historian I have criticised parts of the preservation process that happened in Brasília, but at the same time I cannot defend walking back these protections and leaving the city open to new development. My criticism is meant to help improve the city, and not damage further a site of national heritage.”

When it opened, Brasília might have been a dream of Brazilians, because they dreamt of modernity since their independence from Portugal. But realised dreams, planned utopias, eventually become complex realities. Steeped in contradictions by its very nature, Brasília remains a reflection of the country it represents: beautiful and aspirational, but ultimately dysfunctional and raging with inequality. Said Lucio Costa in 1987’s Brasília Revisited of his most famous creation: “The city, which first lived inside my head, broke free, no longer belongs to me – it belongs to Brazil.”

Rita Lobo is a freelance journalist based in London.