Rio de Janeiro – A brief history

On January 1st, 1502, the first Portuguese expedition sailed past the Sugar Loaf and entered the bay. Presuming it was the outlet of a major river – in fact only minor rivers flow into it – they called it the River of January.

In the early years of the colony the Portuguese steered clear of the area to avoid coming under attack from the Tupinambás.The first Europeans to establish a colony here were the French; it was governed by Nicolas Villegagnon, a diplomat and naval officer, who christened it French Antarctica. In 1560 Villegagnon’s nephew, Bois-le-Compte, was attacked and defeated by Portuguese forces under the command of Brazil’s third Governor General, Mem de Sá. Mem de Sá’s nephew and the founder of Rio de Janeiro, Estácio de Sá, finally routed the French and their Indian allies on January 20th,1567. The date is celebrated every year as the anniversary of the foundation of the city.

During the colonial period Rio grew in importance as a major port from where the gold and diamonds mined in Minas Gerais were shipped to Portugal. It also acquired the dubious status of becoming the largest centre for the slave trade on the South American continent. Its growing importance, but principally its strategic position close to Sao Paulo and the potentially rebellious states of the south, led the Marquis of Pombal to transfer the capital of the colony from Salvador to Rio de Janeiro in 1763.

Under the Viceroys the town first began to assume the aspect of an important capital – baroque churches, theatres and public buildings were erected; public squares and gardens laid out.

But greater things were in store for Rio. In 1808 the most surprising, and certainly the most decisive event in the city’s history occurred. The King of Portugal, Dom João VI, fleeing from the Napoleonic invasion, arrived in the city escorted by a British fleet. He was accompanied by the royal court as well as the entire contents of the palaces, libraries and churches of Lisbon. Within a year 15,000 officials, courtiers and hangers-on had descended on the town. The king’s first act was to open the ports, for the first time permitting the colony to trade with France and Britain. He then established the city as the capital of the United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and the Algarves . It is the only case in colonial history of a king abandoning his country and transferring the seat of power to a colonial capital. Rio de Janeiro would never be the same again.

In addition to the diplomats and businessmen who began to arrive in the city, at the invitation of the Court parties of botanists, engineers, architects, painters and musicians also began to arrive. Like generations of European visitors in the centuries ahead, they were stunned by the breathtaking beauty of the bay with its beaches, islands and innumerable inlets against the backdrop of the massive pinnacles that are so characteristic of Rio. Charles Darwin, who stopped in Rio in 1832 aboard the Beagle, is no exception; “sublime, picturesque, intense colours, predominance of blue, forests alike but more glorious than those in the engravings, sun rays, bananas, great leaves, hazy sunlight. Everything silent except for the great, brilliant butterflies; water everywhere, the banks full of trees and beautiful flowers.”

In 1821 Dom João, in danger of losing the crown, was forced to return to Portugal; he left the throne of Brazil to his 22-year-old son, the dashing Dom Pedro I. The following year, with the tacit acquiescence of his father, Dom Pedro declared the country’s independence, becoming the first Emperor of Brazil. When, in 1831, he also returned to Europe, to fight a civil war against his brother Dom Miguel for the throne of Portugal, he left Brazil in the care of his five-year-old son, later to become Emperor Dom Pedro II, who reigned until he was deposed by the military coup that founded the republic in 1889. To this day he remains the most beloved and respected leader in the history of Brazil; his daughter, Princess Isabel, who, one year before they were exiled, while her father was away in Europe, signed the law that freed the Brazilian slaves, is equally revered.

During the three reigns, known respectively as the Kingdom and the 1st and 2nd Empires, Rio consolidated its position as one of the most important political, economic and cultural centres of the Americas. But it was the determination of the country’s first presidents to show the world the power of the newly-formed republic that was to transform the city. Inspired by Haussmann’s rebuilding of Paris, the fifth President of the Republic, Rodrigues Alves (1902-1906) appointed the engineer Pereira Passos as mayor and instructed him to undertake the modernisation of the city. The main feature of the modernisation project was the opening up of a wide avenue connecting the new port to the seafront avenue facing the Sugar Loaf. At the head of the avenue the splendid Theatro Municipal was erected, a small-scale version of the Paris Opera House. It remains the city’s greatest architectural treasure.

