How the face of Rio de Janeiro has radically changed in five centuries


Rio de Janeiro has become the monumental and picturesque city that it is today thanks to a centuries-old process of radical architectural and environmental transformation. A new digital atlas, imagineRio, reveals how the city’s urban evolution unfolded from its roots in the 16th century to the present day. “Rio’s current geography is very different from its past, as city planners have literally moved mountains, rebuilt beaches, demolished neighborhoods and built new buildings where there used to be only water,” said explained a press release from the Getty Foundation on the project. “ImagineRio reveals hundreds of years of human intervention responsible for the iconic panoramas of the metropolis and invites users to explore its history.

The site integrates thousands of historical photographs, architectural plans, drawings and paintings of the Rio cityscape with an interactive map and 3D geolocation technology. The wide variety of aerial, elevated, and street-level views allow users to piece together the city’s dynamic expansion, block by block, and trace the development of iconic sites like Christ the Redeemer on Mount Corcovado and the beach of Copacabana. ImagineRio’s extensive search filters and interactive mapping system offer academics and the general public the opportunity to study the growth of South America’s third largest metropolis over time.

Geolocated aerial view showing Copacabana beach. Courtesy of imagineRio (All images courtesy of The Getty, unless otherwise noted)

The project was initially developed by Rice University professors Fares el-Dahdah and Alida C. Metcalf in collaboration with the institution’s Computer Science Research Center and Space Studies Laboratory, as well as Axis Maps. The team also partnered with the Instituto Moreira Salles (IMS), which provided a cache of some 3,000 geotagged photographs of Rio’s urban landscapes from the 19th and 20th centuries. The images include shots from prominent local photographers like Marc Ferrez and Augusto Malta. “imagineRio allows users to look over the shoulders of some of Brazil’s most famous photographers as they capture a changing city before their eyes,” said Sergio Burgi, director of photography at IMS, in the press release. “The platform’s new 3D integration transforms these photographs of singular and flat images into a tapestry of interactive moments.

The Getty Foundation funded the project through its Digital Art History Initiative, which aims to introduce cutting-edge technologies into art history research. But the experimental and multidisciplinary scope of the project could also be useful to urban planners, literary academics, cartographers, architects, historians and others.

These four glass plate photographs were taken by Marc Ferrez at roughly the same location on Largo da Carioca (a large square in Rio) but at different times, with the oldest image visible on the left. These images show the evolution of a building initially occupied by “Photographia Central”, a photography studio. First the ruins behind it are replaced by new buildings and the facade is modified, then it becomes a clothing store, to be demolished and give way to the Avenida hotel on the far right.
Marc Ferrez, rue du Jardin botanique (Rua Jardim Botânico) (circa 1890) (image courtesy of the Instituto Moreira Salles)
Alfredo Krausz, Geotagged frontal view of Christ the Redeemer (image courtesy of imagineRio)
Geolocated map on the imagineRio interface (image courtesy of imagineRio)
Jorge Kfuri, aerial view showing Sugar Loaf Mountain, Urca Hill and Pedra da Gávea in the background (circa 1921) (image courtesy of Instituto Moreira Salles)

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