Nick Nielsen

Nov 6, 2021

11 min read

Work in Progress: Mais où sont les neiges d’anten?

Friday 05 November 2021

Rio de Janeiro is a city that is as easy to love as Paris. Although I am now returned to Portland after my two and a half weeks in Brazil, the enchantment of Rio has not yet fully worn off, and I hope to carry it with me for as long as I can hang on to it — preferably until I can return, although that is not practicable. Mais où sont les neiges d’anten? The snows of yesteryear are to be found with the scattered sands of Copacabana and Ipanema still in my shoes and in my clothes.

There is a sense in which the urban design of Rio evokes a mid-century modern aesthetic. I haven’t been in Brasília, but this was of course the ultimate exercise in mid-century modern urban aesthetics, as the whole city was designed and constructed from scratch. They bulldozed a plot in the interior jungle and built the city on the geographical equivalent of a blank slate. But the forces in Brazil that created Brasília were also evident in Rio de Janeiro. When I was in Petrópolis, at the Palácio Quitandinha, there was on display a magazine fold out of mid-century Rio featured as a tourist destination, and this captured a lot of spirit of what I’m talking about.

A magazine spread on display at the Palácio Quitandinha

Rio was one of the ways in which the good life for human beings could be expressed in the modern world. There was sun, sea, sand, and surf, all on the doorstep of a major metropolitan area, and this metropolitan area was distinguished by its modernism. One could say that this mid-century modernism endured up through the completion of the Catedral Metropolitana de São Sebastião, which was finished in 1979.

There have been a lot of criticisms of Brasília in particular (Robert Hughes said of Brasília that nothing dates faster than people’s fantasies about the future), and the related modernist vision of Rio is open to some of the same criticisms, but how enduring or ephemeral it will be I cannot say. Certainly the charm of Rio and its beaches will keep the city vital, perhaps long after Brasília has been consigned to ruins and re-absorbed into the jungle of the interior.

The aerial view of the plan of Brasília resembles a bird in flight.

The glitz and glamour of modernity at Rio, however, exists in my mind in tension with an implied vision of decay and desolation. When I was walking around Rio I found myself projecting my imagination forward in time and asking myself what it would look like in the far future. Being in a tropical climate, there are parts of the city with old trees that approximate a bit of the jungle inserted into this urban context. Some of these trees were quite remarkable, enormous and hanging with bromeliads, with the roots pushing up the pavement of the sidewalk. These trees along the streets, if allowed to follow the course of nature, would create a grid pattern of forest, while the blocks of the city would be slower to recover their natural state because of all the masonry that would leave a large deposit when a building collapses.

When we walk around any city, or enter a building, or live in a house, our concern with the structure stretches out for about our lifetime or maybe a bit more, but of what stands today we have no idea what will be demolished in future urban renewals, so that the same space of ground can be given another use, and we have no idea what will be allowed to remain until eventually abandoned by human beings and allowed to return to nature — or to resist the return to nature.

Rio de Janeiro, Catedral Metropolitana de São Sebastião, completed 1979.

I had a particularly intense imaginative experience when I was walking down the inside staircase of my hotel, coming down from the pool and deck on the top floor. I suddenly (without deliberately thinking about it first) imagined myself coming down the same stairs, but in a ruined state long after the building had been abandoned. I realized that I had no idea of the future of that building, when it would be pulled down in the future to make room for a bigger and better hotel, or if it would eventually be abandoned to decay where it stands, even as the ocean continues to pound on the shore. Obviously, sea levels will eventually rise, and these ocean front hotels will all be undermined. But for the next few hundred years, we really can’t say what will be the fate of such things.

Before leaving for Brazil I was listening to The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, which is a book length thought experiment on these themes, so this may have helped to put me in this frame of mind. But the thought experiment of The World Without Us is based on the idea that human beings just disappear and leave the built environment to decay. Another layer of complexity is added when we add future human history, and future human constructions, which also will decay in the fullness of time.

