Roberto Cabot

The City-District of Copacabana: from the modern to the contemporary

"Copacabana", Rio de Janeiro © Creative Commons

The contrast with the neo-cybernetic model of smart cities (a vision of urban planning based on control and security that has many troubling facets) may explain why many observers of urban realities are riveted as they examine the spontaneous urban forms typical of the cities of the South. Copacabana is an exemplary microcosm of this dimension that is such an integral part of Rio de Janeiro. The artist Roberto Cabot analyzes the district of Copacabana from the inside and beyond stereotypes, including its informal way of operating, its self-managed and non-institutional systems of shops, security and social life.

Roberto Cabot is a Brazilian painter, sculptor and musician.

Modern Copacabana was founded at the time of the construction of the Copacabana Palace in 1923. The emergence of the Palace, with its casino and theater where stars such as Mistinguett and Grace Moore, the “nightingale of Hollywood,” graced the stage in the 1930s and 1940s, transformed the area that also benefited from the construction of an access tunnel during the same period. Over the course of three decades, this quiet seaside suburb became a modern neighborhood based on a template of ten-story buildings on an urban grid plan inspired by Haussmann. But it also had to adapt to the curves and particular topography of the bay, which in the end is a little piece of marshland stuck between gigantic rocks and the sea. The urban inspiration at the outset was Paris, with pockets of buildings stuck to each other with inner courtyards. The “Beaux-Arts” style was used until the 1940s, and then a more vertical style was adopted, a resolutely “American” modern style. Even today, Copacabana has the best infrastructure in the city.

Organic development

Copacabana reached its first zenith in the 1950s: it was the chic quarter with beautiful shops and a bohemian feel, and, at the end of the decade, the birthplace of the bossa nova in the bars around the Avenue Nossa Senhora de Copacabana which was the main commercial artery of the neighborhood. The first shopping center on the continent was also built there, designed by Henrique Mindlin in 1953 and inaugurated in 1960. Mindlin had worked with Affonso Reidy on the Museum of Modern Art in Rio. Many songs, movies, and literary works found their inspiration in Copacabana at the time, and it became one of the most famous places in the world.

Évolution du quartier de Copacabana © Roberto Cabot

The increasing density and progressive mix of social classes during the 1950s and 1960s resulted in the exodus of the wealthy population. They began to flee this melting pot that had become dense and noisy for Leblon and Ipanema, the new districts next to Copacabana that were still relatively underdeveloped and that were based on a more elitist model, as well as on a smaller scale. Copacabana entered into a phase of progressive decline, due mainly to the aging population, as the urban dynamics of the time led the young and affluent to move westward to the new suburb of Barra da Tijuca that began to be develop in the 1970s. Their grandparents remained and new residents occupied apartments that had become cheaper, while the public authority abandoned the old postcard image of the city, and Copacabana deteriorated, informalized, and the area became unsafe.

And yet the area resisted, continued to function, adapted, and the different agents in the complex universe that now constituted its people and its economy, created in a symbiotic way different levels of cohabitation. Due to the virtual absence of a regulator or local authority, various mechanisms were developed and put in place to compensate for the lack of a central authority to organize urban life. The relationship to the beach and its seaside town dimension was also one of the factors that saved Copacabana from disaster.

New limits were reinvented over time and rules of cohabitation became unspoken yet generalized norms. New roles were created along with new functions. The new Copacabana would inherit from its heyday the role of the doorman, who controlled the entrance to a building, but who also formed a communication and security network that spread throughout the neighborhood. Public spaces, and in particular streets, were reorganized and used in a way never imagined by the modern planners of this vertical neighborhood.

Since the 2000s, Copacabana has had a rebirth. The extraordinary survival of the “Copacabana” image and a return of a younger population, coupled with the prosperity gained throughout the decade has seen the transformation of the dense population into a major asset, one that has generated revenue for the government. Despite this, the alternative systems that were developed over time are still in place and coexist with the institutional systems. The area became a meeting point for the whole city, where all social groups are represented, and people come from everywhere to eat, go to the dentist, work, go to the beach, walk, go out, and beg. Copacabana has become the tourist heart of the city of Rio, its picture postcard. The public authorities have once again begun to invest in the neighborhood, organizing many events for large crowds, often improvised somewhat precariously, bringing two million people to the beaches of Copacabana.

