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On August 13, 2021, we were surprised by news that the Brazilian Federal Government intended to put on sale a set of more than 2,000 properties located in Rio de Janeiro, some architectural symbols, such as the Edifício A Noite (building) and the Palácio Gustavo Capanema (palace), both outstanding examples of cultural heritage, not only of the city, but of the country as a whole. A Noite, the first skyscraper in South America built of reinforced concrete, housed Rádio Nacional, a symbol of the memory of our mass media, but it has been unoccupied for years. The Gustavo Capanema Palace, on the other hand, is occupied, housing a series of institutions dedicated to Culture and Education, and has been a hub of culture since its inauguration in 1945, due to the various institutions historically associated with heritage and culture. Now, however, if the sale goes ahead, they will be permanently displaced.

The Palace was built between 1937 and 1945 to be the headquarters of the newly created Ministry of Education and Health, a milestone in the formation process of the Brazilian National State. The building project was aimed at reflecting a new Brazil, cultured, educated, healthy and integrated into the civilised world, while, at the same time, maintaining links to its identity, history and heritage. With 16 stories, much more than a fundamental landmark of modern world architecture, it is a civilizing landmark for the country and a project for a nation based on education, culture and public health. The Brazilian cultural heritage policy, instituted at the same time upon the creation of the National Historical and Artistic Heritage Institute in 1937, located on the eighth and ninth floors, has, since its inauguration, been intrinsically associated with this building, and both are part of the same civilizational project.

Subsequent to initial consultancy by the Swiss architect, Le Corbusier, the team of architects, led by Lucio Costa and including Affonso E. Reidy, Carlos Leão, Ernani Vasconcellos, Jorge Moreira and Oscar Niemeyer, conferred the project its own identity. All the qualities of the building are superlative: murals and tile panels by Candido Portinari, gardens by the landscape architect, Roberto Burle Marx, sculpture by Bruno Giorgi, the first building built on columns, leaving the ground free for circulation, the first building with a fully glazed façade of such proportions in the world. For all these reasons, at that time, the structure constituted a reference in South America, and the building became a landmark of innovation, which significantly influenced the direction of the modernist movement in both Brazil and the rest of the world. As of that moment, modernst architecture in Brazil became unique in being capable of meeting the government building demand, a fact that attracted international recognition.

Even with the transfer of the capital to Brasília in 1960, the building has been kept fully occupied, performing a series of administrative and cultural functions until today. Institutions, such as the National Historical and Artistic Heritage Institute (IPHAN), the Brazilian Institute of Museums (IBRAM), the Palmares Foundation, the National Library Foundation (FBN), the National Art Foundation (FUNARTE), among others, all operate in it. Also housed are IPHAN’s Professional Master's Degree course in the Preservation of Cultural Heritage, and the Centro Lucio Costa, a category II UNESCO centre dedicated to training and serving South American and Portuguese-speaking African countries. It possesses important collections, listed as heritage, such as in the Noronha Santos Library and the IPHAN Central Archive holding a significant part of the history of cultural heritage policy in Brazil, widely consulted by professionals and students. The cultural and educational activities, promoted and maintained by these institutions, receive around 42,000 visitors a year, not counting the people that participates in artistic activities, such as the exhibitions and in the Gilberto Freyre auditorium, the Sidney Miller room, as well as student excursions and tourists visiting the Portinari Hall and the Burle Marx hanging gardens.

At the moment, the building is undergoing the greatest restoration in its history, necessary after almost 80 years of existence. For this reason, all the institutions were removed and temporarily installed in rooms rented at high cost to the taxpayer, spread across the city of Rio de Janeiro. The restoration project, financed with public funds, provides for the maintenance of the initial administrative, cultural and educational functions and an expansion of its public use and visitation, even greater than originally planned. Selling the Palácio Capanema would mean dismantling this structure so fundamental for Rio de Janeiro and Brazil, in addition to permanently transforming the temporary rental expenses into facilities that have often been inadequate for these administrative and educational functions. Even if the new proprietor is committed to maintaining the architectural qualities, since it is a Federally listed building, it would be freed from the function for which it was built, that is, open to the public and inseparable from its characteristics as a promoter and executor of cultural policies. Thus, it would represent irreversible damage to national culture. The eviction of all the institutions that have occupied the building for over 80 years and make it one of the most culturally representative buildings in the heart of Rio de Janeiro, would signify an impactful collapse of culture, not only in this country, but worldwide. Although a landmark of civilization, privatizing the building would represent one more retrograde step.

Due to its relevance, the building was listed and registered as national heritage in 1948, shortly after its inauguration. In 1996, it was included on Brazil's Indicative List for the World Heritage List, a necessary first step towards its definitive registration by UNESCO. The ongoing restoration is part of the preparations for forwarding the application. ICOMOS-Brazil, as a non-governmental organization that advises UNESCO on World Heritage, has a duty to point out that, in addition to its exceptional, undeniable architectural and artistic characteristics, its cultural value is associated with the functions for which it was conceived and still exercises today. Taking away the historical function for which it was designed, linked to the culture and education policy in the country, would irremediably compromise important characteristics for listing as UNESCO World Heritage. Fundamental criteria for registration, such as authenticity and integrity, would be irreparably affected, and this could result in permanent exclusion from the List, resulting in loss of opportunities for culture and economy in the country, in addition to all the aforementioned adverse effects.

For all these reasons, we call on the country's authorities to raise awareness of the fundamental role this property plays, and its value for Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and the world. We also appeal to the national and international community to take part in a campaign so that Palácio Capanema continues to play the fundamental role for which it was conceived, a Palace of Culture.


August 15, 2021.


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