A few weeks ago, I made a short visit to Rio de Janeiro to talk to heritage conservation planners from IPHAN (the federal heritage conservation organization) and planners in urban development. I wanted to get a better understanding of the overall planning process in Brazil and the nature of public participation. In between my appointments to talk with these professionals, I was able to see a bit of Rio.
I stayed in a pousada in the Cosmo Velho neighborhood halfway up the Corvocado, the hill upon which the Christ the Redeemer statue is located. It was a beautiful location, nestled at the edge of a forest with a view of the surrounding hills and valleys. In fact, Rio is very much defined by these unique hills, which are composed of metamorphosed granite whose shapes are created through a weathering process where sheets of rock “exfoliate”, creating valleys interspersed by “sugar loafs” or hills of steep cliffs and rounded tops. Everywhere I went in Rio, I saw this granite, which was used in the construction of buildings, walls, and roads.
An alumnus from my doctoral program at Clemson University happens to live and work in Rio and he was able to spend a day with me touring near my pousada, the center city area, and also visiting some of the nearby neighborhoods and natural features.
Down the hill from my pousada was a little square off the main road known as the “Largo do Boticário,” which, although it looks much older, only dates from the 1920s. Its picturesque decay is particularly appealing as is its isolated location. Apparently, part of the James Bond movie, Moonraker, was filmed here. Cosmo Velho is an appealing neighborhood with lots of vertical topography, interesting restaurants, and a quiet residential appeal. (I was able to find a very nice 100% vegetarian restaurant here, which is pretty much impossible to find in Recife.)
We then took a taxi to the center city area of Rio and explored the urban landscape. There are many vistas here reminiscent of Europe, with narrow streets and great examples of art nouveau design, which I never get to see in the United States. (Apparently, Americans never really liked art nouveau in architecture very much and what survived has long ago been demolished.) Rio also has many historical churches. The Igreja e Mosteiro de São Bento, constructed between 1633 and 1671, has an incredible Baroque interior with delicately carved wood panels that are joined perfectly together covering almost every surface. Interestingly, this is still a functioning monastery, with roots that go all the way back to 1590.
Burle Marx is one of the most well known landscape architects in Brazil, with a prolific career that spanned pre-Modernism into Modernism. Here in Recife, we have example of some of his pre-Modernist work, such as the Praça Casa Forte. In Rio, I was able to see his Modernist design in Flamengo Park. This was my first time seeing Burle Marx’s more recent work, and although the simple geometry of Modernism was clearly apparent, I thought that the overall execution was quite nice, especially in the juxtaposition of stone and plant material. In particular, I really liked the water features. One of the things that is interesting in looking at his design, is that he clearly planned for the future, including such necessities as maintenance issues.
Toward the end of the day, we then went to Praia Vermelha, which, as it was related to me, is a very popular family-oriented beach because of its proximity to a military installation. Apparently, this beach is not as well known as some of the others in Rio and it features a nature walk that is quite beautiful on the northern side of the bay. Walking down this foot path, which Google has faithfully digitized, you can get a sense of what Rio was like before the arrival of Europeans with an mostly intact Atlantic coast rain forest. There are some amazing vistas here from the path and the water is an intense blue. While quite cute, the little monkeys, which are as abundant as squirrels in northern climates, are apparently not native to this part of Brazil, originating from places much further north.
Just before I concluded my trip, I was able to make a visit to the Santa Teresa neighborhood which I discovered on a late-night taxi ride back to my pousada. The hilly landscape intrigued me and I was not disappointed when I returned the next day. I started my tour at the highest point in the neighborhood – the Parque das Ruinas (Park of Ruins), which contains an art museum (Chacara do Ceu) and a 19th century building that is now conserved as a ruin. It was the ruined building that I found most interesting because it was used as a focal point for the display of art. I have seen a few instances of this kind of adaptive use, such as the Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (USA), but it was more effectively deployed here than in other places.
In the afternoon, I took a long taxi ride to the other side of Rio and visited the botanical gardens. This is a very large site in the middle of the city and an oasis of tranquility. The northern end of the garden terminates into hills still covered with a rainforest and the part of the garden open to the public has a wide variety of plants and landscapes on display. Of particular noteworthiness were the cacti, bromeliad, and orchid displays. I also rather enjoyed the exhibit on the indigenous Atlantic rain forest. Apparently, the pitanga fruit (also known as a “Surinam cherry”) is native here. If you’re curious, it doesn’t really taste like a cherry. I think the closest approximation is something between a grape and a starfruit. One item that I found quite curious is that the botanical garden featured a rose garden, which I promptly went to see because I thought the idea of temperate plants in a tropical environment like this was just kind of strange. Apparently, the horticulturists in the garden are doing something unique to get roses to grow in Rio, because when I arrived at the site there was just bare soil. My guess is that they must dig up the roses every year and chill the roots and then replant them; otherwise, without a cold cycle, they wouldn’t likely never bloom, much less flourish.
In sum, I found Rio to be a much more international city than Recife, where it was common to hear Spanish and English being spoken. Vegetarian food was much easier to find and the arts and culture seem to play a much more prominent role. There is also great wealth in Rio. Although I didn’t walk through the Ipanema neighborhood, I did drive through it, and it is lush, green and full of very expensive high-rise buildings and boutique shops. Rio would definitely be a great place to vacation, but on the other hand, Recife is probably more authentically “Brazilian” because of its relative isolation from international influences. They both have merit in different ways.