Brazil’s Bolsonaro aims to auction off iconic Ministry of Education and Health Building in Rio de Janeiro

Heritage Fire Sale

Brazil’s Bolsonaro aims to auction off iconic Ministry of Education and Health Building in Rio de Janeiro

The Palacio Capanema in Brazil may be sold off by the government in an auction of state assets. (Courtesy Liz Waytkus, Docomomo US)

The one task that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is sure to always succeed in is sparking outrage. The reactionary authoritarian is best known for his determination to destroy the Amazon while bumbling through dual economic and pandemic crises and unleashing a constant stream of invective against non-white Brazilians, women, and the LGBTQ community. Apparently, that isn’t enough for the would-be generalissimo as he has now set his sights on the country’s architectural heritage with plans to auction off a number of government properties, potentially including Gustavo Capanema Palace (Palácio Gustavo Capanema), also known as the Ministry of Education and Health Building.

Located in Rio de Janeiro’s Centro district, the iconic building—considered the first work of modernist architecture in Brazil—was designed and built from 1936 to 1943 by the contemporaneous crème de la crème of Brazilian architecture, with a team consisting of Lúcio Costa, Affonso Eduardo Reidy, Jorge Moreira, Carlos Leão, Ernani Vasconcellos, and a young Oscar Niemeyer, who was an intern for Costa at the time. Roberto Burle Marx served as landscape architect while Emilio Baumgart, generally renowned for implementing reinforced concrete designs across Brazil, was the structural engineer. If that wasn’t enough, Le Corbusier consulted on the project.

Exterior image of the The Palacio Capanema
Capanema Palace is one of the most iconic modernist works in Latin America. (Liz Waytkus)

The governmental office building closed in 2017 for long-overdue restoration work, with the understanding that it would remain public property following completion of the project. The terms of the auction are not yet publicly available, though it is sure to threaten Capanema Palace’s tentative full placement on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites.

The Brazilian chapter of Docomomo, an international nonprofit dedicated to the documentation and conservation of modernist architecture and design, has responded to the auction in no uncertain terms, and, in a manifesto, notes: “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.”

Interior image of Palacio Capanema
The interior includes interior panels by Portinari and sculptures by Bruno Giorgi, Adriana Janacópulos, Jacques Lipchitz, and Celso Antônio. (Liz Waytkus)

AN reached out to Docomomo US executive director Liz Waytkus, who echoed similar concerns in a statement:

“The Ministry of Education and Health is perhaps the most important modern building in all of South America and one of the most important in the world. We at Docomomo US are horrified to think that a building with such a high level of significance and on the tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage would be sold to the highest bidder. The Ministry of Education and Health is important to the heritage and culture of the citizens of Brazil and should be maintained as such. Docomomo US was given a tour of the building in 2018 and 2019 as it was going through restoration. We were pleased to see the high level of attention and sensitivity to the conservation project. It does not make sense why the government would sell the building after putting considerable resources into its preservation.”

The auction announcement is scheduled for tomorrow, August 27, at 10 a.m. Meanwhile, you can sign Docomomo’s manifesto to show your support. We will provide updates when they become available.