An Ill-Fitting Glove: The Landscape of Rio de Janeiro

August 14, 2016   •   By Patrick Wilcken

When Claude Lévi-Strauss first caught sight of the New World in the mid-1930s, he was famously disappointed by Rio de Janeiro’s remarkable harbor. The proportions were all wrong; the great rock formations of the Serra do Mar rising dramatically in the near distance were simply too big, the narrow corridors of land between mountain and bay too confined. The city was squeezed into its landscape, Lévi-Strauss wrote in his ethnography-cum-memoir Tristes Tropiques (1955), like a hand in an ill-fitting glove. The comments stung in Brazil, and the wound still smarts. But when I spoke to Lévi-Strauss a few years before his death, in his comfortable apartment in Paris’s 16th arrondissement, he dismissed them as a mere first impression, adding that he came to love the city and its melodramatic landscape.

In a sense, however, Lévi-Strauss’s first impression was right. If anything, it has become ever more relevant as the city has expanded. The wealthy part of Rio de Janeiro, known as the Zona Sul, is squeezed into tight passageways. Rio’s fabled beach suburbs — Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon — are in places no more than three blocks deep, hemmed in by the Atlantic on one side and the mountains and a lagoon on the other. Other neighborhoods end abruptly, blocked off by the overgrown sheer granite rocks that partition the city.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, some of these obstacles were removed, pulverized into gravel, and then dumped into the bay, uncluttering some of the corridors while extending the city out into the water. The biggest project was the Aterro do Flamengo — Flamengo Park — which, through vast earthworks, widened Rio’s bay-facing urban corridor by creating a 1.2 million square meter area fronting the inner-city neighborhoods of Gloria, Flamengo, and Botafogo. Though begun in the early 20th century, the project only came to fruition in the mid-1960s, an era in which “tropical modernism” held sway. What could be more midcentury than this empty plane, coursed by highways looping through expanses of Roberto Burle Marx’s geometric gardens? At one end the intercity airport — Santos Dumont — juts out into the bay; nearby broods the Museu de Arte Moderna (MAM), its thick concrete body hovering meters off the ground, shimmering in the surrounding reflection ponds; and not far off is a similarly styled war memorial that seems to have been dropped at random into the sculpted parklands.

Brazilian modernist architecture has often been seen as a tropical variation on its more Brutalist European cousins, softening the latter’s hard edges with curves, sensuality, and the implied movement of its sweeping spiral ramps and stairways. But from the perspective of Rio it seems more like a balm to soothe the obvious dysfunction of the city’s urban development; cool, ordered spaces designed to offset the intensity and chaos of the do-it-yourself aesthetic found in the favelas, a vast exercise in bricolage trailing up hillsides across the city. In the end, the Aterro’s modernist ethos ensured that, in contrast to the packed central districts, it would be largely empty space — a transport corridor grafted onto a residential one. While widening one natural bottleneck, it did nothing to solve Lévi-Strauss’s tight glove problem.

Instead, the city expanded upward and outward. The bucolic beach houses that once graced the ocean-facing suburbs became high-rise condominiums; favelas grew, first as clusters of rustic huts, then as of multi-story breeze-block houses. By the 1970s, the wealthy had begun migrating down the coast to Barra da Tijuca, where the Olympic village now stands, and where the construction of gated condominiums continues apace. Poor migrants arriving from Brazil’s northeast were pushed farther and farther to the north and west, into increasingly distant suburbs and satellite towns. To this day, the whole conglomeration is precariously strung together by aging tunnels blasted through the rocks, some still ventilated by what look like oversized desk fans.

While the modifications of the 20th century were dramatic, Rio de Janeiro has long been a work in progress, its famous landscape more man-made than it would first appear. The topography of 18th-century Rio was even more awkward than it is today, with few open stretches of land suitable for urban development. A growing slaving port set on undulating swamplands, Rio had an insalubrious reputation: the surrounding marshes and stagnant pools of water gave off a fetid stench; the abrupt mountain ranges cut off any circulation of air — at that time thought to be vital for good health. The population was hemmed into what is now the city center, and otherwise cut off by land. John Luccock (1770–1826), a Yorkshire, England, clothier who settled in Rio as a trader in 1808, set about exploring the city, only to find streets trailing off into dense jungle: “From the Gloria to Bota-Foga [Botafogo] was only a narrow mule-track […] the woods thoroughly hid the sea from our view, and the road terminated upon a beach, where we had no expectation of finding one.”

The arrival of the Portuguese court, driven from Lisbon by Napoleon’s Grande Armée in 1807, was formative for the city. For a royal family and courtiers used to the relative splendor of Lisbon’s network of royal palaces, churches, gardens, and hunting grounds, the first sight of their rundown, sweltering outpost of empire was a shock. Under the stewardship of one of the few Brazilian-born administrators contracted by the court, Paulo Fernandes Viana, the city was overhauled during their prolonged 13-year stay. Teams of slaves quarried granite in Gloria for construction work; chain gangs raised low hills, tipping the rubble into the swamplands, as key courtly institutions — a theater, library, administrative buildings, and a palace (a converted planter’s mansion) — were constructed or refurbished. The exiled prince regent, later king Dom João VI, left his mark by founding the enchanting Jardim Botânico on a plot that was then a rural outpost at the base of the towering Corcovado Mountain.

