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 evolution has unfolded from its 16th century roots to the present day. “Rio’s current geography is far different from its past, as city planners literally moved mountains, remade beaches, demolished neighborhoods, and constructed new buildings where there was once just water,” explained a Getty Foundation press release about the project. “imagineRio reveals hundreds of years of human intervention responsible for the metropolis’ iconic vistas and invites users to explore its history.”

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

Geolocated aerial view showing Copacabana Beach. Courtesy imagineRio (all images courtesy the Getty unless otherwise noted)

The project was initially developed by Rice University professors Farès el-Dahdah and Alida C. Metcalf in collaboration with the institution’s Center for Research Computing and Spatial Studies Lab, as well as Axis Maps. The team also partnered with the Instituto Moreira Salles (IMS), which contributed a cache of some 3,000 geolocated photographs of Rio’s cityscapes from the 19th and 20th centuries. The images include snaps by important local photographers like Marc Ferrez and Augusto Malta. “imagineRio allows users to peer over the shoulders of some of Brazil’s most celebrated photographers as they captured a city changing before their eyes,” Sergio Burgi, head of photography at IMS, explained in the press release. “The platform’s new 3D integration transforms these photographs from singular, 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 historical research. But the project’s experimental, multidisciplinary reach could also be of use to urban planners, literary scholars, cartographers, architects, historians, and others.

These four glass plate photographs were taken by Marc Ferrez from roughly the same spot in Largo da Carioca (a major plaza in Rio) but at different times, with the oldest image seen at 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, only to be demolished and give way to Hotel Avenida on the far right.
Marc Ferrez, Botanical Garden Street (Rua Jardim Botânico) (circa 1890) (image courtesy Instituto Moreira Salles)
Alfredo Krausz, Geolocated frontal view of Christ the Redeemer (image courtesy imagineRio)
Geolocated map on imagineRio’s interface (image courtesy imagineRio)
Jorge Kfuri, aerial view showing Sugarloaf Mountain, Urca hill, and Pedra da Gávea in the background (circa 1921) (image courtesy Instituto Moreira Salles)

Lauren Moya Ford is a writer and artist. Her writing has appeared in Apollo, Artsy, Atlas Obscura, Flash Art, Frieze, Glasstire, Mousse Magazine, and other publications.