Builders of the City – 1921

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May 28, 1921

The announcement that the city government plans to excavate the Morro do Castelo to make an artificial inlet in Glória provoked a wave of protests, as violent as the undertow, the irreconcilable enemy of the wonderful Beira Mar. The city ordinance to earmark a violently conquered space to the Guanabara Bay was of no use as a mitigating crime of counter-aesthetics : an idea that seemed extravagant in a city that possesses a backdrop of forests and mountains, a huge natural park in comparison to the panoramas of the man-made gardens that are deplorably modest. A city friend, more exalted by anger in the face of a sacrilegious attempt, reduced his indignation to a rigorous maxim, exclaiming: Na bahia não se toca! (One doesn’t mess with the Bay!)

What weighs on a friend of the Guanabara Bay, the truth is that Rio de Janeiro wouldn’t exist if the prohibition of messing with it were a law since the times of Mem de Sá. One can say that the entire lower part of Brazil’s capital is an achievement of our ancestors over mangroves, grottos, swamps, lakes and marshes that covered, 400 years ago, the city where automobiles pass by today.

When the third governor of Brazil, anchoring in the bay in January of 1567, disembarked in the fortified village that the heroic Estácio, his nephew, built between the cliffs of Sugarloaf and the São João hill, he soon thought the hostile cradle and future capital of Brazil should be transported in the laps of the warriors to the hill, initially denominated as São Sebastião, which would be its throne, capital and reliquary for thee and a half centuries.

On the hill overlooking the Coligny fort, the bronze cannons, transported from the ships to the barbarian seafront, stucco fort, dominated the valleys and commanded the bay.

After his valiant nephew was buried, Mem de Sá started the construction of the city at the Piasaba port, near the Santiago stronghold, where the Misericordia church is today. Via the hill’s slope, the first steep and venerable street of the city of S. Sebastião began.

From the top, the navy, the soldiers and the indians, allies of Ararygboia, dug the fort’s canals, from parochial [], from the residence of the Government and the Parliament, walling the citadel with strong [pelissadas?].

Soon, however, the population felt that the mountain was small for them. Protected by the fort, they started going down the mountain side. Then man’s fight with the water started. At the foot of the hill, an extensive water-filled valley stretched out, which had to be dried out and landfilled. The colonizers and populators had to conquer, palm tree to palm tree, the lands of Rio de Janeiro. There still weren’t any aesthetic champions to defend Guanabara from the sacrilege of the landfills. From a salt water marsh, the inhabitants of S. Sebastião made a city. It was on the first conquered lands near the water that the streets and the maze of alleyways of Misericórdia aligned themselves – currently being demolished – and later Direita do Paço and do Cotovello streets. These formidable ancestors, who didn’t have dredgers nor automotive vehicles to excavate, managed to build, at the spot where they found mud and grottos, the Carmo convent and the S. José church.

They made a nation so that we today could create nationalism.

Among the hills of S. Sebastião (Castello), Carmo (Santo Antonio), Manoel de Brito (S. Bento), Paulo Caieiro (Formiga), Santa Thereza (do Pinto), da Lagoinha (Paula Mattos), Pedro Dias (do Senado) and Desterro (Santa Thereza), a plain of marsh and mangroves stretched out. In the spot where today are the Largo da Carioca and adjacent streets, was the Santo Antonio lagoon. Arcos street was opened on the Pedro Dias swamp. The current street Riachuelo was a trail that gave way from the Desterro to the Sentinella lagoon. Next to the Ajuda convent was the marshy Boqueirão lagoon, that was landfilled by order of the viceroy D. Luiz de Vasconcellos with land from the knoll of the Mangueiras ranch (today’s Largo da Lapa) for construction of the Passeio Público. Viólas street (today Theophilo Ottoni) and all the surrounding opening of streets were marshes fed by the tide. When, in 1600, Antonio Martins Palma and his wife D. Leonor Gonçalves started to build the first church at Candelaria, in fulfilment of vows, the bay waters reached the spot where Primeiro de Março street now is. All the large valleys from Gávea to Engenho Novo were marshes and sandbanks. In the current Largo do Machado was the Carioca lagoon.

Compared with these tenacious builders, who needed to landfill soaked plains so that in them they could improvise a city, government projects seem like simple engineering toys. Mr. Carlos Sampaio intending to landfill the Glória inlet, could invoke the cyclopic public works of those that came before as justification of his desires. Since the foundation of the city man has fought with Guanabara, ripping out land to build churches and houses. And the fight will continue, without truces.

Our grandchildren will see, possibly, avenue Rio Branco extended til Villegaignon. The Passos, the Frontins and the Carlos Sampaios of the future will continue being like our ancestors, destroyers of hills, drainers of lagoons, landfillers of mangroves, conquerors of Guanabara.

To this conclusion one arrives examining any city plan and considering that, based on its geographic situation, by the ampleness of its port and by its demographic conditions, already impossible to correct, Rio de Janeiro will represent in Brazil the corresponding function of New York to the United States. The removal of the capital to the Goias plateau will be imperceptably influential in the solution to the extremely enormous problem that future generations will be faced with. Rio de Janeiro will be, in less than a century, a city with 3 million inhabitants and to accommodate this population and create the conditions in which it can exercise its activities, in accordance with the categorical imperatives of space and time, it’ll be necessary to impose a sacrifice of much of its natural beauty which we defend today, to landfill considerable areas of the liquid plains of Guanabara, to enlarge the scanty valley, still pregnant with knolls and hills.

There would still be time for the city government to entrust the study of the problem of Rio’s transformations to a commission made up of more competent figures of national engineering, adding to this technical commission some architects and artists, and asking them to prepare a project together which would represent an agreement of authorized opinions. Otherwise the future will be sacrificed to mere momentaneous desires and the discussion around each partial project will be renewed.

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