ArchiStories

Some weeks ago, I had a privilege to peek into a noble space usually unavailable to the public: the cloister of the Sao Bento da Vitoria monastery in Porto, on the occasion of the Open House Porto day (see also: Open House Worldwide). The monastery is a palimpsest of different histories starting from the end of 16th century. The latest historical layers were added by architects Carlos Guimarães and Luís Soares Carneiro. They have been linked to this space since 1985, when the reconstruction works started, not without serious challenges. Carlos Guimarães faced those challenges and constraints in a unique way, presenting them through a set of anecdotes, “ArchiStories” (as I baptized them) about the Noble Cloister.

Probably the biggest challenge of all arose on the occasion of Porto 2001, when the cloister, by default a semi-open walkway enclosing a quadrangle or garth, was to be turned into a covered space and used by the National Orchestra of Porto. Some of the issues to be addressed were being respectful to one of the most important historical buildings of Porto and a National Monument, resolving strict requests regarding the acoustic properties and introducing contemporary layer into the palimpsest. An unusual task required the architects and their team to do a thorough research, causing them many sleepless nights during the design process.

066And then, unexpectedly, inspiration was found: an image of a pallium in a random book on a working table was the key to resolve the problem. A light metal construction on four legs was created, carrying an acoustic canopy, resembling a giant version of a “roof” used in religious processions. Thus, the contemporary yet unimposing structure was built to enable unfolding the present function  in this magnificent space. The intervention went into sophisticated details – heaviness of the historical tissue emphasized by lightness of unpretentious, transparent chairs is a contrast worth mentioning.

063The mesmerizing archi-story of Carlos Guimarães not only transmitted relevant historical and technical data on the intervention in the Noble Cloister, but also brought to the audience dashes of  team work atmosphere, of moments of despair and revelation in looking for solutions, of anxieties before the building’s inauguration, and revived a feeling of relief when everything at the grand opening ceremony went perfectly well.

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“Juxtaposed contemporanities”

The Machado de Castro National Museum in Coimbra is a new building embracing whole two millennia of history. New, not only in terms of fabric (the preexisting building was restored and there is a recently constructed wing, completed in 2012), but also in terms of approach and evaluation of all the historical layers present and the artifacts exhibited.

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The story begins over fifteen years ago: in 1998, the well-known Portuguese architect Gonçalo Byrne and his team won the competition for the expansion and remodeling of the Museum. Many issues were to be addressed: how to present one of the most valuable museum collections of Portugal freshly and adequately to the requirements of the present time, how to intervene in the urban context of today’s Coimbra, how to establish relations with the previous histories that the museum site contains, how to conceive and put forward the today’s identity of the Museum.

The museum’s contemporary identity has been based exactly on exposing and acknowledging a palimpsest of the site’s previous uses and meanings: the architect himself has used the expression “juxtaposed contemporanities” to illustrate this main theme. During a visit to the Museum and discovery of its precious collections of sculpture, painting and decorative arts, one immediately perceives that the exhibition spaces are as much didactic tools as the artifacts displayed. It is through the experience of a visit that their “juxtaposed contemporaneities” and historical identities are unfolded to a guest. There are remains of an entire Roman cryptoporticus in the Museum’s lower floors and the layers of the Bishop’s palace built upon it (that was the building’s function since the Middle Ages), as well as traces of previous work for the purpose of conversion into museum.

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And one of the fascinating things is that the architect did not try to correct controversial interventions done before: they were rather used as didactic elements as well, and presented as a legacy of the conservation approaches no longer used.

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At all times, visitor is aware the museum’s architecture is not only meant for presenting the legacy of the past, but rather for establishing dialogue and continuity through its contemporaneity. “Every architect should act in the best way they know. Afterwards, time will tell”, says Gonçalo Byrne about the role of the contemporary intervention, making sure reversibility principle applies to all aspects of the works done, just in case.

Cited from an architect’s interview in Publico: http://www.publico.pt/temas/jornal/clarificar-dois-mil-anos-de-historia-26241240

 

Casa do Infante

How rewarding was my recent visit to Casa do Infante, presently the Historical Archives of Porto!

Rewarding for two reasons: the form (an example of an architectural intervention with a great deal of sensibility), and the contents (possibility to find out so much about the city’s long history and urban development via the permanent exhibition, as well as enjoying temporary exhibition on German architecture of the 1950s).

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Numerous transformations, all shown within the exhibition, have marked this building complex, dating from the 14th century. It is important to mention that it has much older structures underneath, duly researched and also duly displayed. The most important inhabitant of the house was D. Henrique (born there in 1394), a crucial character in the history of Portugal and its age of discoveries.

The latest restoration/transformation project, between 1998 and 2003, was lead by Nuno Jennings Tasso de Sousa (also well known for his design of the Faculty of Philology of Porto). Revisiting the previous intervention of Rogério de Azevedo from the 1960s, Tasso de Sousa implemented more contemporary understanding of conservation principles, exposing the historical layers of the house for educational purposes, introducing all the many contemporary elements needed for a state-of-the-art archives and respecting the principle of reversibility at all times. There is a lovely term he used to describe the intervention: that of “diachronic reading”.

And just to have an idea of the scope of work, the total area remodeled amounts to 7869 m2.

Here is the architect’s text with more details on the intervention: http://www.vitruvius.com.br/revistas/read/arquitextos/06.071/360

Quinta do Santiago: learning through experience

Among the many palaces I was lucky to visit over years, discovering Quinta do Santiago in Leça da Palmeira some weeks ago was by far the most imaginative and memorable experience. And I think experience is the keyword here! Not the investment or state-of-the-art equipment, because this cost just some good will, creativity and an elegant suit (but no, the visitors were not expected to be in suits).

