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Snake in the grass: Rowing Centre by SpacialAR-TE in Poçinho

AR_EA Finalist: Zigzagging down towards the River Douro, Álvaro Fernandes Andrade’s serpentine rowing centre scythes through the vinicultural landscape

Site plan

Site plan

Site plan - click to expand

The Douro River flows down from the hills of north-eastern Portugal into the Atlantic at Porto, carving out a valley of great beauty along the way. It is here, on these terraced and sometimes precipitous slopes, that port wine has been made for centuries. This storied landscape was designated a World Heritage Site in 2001, necessitating a sensitive approach to any construction therein. Fortunately the Porto School has produced a succession of architects capable of engaging collaboratively with the natural habitat of that city’s hinterland. Of course, in the Douro Valley this tradition goes back thousands of years, since the vineyards stepped into the hillsides are as much works of architecture as of nature.

Álvaro Fernandes Andrade is an heir to the Porto tradition: he was born in the city, and he studied under Fernando Távora in the latter’s final year of teaching. Andrade’s High-Performance Rowing Centre is a facility for the training of Olympic-grade athletes located in the village of Pocinho, by the Douro River. The landscape here, at the very end of the train line from Porto, is characteristically marked by the winding terraces of viniculture down which the rowing centre is draped; a ribbon of white concrete that starkly contrasts with the dark disturbed earth upon which it rests.

Rowing centre general section

Rowing centre general section

Site section

The head of this snaking structure is raised cobra-like and looks down on the village through high windows. In this uppermost part of the building we find the social functions of the centre: the dining room, library, kitchen, auditorium and offices. The reception is also located up here; this may seem slightly odd given the site’s topography but the choice of higher ground for these functions does provide impressive views that would only be a distraction from the more strenuous activities taking place elsewhere in the building.

From here a long, half-submerged corridor winds down the hill in a gently zigzagging fashion, coming to rest in the building’s forked tail where the training facilities are clustered: the linear, slightly zigzagged gym, with its crucial line of rowing machines, and below that in a parallel and partly conjoined block the sauna, medical rooms, coaching rooms, and pool.

Rowing centre sections

Rowing centre sections

Rowing centre sections

If you’re wondering where the accommodation is, 84 rooms are buried in four cranked rows beneath the terraces that step down between the two blocks. These are accessed via subterranean corridors branching off from the long main corridor, and provided with communal kitchenettes, lounges and laundries. The rooms themselves peer out through slits cut into the dry stone walls that buttress the terraces and must have a rather chthonic atmosphere, but the inhabitants will not be spending much time lazing about in bed. Space has been left for the centre to expand to four more rows of cells (shown above and opening spread in grey), which will bring the total to 170.

Andrade states that his architecture is located in a struggle between ‘history and contemporaneity … between “Worldliness” and “Portugality”.’ In this early work, which quite literally gives local tradition a (crystalline, Modernist) twist, he has already established a convincing ability to balance these forces. 

High Performance Rowing Centre

Architects: SpacialAR-TE / Álvaro Fernandes Andrade

Structural engineers: A400 / António Monteiro | Loftspace / Machado dos Santos

Photographs: Fernando Guerra

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