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Buoyancy of a stone raft new architecture in the Azores: Marooned in the mid Atlantic, as shown on the seventeeth-century map above, the Azores' isolation has paradoxically enabled them to develop a distinctive architectural culture that combines a modern outlook with a strong sense of place.

'An island if it's big enough is no better than a continent. It has to be really quite small before it feels like an island; and this story will show how tiny it has to be before you can presume to fill it with your own personality.'

D. H. Lawrence, The Man Who Loved Islands

Positioned at 25[degrees] west, 37[degrees] north, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, the island of Sao Miguel has in the last ten years become the centre of arguably the most vibrant experimentation for Portugal's new generation of architects. Architect-curators Pedro Gadanho and Luis Tavares Pereira's recent analysis of contemporary Portuguese architecture in Influx, a travelling show that began in Oporto's Fundacao Serralves, revealed a surprising number of young studios building in the Azores, of which the island of Sao Miguel is the largest and most populated. A satellite in a distant orbit around Portugal--a country itself along Europe's periphery--and only recently receiving funding to encourage growth, the Azores have become an escape-valve and proving ground for architectural design, providing space for reflection and to rethink architectural practice in a developing context. Geographically remote and staunchly agricultural, Sao Miguel and its eight island neighbours boast, to this day, no buildings by Portugal's twentieth-century masters.



Though always integral to Portugal, the Azores' distinct qualities have, over time, surfaced, hewn from the abundant volcanic rock and fertilized by longstanding socio-cultural cross-pollination. The islands were first settled in part by Portuguese prisoners sent to populate the remote archipelago as a condition of their release. They were subsequently joined by missionaries, fishermen, sailors and travellers en route to the New World who stayed on, and then, waves of immigrants from northern Europe. The Flemish settled in the western isle of Flores and Bretons came to the northern shores of Sao Miguel, giving Michaelense (the Portuguese spoken on Sao Miguel) a distinctive, elegant French vocalization and the island a thoroughly hybrid pedigree. Weather has also contributed to the seclusion and peculiarity of the Azores--stormy winter seas often prevent access to the smaller islands even by air for days at a time.

The Azores' privileged isolation has enabled them to become a centre for new architectural design, and adopt a critical distance from the continents. This is particularly evident in their careful approach to urban development. Over the last twenty years, the Azorean autonomous regional government has deterred speculation along its coastlines, in stark contrast to the active encouragement of other regions (for instance, in the tropical island of Madeira and on the Algarve coast). It has spurned mass-leisure tourism and sprawling resort construction in favour of supporting broader, island-centred multi-sector growth. So far the Azores have managed to preserve their landscape and coastline while still encouraging some alternative tourism, dedicating funds instead to long-term educational and cultural developments like the new Universidade dos Acores based in Ponta Delgada, Sao Miguel's capital.

Envisaged as a centre of learning on a par with continental schools and as a magnet designed to attract a younger population to the islands and invigorate intellectual life, the Universidade dos Acores has in turn shown itself to be one of the local young architects' best clients. In the late '90s, with financial help from the European Union, the school administration called for a series of international competitions to design the building complexes of its growing campuses. Unconsciously, the administration's groundbreaking ambitions led it to select emerging practitioners to realize the work. Ines Lobo, from Lisbon and a long-time protegee of Joao Luis Carrilho da Graca, won the University Campus Auditoria, while the University Library and Student Residence were each awarded in separate commissions to the then under-30-year-old Pedro Machado Costa and Celia Gomes, of as * architects (or Atelier de Santos), also practising in Lisbon and recent graduates of the FAUP, Oporto's architecture school.

The contagious optimism of new possibilities has infected Sao Miguel's private clients as well. In the mid-'90s, gallery owner Fatima Mota and her husband Antonio Macedo commissioned the young Pedro Mauricio Borges, a Lisbon-based architect who had worked for a time on Sao Miguel, to build the Casa das Banquetas in Lagoa to house their collection and function as their home. Borges subsequently won Portugal's prestigious Premio Secil in 2002 for the Casa Pacheco de Melo on the other side of Sao Miguel in Sao Vicente Ferrerira, an indication that the island was becoming not only the focus of new design, but also of continental recognition, while witnessing the transformation of Portugal's entrenched architectural canons. Trimmed in marble and wood, Borges' meandering white houses recall Alvaro Siza's device of wrapping perspectival contour lines, situating a familiar spatial game within an inspired local dialect by abstracting the forms of traditional Sao Miguel roofscapes and chimneys to relate to the taut, elongated profiles of the island's panoramas.


Bernardo Rodrigues, a 32 year-old native of Sao Miguel who has been working out of Oporto since earning a degree at the FAUP and spending a horizon-broadening Master-degree year in New York - returns often to the island, where he is currently realizing several poetical reinterpretations of the vernacular Azorean House. These pay homage to the turbulent, flourishing landscape while also quietly embodying the universal typological language of the Pompeian House and the buried conceptual abstraction of works such as Terragni's Danleum or Hejduk's Wall Houses.


The islands provide what may be regarded as ideal conditions for young architects the chance to distil and carry out a design idea in a familiar yet kaleidoscopic vernacular that provides strong elemental and narrative cues, coupled with clients looking for fresh, viable solutions to the challenges of new ways of living and thinking.


Such young designers have inevitably been steeped in the dominant processes of Portugal's eminent architects--Alvaro Siza, Eduardo Souto de Moura, and Joao Luis Carrilho da Graca--having been influenced by their teachings at the Lisbon or Oporto schools as well as by their widely published and acclaimed work. Prevalent among these emerging architects is the desire to complement their training with study abroad in the United States, the Netherlands, France and England. Whereas mainland Portugal itself has been wary to officially recognize the worth of foreign study, such enrichment is welcomed by the Azores' more rugged, off-beat individualists.


For Lobo, an interest in the minimalist objects of Donald Judd and a long apprenticeship with the reductive Modernist compositions of Joao Luis Carrilho da Graca are brought together and brought locally to life for her in Ponta Delgada as the duality of the black-and-white play of landscape and cloudscape, diffuse-white sky, black-cast shadow, and the black basalt of the island's once-molten earth. Two smooth white rectangular auditoria hover over a shadow-black plinth connected by a glass entry corridor that visually unites the arbour and the courtyard on either side while framing the fronds, leaves and blades of the island's most pervasive and vibrant third colour, green. Costa and Gomes multiply the density of the pervasive basalt's coarse pores by horizontally stacking tinder-sized cuts with the appearance of geological strata, forming the striated University Library facade plinth and carving out the dark stairwell to the sunlit study of the Student Residence. In the University Library, the concrete, stained in transparent amber, retains the grain and scale of its narrow slats of wood form-work and, with the burgundy-oxidized Cor-Ten screens of stretched steel, continues the dialogue of striations and piling that draw the visitor up the band of black ramps into the perched reading areas and book stacks. The Library becomes an enchanted thicket of performative, interpretive forms fomenting interactive study, as well as a vibrant record of the architects' wide-ranging sources of inspiration.


The apparent ease with which Sao Miguel has absorbed such a myriad of design responses is a testament to the island's vital heterogeneity, its ability to reincorporate fragments of distant worlds at the epicentre of its particular landscape. Reticent, removed and remote, yet diverse and with underpinnings of independent thought, the Azores are washed by the splash of dogma's softer, outer ripples to little effect; it is a place that has its ear instead to the hissing, heaving land and its eyes always on the sea.
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Title Annotation:Place
Author:Schachter, Amanda
Publication:The Architectural Review
Date:Jul 1, 2004
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