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Lessons learned from a tale of two galleries

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'The indisputable truth is that the museum is an old-fashioned triumph of Modern architecture'

There is a story told by the mayor of Niteroi that perfectly expresses the status of Oscar Niemeyer, the world's greatest living architect. Apparently, after their first visit to the site chosen for the town's now celebrated Museum of Contemporary Art, the mayor, Oscar Niemeyer and their associates went to a restaurant for lunch. During the meal, Niemeyer described his initial concept of the museum - 'rising upward, like a flower, or a bird'. This satisfied everyone present except the mayor, who wanted a clearer picture in the shape of a drawing. To this end he asked a waiter to bring Niemeyer some paper at the table. This the waiter went off to do, but when he was on his way back with a small message pad he was intercepted by a colleague who had been listening to the conversation. 'Boy,' he said, 'this is the man who built Brasilia . . . go and get something bigger.' Thus it was that the first sketches of the Niteroi Museum of Contemporary Art were made on a paper tablecloth.

Mayor Silveira's memorable lunch took place in 1991, a year of economic recession around the world, but a good year for promoters of the arts as the engine of a post-industrial economy. Six thousand miles away from Niteroi, which is a satellite of Rio de Janeiro, lay Bilbao, at that time the primus inter pares of waterfront rust and terrorism in European Community Spain. There too, a new arts factory was on the cards, promoted by the Guggenheim Foundation. And no doubt others elsewhere were at the negotiation stage as well. In every case, the game started with the offer of a collection of contemporary art. In most cases it ended with the construction of a new museum to house it.

Of course there were differences, especially between Spain and Brasil. Unlike patriotic Niteroi, the Basque Regional Administration responsible for Bilbao did not immediately commission the greatest living Spanish architect. They went through the ritual of an international competition instead. Despite this, the results were spectacular. Inside its skin of curved and angular titanium, changing colour from silver to gold with the light, Frank Gehry's Guggenheim museum was expected to play host to half a million visitors in its first year of operation. In fact three times as many came, pumping $160 million into the Basque economy through tourism, and paying off the building's construction cost in a single year.

Things were done rather differently at Niteroi, but the feng shui there was just as inauspicious to start with. Not only was Niemeyer's project much smaller (together with its budget), but its materials and methods belonged to another age. Where 3-D computing permitted unprecedented precision in Bilbao, the low-tech concrete work, ill-fitting glazing and cheap polycarbonate balustrading at Niteroi seem almost primitive in their simplicity. And even though the site of the museum, on a promontory with the sea on three sides, offered magnificent views of cliffs and beaches - as opposed to the dereliction around the Guggenheim building - to reach it from Rio required either a 40-minute ferry trip, or a long drive across the bridge spanning Guanabara Bay followed by hair-raising clifftop roads.

But these are what might be called peripheral issues, for the indisputable truth is that today, the Niteroi museum is not really a marketing operation at all, but an old-fashioned triumph of Modern architecture, perhaps the last we shall ever see. What Niemeyer has achieved, with his modest palette of unrestricted 'form-giving', daring engineering and poured concrete painted white, is not the product of computerised architectural abstract expressionism, but a rational masterpiece that in technical terms would not have been beyond the capacity of the builders of the Weissenhof 70 years ago.

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