Grand "City of Music" sparks disharmony in Rio

RIO DE JANEIRO Tue Dec 30, 2008 10:14am EST

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - At first glance, the "City of Music" appears to be in perfect harmony with Rio de Janeiro, Brazil's lyrical capital of Carnival.

The soaring wings of the concert theater, one of the most ambitious architecture projects since the capital Brasilia was built from scratch in the 1950s, mirror the sweep of Rio's mountains and the waves crashing on nearby beaches.

Music is only rivaled by football among the passions of Cariocas, Rio's residents. So how could a majestic shrine to song as big as Rio's Maracana soccer stadium not be a hit?

To many Cariocas, though, the center's opening night last Saturday to the strains of Mozart and Johann Strauss was a source of anger rather than pride.

Supporters say the building, which cost 518 million reais ($220 million) and is still six months from completion, will help reclaim Rio's place as Brazil's cultural capital with an iconic building like Sydney's Opera House.

But budget overruns, a questionable location, and the stark contrast between the grand project and Rio's serious crime, transport and health problems, have turned many otherwise music-loving people off Latin America's biggest concert hall.

In a city where Samba, Bossa Nova and other Brazilian sounds rule, many question the decision to spend the equivalent of five percent of next year's city budget on a center where classical music and opera will dominate.

"The City of Music is a block of concrete costing a horrific amount of money for us Cariocas and which won't bring the benefits that the population needs," said Marcos dos Santos, a 38-year-old fitness and dance trainer.

The brainchild of Rio's unpopular mayor, Cesar Maia, the 94,000 square meter (one million square foot) building in the beach-side Barra de Tijuca area is impressive in scale and style.

Its main hall, which can be converted into an opera theater, holds 1,800 people and is set between the horizontal plates of the roof and a public terrace that gives access to cinemas, restaurants and classrooms. To be surrounded by a large park, it is like a massive, airy house on stilts.

WHIPPING BOY

French architect Christian de Portzamparc created the space to "democratize" people's experience -- as if looking down from Rio's iconic Sugar Mountain or Christ the Redeemer statue.

"I think people will come here just by childish, beautiful curiosity to discover," Portzamparc, who also designed Paris' popular City of Music center, told Reuters last week.

A relatively sterile collection of condominiums and shopping malls up to an hour's drive west of Rio's center, the "Barra" district has attracted many wealthier Cariocas seeking respite from Rio's violence and other problems.

Backers say the center will give the area a public space and bring a cultural attraction within reach of Rio's poor north and west, which bear the brunt of the city's problems.

"This is giving a message that Rio is continuing in a new part of its territory," said Portzamparc, 64. "I think if it is well maintained and there are interesting programs, it will be alive because music and dance are important in Brazil."

But reports of spiraling costs helped the building become a subject of media ridicule and a vote-winning whipping boy among candidates to replace Maia in October elections.

News organizations have reported the budget more than sextupled from an original 80 million reais, although city officials deny that, saying the initial figure was only for one part of the project.

"Cariocas are very critical. You could say it is part of their DNA," said Rio culture secretary Ricardo Macieira, adding that the center would affirm Rio's "international identity."

Portzamparc says the budget roughly doubled, mostly due to delays caused by Rio's hosting of the Pan American Games in 2007, which led to a rush to complete the building with 3,000 workers toiling around the clock.

Maia, whose term ends in January, was also broadly criticized for spending more than $1 billion on the Games.

LEFT HANGING

The Brazilian Symphony Orchestra was left hanging a week before Christmas when fire officials said the building was not ready hours before the scheduled first concert.

The music hall has no subway station nearby and ticket prices could be prohibitive for many of the city's poorest.

"Even the higher income people from other parts of the city won't go there for the concerts because we have transportation difficulties," said Ricardo Gouvea, an architect and human rights activist at Rio's Bento Rubiao Foundation.

Gouvea said the money would have been better invested in Rio's traditional culture, noting that some popular Carnival Samba schools that help bring thousands of tourists to Rio had struggled to raise enough funds in recent years.

Others argue the priority should be reviving the historic center of Rio, home to the lively Lapa nightlife area of bars and Samba clubs. Much of the center is virtually deserted on weekends, haunted by abandoned buildings and plagued by crime.

"Tourists come to Rio with a vague idea in their head that they will pass a guy on a street corner composing and immersed in music," said Dos Santos, the fitness trainer. "But this doesn't exist today, it's in the past."

($=2.35 reais)

(Editing by Kieran Murray)

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