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How Rio de Janeiro’s face radically changed over the course of five centuries


Rio de Janeiro became the monumental, picturesque city it is today through a centuries-long process of radical architectural and environmental transformation. A new digital atlas, imagineRio, reveals how the city’s urban development has evolved from its roots from the 16th century to the present day. “Rio’s current geography is very different from the past, when urban planners literally moved mountains, redesigned beaches, demolished neighborhoods and constructed new buildings where once there was only water,” a Getty Foundation press release explained of the project. “imagineRio reveals hundreds of years of human intervention responsible for the metropolis’ iconic outlook and invites users to explore its history.”

The site integrates thousands of historic photographs, architectural plans and drawings and paintings of Rio’s cityscape with an interactive map and 3D geolocation technology. The wide range of views from the air, elevated and street levels allow users to reconstruct the city’s dynamic expansion block by block and track the development of iconic sites such as Christ the Redeemer on Mount Corcovado and Copacabana Beach. imagineRio’s comprehensive search filters and interactive mapping system allow both researchers and the general public to study the growth of South America’s third largest metropolis over time.

Geolocated aerial photo showing Copacabana Beach. Courtesy imagineRio (all photos are courtesy of Getty unless otherwise noted)

The project was originally developed by Rice University professors Farès el-Dahdah and Alida C. Metcalf in collaboration with the department’s Center for Research Computing and Spatial Studies Lab, as well as Axis Maps. The team also collaborated with the Instituto Moreira Salles (IMS), which contributed a cache of about 3,000 geolocated photographs of Rio’s 19th and 20th century cityscapes. The photos include snaps by important local photographers such as Marc Ferrez and Augusto Malta. “imagineRio allows users to look over the shoulders of some of Brazil’s most famous photographers while capturing a changing city before their eyes,” explained Sergio Burgi, head of photography at IMS, in the press release. “The platform’s new 3D integration transforms these photographs from unique, flat images into a tapestry of interactive moments.”

The Getty Foundation funded the project through its Digital Art History initiative, which seeks to introduce cutting-edge technologies to art history research. But the project’s experimental, interdisciplinary reach could also benefit urban planners, literary researchers, cartographers, architects, historians and others.

These four glass plate photographs were taken by Marc Ferrez from roughly the same place in Largo da Carioca (a large square in Rio), but at different times, with the oldest image seen on the left. These photos show the development of a building that was originally occupied by “Photographia Central”, a photography studio. First, the ruins behind will be replaced by new buildings and the facade modified, then it will become a clothing store, and then be torn down and give way to Hotel Avenida on the far right.
Marc Ferrez, Botanical Garden Street (circa 1890) (courtesy of Instituto Moreira Salles)
Alfredo Krausz, Geolocated frontal view of Christ the Redeemer (pictured courtesy imagineRio)
Geolocated map on imagineRio’s interface (image courtesy of imagineRio)
Jorge Kfuri, aerial photo showing Sukkertoppen, Urca hill and Pedra da Gávea in the background (circa 1921) (photo courtesy of Instituto Moreira Salles)

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