By Kahaari Kenyata and Emma Schad
The Hanging Garden of Valongo
The garden has sat comfortably for 100 years in its naturalistic niche in the hill on which the city of Rio first laid its roots nearly 350 years prior. Sitting in the western face of the Morro da Conceição— called in earlier days the Morro do Valongo— in the old neighborhood of Saúde, named for an old church back in the mid-18th century. Given its situation in the heart of the most historic barra of Rio, the garden is almost ironic in how un-Brazilian it is.
Designed by landscape architect Luis Rei in 1906, the Hanging Gardens call primarily to antiquity, and also to the gardens of Romantic era Europe. The ancients’ descriptions of Babylon’s lost gardens are striking. Didorus Siculus wrote of the fabled Hanging Gardens’ construction being led by a Syrian king, seeking to please his harem “longing for the meadows of [their] mountains.” In imitation:
“Through the artifice of a planted garden, the distinctive landscape the approach to the garden sloped like a hillside and the several parts of the structure rose from one another tier on tier, the appearance of the whole resembled that of a theatre. When the ascending terraces had been built, there had been constructed beneath them galleries which carried the entire weight of the planted garden and rose little by little one above the other along the approach; and the uppermost gallery, was made level with the circuit wall of the battlements of the city.” (Diodorus Siculus II.10-1-10)
The Jardims Suspensos in Rio de Janeiro are also built into a wall. Their design and implementation served the dual purpose of slope support-located seven meters above street level- and aesthetic urban space. The artificial nature described by Siculus is the same that was intended in Romantic gardens and embodied in the Jardim’s own design. The hanging gardens were built to be a sort of urban oasis. Their construction in the first decade of the twentieth century was under the administration of Mayor Pereira Passos whose ambitious reconstruction agenda laid the bones of the Rio de Janeiro seen today. Directly inspired by the French and following the Haussman remodel of Paris, this era of urban development was informed by new understandings of germs, infection and the environment’s effect on public health. Having himself studied in Paris as an engineer and witnessed the transformative power of Haussmannization, Passos spent his time in office transforming Rio de Janeiro. He started, at the ports. Under Passos, Avenida Central (today, Avenida Rio Branco) was carved from the port district near Saúde, down through the historic center of the city. And under Passos’ sanitation campaign some of the oldest construction in the city, including whole neighborhoods of overcrowded settlement, were leveled for the creation of his avenues, plazas, municipal buildings and a general “opening” of the city. Beyond a desire to reflect Paris’ model, the impetus for these renewal projects was in large part a reaction to the string of particularly virulent epidemics recently suffered by the city. The creation of the gardens was therefore a nod to Haussman’s Parisian parks, as well as an effort to create bolster health and rejuvenating spaces for the population.
The Romantic period symbolized a rejection of Enlightenment ideals, such as the primacy of reason, in favor of a season of freedom of thought. Europe ceased rationalizing nature momentarily and instead marveled at it for its sublimity, its unmatched beauty and unpredictable power, whilst simultaneously trying to recreate nature within safe, bounded spaces, taming it for human enjoyment and safety. These are the dynamics at play within the Jardims Suspensos.
Panning down from the walkway above, a large mass of stone stands for what the former slopes of Valongo might have been. With a section cleanly cut out from the center for a guardhouse, the rocks bear an aesthetic, believably random curvature: the stone wall is smooth, as if weathered by millennia of rain, with greenery filling its eroded dimples, and pond at the base, filled by the water that dribbles from the mossy rocks above it. On one side of the rock formation there is a lush field of green that sweeps down to the meandering path below. The other side features an interesting scaffolding set-up (it appears a human intervention to navigate a natural obstacle, and it would be had the obstacles be not manmade themselves). The pathways on the plateau of the garden are paved, but they split and bend to circumnavigate amoebic plots of grass, ever so naturally contained by rings of stones. The stone rings binding the plot beds are covered entirely in cement so as to have a smoothed over unified, but less natural appearance. These seamless borders are a style pioneered by 19th century French landscape architect Auguste Glaziou. The Jardims Suspensos, though beautiful sit nearly in the realm of the “uncanny valley,” approaching a natural reality but never quite achieving it. The landscape is a believable possibility of what form the space would have taken before adulteration at the hands of man. The flora is Brazilian, even if the style is not, even if the paths are lined by French gaslights and Classical statues crown the garden. The original design included four statues of the Roman gods Minerva, Mercury, Ceres and Mars. Set away from many inhabitants of the surrounding neighborhood and hill, locals did not nurse the same pride Perreira Passos did and the Garden fell deeply into disrepair.
The design of the garden is distinctly European, and particularly French. The imagery of the Roman gods would stir in no local a religious allegiance or appreciation leaving their inclusion in the space purely referential to foreign custom. Though these European inspirations and design elements characterize the space, we may question, if it is from this same tradition that Brazilian gardens come from, and furthermore can the Jardims Suspensos be considered a Brazilian garden? In 1858 Auguste François Marie- Glaziou arrived in Rio de Janeiro and became the chief landscape architect to the Imperial family during the second Empire. He was also patronized by the wealthy families of Rio as well as other Brazilian cities. A Frenchman (discussed under design section), Glaziou brought with him training and aesthetic learned in France and incorporated them onto a Brazilian canvas. His work, and this aesthetic legacy, can be seen in such prominent places as Rio’s Quinta da Boa Vista Park where the royal family resided and the public grounds opened. It was not until the 20th century that the origins of public park and garden style were examined for authenticity. A clear and firm Brazilian voice was infused into Rio de Janeiro’s public landscaped spaces during the early twentieth century’s modernist revolution. It was the voice of Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx, whose legacy is daily visible today in Rio. The modernists set out to form a distinct Brazilian image that could actually be observed in their cities’ built environments. As mentioned earlier the Jardims fell into a state of heavy disrepair and were subjected to vandalism for many decades, and revitalized again in 2012 under the Porto Maravilha campaign. This could have been a moment to replace “foreign” design with Brazilian creation, but yet, the Jardims were restored to their original plans, and the Roman gods– removed due to vandalism– albeit plaster copies, returned to their places.
Located at the end of Camerino Street the Jardim Suspensos on the Morro da Conceição stands in the most historic district of Rio. In colonial times the Morro was directly between the port and the main trading markets. The primary goods moving in between these sites were human chattel. The city was built around the port that serviced the slave trade, and this historic district after long being ignored is now being preserved in the city’s Porto Maravilha project. The project aims to be finished by the 2016 Olympic Games and began in 2009. Echoing Passos, the city of Rio de Janeiro is beginning at a port, yet this time rehabilitating it to present a historical district keen for tourism markets.
As a site on the Porto Maravilha’s historical circuit the Jardims Suspensos will remain a Saúde feature, and probably one that impresses visitors. Will it be embraced by Carioca’s is the question moving forward, or will it return to a sleep under overgrown vegetation and inflicted neglect.
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