But the splendour was to be short-lived. The urge for modernization that had demolished the 19th century dwellings to make way for the grandiose avenue that represented ‘civilisation’ remained unabated. By the 1940s the eclectic French-style hotels, clubs and shopping arcades, with their statues, ornate architraves, stained-glass windows and magnificent doors were being torn down to make way for the concrete – later steel and glass – utility-style office blocks that characterise the avenue today .

At the same time people were moving away from the traditional houses, with gardens shaded by mango trees, to live in the safety of the modern twelve-storey apartment blocks that between the 1940s and 70s covered every available square metre of ground in the south zone of the city, from Flamengo and Botafogo to Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon.

Meanwhile, with the lack of any coherent housing policy to cater for a rapidly growing population, the less fortunate were left to their own resources to provide a roof over their heads. The first favela, or shanty-town, in Rio de Janeiro appeared in the 1890s on a hill behind the Central Station; the shacks were built by soldiers returning from the Canudos War, abandoned by the republican government that had sent them to fight on its behalf. With the waves of immigration during the first decades of the 20th century, and then of migration to the capital, mostly from the barren interior of the Northeast, the favelas grew in proportion to the increasing numbers of the homeless. Initial attempts to control the situation by demolishing the favelas and moving the inhabitants to housing estates in the suburbs, such as undertaken by the right-wing state governor Carlos Lacerda in the 1960s, gradually gave way to the perception that integrating the favelas into the city was the only practical, and indeed ethical, solution.

Conservationism, now the unanimous, unassailable standpoint in a town that has become obsessed with political correctness, came too late to save the grandeur and the splendour of the first decades of the 20th century. Ironically, it is this same conservationism, or conservatism, that today so ferociously resists any proposal for striking or original contemporary architecture. The virulent attacks on the concert hall complex in Barra da Tijuca, the Cidade de Música, is a case in point.

Illogically, until the recent pacification to prepare the city for the Olympic Games, neither government nor conservationists showed any real concern at the alarming rate at which the favelas were growing. With the end of the military dictatorship and the rise of populist politicians, by the end of the last century the favela population in the greater Rio area was estimated at over two million, the majority controlled by drug lords protected by corrupt police. The pacification of some of the largest hillside communities in Rio’s south zone, with the expulsion of the drug lords and preparation for providing standard government services, is an immensely important step towards creating an integrated city. One cannot help wondering, however, how much progress will really be made unless the remaining communities, in the north zone, the dormitory towns and neighbouring municipalities such as Niterói are pacified as well. If they are not, there will be no real change in the ‘divided city‘: it will continue to be as divided as ever between the Hillside (favelas) and the Asphalt (apartment blocks).

Returning to the asphalt, just as the obsession with modernisation gave way to the obsession with conservation, the obsession with conservation does seem to be gradually giving way to an acceptance of modernity. The plans for the development of the dockside area for the Olympic Games in 2016 are a good example.

But however great the architecture of the future may be, it can never attempt to rival the natural architecture with which Rio, like no other city, is endowed. The Sugar Loaf, standing like a massive sculpture at the entrance to the bay, is equalled, even outmatched in grandeur, by numerous rock formations: the Two Brothers in Leblon, the Gavea Rock soaring up behind them, and on the mountain peaks that form a backdrop to the town, the ever-present Finger of God pointing to the sky.

There is, however, one wonderful example of human and natural architecture combined: Corcovado. Emerging from the Tijuca forest, 2,300 feet above sea level, its granite peak was crowned in 1931 with the art-deco statue of Christ the Redeemer. Bathed in the rays of the setting sun or in the silver light of the moon, floating on the storm clouds or serene against an azure sky, the statue hovers above the town, arms outstretched, showering its blessings on the people of Rio, its patriarchsits poor, its poets -  even its politicians.