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Plans for Rio Guggenheim are dead in the water

Michael Astor

Plans to build an underwater branch of the Guggenheim museum are dead in the water, Rio's mayor said on Thursday. "The first project offered lots of risks, even functional ones since it was a submerged museum," said Cesar Maia. Plans for the Rio Guggenheim were attacked almost as soon as they were unveiled.

Plans to build an underwater branch of the Guggenheim museum here are dead in the water, Rio’s mayor said on Thursday.

“The first project offered lots of risks, even functional ones since it was a submerged museum,” said Cesar Maia.

Maia scuttled expectations for the museum, which he and Guggenheim director Thomas Krens announced with great fanfare in 2003. Expected to cost $170-million, the museum was designed by French architect Jean Nouvel and was supposed to anchor a larger project to revitalise the city’s decrepit port district.

Krens and Maia had hoped the Rio museum would repeat the success of the Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain, architect Frank Gehry’s exuberantly curved, titanium structure that has turned the drab industrial city into a top tourist destination.

Maia said the contract with the Guggenheim to build the Nouvel-designed structure had been canceled, but he held out hope Rio would build another, perhaps smaller Guggenheim in the future.

He said the city hoped that during this “transition” to a new design the Guggenheim museum could work out an agreement to lend works of art to the city’s Modern Art Museum.

“The Modern Art Museum has agreed to this but we haven’t heard back yet from the Guggenheim,” Maia said.

Plans for the Rio Guggenheim were attacked almost as soon as they were unveiled.

Critics called the plan “a cultural Titanic,” and questioned everything from its cost to Nouvel’s design, which some likened to a huge, rusting oil drum partly submerged in the bay.

Under the plan, Rio would have covered all the costs of building the museum in return for the prestige of the Guggenheim name and access to the museum’s collection, as well as those of Russia’s Hermitage and Austria’s Kunsthistorische museum.

Opponents sued to block the project, arguing the city needed the funds to build schools, hospitals and basic sewage systems in slum areas.

A judge ruled that Maia could not legally sign the contract because it entailed financial obligations beyond his term in office. The court also said the contract included payments in US dollars instead of local currency, which can only be authorised by Brazil’s Senate.

Maia said that rather than appeal the decision, which could set a dangerous precedent, the city had decided to cancel the current contract and seek an alternative.

The original enthusiasm for the project, however, apparently has ebbed.

Cleveland philanthropist Peter Lewis resigned as chairperson of the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum in January, saying he disagreed with the institution’s focus on international expansion.

Even as the project was announced, the Guggenheim saw its revenues decline and was obliged to scale back plans and to close a branch in Las Vegas. - Sapa-AP

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