It's 1956. Elvis is singing Love Me Tender, IBM has a strange new invention called a "hard disk" and there's a crisis brewing in the Suez Canal. In a remote patch of bush in Brazil's vast interior, workers are clearing trees to build a brave new capital for the fifth largest country in the world. The nearest main road is 600km away and everything from earthmovers to Le Corbusier-schooled architects must be flown in. Yet within four years a shiny new city will be born, crowned with ensembles of graceful, modernist buildings that still land knock-out punches on the unsuspecting visitor. This is Brasilia. Once dismissed as a crazy dream, it is now going strong after 50 years in the wilderness. The world has seen many planned capitals - Washington, Canberra, Pretoria, New Delhi - but the one that bears comparison for its spirit of radical relocation is Russia's St Petersburg. Like that fabulous "Window on the West" founded in 1703 by Peter the Great, Brazil's new capital - brutally shifted over 1,000km inland from the beach-fringed delights of Rio de Janeiro to the monotonous, toiling Planalto - had similar ambitions.
Conducting the inaugural mass here in 1957, the Archbishop of São Paulo floridly declared that Brasilia would be "a magic trampoline for the integration of Amazonia into national life". Flying in today over endless kilometres of red-soiled savannah, known locally as cerrado ("closed" or "inaccessible" in English), you have to admire the monumental audacity of what was quickly dubbed "the capital of hope".
Brazil is huge, though, and as a traveller you inevitably wonder if it's really worth your time when there's so much else to see in a country that's long been a byword for the exotic. Splendid colonial cities, a legendary carnival season, the exuberant nature of the Amazon and Pantanal - not to mention drinking from coconuts on a samba-filled beach. Who would bother with the political suits and Grand Prix traffic of a bureaucrats' utopia?
Me. And maybe you, if you have any interest in pioneering modern architecture, fantasy urban planning for a bygone automobile age, or are just intrigued to see the city that, according to UN statistics, enjoys the highest quality of life in Brazil. Like durian, roller-coasters or Leonard Cohen, Brasilia is a specialist taste. But even if you're just passing through - and flight schedules to the Amazon mean this is often the case - it's certainly worth a guided tour.
The place to start loving or loathing is the JK Memorial, which opened in 1981 as a homage to the man who made it all happen, the then-president Juscelino Kubitschek de Oliveira. A "poet of public works" with Czech roots, his besuited statue looks down on the city from a 27-metre, hook-shaped monument that looks as if it could have been shipped in from a Soviet dictatorship. Thanks to a gloom-banishing order from the president's wife, all the staff in the museum at the base of the memorial wear a dapper uniform of bright white, shoes included, which gives the impression they might suddenly burst into song. Black and white photos of the virgin site demonstrate that there really was nothing here, while aerial plans reveal how the city is strikingly laid out in the shape of a bird. Public buildings line the main body, while housing spreads along 6.5km wings filled with small neighbourhood estates known as superquadras (superblocks).
Built at a time when fuel was cheap and plentiful, Brasilia is a city where the car is king, though pedestrians regularly dash across six-lane motorways at unwatchable peril. Monumental avenues spin off into seamless slipways shaped like four-leaf clovers, deeming traffic lights unnecessary. My car didn't stop once on the journey from airport to hotel, and even the cathedral has a drive-in entrance. In the Palácio do Itamaraty, built in 1962 for Brazil's foreign ministry, there is an exclusive internal ramp that allows VIPs to motor right up to offices on the upper floor.
Fortunately, Brasilia does not go on and on, LA-style. It's only 8km from the head of the bird to the tail and the avenues sport a bright plumage of modernist architecture and well-tended parks landscaped with fruit trees. Driving down the Eixo Monumental, I find myself swooning over the serried ranks of ministerial buildings. Each one of the 16 is an identical, uncompromising slab of office block with gold lettering and jade green window blinds.
