You find me in a charitable mood. Now, regular readers (not there is any evidence that we have any) will know that charitable moods are rare among the writers of Archiendo - most of our posts to date can be categorized as either ironic, satirical commentary or straight forward, hard-line criticism.
Initially, I was going to go for the ironic, satirical commentary approach, using this building as an example. However, upon further inspection, I found myself rather liking the building, and felt rather guilty about using it for my own pessimistic gain. So, as I'm in a charitable mood, you're about to get two posts for the price of one.
The building, by the way, is the registry office of St Vicente in Madeira, by Duarte Caldeira. More details on Dezeen.
Now, as I'm a busy person (and in no way unemployed) I don't look at every architecture article I ever come across. In this day and age, no-one possibly could. So, even though I am - in principle - against this way of viewing architecture, I usually only choose to find out more when the cover picture catches my eye. And in this case, the cover picture which so caught my eye was the same as the one above.
Immediately after I had clicked the link, I wondered why. As I said before, it was only after looking closer that I started to like the building; immediately after clicking, I was really bemused as to why I was looking at more pictures of the building. And I realised that the reason I was interested had nothing to do with the building, and everything to do with what was behind the building.
After all, what we have above is not so much a picture of a building, more a picture of a (not particularly extraordinary) hill, with a building in the foreground. So, what does this mean for the career I have chosen? It means that, having already devoted 3 years of my life to the study of buildings, and filled practically every waking moment (and there has been a more than average number of waking moments) with either design or analysis of buildings, I am still instinctively more attracted by relatively average nature than I am by what turned out to be very good architecture.
Are architects doomed then, to failure? Could it be that every time we take a piece of nature and turn it into a building, we are degrading the quality of our lived-in environment? Or perhaps the quality of architecture is not good enough; that humans are capable of rivalling nature, just not with what we're producing now? Whatever the reason, this is perhaps the best argument for limiting the spread of human effect: that nature is still simply more beautiful than what humans, thus far, have produced.
Now, with that in mind, onto the happy praise:
Praise? On Archiendo? You must be mad!
And Maybe, just maybe, I have gone slightly mad. Because those who know me will attest to the fact that not only am I rarely positive about a piece of architecture, I also absolutely HATE glass. Yet this building has rather a lot of it.
I could try and rationalize this exception: perhaps I like the way the glass contrasts the wood columns; perhaps the relief of those columns compensates for the flatness which I usually perceive in glass; perhaps the clear allusion to the work of Mies van der Rohe simply pleases my intellect; or perhaps the fact that I haven't spoken face-to-face with anyone other than goldfish for nearly a week is turning my brain to mush. But really, I'm not convinced that any of these explanations can fully account for this anomaly. It shall just have to remain a mystery.
What I like most of all about the design though, is mostly to do with what the architects kept. The site is in an urban park and those bizarrely scattered boxes are kiosks. Where the new building was to be placed, the decision was made to take the affected kiosks and incorporate them into the new building. What's more ALL of the kiosks have been re-faced in the local stone. This move to not only preserve the kiosks which the building affects, but also to improve the remaining kiosks shows a commitment to retaining the history of the built environment that is rare these days. What's more, kudos to the architects for seeing such potential in this.
Now I don't know what the logic was for the original placement of those kiosks. But when this erratic building line was kept, and an important public building incorporated into it, what resulted was an unusual place that is unique to St Vicente.
As far as the new addition goes, there is a pleasant clash between references to Mies and the classical Greek temples, which is even more pleasantly intersected by the old kiosks, giving a modern, almost deconstructionist juxtaposition to the old formulas. The off-beat boxes even bend and warp the entrance wall, creating more of a welcoming canopy for visitors. (see plan below)
As you can see, ultimately the inconvenient clashes of geometry are resolved very neatly, and all this while resolving a rather unforgiving slope. If there is one criticism I have (after all, this unadulterated praise is making me a little twitchy) it's that the lighting inside is too harsh, and combined with the smooth granite floors - which I would usually have nothing but praise for - the artificial strip lighting reflects unforgivingly off of every surface. Also the chairs for those waiting to be seen to are very institutional - but both of these issues are very common, such is the way with public buildings.
Overall, then, a truimph by Duarte Caldeira. And the fact that I said it means that that triumph should not be taken lightly.