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By Clarissa Butelli, Contributing Reporter

A typical house in the cozy bay neighborhood of Urca, photo by Clarissa Butelli.
A typical house in the cozy bay neighborhood of Urca, photo by Clarissa Butelli.

RIO DE JANEIRO – A thin strip of land between the Guanabara Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, Urca is a district crowned by one of Rio’s most well-known landmarks, Sugarloaf Mountain. With a privileged view to the bay, Urca is considered one of Rio’s last bastions of tranquility and reserve.

Since 2006, when the Istituto Europeo di Design (IED) was given a 25 year permission to reform one of its historical buildings and open the second branch of its school in the country, that peace has been seriously disturbed.

Known as the Cassino da Urca, the construction was conceived in 1922 as the Balneário Hotel, inspired by the success of the Copacabana Palace Hotel. It became the centerpiece of the newly established neighborhood and, for thirty years, served as Rio’s premier concert hall.

It welcomed well-known visitors such as Walt Disney, Orson Welles and saw names as Carmem Miranda and Grande Otelo rise to stardom. In 1952, it gave way to TV Tupi Studios, owned by media mogul Assis Chateaubriand.

Since the closing of the studios in 1980, this piece of architectural history was abandoned for twenty years, serving as a makeshift shelter for the homeless. It was only in 2003 that the project for an Urban Development Museum was approved by Cesar Maia, the city Governor at the time. But three years later, the museum gave way to a more ambitious project, the IED.

The controversial building Cassino da Urca, photo by Domingos Peixoto/O Globo.
The controversial building Cassino da Urca, photo by Domingos Peixoto/O Globo.

The prospect of a large institution drawing a daily influx of 200 students inspired Urca residents, represented by the Amour Association, to take legal and political actions in an attempt to stop the reform and return the building to its original museum project.

Marcele Almeida, a journalist living in Urca for the past four years, says her husband is radically against the IED for this exact reason: “I’d love to see the building being reformed but I completely understand the majority of residents who fear the consequences, especially concerning traffic. Urca is a small neighborhood and once change like this happens, it is permanent.”

Camila Souto, a former Urca resident, disagrees: “Of course the school will affect traffic, this is how cities develop. This is a unique opportunity for Rio. The question shouldn’t be whether the IED should or should not stay in Urca. The question should be what to do to make it happen.”

The IED’s decision to solve the problem by building a parking lot proved even more unpopular among the residents, as the only area available for the construction was environmentally protected. It was then that assemblyman Eliomar Coelho’s project to establish the Cassino a listed building was unanimously approved by the City Council in June.

After R$20 million in investment, IED was legally obliged to stop all restoration work and rumors on the destiny of the building flourished.

Eduardo Paes, the current Governor, stated that the school would be a welcome addition to the harbor renewal project that’s been recently inaugurated. However, he seemed to have changed his mind the following week.

Solutions proposed for the building have ranged from museums dedicated to the city, the history of Urca and even a museum dedicated to Roberto Carlos, an Urca resident known as the ‘Brazilian Julio Iglesias’.

Until the final decision on the issue is made, the future of the building and of the IED in Rio remain uncertain.

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