The most memorable sights in the capital come courtesy of the Picasso of Brazilian architecture, Oscar Niemeyer. He designed most of the great public buildings, using concrete with a deft irreverence that makes it seem more like fabric. Near his JK Memorial rise a set of military buildings, Brazil's version of the Pentagon, that include a stupendous wave of curved concrete echoing the hand-guard on a sword. The 1958 Catedral Metropolitana is an explosion of light framed in a crown of thorns, while down at Praça dos Trés Poderes, the official bull's eye of Brazil, it's Niemeyer nirvana. Here, buildings like the Palácio da Justiça and Palácio do Planalto, framed with white parabolas and rich with internal rhythms, induce a delicious grace that comes only when you're in the company of genius.
Dominating proceedings is the Congresso Nacional, which features a 28-storey tower block shaped like an H (for humanity), and a parliament building roofed with two massive white bowls, one turned up, one down. Like Gaudi's Barcelona, Niemeyer's Brasilia is a world-class wonder - and the only modern city to feature on Unesco's World Heritage list. That's the public face of Brasilia, but what's it like to live here? In fact, only 500,000 people reside in the city's historic centre, known as the Plano Piloto. Another 1.75 million live in far less attractive satellite cities, known as "anti-Brasilias", commuting in and out by metro and fleets of crowded buses. Some are descendants of the candangos who built Brasilia and then stayed on, earning a pioneer cachet. Others are economic migrants from Brazil's impoverished north-east. Look beyond the briefcases and the diplomatic number plates, and there's a huge supporting cast at work - car-park hairdressers and DVD hawkers, kerbside acrobats and barbecue-turning entrepreneurs at the bus stop.
In the early years it looked like Brasilia might fail, becoming a modernist Machu Picchu abandoned to the encroaching cerrado. But a presidential ruling in 1973 forced the entire government and all foreign embassies to relocate, and now more than 80 countries have diplomatic residences in the capital. Many feature statement-making modern buildings that are well worth a drive-by tour. Brasilia has always been a city of opportunity, and while its creation undoubtedly helped open up the interior, it remains engagingly bizarre. Instead of sensible street names, local addresses use a crazy shorthand similar to those infuriating verification codes computers are always asking you to enter. My hotel, for example, was located at SHN Q. 02 Bl. E.
There are also obvious failings - no relaxing downtown, an impersonal atmosphere - and the city has attracted so many offbeat religions that visitors can sign up for a special "mystical" tour. Despite such quirks, Brasilienses are proud of their ultimate New Town and a whole generation has now grown up with a strong allegiance to their home. For the fortunate, life in the leafy superquadras looks good. Lúcio Costa, the mastermind architect behind Brasilia, designed these as self-contained units complete with kindergarten, school, church, cinema, health centre, library and club. Some 2,500 residents live in each community in six-storey apartment blocks that are filled with big windows and raised on pillars to let light and people through. On the borders of the blocks lie shared commercial districts with shops, bars, restaurants and services.
Brasilia is often dismissed as dull and officious, but this 1960s-style neighbourhood scene proves an unexpected pleasure. The nights are warm, the restaurants good, the chatter constant. But this is not cliché Brazil. Here the locals are drinking wine, eating quiche, and listening to The Eagles. The atmosphere is more Continental than carnival, and in a country famous for its love of wild colour, it's the only place I've ever seen Brazilians wearing designer black.
Half a century after its completion, the dream of Brasilia is now a firm reality. Unblighted by heavy industry, the capital is considered a favoured place to live and has the highest literacy and school attendance rates in the country - and it's safe. It may look like something from a sci-fi story, but its belief in innovative architecture has continued - most notably with the 2002 Ponte JK, a spectacular white bridge that looks like a bouncing bomb. Four years ago, close to the cathedral, the Museu Nacional opened. An eye-catching white dome that might well be a spaceship, its designer was none other than Oscar Niemeyer, now 102 years old, adding a final flourish to his radiant new city. firstname.lastname@example.org