The period of abandonment of Copacabana allowed for a seemingly chaotic organic growth, but in reality it was very structured. A responsiveness to freedom and a laissez-faire attitude took hold between the rocks and the sea, between the canyons of the buildings, in the recesses created by endless interventions in the urban fabric, and even within buildings. This process of organic and unplanned reorganization (the original unprecedented growth and the abandonment that followed) has produced much of what Rem Koolhaas defined as “junkspace.” One can find in the same building dentists, realtors, manicurists, electronics stores, sexual services, boutiques, religious temples, a pharmacy, and sometimes even a bank on the ground floor.

The emergence of three favelas surrounding Copacabana has also made available an inexpensive labor force that lives nearby, allowing the establishment of a large network of low-cost services that are a feature of the area, especially for the twenty-five percent of the population who are retirees living there and who are in need of countless services.

This is the diversity that makes Copacabana so interesting and which has created a context of freedom. It extends to the relationship between the outside and the inside, because, from the outset, the buildings had entrances that were a continuation of the street, without clear boundaries between public and private space. During the period of elevated crime rates, between 1980 and 2000, almost all buildings were equipped with gates separating them completely from the street. And yet, despite this physical barrier, the inside/outside relationship retained its permeability.

Many temples of worship of various beliefs, and their corresponding supply stores are also part of the context of the city neighborhood: there are Catholic churches, synagogues, Protestant temples of various persuasions, spiritualism centers, places of worship for Afro-Brazilian religions, Umbanda, Candomblé, and Quimbanda, and oriental religions. It is not uncommon to see voodoo offerings at intersections along with chickens roasting, candles, and cassava flour in earthen pots.

Copacabana is also a hotbed of sexual services, with a huge concentration throughout the neighborhood of brothels and street prostitution. A “secret” relationship between hotels and the sex economy has created an underground services network for tourists. It is a significant but ignored part of society that is not regulated and has spread throughout the area of Copacabana to mix with other branches of the local economy and its general activities.

The vast majority of Copacabana’s streets are culs-de-sac which abut on the rocks or terminate at the seafront. This is a characteristic of Copacabana and there is only a limited number of thoroughfares by tunnel or along the coast, creating a kind of insularity that promotes a community spirit and the development of a certain self-sufficiency.

Urban microcosm

Copacabana is now a city-neighborhood or city-district containing everything a city can offer, though on its own scale. There is even a “nature reserve.” With its estimated population of between 150,000 and 200,000 inhabitants, to which one can add over 10,000 tourists staying in hotels and other accommodation, Copacabana can provide everything that an individual needs from the moment of their birth in one of its hospitals. They may attend one of the many schools in the area, then go to college or take a technical course, work in one of the countless companies located in Copacabana, enjoy their retirement at the beach before taking advantage of funeral services where residents are buried in the cemetery on the other side of the tunnel, in the adjoining district of Botafogo.

At this very moment Copacabana continues to evolve, driven by the recent prosperity of the country and of the city itself, which has caused a sharp increase in the value of real estate, but also because of generational renewal due to the gradual departure of older residents. How will these organic systems, which were created over decades, change in the face of this new situation? What other systems will evolve? The answers remain as elusive as ever. Somewhere between the Generic City of Rem Koolhaas and its antithesis, Copacabana continues to exist in a dynamic and unpredictable complexity, linked to the specifics of the territory, a unique environment and one that has been relatively unaffected by globalization.

Évolution du quartier de Copacabana © Roberto Cabot

Figure 2, Detail of Copacabana. A portion of the area which shows the diversity and relationship between formal and informal activities, but also the central role of the beach and the sea, where there is a concentration of high property value, a population with purchasing power, a large number of hotels, and a strong presence of the sex trade on the streets and around the hotels. Apartment buildings often contain places of prostitution. Temples and other places related to religion intermingle with stores, offices, and residential buildings. Commerce has moved away from the coast in search of more reasonable rent.