To a certain extent we can predict that some parts of the built environment that are familiar to us will endure, and some parts will not, but we can’t know which is which — a non-constructive observation, which reveals our non-constructive relationship to the future — but of those that endure, we can at least calculate how gradually or rapidly they will deteriorate. As long as human civilization endures, or as long as some post-civilizational social institution that is a continuator of civilization endures, there will be a non-natural component that will be selective of the urban fabric. Some fragile structures will be preserved far beyond their natural life, and some robust structures will be purposefully demolished.

The last time I was in Seattle I watched as a highway viaduct near Pike’s Place Market was being systematically demolished, which involved a lot of effort because it was so robustly built, with concrete poured over rebar frames, which means you can’t just knock it down, it has to be torn apart by special machines and reduced to rubble, and then the rubble has to be carted away or used as fill for the next stage of the construction of what is to take its place. Even an enormous mass like Grand Coulee Dam (which I once read was the human structure likely to endure longest into the future) could be demolished by these means, and since we are now in an age of dam breeching, it is entirely within the realm of possibility that, someday, rivers might be returned to their wild state by removing even the largest of dams.

Grand Coulee dam under construction.

Say humanity comes into possession of sufficient clean power, perhaps by fusion energy, or perhaps by space-based solar power, and no longer needs to tap the biosphere for energy. In the space-based solar power scenario, we might even realize Gerard K. O’Neill’s dream of moving polluting industries off Earth so that the entirety of Earth might be re-wilded in a planetary-scale environmental initiative to reconstitute something like the pristine world of the world before civilization. In a scheme like this, I can imagine leaving picturesque ruins, and I can even imagine purposefully leaving some modern cities to gradually deteriorate and to remain standing as ruins, for as long as the course of nature allows for these ruins to remain standing.

In several blog posts I have written about how some structures will survive just like fossils (sometimes called technofossils), because of unique conditions of preservation (cf. Civilization’s Lagerstätten and Digging Up the Anthropocene). So some structures will be preserved as ruins, while others will be filled with silt and preserved in a kind of intact state, like Pompeii. One could take this idea further and plan for a city or a structure to be a cultural Lagerstätte, so that it is likely to be covered in silt before it is reduced to ruins. This could be accomplished by building on a flood plain of a river predicted to continue to flow for a few million more years at least. If you put down sufficiently sturdy foundations, and build to last, some such structure would have a good chance of being preserved nearly intact.

Relocating the Abu Simbel temple because of the Aswan High Dam.

Another unlikely topic related to historic preservation that I have written about is moving monuments from Earth elsewhere in the solar system so that they can survive geological changes to the landscape (cf. Our Terrestrial Heritage, Addendum on Our Terrestrial Heritage, and Extraterrestrial Preservation of Terrestrial Heritage). We don’t have the technology to do this at present, but we can easily imagine the possibility, looking at enormous projects like moving the Egyptian Abu Simbel temple so that it would not be underwater after the Aswan dam was completed. This comes at a cost, of course. Temples moved in this way have to be sawed into pieces, and this permanently weakens them. The argument could be made that the temples would have been better off left where they were, to be enjoyed again at some far future time after the Aswan dam has been breached and the silt cleared away.

I went to Sicily in 1997 to view The Triumph of Death that is displayed in the Palazzo Abatellis in Palermo. The fresco was formerly attached to the wall of a castle, and it had been moved to the museum by sawing it into four large parts. This is an incredible painting, and I was glad it had survived the years and that I could see it, but it has been permanently damaged by the process of removing it from its original installation and putting it in a museum.

The Triumph of Death at the Palazzo Abatellis in Palermo, in which you can clearly see that the painting was cut into four quarters when removed from its original location.

