Why the U.S. Is Building Brazil an Aquarium

World's third-largest facility funded, designed, made by Americans

An artistic rendering of Acquario Ceará, opening in Fortaleza, Brazil, in 2015. (Courtesy of Government of the State of Ceará)
A. Zahner Co. acquario ceará brazil ceará fortaleza Jack Rouse Associates blobitecture international concept management Export-Import Bank of the United States

World Cup fervor has settled in the Brazilian state of Ceara, but an unconventional partnership between the state, the U.S. government, and American small businesses will produce the country's next spectacle: Acquario Ceara, the largest aquarium in South America and the third largest in the world. The project might be the first example of a U.S. federal agency funding construction outside North America to create American jobs. 

The aquarium, set to open in the city of Fortaleza in 2015, is being paid for almost entirely by the Export-Import Bank of the United States. The agency is financing construction through a $105 million direct loan it says supports 700 American jobs.

How? The Latin American branch of an Ohio design firm is designing Acquario Ceara, a metals firm in Missouri is constructing the blobist "crustaceo-exoskeleton," and a custom aquarium maker from Colorado is overseeing construction.

"The otherwordly Acquario Ceara is basically a Midwestern export," writes CityLab blogger Kirston Capps

The project might seem like a win-win for all involved, but not so, Capps writes.

For one, if you build it, the 12 million expected annual visitors won't necessarily come. Fortaleza attracted only 219,430 international tourists to Brazil in 2010. Can the allure of one aquarium make up the difference? The aquarium might provide the next blow to the Bilbao Effect—the idea that constucting architectural spectacles brings in tourists, which paves the way for decadent cities. "An aquarium isn't a cultural facility, exactly—although this one sure looks like one, both in terms of design and the project's ostensible aim," Capps says. 

If that happens, Brazilian detractors will have even more reason to be upset. Ceara is one of the poorest Brazilian states (the fifth-poorest in 2013), and its critics argue that on top of being potentially dangerous to the environment, the aquarium is opaquely using public funds that would better go toward improving people's quality of life.  

Despite job creation for Americans, not everyone is happy stateside. Republican senator Mike Lee of Utah says the aquarium "erodes Americans' confidence in our markets and our system" with "taxpayer-backed loan guarantees to help American exporters."

Like fish in a fishbowl, everyone's watching Acquario Ceara, but only time will tell if the new aquarium will make a splash.

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