A few decades after the royal family left Brazil, Rio de Janeiro began to appear on film. The city was mythologized from the outset: its massive bay, its surreal volcanic forms, the silhouettes of the Serra do Mar range towering over the littoral, its palms, its beachfronts were all endlessly reproduced. Photographers like the Franco-Brazilian master Marc Ferrez (1843–1923) chronicled the city from the 1860s on. Investing heavily in the latest photographic technologies, Ferrez bought cameras capable of taking wide-angle, panoramic shots. He was aided by the proximity of the mountains, which, like New York’s first skyscrapers, gave photographers a rare pre-air travel, bird’s-eye view of the city. Setting up his tripod at strategic points, Ferrez was able to capture the spectacular coast unfurling down below, profiles of rock formations and receding sets of volcanic mountain peaks across the bay, unencumbered by today’s forest of high-rises.

A heavy nostalgia hangs over the beach scenes. In the late 19th century, Copacabana and Ipanema were not yet densely urbanized. Dotted with small beach houses and fishing huts and crisscrossed by dirt roads, Rio’s Atlantic-facing flank comes across as a bucolic retreat. There are rustic bungalows, open squares, and grassy patches, with rough, seaweed-strewn paths straggling along the beachfront. At the very end stands the grand hotel Leblon, sitting at the foot of the Dois Irmãos mountains.

Back toward the center, the French-inspired Rio of the Belle Époque was taking shape, with its designed gardens, graceful avenues, and architectural follies. Yet few vestiges remain. Moorish pavilions; a cast-iron pier with a tea house, restaurant, and boat tours; the neoclassical Palácio Monroe — a monumental structure transported from the World’s Fair in St. Louis to house the Brazilian Congress — all were subsequently demolished in Rio’s constant architectural turnover. Mayor Pereira Passos (1836–1913), Rio’s Baron Haussmann, completely remodeled the city’s central districts in the early 20th century. Present-day Avenida Presidente Vargas mowed down small, exquisite Baroque churches and graceful openings, such as the Paço Municipal, while Avenida Rio Branco cleared the central slums.

One by one the centrally located hills were taken down by muscle, shovel power, and high-pressure hose. Before the massive Aterro earthworks had got under way, the harbor was being nibbled away by landfill. It was part of a venerable dream of urban expansion. “I’m of the opinion that we have too much bay,” wrote Brazilian novelist Machado de Assis in 1894, “with imagination, I can close my eyes and contemplate all this immense bay earthed over and built on.” In the vast space that would be created, he envisaged an enormous public avenue, grand monuments, a railway station, Roman aqueducts, Venetian canals, natural swimming pools, and waterfalls. In the event, the changes have been incremental. Over the years, the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, where the Olympic rowing will take place, has shrunk by a third, earthed in on all sides. The dunes, which once separated Ipanema from Leblon, were replaced by a narrow canal; what was once an inward-facing beachfront has been completely urbanized.

The Olympic remodeling has continued Rio’s relentless refashioning. The early construction phase of the multibillion-real Porto Maravilha project — a conglomerate of museums, high-rises, light rail, and cycle paths — unearthed the remains of Rio’s slave trade terminal, the Valongo Wharf. It had first been paved over with granite stones for the arrival of Brazil’s future empress, Teresa Cristina, then covered over in the early 20th century during one of Pereira Passos’s earthworks, which left the remains of the quay marooned two blocks inland.

An estimated 700,000 African slaves disembarked at Valongo; during the 1820s they were arriving at a rate of 30,000 a year. Nearby are the mass graves of tens of thousands who perished on the crossing. A small part of the wharf has been preserved, but it is dwarfed by the massive redevelopment works. A museum to display artifacts from the digs was promised, but has yet to appear. Meanwhile, in what seems to be a purpose-built metaphor for Rio’s restless development, Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava’s 230-million-real Museu do Amanhã (Museum of Tomorrow) — a strange elongated shell-like structure, built on a pier at the end of Praça Mauá — opened in the area in 2015.

Bankrupted by Brazil’s economic crisis and the vast sums spent on the Olympic preparations, the city is moving into a new and uncertain era. Spurred on by the Games, it continues to expand westward. After the waves of influences that the city has absorbed, the current growth areas have an anonymous, international flavor: Barra’s highways, shopping malls, and rows of gated communities are often likened to Miami, but in reality they could be almost anywhere in the world.

In Tristes Tropiques, Lévi-Strauss wrote that New World cities “pass from freshness to decay without ever being simply old.” As a result they “live feverishly in the grip of a chronic disease; they are perpetually young, yet never healthy.” When he visited São Paulo, Chicago, and New York in the 1930s and ’40s, he was impressed not by “the newness of these places but their premature ageing.” Like many Latin American cities, Rio de Janeiro mixes modernism with a worn, clapped-out feel. Through all its reinventions, much of its infrastructure is still ramshackle. It is as if the city is constantly struggling to fit its environment and to keep up with its population. The proportions are still all wrong.


Patrick Wilcken is a Brazil specialist and human rights activist who currently works at the International Secretariat of Amnesty International in London.