By Paul Marett
When it comes to revitalization projects, cities have a lot of choice, and each choice that is made reveals a little more about how the city sees itself and its relationship with its past. In 2009, Rio de Janeiro began work on the Porto Maravilha (Marvelous Port) project, with the goal of revitalizing its decaying port district. The project picked up momentum in late 2009 when the IOC announced that Rio would be hosting the 2016 Olympics, prompting the city council to allow tax breaks for development projects in the area in early 2010.
Porto Maravilha is divided into a few phases. Interestingly, it is not until Phase Two that the project begins focusing on quality of life improvements for residents of the district, including infrastructure and utility improvements. Phase One is focused on renovating the look of the area with new parks and open spaces, and new museums designed to be tourist destinations for Olympic attendees. This choice of priorities underscores the goals that the government has in revitalizing the area. In fact, the mostly working-class residents of the area are upset about the developments occurring in their neighborhood as much of it involves forced relocation (especially in Morro de Providencia, Rio’s oldest favela), or large housing projects expected to drastically raise the cost of living in the area. For the overseers of the project, it makes sense to first attract the wealthier citizens of Rio to the port and then improve the infrastructure for their benefit.
These decisions are particularly poignant in light of the historical importance of the port. Both the Cais do Valongo, the port of entry for most of Rio’s slaves, and the Pedra do Sal, a series of steps carved into stone by slaves in an effort to make their laborious climbs easier, lie within the port district. Rather than turn these into monuments or sites of historical importance, Rio has chosen to ignore them in favor of a focus on the present and the future. In doing so, they are making a clear statement that the new Port will have nothing to do with its perhaps shameful past, which Rio wants to properly obscure in time for it to arrive on the international stage in 2016.
In March of 2013, the Museu do Arte do Rio opened its doors, as one of the earliest completed projects to result from the Porto Maravilha. Combining an old bus station and police station from the 1940s (done in the modernist style) with the former Palacete Dom Joao VI from 1916 (done in the classical style), the museum acknowledges a history of changes in architectural styles even as it draws attention away from the histories of slavery. The palace now holds the museum proper, while the rest of the complex is occupied by the Escola do Olhar, which aims to integrate art and education. The wave-inspired roof structure bridging the two buildings covers an outdoor bar and event space. The museum also houses a library and sponsors a program aimed at promoting art in local Universities.
In renovating an area of the city, there is a choice to be made about which parts of the history to keep and which parts to throw away. In it’s marvelous port project, Rio is making a clear choice to keep the architectural history and toss the social history. As it nears the Olympics, it wants to present to the world a shining image of a city that is both modern and international, but respects its history. What most people won’t know is that Rio has deliberately chosen which history to show, and it may not be the one you would hope.