A capital idea!
For many countries, their capital will be the most populous city and the oldest or most culturally significant one. But by being the centre of government (usually), a capital makes itself a strategic and symbolic target… Throughout history, countries have chosen to move their capitals in a time of invasion or war to a more defensible location – the ancient Egyptians, Romans and Chinese changed their capital frequently.
But some countries take a different route and decide to build one from scratch – a glorious statement of statehood. The reasons to do so are varied - the old capital becomes overcrowded and limits the function of government, potential neutrality between bickering factions, a break from a troubled history or just to have something shiny and new. This makes planned cities some of the most ambitious projects in human history!
The Flexicover Team takes a look at some of the purpose-built capitals around the world.
Washington D.C., USA (1790)
Philadelphia, Baltimore, Lancaster and York all played home to the national government at various points but in 1790 it was decided the capital should exist outside of the jurisdiction of any state. So the location was handpicked by George Washington on the banks of the Potomac River. Pierre L'Enfant was charged with planning the new city and, following rapid construction, the US government found its home in the area now known as the District of Columbia. Washington D.C. is a city of monuments and memorials, with virtually all tourists making a trip to the Mall – a two-mile long stretch of parkland that holds many of the city's monuments and the must-see Smithsonian museums.
Canberra, Australia (1913)
Following a long dispute over whether Sydney or Melbourne should be the Australian capital, the top honour was instead awarded to the small settlement of Canberra. In a similar situation to Washington D.C., it was excised from the state of New South Wales to form its own state. The Australian Capital Territory was created under the control of the federal government. Initially designed by American architect Walter Burley Griffin, the choice of Canberra was heavily criticised by some who dubbed it ‘six suburbs in search of a city’ and ‘a cemetery with lights’. However, over the years the city has undergone various additions and tweaks and today’s Canberra has a charm of its own, with national institutions and museums arranged around Lake Burley Griffin – an artificial body of water created in the 1960s.
Brasília, Brazil (1960)
The Brazilian capital was created out of nothing in the centre of the country, in an area that resembled a desert with no people, scarce water and few animals or plants. Following his election in 1956, President Juscelino Kubitschek, spurred on by the slogan "fifty years of progress in five", appointed urban planner Lucio Costa and renowned architect Oscar Niemeyer for the project. Designed in the shape of an aeroplane or a bird in flight, the government and administrative buildings form the body of the 'plane' while residential and shopping areas extend out as ‘wings’!
Astana, Kazakhstan (1997)
The decision to relocate the capital nearly 800 miles north was partly due to the constant threat of earthquakes and a lack of space to expand in the former capital, Almaty. In 1994 President Nursultan Nazarbayev decreed that Akmola, a town deep in the Kazakh steppes, should be transformed into the nation’s capital and renamed ‘Astana’ (imaginatively this word means ‘capital’ in Kazakh). The old Soviet-era buildings are slowly being removed to be replaced by a Blade Runner-esque metropolis with no shortage of space-age monuments. One example of the architectural style is the Baiterek Tower affectionately known as ‘Chupa Chups’ as it resembles a giant lollipop – a 97m building offering fantastic views of the city and houses an art gallery, an aquarium and a restaurant.
Naypyidaw, Myanmar (2005)
So little is know about this former ‘pariah state’ that no-one really knows the reason why the former ruling junta decided to move the capital – some believe they were following the advice of their astrologers whilst others suggested it’s harder to besiege. Myanmar remains one of the most mysterious and undiscovered destinations in the world but as it enters a new era there is hope that tourism will begin to flourish, so if you’re in the area why not visit the “Abode of the King”. Construction began in 2005 on a patch of scrubland 210 miles north of the previous capital Yangon (formerly Rangoon). It’s a bizarre city of six-lane motorways, huge statues and grandiose palaces. Uppatasanti Pagoda also called the "Peace Pagoda" is a prominent landmark and is almost an exact replica of Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, standing 100 metres high!
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If you are travelling soon, have a great trip!