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Castelo Novo Visitor Centre in Fundão, Portugal, by Comoco Architects

Comoco Architects enhance an historic castle with an architecturally coherent, physically linked series of structures, providing visitor facilities

Named after its 12th-century castle, which also graces its coat of arms, the little village of Castelo Novo lies in the rugged terrain of eastern Portugal, near the border with Spain. Set on a hill, the ruined castle is a well trod tourist attraction but, until recently, lacked proper visitor facilities.

Comoco Arquitectos were commissioned to provide them and, rather than designing a single new building, place a series of elements in the landscape to unify and enhance the site. Based in the historic university town of Coimbra, Comoco is a trio of young architects - Luís Miguel Correia, Nelson Mota and Susana Constantino - whose approach reflects a poetic yet unsentimental spirit typical of the best new Portuguese work.

Their intelligent distillation of materials and form, coupled with an eagerness to embrace the contemporary, is perfectly epitomised here.

Though spread around the hillside, the new parts - pavilions, belvederes and pedestrian routes - form an architecturally coherent and physically linked entity. The largest element is a long, low-slung entrance pavilion set at the foot of the hill, addressing a public square and church. Folding panels open up the pavilion to the public. The L-shaped structure hugs the hill, becoming part of the topography.

From here, a staircase and walkway snake up the hill to the castle ruins. The path forks, leading visitors to two sets of remains. All new parts are executed in Cor-ten plate, the heavy, rusted steel bringing a whiff of industrial grit to the more delicate business of archaeological tourism. But it also forms an evocative contrast with eroded stone walls, now crumbling with age, like cheese.

‘The construction was designed as a continuous, abstract object not tied to a single purpose’, says project architect Nelson Mota. ‘This object changes with the characteristics of the site.’ Down in the church square it defines the limits of the castle’s walls, but as it rises up the hill, it is transformed into a pedestrian pathway, supported lightly above the ground by a metal structure.

This allows visitors to survey the archeological findings without damaging them. And it is easily demountable, should things change. The route terminates in the castle’s main tower, where a Cor-ten sleeve inserted in its shell contains a multimedia room. A glazed belvedere sits on top of it, offering views across the site and surroundings. The new parts resonate with history, but their sober formal and material language is identifiably of its time.

Castelo Novo Visitor Centre

Architect: Comoco Architects, Coimbra, Portugal

Project team: Luís Miguel Correia, Nelson Mota, Vanda Maldonado, Susana Constantino

Structural and electrical engineer: Direcção-Geral dos Edifícios e Monumentos Nacionais (DGEMN)                                                                                                                                                                           

Photographs: Fernando Guerra

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