On the other hand, works like this that have already been moved could be moved again. The Triumph of Death painting could be removed from the Palazzo Abatellis and taken off Earth, whether to be displayed on the moon or Mars or even in an O’Neill structure. The Abu Simbel temple in Egypt that was cut up and reassembled could be disassembled again, moved off Earth, and reassembled elsewhere. It might actually look good on Mars, given that the dusty deserts of Mars are not unlike Egypt beyond the Nile Valley.

Historic presentation on a cosmological scale, as I have described it above, could itself be a central project of a civilization that was obsessed with protecting its heritage. Just because we are today passing through an iconoclastic stage doesn’t mean that this will last forever. Statutes may eventually be conceived as having value again. In Fukuyama’s famous “The End of History?” essay he wrote: “In the post-historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history.” The perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history could take the form of preserving monuments from our past for cosmological scales of time by removing them from their geological context.

Woud it be possible to move Pompeii off world in order to preserve it for the far future? Would we have to move Vesuvius also (for reasons of authenticity), or would it be “good enough” to move the city and then sculpt an imitation Vesuvius in order to give the proper skyline as a backdrop to the city?

Moving a painting like The Triumph of Death could be done in a pretty straight-forward way, and it would even be possible to move Abu Simbel off planet, but how would you move a city? How would you display a city? We have examples like Pompeii, which is, essentially, a displayed city. Pompeii could be taken up off Earth, nearly intact, preserving as much landscape as was necessary (one would want to include the Villa of the Mysteries, which is a little outside the city). Displaying Rio would be a little more difficult, as it would require a simulated ocean. Even this has been imagined, after a fashion, in the 1998 film Dark City, in which a city and even a neighboring beach community (Shell Beach, if memory serves) are preserved on an alien spacecraft.

About the mid-century modern vibe of Brazilian cities like Rio and Brasília, I think this will eventually be a recognized style like renaissance, baroque, rococo, neo-classicism, art nouveau, or art deco. Cities that are able to preserve this aspect will attract visitors and tourists who want to experience this first-hand. So even if the vision gets a little run down in the meantime, further in the future, after it gets more run down and then is eventually restored by later and more advanced technologies, places like this will be showcases. In the same way that Ouro Preto is a showcase for baroque colonial architecture, Rio could be a showcase of mid-century modern architecture, unless at some point the city undergoes a near total rebuilding, as with Paris under Haussmann or Tokyo after its firebombing and subsequent economic development.

Destruction of the Medieval Buildings on the Ile de Ia Cité

For those who believe that progress in history coincides with increased and increasing rationalization, and that we have experienced progress, it is difficult to reconcile the example of the 19th century planned rebuilding of Paris, which was not devastated by a war, fire, earthquake or other such excuse for re-building, in comparison to the 20th century reconstructions of cities, which all happened due to war and natural disaster. There may be some exceptions (and I would be very pleased to have them pointed out to me), but, in the main, 20th century urban reconstruction was reactive rather than proactive. One could consider urban renewal to be a counter-example to this, but this would require further detailed discussion.

Lisbon is a perfect example of reconstruction after a natural disaster (the 1755 earthquake, fires, and tsunami), so this kind of rebuilding isn’t distinctive to the 20th century. The point I wanted to make, perhaps only implicit in the above, is that in our drift toward neo-feudalism, social arrangements and institutions become so hidebound and risk-averse that wholesale rebuilding only becomes possible when triggered by an exogenous event.

Rio de Janeiro in the rain

The 19th century, which authentically believed in progress, could tear down a perfectly functional city like Paris and rebuild it, believing that this was for the best. From this effort, we have gained modern Paris, and I began this newsletter with observing that Rio de Janeiro is as easy to love as Paris. Haussmann’s Paris was an inspired design, and that is much of what makes the city easy to love. If Paris had been re-built yet again, after Le Corbusier’s plan — the Plan Voisin — I doubt that it would be as lovable a city. (Does anyone love brutalist cities?) But is Haussmann’s Paris as lovable as the medieval metropolis that was lost as a result of Haussmannization?

Ilha Grande, Brazil