AR School Highly Commended: CVDB’s school builds on previous historical layers to foster social cohesion in a troubled neighbourhood
Braamcamp Freire School, by CVDB Arquitectos (Cristina Veríssimo and Diogo Burnay), is in the village of Pontinha, on the edge of Lisbon. Straddling the threshold between the built-up urban area and the dispersed rural outskirts, the school stands in a setting of several small grids of blocks, structured by a main street that condenses all urban life. A school can be a catalyst for neighbourhood regeneration - and strategically located in the vicinity of this axis, Braamcamp Freire School is ideally placed to become the focal point of Pontinha.
As part of a major public architecture programme, which began in 2007 and included the rehabilitation of more than 200 high schools all over the country, Braamcamp Freire is among the most acclaimed. The school met the general aims of the programme, and successful dialogue between the architect, school board and the promoter Parque Escolar forged a participatory approach to the design of the school environment.
‘The new school is not an autonomous segregated urban element, but an impetus to improve this socially troubled district’
The expansion of the programme of Braamcamp Freire with new facilities - such as library, auditorium, and the revamp of the sports areas - was in line with the wishes of Parque Escolar to open up the renovated schools to the community. In this sense, the new school is not an autonomous segregated urban element, but an impetus to improve this socially troubled district, playing a decisive role in the neighbourhood’s social cohesion.
Like the others in the Parque Escolar programme, Braamcamp Freire transforms an existing school. Considering its pavilion-like school model from the ’80s, based on a series of buildings and prefabrication systems, the design proposed a radical transformation of this generic model. As described by CVDB, ‘the project consisted of the reorganisation of the pavilion-like school typology into one single building’. The pavilions of the original school were organised in autonomous programmatic units.
Using the remaining outdoor spaces to create a linear internal street, CVDB unifies the school with a seamless interior, essentially by building in the interstitial spaces. As a consequence, the previous pavilions are no longer immediately apparent, although a closer look reveals their presence. The new spatially unified order blurs the former pavilion-like structure. It is interesting to see that when reading the plan drawings, the original structure is perfectly integrated, and you could be forgiven for mistaking it for a totally new school.
But it is important to understand that the new typological structure also draws on past references, not to endow it with explicit historic foundations but because they are useful operating models to cope with the challenges of the 21st-century school. Actually, the architects revisit the idea of the modern Portuguese secondary schools of the early 20th century. These incorporated rational organisation based on programmatic distribution and axial movement in an orthogonal structure, configuring large public spaces, both indoor and outdoor. This modern rationality is palpable when you walk through the school.
However, the educational model implemented by Parque Escolar explicitly refers to Herman Hertzberger’s postwar ‘learning street’. The confluence of the ’30s and ’60s in an ’80s school gives a conceptual density to the CVDB design. But the reading of these historical layers can lead to new concepts too. This is true for the ‘learning square’ - a complementary derivation of the ‘learning street’ - as a central outdoor space that concentrates the everyday life of the school. This learning square, the main reason for the demolition of two original pavilions, has unique features. It opens to the suburban landscape of vacant fields and highways to the north, in the form of an amphitheatre.
The construction of Braamcamp Freire was exacerbated by a changing economic reality. The project started in 2011, in the context of the third phase of the Parque Escolar programme, when the effects of the financial crisis in Portugal began to be felt in public investment. So the school is also the result of this difficult negotiation in the framework of a programme with significant budget cuts.
But, in this context, the response by CVDB is all the more convincing: prefabrication, raw finish and use of colour. First, prefabrication comprised, above all, the construction of the facade in reinforced-concrete modules. A series of panels of differing dimensions clad the new facades of the school as well as the original pavilions, of which only the structure remained. In these panels, hints of colour in some planes reflect light into the interior of the classrooms. Second, the application of a raw finish and ease of maintenance addressed budget constraints, avoiding costly finishes and ensuring future operation. This required inventiveness from the architects in the selection and application of materials. Finally, the use of colour, with the collaboration of a specialist, gives the strong spatial identification and functional legibility to the school. The main public spaces and the informal learning areas, as well as elements of circulation like stairs and also natural lighting, show an intentional use of colour, applied directly to the raw finish. La Tourette by Le Corbusier is the obvious inspiration here. The coarseness of the materials contrasts with the subtle use of colour. The school is easily navigated.
Braamcamp Freire is a friendly school environment and primarily an educational space focused on use. A specific detail reveals the idea of learning activity developed by the architects. The linear pillars that support the building and open the learning square to the landscape are thought a challenge to use. Cut-out shapes create openings through the concrete structural walls in a playful manner. Passage, door, window, bench or chaise longue, this seemingly irrelevant gesture ultimately expresses the central idea of Braamcamp Freire. It will be the creativity of the students that will qualify these enigmatic structures in the daily life of the school.
Architect: CVDB Arquitectos
Structural engineer: AFA Consult
Landscape: F&C Arquitectura Paisagista