This article first appeared, translated into Norwegian, in the April 2010 issue of Zine, hence any Norwegian references.
This month marks the 50th anniversary of the building of Brasilia, the purpose-built city deep in the Brazilian interior. Upon completion, Rio de Janeiro was stripped of its status as the capital of Brazil and handed to the new city. Today Brasilia has a growing reputation as a treasure-chest of post-war architecture, but while it attracts plenty of visitors the history, beaches and hard-partying reputation of Rio ensures it keeps the lion’s share of tourists. It remains the principal city, the capital in all but name.
It’s a similar story in Australia where the debate about which of the two titans of what was then a British colony, Melbourne or Sydney, should be the capital of the new country. Rather than choose, a compromise saw a new city emerge from the bush between the two cities. I found Canberra one of the most fascinating places in Australia. A completely planned city based around a spectacular man-made lake, it is home to national institutions and monuments and is seen as somewhere to experiment with new architectural ideas. Elsewhere in Australia Sydney and Melbourne folk derided the place, reflecting their natural cynicism when it came to politics and bureaucracy, both of which dominate Canberra life. Yet it is the one place in Australia that I have seen a kangaroo hopping down the street and a koala in a tree. It’s quirky, fun and very different to the big cities.
And there runs the debate in any country where the capital city is a curiosity rather than the place to be. It can be baffling for outsiders. Ottawa, Canada isn’t a patch on Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver. Most visitors to Tanzania go nowhere near Dodoma, the post-independence capital that took the title from the main colonial city of Dar es Salaam. Today the trend continues with the reclusive regime in Myanmar (Burma) first changing the name of the capital from Rangoon to Yangon, and then moving it hundreds of kilometres to the green-field site, which is now the fast-growing city of Naypyidaw. In Kazakhstan the pleasant city of Almaty has given way to the sci-fi capital of Astana. The reason for these two changes is political, but usually the idea is to make a break with the past and make something new. A new capital is an exercise in building a nation.
Of course, moving a capital isn’t new. For centuries uprooting the headquarters of a country to somewhere else was a show of strength by a new ruler as well as a way of keeping an eye on friends and enemies alike. This accounts for the spectacular sights of Beijing and St Petersburg to name but two. Any purpose-built capital has a wealth of architecture from a distinct period, from the Mongol capital at Karakoram to Pakistan’s 1970s-chic Islamabad.
Sometimes a planned capital can be spectacular. Washington DC stands shoulder-to-shoulder with any city on the eastern seaboard bar the undisputed capital of the world, New York. What’s Washington’s secret? Iconic buildings, a history that feels neither contrived nor less impressive than other capital contenders and lots and lots for visitors to do. I whizzed around DC on a Segway, a kind of motorized broomstick on wheels for a few days and still left frustrated I hadn’t seen more. Small capital, big appeal.
So when you’re visiting somewhere with a seemingly illogical capital, you should always try and visit. You’re certain to find something you won’t find anywhere else, and usually the trappings of government and national institutions will be yours to explore. Indeed, most of the time you’ll be visiting somewhere other travellers are bypassing in favour of big-name attractions. Go and see and make up your own mind, then you can debate with sceptical locals.