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The strange visiting hours were the first twist, as we were supposed to appear (in whichever clothes) at 9.30 p.m. And then, we became part of a play! One of the three organized in Quinta de Santiago in a year. This time, the charismatic Joel Cleto was the main character, and the play was about him as an elegantly dressed butler, leading us through the noble family’s house. Revealing its secrets, Cleto was intertwining stories about the family members, urban history of Leça and building of the great port of Leixões, and the broader context of Portuguese history.

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The palace was interesting anyway, researched and restored carefully, but no written or audio guide could compare to this way of telling the story, nor inform so well. And the great thing is, Joel Cleto is an expert, in acting as much as in history & heritage.

By the way, the house was built in eclectic style by the Italian architect Nicola Bigaglia in late 19th century. The architect just gave proper form to the ideas of the owner, João Santiago de Carvalho e Sousa, who was educated in fine arts. And obviously passionate about every little detail of his home!

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For example, the house has an excellent ventilation system, so besides being pleasing for the eye and the sense of touch (photos cannot reproduce the variety of materials and textures used!), it is also very fresh and dry and simply … lacks that smell of old houses where windows are rarely open!

The old photo of the owner comes from here: http://en.cm-matosinhos.pt/PageGen.aspx?WMCM_PaginaId=27819

In regard to the insider views from the event, I called M. for photos! A big, big thanks*

 

The city through its windows.

My daily dose of art (and architecture) was obtained at the CPF – Portuguese Center of Photography in Porto, the place I will certainly be coming back to.

The 18th century building used to be a prison, but since 2000 it is a home to photographic exhibitions and documentation. Eduardo Souto Moura and Humberto Vieira were in charge for the adaptation project. The interior consist of just mighty stone in thick walls and cold floors, cast iron bars (it was a prison, after all) and a touch of red given by painting wooden shutters.

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One of the current exhibitions attracted me particularly: “O Porto à janela” by Pedro Mesquita. It tells so much about the city, but also about its inhabitants: to make the photos possible, the artist asked people to enter their homes and get to have the views as real people do. He was ready for all kinds of hesitation and decline of access. However, hardly anyone said no!

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And that’s also informative of Porto and Portugal.

P.S. The photos are from the CPF web page; the second one is my favourite Pedro Mesquita’s work from the exhibition.

The houses on the sand

A weekend house project that turned into a Venice Architecture Biennial entry and a very particular hotel …

In 2010, the Aires Mateus brothers were invited by a friend to do a rehabilitation project for one of a group of three traditional small houses (or more accurately, auxiliary buildings) in the Natural Reserve of Sado Estuary, at Comporta, one hour drive southern from Lisbon. The project then evolved into rehabilitation of all three and building a new pavilion, combining old and new materials and at the same time respecting the spirit of the place and local building traditions.

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So reed was introduced instead of roof tiles, and small interventions were undertaken on the façades and in the interiors of existing buildings. The new building was constructed of wood and reed too. All in all, two are of wood and reed, and two are of firmer materials. The little yard that all the buildings are opening to is their binding element as well.

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And what do the sandy floors mean? The architects said inspiration was coming from an exhibition in the Tate Modern they visited at the time when the project was being developed (exactly the installation with talc created by Cildo Meireles). By introducing sand into the living spaces, everyday life was made much slower and the perception of time changed, explains Francesca Vita in the 2013 monograph on Aires Mateus brothers I’m currently reading.

For now, there’s no way to experience the place in person, as the stay costs 500 – 600 EUR a day, depending on the season. But someday, who knows …

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Souto de Moura’s interview

I just found out that Eduardo Souto de Moura has links with Zagreb, as he has been developing two projects in Croatia. The ORIS magazine does not offer details yet, but they remind of an interview with the architect from ORIS No. 60, of 2009. Of course, I have it in my library, and one of the questions was about the Santa Maria de Bouro convent!

The authors of the interview were Luciano Basauri, Ana Dana Beroš and Vera Grimmer. Here is the excerpt related to the convent, and more generally to the philosophical concept of ruins:

Q (Oris): You said, ‘I am interested in ruins, that is what I like most about architecture, because they are the natural state of a work.’ It’s a bit pessimistic, but beautifully said. Indeed, when one approaches the Santa María do Bouro convent, one really gets the impression of a ruin, but if you come nearer, you see this whole perfect and wonderful architecture and details which are there. It seems that the whole project lives from this ambiguity.

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A (the architect): There are two questions: one is ruins and Santa María do Bouro is the other. I like ruins because they are the only thing in architecture that is true. It’s so true that it is natural. Another thing is Santa Maria. First I went to see the place where the project would be made, it doesn’t matter for architecture but it is important for me. It was a monument that I knew from childhood. My mother lives there and I always visited this monument in ruins. What was really interesting here was this thing with the trees on the roof. It was the garden I liked, and I liked this room with the table in stone, and the trees on the roof, not in the earth: I proposed to make something near Távora because he was a teacher of history and he made a lot of recuperation. I made a project completely different, with these ruins and history and this very radical model. I thought that modern was glass or steel and so on. No, stone is modern, so I made this very primary tension. I showed Távora the project and he strongly criticized me. At the end, I invited Távora and Siza to lunch there, and Távora wrote me a letter saying, ‘Dear Eduardo,’ since he was my teacher as well as my friend, ‘I very much like the monastery. Since I am your teacher, I am giving you not 20 (the highest grade), but 19, because the building has no roof.’ It’s the reason why I like the ruins, because it’s like studying anatomy. The French architect Auguste Peret said that a good building gives always a good ruin.