Courtesy of Carrilho da Graça Arquitectos
Museu do OrienteEdit profile
The Temple of the Muses
The word museum comes originally from the Greek μουσεῖον (mouseion), via the Latin form mūsēum, meaning a place or temple dedicated to the Muses, the ancient Greek mythology goddesses who inspired the arts.
A museum is usually a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches and exhibits material evidence of mankind and its environment, for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment, such as defined by the International Council of Museums.
Since it depends on the availability of means and the gathering of different wills, a new museum coming into existence doesn’t happen very often. For the architect, the possibility of working on a programme of such importance and uniqueness is a very rare and valuable occasion.
In fact, creating a museum is a single opportunity to juxtapose the substantive nature of space and the intangible nature of culture and knowledge. In order to make things known, the architect shapes space, organizes paths, directs lighting and displays contents, ensuring their safeguard and preservation.
It also represents an opportunity to think again about one of the paradigmatic questions of architecture: the architectonic container as a neutral, silent and practically non-existent support that allows the affirmation and prominence of its content versus the architectural work per se, its contents being almost a pretext for proudly exhibiting itself.
The invitation to design the new Museu do Oriente was both a privilege and a challenge that could not be refused.
As for the objective to be achieved, the museum should be housed in the Edifício Pedro Álvares Cabral, a former port building warehouse dating back to the early 1940’s, designed by the architect João Simões Antunes, so as to include a valuable collection devoted to Asia in its multiple aspects: historical, social, ethnological, anthropological, archaeological and artistic.
The building – which was used to store dried cod for most of its long existence, and whose lingering odor caused some concern in early project phases – is located at Avenida Brasília, (Alcântara district) in a site run by the Port of Lisbon Authority, and is classified as Municipal Heritage.
This six-storey structure occupies a vast surface area, dominating this part of the city by its scale and volume; its elementary shape and almost absence of fenestration, undoubtedly dictated by its former purpose, adds to its imposing presence.
It follows a longitudinal and symmetrical layout, which comprises a central body – the hierarchical reference to the whole complex – sided by two lower wings. On the blind surfaces of north facing elevations there are two low-relief panels by the Portuguese sculptor Barata Feyo.
On the inside, both the dense and obsessive structure of sturdy square columns sprawled throughout the different floors and the low and restricting ceiling heights stand out.
A challenging intervention
As soon as we were approached for designing the Museum and its public spaces, we were immediately faced with a challenge: the building was already undergoing a renovation and its project, partially implemented, had by that time determined certain structural features.
Given this situation, it was agreed with the Fundação Oriente and the architect Rui Francisco, responsible for the previous renovation, that a deeper study should be undertaken to redirect and rethink the project, since it had to incorporate the irreversible intervention and demolition that had already taken place, but at the same time, allow room for manoeuvre for developing a new design.
In addition to the constraints that converting a pre-existing construction into a museum naturally introduces, some particular characteristics of the Edifício Pedro Álvares Cabral posed its own set of issues:
- the low ceiling height in most floors wasn’t quite suitable for a public building, which requires generous interior spaces; this situation was moreover aggravated by the irreversible replacement of some pillars by horizontal supports;
- the lack of openings in its elevations, while meeting criteria for exhibition areas, posed the additional problem of lighting and ventilating the remaining spaces.
In order to harmonize the architectural identity of the building with its new function as a museum, attempts were made to clarify its organizing structure. To that end, it was particularly important to redefine vertical accesses, public and staff circulation spaces, and the function of each floor.
The formal definition of the building – conveyed by its simple, adaptable appearance, along with those signs revealing its stylistic genealogy and iconography from the Estado Novo – also conditioned, in an unexpected way, our formal and graphic options throughout this process.
The Museum floor-by-floor
The ground floor comprises, broadly speaking, the more public areas of the Museum. Here are located the lobby, a lounge, a shop and a gallery for temporary exhibits. Together with Level 5, these are the spaces with a stronger interaction between the inside and the outside.
From Avenida Brasília one can access the public entrance situated in the West wing base, whose large glass panels provide lighting to the lobby and shop. At its furthest point to the West, there is a set of vertical accesses especially assigned to the public (namely stairways and lifts) connecting all the floors.
The central body of the building has also a dedicated entrance, for staff only, and a set of technical facilities, including a security station and a power room.
From the entrance hall, moving towards the interior, we arrive to the central core of the building, with vertical accesses serving the exhibition areas in Levels 1 and 2. It consists of a glass elevator, which occupies the space of a former inner yard, and a large staircase passing through the core of the exhibition rooms.
The temporary exhibitions room is located in the East wing. At its furthest point, and immediately next to the service yard accessible from the street (Rua Cintura do Porto de Lisboa), there is another set of vertical accesses, comprising a fright elevator, a service staircase and the emergency exit stairs leaving the Auditorium on the 5th floor.
The cafeteria, education services and sanitary facilities, connected to the main entrance through the public vertical accesses, are located on the West side of the museum. A long corridor, with restricted access, crosses the building and leads to the documentation center. The remaining area was mainly assigned to technical facilities, archive storage and staff facilities.
Level 1 and 2
Having identical layouts, these floors only include areas for permanent exhibitions. They are both broken into two large rooms with approximately the same dimensions that can be acceded through the abovementioned central vertical accesses. As for the West and East wings, the other sets of vertical accesses ensure the evacuation routes.
For the permanent collection display, we designed glass showcases that incorporated the existing square columns, turning them into frames. These showcases also absorb the structural reinforcement devices that were used to replace some of the pillars, avoiding thus the lowering of the ceiling height.
With their various configurations, and in an ambiance dominated by black ceilings and gray floors, they function as positive elements in space, bright “islands” showing their contents, providing a graphic support for information and ambiance lighting in the rooms.
This level, with a very restricted access, accommodates the Museum collection storage and the conservation/restoration areas, which are aligned along the corridor that runs from West to East. The central body of the building includes furthermore a technical area where the demanding climatization of the lower floors is controlled.
The conference rooms – where conventions, training courses and workshops can be held – are located in the West wing, and are connected to the public vertical accesses. The administrative offices of the Museum are in the central part of the building. The East wing is occupied by the lower level of the Auditorium, where we can find the stage, dressing rooms, technical and storage areas and the emergency exits.
The 5th floor can be reached through the public vertical accesses or the large glass elevator. The West wing holds the Administration offices and the restaurant; the Macao Room is located in the central body and the Auditorium occupies the East wing. As with Level 0, its relationship to the outside spaces is particularly strong.
From the restaurant, facing south, one can enjoy the view over the river through a long, elementary glass surface, similar to the one in the ground floor.
Facing north and bordering a sun terrace, the Administration offices overlook the city through occasional openings.
With its less dense occupation, generous exterior terraces and different rooftop heights, the 5th floor crowns the imposing prismatic mass of the Museu do Oriente.
Description from the architects