the Bolsonaro Government announced the auction sale of the Palácio Capanema in Rio, a modern architecture icon that was formerly the Ministry of Education building
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Via the Ministry of Economy and the Ministry of Labor and Welfare, the Bolsonaro Government wants to privatize a group of properties belonging to the Union. The "star of the auction” is the Palacio Capanema, which was headquarters of the Ministry of Education and Health, later Education and Culture, until the capital moved to Brasília. An initiative of minister Gustavo Capanema supported by the Vargas Government, it is remarkable for its aesthetic, technical, landscape and urban innovations. A landmark of modern architecture in Brazil and in the world, it is an internationally recognized masterpiece of 20th century art.

An exceptionally gifted team worked on the design and construction of the Ministry from 1936 to 1945. The architects were Lucio Costa, Oscar Niemeyer, Affonso Eduardo Reidy, Jorge Moreira, Carlos Leão and Ernani Vasconcellos. Le Corbusier briefly served as a consultant. Its gardens were designed by Burle Marx, interior panels by Portinari, carpets by Niemeyer, sculptures by Bruno Giorgi, Adriana Janacópulos, Lipchitz and Celso Antônio. The structural engineer was Emilio Baumgart. IPHAN - Institute of National Historical and Artistic Heritage – listed the Ministry in 1948. Outstanding universal value justifies its inclusion in the list submitted by Brazil for UNESCO World Heritage Site nomination.

The building retained its significance after the capital moved. It continued to shelter units from the culture sector, some from IPHAN itself- like a UNESCO-associated Heritage School serving South America and Portuguese-speaking Africa. Auditorium, exhibition gallery, library, and even the stilts under the gallery kept hosting activities and events relevant to specialists as well as to a general audience. In 2017, the building was closed for urgent restoration. Units moved to rented spaces. It was hoped that they would return after the restoration was complete, and the building would regain its status as a Palace of Culture open to all: a place for study, research, dialogue, and public gatherings, a persistent symbol of progressive, beautiful, and generous modernity, in Brazil and abroad.  

But that may not come to pass. The building is under siege, as if it were just a vacant, ordinary office slab. This is a preposterous proposition, since the Palácio Capanema is an icon of incalculable value only momentarily closed for the rehabilitation of its halls, walks, and gardens. The old Ministry of Education and Culture is no white elephant. It embodies memories of the past and hopes for the future, because of what it represents and allows, touristic uses included. Privatizing the renovated palace and its square would show an embarrassing lack of education and culture, a false sense of economy, and frightening improvidence configuring a crime against national and world heritage.

Crimes of this sort cannot be covered-up, only prevented or punished.

The Capanema is ours.

ANA TOSTÕES. Chair, DOCOMOMO International

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