Aug 2, 2010

Álvaro Siza's Fundação Iberê Camargo, in Porto Alegre: a masterpiece

By Alexandra Forbes

“In a building, I like the light, but I also like the half-light and even the darkness – they’re complimentary things,” says Portuguese architect Álvaro Siza. 

His project for the Fundação Iberê Camargo, in Porto Alegre, Southern Brazil, is a study in how to tame light.

Sunrays penetrate through only a few small windows (some bean-shaped, some rectangular) facing west at skewed angles and providing just enough illumination on the inside.

From the outside, the central idea that guides the art foundation’s gleaming form, inspired partly by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim in New York, is rather simple. A ramp system circles around an empty core from top to bottom; at times, it’s contained within the building structure, at others, jutting out beyond the façade, the zig-zag adds texture and movement to an otherwise stark exterior. Here and there, windows reveal stunning vistas of the vast Guaíba River below. And at various points the ramps lead to galleries that house a collection of more than 4,000 works by renowned Brazilian expressionist Iberê Camargo, who died of cancer in 1994.

In designing the building, the Pritzker-prize laureate contended with greater obstacles than the harsh tropical rays. He had to work with a very narrow strip of land, facing a busy expressway and perched on a bluff overlooking the Guaíba. In an engineering tour de force, he carved an access to the museum and parking lot out of the rock underneath the noisy road. He drew the building tall and narrow enough that the steep cliff at the back, blanketed in thick tropical forest, could be left intact. As a result, the bright white structure – built of tinted cement – pops beautifully against a green canvas.

Although Siza is not particularly known for energy-saving initiatives, the museum is in synch the times through various integrated systems as well: rainwater is captured and reused in the bathrooms, and gardens are irrigated with water from the building’s own treatment plant. Rock wool insulation keeps the building comfortable, while the ramps are cooled with water that runs through thin plastic tubing. Yet it is its sculptural shape and angular whiteness that has locals talking. It may not boast the enormity and shine of a Guggenheim Bilbao, but the Fundação trumps Oscar Niemeyer’s Niterói Museum of Contemporary Art as the most iconic museum in Brazil.

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