Modern medical facility reunites India and Portugal for a new Age of Discovery
On the lawns of the banks of the Tagus, by the fairy-tale rococo-gothic Tower of Belém, the fortress from which extraordinarily brave Portuguese sailors set out to explore the world at the turn of the 16th century, stands a new castle: the Fundaçao Champalimaud Research Centre. Designed by Indian architect Charles Correa, the building is made of the same sort of white stone as the tower but is completely plain and unornamented, unlike the strange combination of gothic and oriental next door.
Set up by António de Sommer Champalimaud, a Portuguese banker and industrialist, the foundation conducts research into neuroscience and oncology. It also offers day treatment for patients suffering from neurological problems and cancer. Accommodation is divided in two, with the main research and patient facilities separated from a large auditorium to the east; the two opaque white masses are joined at high level by a sparkling transparent tubular bridge. The smooth white walls of the blocks are pierced by large openings to the south, carefully placed to take advantage of dramatic views over the Tagus. For instance, the auditorium has a huge window that, except when obscured by automated blinds, dominates the whole volume and fills it with constantly changing light reflected off the river. My main reservation about this and several of the other major apertures in the white walls is that they are formed as irregular ovals – which in view of the purpose of the building are reminiscent of dangerous wobbly infectious things seen down a microscope.
Within the white carapace of the main block, you are greeted by a large terraced garden shaded by the louvres of an intricate glazed roof. This formal yet welcoming space is the social centre of the complex, where researchers, patients and administrators can meet informally and for meals. Compared to this space, the surrounding laboratories are much more utilitarian, though they were not yet fully fitted out last month, when the Portuguese president formally opened the centre on the centenary of the republican constitution – a sign of its importance to the nation.
The white walls rise from wide lawns and terraces paved in traditional Portuguese manner with black and white patterns of square stones. Among the external spaces are some of the most successful in the complex, with an open-air theatre, terraces overlooking the river and a formal stage or prow that looks west between two great columns that frame a shining view of the river as it joins the ocean into which the navigators sailed. They went to find India and the East; now an Indian has placed Portugal at the cultural forefront again.