Figure 2 Nomadic economic activity © Roberto Cabot
Vertical - Horizontal - Elevation © Roberto Cabot
Figure 3 Vertical - Horizontal - Elevation © Roberto Cabot


Figure 3, in addition, a view showing the nomadic and partly informal economic activity on the streets of Copacabana, with a clear distinction of territory between traders. A part of public space is occupied by the “camelôs,” street vendors equipped with a system of temporary stands for product display, by craftsmen who repair wicker chairs or kitchen pots and pans. Some older activities, like the upholsterers, have “fixed” spaces where they can always be found on any given day. Doormen let them store their tools, materials, or chairs in the surrounding buildings. Why some street traders are prosecuted by the police, while others are not, is unclear. It is probably based on commercial relations with the local police officer or municipal authority of the moment.

The vertical structure of the city follows the dynamics of its horizontal space. Copacabana welcomed the first shopping centers on the South American continent as early as the 1950s, and these spaces have undergone an evolution that reflects the economic decline of the neighborhood and its abandonment by the government. The Shopping Cidade Copacabana mall, as its name suggests, is a vertical city. The project includes several floors of residential apartments, three floors of retail, and a pedestrian walkway between Figueiredo Magalhães and Siqueira Campos, two major arteries of the neighborhood. Over time, this “junkspace” has been fully integrated within its environment, without any plan or project manager. The lack of institutional regulation over several decades has created an organic system based on the immediate needs of the place, which evolves in parallel to that of the surrounding urban development. The range of products and services offered in the commercial sector is huge, with a marked contrast between stores for building materials, medical equipment, vintage vinyl LPs, curios, clothing, art galleries, antique dealers of all kinds, hardware, electronics, cleaning products, restaurants, copy shops, lan-house gaming centers, lights, and installers of blinds, among others.

Informal network  

The period of high crime rates in the 1980s until 2000 led to the creation of a system of private security services that is more like a complex organic immune system than a classic security scheme. It is composed of different layers that are not clearly defined, and yet they are fully integrated into the neighborhood today and interact with state security, which relies on this informal network to maintain order.

Figure 4 : Neighboorhood and Interaction with State Autority © Roberto Cabot

The diagram (Figure 4) illustrates this relationship in one part of the district. The different agents are identified by color: purple circles with crosses indicate military and municipal police (without firearms); blue dots represent doormen who are omnipresent in all residential buildings, serving various functions including the supervision of security; in red are businesses with private security services that are sometimes made up of teams of several guards, often former police officers or firefighters (both are militarized in Brazil); green represents private security guards hired by residents to monitor the streets especially at night, and who are located at traffic intersections; in yellow are parking attendants whose legality is questionable but who interact with the other services of the security system. Colored lines that unite the dots represent the interaction between the layers and the privileged relationships between the different services. In yellow, the connections between the parking attendants; light blue, the network of doormen; red, the link between security teams for the commercial sector; green, the links between community security guards serving residential buildings, or those hired by collective housing organizations, who have the responsibility to ensure the safety of several streets, in close relationship with the doormen.

The strong presence of informal communication methods and word of mouth is one of the characteristics specific to Copacabana. The high density of the population with the close proximity between housing units, along with the ubiquitous role of the doorman provides an excellent human network for the transmission of information that works in a highly efficient manner, greatly influencing the life of the area.

Figure 5 : Speed of Transmission and the Scope of the Network © Roberto Cabot

The diagram (Figure 5) shows the result of a series of experiments, conducted in 2013 and 2014, that sought to measure the speed of transmission and the scope of this network. Three experiments are shown with three different kinds of rumors being diffused. The core network is composed of six carriers, one of them beyond the limits of Copacabana in Ipanema, the other in Leme, the northern end of Copacabana. Rumor A was local and involves an accident—the collapse of a manhole with injured persons. The vectors of transmission of this rumor are shown in red, with the measurement of the transmission time of each path in black. Rumor B reported a robbery on the beach and Rumor C was of international interest, recounting how China had declared war on the USA, shown in light blue. The green dots represent the carriers who were identified and involved in the spreading of the rumor within the network. The importance of this diffusion of information on a local level is readily discernible.

(This article was published in Stream 03 in 2014.)