Discover Albany: The Poor Man's Brasilia

October 2, 2015

Are you a fan of modern architecture or Mad Men or cool space-age design? You might have heard the name Oscar Niemayer batted around, particularly in regards to the architectural design of the United Nations building and the capital city of Brazil, Brasilia, which was famously built from scratch in the middle of the jungle.

albany-poor-mans-brasilia-government

Photo: Limongi

Niemayer’s designs remain uniquely modern to this day, but his work on Brasilia in the 1950s would have an immeasurable impact on another capital city: Albany, New York.

Which, for the record, is a lot easier for most people to get to than the middle of the Brazilian rainforest.

albany-poor-mans-brasilia-toucan

With some nice scenery.

Photo: LASZLO ILYES

As a native New Yorker, I find it safe to say very few people think highly of the state’s capital, especially considering it’s usually beneath at least a foot of snow or baking its way through a heat wave.

On the few days throughout the year when you can walk out of your home without serious precautionary measures, you notice that people actually put a lot of effort into building the city.

A few years following the official opening of Brasilia, Wallace Harrison, the lead architect on the United Nations design team, was commissioned, by a Rockefeller, to build Empire State Plaza in Albany’s downtown area.

albany-poor-mans-brasilia-architecture

Photo: Ron Cogswell

Smaller in scope than Niemayer’s Brazilian Congress complex, the plaza was initially derided by critics and the public alike. Designed for an age when the automobile was king, the plaza remains a throwback to a time when the future was just around the corner.

Architectural anachronisms aside, there’s a beauty in the juxtaposition. Should you find yourself in Albany (go now before the snows set in), there’s a little something for every design buff.

Getting There

Considering that Albany sits on prime real estate in the middle of nowhere, I imagine that even the locals forget about Albany International Airport. It’s a little out of the way from all the “action,” but by far the best way to snag an aerial view of the architectural cacophony.

albany-poor-mans-brasilia-airport

Photo: Flyer84

If planes aren’t your cup of tea, getting to Albany generally requires a three hour drive along (read: several miles away from) the Hudson River from New York City. Amtrak will get you there a little faster with more booze and an increasingly dizzying blur of foliage.

Must See

Obviously, your first stop has to be Empire State Plaza. Even though there’s a gigantic concrete egg and a subterranean shopping center, the real prize lies inside the museum. The New York State Museum is a rare Brutalist (Contractor: “So, we’ve molded the concrete. Now what?” Architect: “Nothing.”) structure that also houses a free carousel.

albany-poor-mans-brasilia-architecture-2

Photo: Nitant23

Must Eat

When you think of perfect New York Style Cheesecake, you’re probably thinking of Junior’s in Brooklyn, but Albany’s Cheesecake Machismo is ready to surprise your tastebuds. Even with a revolving door of new varieties to choose from, the classic cheesecake at Machismo is unparalleled in the hearts, minds, and stomachs of the locals.

albany-poor-mans-brasilia-desert

Photo: Yumi-Kimura