Rio on the rise
Not everyone is happy about the rejuvenation of Brazil’s tourist gateway
EVEN from a distance, I can make out Rio Art Museum’s distinctive roof rising above a clutter of scaffolding, cranes and boarded-up building sites. Tracing delicate arcs through the sky above Rio de Janeiro’s rundown port, the wave-form roof unites the museum’s main building, a classical-style palace erected in 1918, with a newly built, glass-walled annexe.
Unveiled in March, the new museum illustrates Rio de Janeiro’s history through art and design. I know its eclectic collection of works will be compelling. But once inside, I follow most other visitors and head straight to the rooftop bar.
For months, Rio has been gearing up to host key elements of the FIFA World Cup, which kicks off at the city’s Maracana Stadium in June next year. In 2016, Rio again hosts an international sporting event when it will become the first city in South America to hold the Olympic Games. As authorities have rushed to spruce up everything from soccer stadia to the city’s infamous favela slums, the museum’s roof terrace offers a unique view of the kind of reborn city that is likely to emerge.
‘‘Rio’s port dates from the city’s founding years. It has incredible buildings and some great stories, but it’s been abandoned and derelict for so long that [Rio residents] Cariocas have almost forgotten it’s there,’’ says Rob Burhoe, the Canadian-born owner of O Veleiro, a B&B in a private home in Botafogo. Heregularly guides his guests around the city’s cultural sites.
From the terrace, we can see the Maua Pier jutting out into the glittering waters of Guanabara Bay, where workers are putting the finishing touches to a whiteribbed, arrow-like structure. Designed by Santiago Calatrava, the skeletal building will open next year as the Museum of Tomorrow, dedicated to science and technology.
To our left, a long line of warehouses and wharves that once served White Star Line passenger ships have already been fastidiously restored, their brick facades scrubbed and painted, their roofs re-lined with corrugated iron. Far beyond, I can just make out engineers taking measurements for a new road bridge crossing the bay.
Known as Porto Maravilha, or Marvellous Port, the scheme to transform the port into a vibrant tourist and business hub includes new docking facilities for cruise liners, a light railway and an incubator for artists on Morro da Conceicao, one of the five hills originally settled by Portuguese colonists.
A highlight for foreign visitors is the planned demolition of Elevado da Perimetral, an elevated highway that cuts brutally through the city’s historic district. The busy road, which connects Rio’s northern districts with its downtown, is being replaced in sections by a 6km tunnel. Finance to meet the project’s 8 billion Brazilian real ($3.7bn) costs has come via the sale of new building permits to developers and investors.
City planners, who say they aim to make the district desirable for residents and tourists alike, have striven to avoid the sense of soullessness that has overshadowed similar docklands schemes in other countries. Parks, plazas and other green spaces feature prominently. Power cables, too, are going underground, a concession to urban aesthetics all too rare in South America.
Protection for heritage buildings has also been paramount, particularly after archeologists uncovered the ruins of Valongo Pier, a notorious wharf where millions of African slaves were landed and sold to plantation owners on the quayside. Chillingly, investigators also located a slave cemetery where those too ill to continue were hastily buried.
The Rio Art Museum has emerged as the project’s cultural anchor. Eclectic works donated by private collectors include 19th-century oils by Paris-born landscape artist Henri Vinet, which offer intriguing glimpses of the beach areas of Copacabana and Ipanema long before high-rise apartment blocks and hotels lined the shores.
In one room, 1940s film posters hang alongside promotional ads for former national airline Varig, their stylised art deco lines portraying the city in its dreamy golden years. In the final salon, contemporary city shots by local photographer Claudia Jaguaribe sit alongside a mock-up of a favela crafted in naive-art style.
The port project, in turn, is part of wider revamping efforts taking place across the city. All across Rio, in fact, I find pockets of renovation and renewal. On the fabled beach at Copacabana, where sailors and rowers will compete for Olympic gold in 2016, workers have replaced cheap-and-cheerful coconut stands with glasswalled cafes that allow unsullied ocean views. Clunky plastic furniture with brightly painted advertising has given way to stylised steel tables and slimline chairs.
Coconuts, locals mutter, are now twice the price. But beach users have welcomed new luxuries such as
Clockwise from above, Brazilians celebrate the choice of Rio as 2016 Olympics host; great views of the city from the Sugarloaf Mountain cable car; an artist’s impression of the proposed Museum of Tomorrow; the Rio Art Museum; and the Maracana Stadium