By Carissa Lim, Emily Siegel, and Paul Marett
Christian de Portzamparc once said, “Architecture is, above all, here for a better living. Every gesture, every shape, must be justified by various reasons that would reinforce their reason to be, their use, and will give more sense to their beauty.” As lead architect of Cidade das Artes, or City of the Arts, located in Rio de Janeiro’s Barra da Tijuca neighborhood, Portzamparc applies this philosophy directly to his design for the cultural center.
An exemplar of postmodern architecture, the building towers over its immediate surroundings giving an impression of force and density. A concrete winding ramp leads to a giant mass made of multiple slabs of concrete and panes of glass (See Figure 1). Portzamparc hoped to create a building that created a strong urban mark, something that he saw lacking in Rio de Janeiro. As such, he raised the building ten meters off the ground to offer a view of the neighboring landscape, and mimicked its surroundings with the curves of the concrete (See Figure 2). Large and imposing, it was designed to resemble the prow of a boat, but it seems as though the last thing it would do is float.
Designed to be Rio de Janeiro’s predominant cultural center, Cidade das Artes strongly reflects the typical Carioca’s cultural values. The use of pilotis pays homage to modern architecture such as that of Oscar Niemeyer (See Figure 3); The bird-shaped cutouts in the roof reveal an appreciation for nature (See Figure 4); The elevation of the building allows for dichotomous views of the mountains and the sea, highlighting Rio’s unique location; The variety of facilities housed by the building reflects an appreciation for all of the arts (the facilities include a main hall for symphonies and operas, a small one for chamber music, movie theaters, dance studios, rehearsal rooms, exhibition spaces, restaurants, and a media library).
However, its construction was highly controversial. While Cidade das Artes was intended to become a cultural icon, many Brazilians do not view the postmodern concrete giant as that. Formally opened in 2013, it cost over five times its allocated budget (from R$86 to R$515 million). This massive overspending has led many to argue that the funding for Cidade das Artes should have been dedicated to more pressing issues in Rio, such as improving education or sanitation. This controversy is reflective of the current political climate in Rio, where large urban developments are being questioned because of the looming issues that are not receiving enough government attention. Particularly, as the city forms a strong global presence through the housing of mega events such as the World Cup and the Olympics, its people question whether national funds should be dedicated to these international gambits when such large infrastructural problems still exist.
Additionally, while Cidade das Artes may have succeeded on paper (in addition to holding regular performances, it also hosts the Brazilian Symphony Orchestra), in reality it hardly amounts to being the paragon of cultural and communal ideals that it purports to be. One of the main problems facing Cidade das Artes is its location. Despite being far from both the beach district and the downtown, there is no subway stop that allows access to the building. The building’s purpose was to be emblematic of Brazilian culture, yet it is not even physically accessible to the people who make that culture possible. Its location only allows people who can afford cars the ability to travel there, which explains why it lies barren and empty in between performances, save for the occasional tour group. Limited physical accessibility to the building questions its claims as a cultural node, if the majority of the population has no way of getting there. Further hurting it is its complete lack of places to sit. There are no benches and the “park” area below the structure feels more like a prison beneath its weight than a place for socializing (See Figure 5). Its lack of visitors is unsurprising since its hard walls and shadowed spaces don’t exactly make it a friendly and inviting space. And the persistent lack of “residents” reinforces its inability to become a social hub.
Moreover, the building is primarily used for operas and symphonies, activities notoriously considered high forms of art. While these activities exist in Rio de Janeiro, they are not necessarily representative of the diverse and exotic forms of art and dance that form the vibrant Brazilian culture. The events held in Cidade das Artes target members of the upper class who want to experience and can afford a specific type of art. Yet, the building fails to include options for the majority of Rio’s population that cannot afford to go to a symphony, further undermining its claim to be a cultural hub.
Despite successfully creating a new performance space, Cidade das Artes fails in what is perhaps its true purpose, namely showcasing a new “city of the arts” as part of Rio’s high culture. Even with its massive budget, it could not overcome the failures of its location and its design, which detract from its goal. Portzamparc says, “architecture is, above all, here for a better living,” but in the end his Cidade das Artes does little to better the lives of Rio’s citizens.