MAR – Rio Art Museum
By Jakob Harry Hybel
Rio’s most recent museum, the Rio Art Museum – or MAR, as it’s known by its Portuguese acronym – is one of the flagships in the city’s $3.8 billion plan to renovate and revitalize its run-down port district. It is also a tactful conciliation of old and new.
Frantically preparing for two of the world’s most prestigious sporting events, the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics – South America’s first Olympic event – Rio is undergoing an urban transformation of unprecedented proportions.
A key concern in this grand reinvention plan has been to ward off Rio’s unflattering reputation of merely being a city of crowded sandy beaches, extravagant carnival celebrations and crime-ridden favelas. With the impending swarms of Olympic tourists, the Brazilian capital now stakes everything on becoming a city of culture and commerce.
Taking its cue from the ambitious port renovations that Barcelona and Sydney undertook as a part of their respective Olympic preparations, Rio intends to mirror the success of these transformations and turn its derelict port district into a bustling artistic hub. This is what the MAR along with a number of other high-profile museum projects planned or already being built is meant to ensure.
Consolidating old and new
The MAR is centrally located in the heart of the city’s port district right next to the Praça Mauá, but somewhat inconveniently wedged in between old, colonial buildings in decay and a multi-lane elevated highway.
The museum consists of two buildings, each with their own program: the Dom João VI Royal Mansion, a colonial-style building dating from the beginning of last century and listed by the city, which houses the actual museum space, as well as a modernist building that used to be a car park and part of the bus terminal housing the art school ‘Escola do Olhar’ (literally, ‘School of Vision’).
At the top floor of the school building, a terrace gathers all the museum’s access points and creates a space for outdoor cultural events. It also causes the flow of visitors to pass through the museum from top to bottom. To enable the flow between the two buildings, they are also joined by a fifth-floor walkway.
The building’s indistinguishable trademark, however, is its sculptural canopy: a wavy roof structure pitched on slender columns, appearing as if it floats. Evoking either a flying carpet or, as was the intention of the architects, the waves of the nearby Guanabara Bay. It also clearly works as an overarching, symbolic gesture, suggesting a conjunction of old and new, past and future.
Teaching art appreciation
The MAR aims to tell the city’s history through the arts and it hosts a permanent collection as well as short- and long-term temporary exhibitions of both national and international artists. The 5,200 m2 museum building houses eight exhibition halls, but it also includes an auditorium and classrooms, where teachers from Rio’s public schools will be able to receive ‘art appreciation’ classes.
Overall, education is a big aim of the project and hence, the two programs are not conceived as separate, but as overlapping and interdependent. The museum should benefit from the teaching at the art school and vice versa. Furthermore, museum officials have stated that they hope to bring 100,000 public school students to the museum in the first year – a number they hope to then double in the years following.
Development as diversion
Not everyone appreciates the direction the city is headed in, though. The frenzied overhaul of the port zone has set off a number of public protests claiming that Rio is neglecting its past in the all-consuming rush to build its future. The protesters challenge the so-called ‘port revitalization’, seeing it as an ill-conceived attempt to cover up and distract from the fact that the area used to accommodate the largest slave trading port in the Americas.
These concerns may be legitimate when you consider the extravagant design of the Museum of Tomorrow by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, currently being built on the waterfront right next to the port, not to mention Rio’s very own set of Trump Towers. The critique seems slightly less to the point, when it comes to the MAR, as its considerate design succeeds on many accounts in balancing the city’s past with its aspirations of newfangledness.