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The Deco Dreams of Brazil’s

Some Brazilians write off Goiânia, far from São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, as their version of Midwestern flyover country. But farming and ranching generates much of the country’s wealth and influences Brazilian culture these days, even if the region sometimes neglects its own complex and sophisticated history.

Goiânia’s creators envisioned the city as an outpost of civilization preceding the so-called March to the West that began in 1940 and prioritized the colonization of Brazil’s vast interior. Brasília, the futuristic federal capital inaugurated in 1960, was perhaps the ultimate example of this push.

As envisaged by the pioneering architect Attílio Corrêa Lima, Goiânia seems to have had a more inviting feel than Brasília’s austere modernism. Here’s the same gazebo in the early 1940s, back when Goiânia was planned for just 50,000 residents.

More than 1.4 million people now live in Goiânia, which is emerging as a bastion of the conservative views reshapingBrazilian politics. With its cavernous steakhouses and clubs featuring sertanejo universitário (Brazil’s version of upscale country music), Goiânia exemplifies the ranching aspirations of much of Brazil’s heartland.

Some landmarks persist, albeit in graffiti-splattered disrepair, like the Grande Hotel.

The French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss stayed in the hotel in 1937, describing it as “a square box of cement, with the look of an air terminus or a miniature fort; one might have called it a bastion of civilization.”

In his celebrated work, “Tristes Tropiques,” Lévi-Strauss wondered why Brazil’s leaders were “grabbing at the desert” to build the city instead of hewing to the charming old state capitol, Goiás Velho, founded in 1727.

What might he make now of Goiânia, with developers laying waste to Art Deco buildings, replacing them with the nondescript high-rises that occupy cities around Brazil?

In the shadow of those towers in Goiânia, I glimpsed how Brazil is shifting. For inspiration Brazilians once looked to France, the cradle of Art Deco. But while walking around Goiânia, I came across establishments like the China Construction Bank, reflecting the trade ties connecting Brazil’s farm belt to the global economy.

On the same street, patrons flowed into the flashy Detroit Steakhouse. The eatery didn’t seem to be striving for associations with the American city known for blight (and, yes,resurgence), but rather the positive, can-do vibe that the United States still holds for many people in Midwestern Brazil.

Still, I couldn’t help but wonder what Goiânia would look like if it had preserved more of its earliest architectural creations. Might it have resembled Asmara, the capital of closed-off Eritrea in the Horn of Africa, known for its well-preserved Art Deco treasures built by Italian occupiers in the 1930s? Or like a Miami Beach on the savannas of Brazil?

Either way, Goiânia, only about 80 years old, is still clutching for some history. The main plaza downtown is named officially for Mr. Corrêa Lima, the architect. But most people call it the Praça do Bandeirante, after the São Paulo explorers who went into the back country on slave-hunting missions.

Brazil was searching for myths in 1942 when the authorities unveiled the statue of Bartolomeu Bueno da Silva, an 18th-century bandeirante. To this day he is better known as Anhangüera, “Old Devil” in the Tupi indigenous language, a name evoking the brutal methods conquerors used to take possession of the lands on which Goiânia was built.