A remodelled school in Portugal expressively catalyses a more social learning environment
Traversed by the fascinating linear geometries of modern infrastructure, Caneças lies within the diffuse, territorial borders of Lisbon. Since the mid 18th century, it has been an important point on the route of the main aqueduct supplying water to the capital.It is also bisected by the Exterior Regional Circular of Lisbon (CREL), a major orbital highway that defines the city boundary.
As with ancient city walls, CREL mediates between an urban core and what can be loosely described as rural terrain. Caneças itself is now a dispersed and fragmented milieu, its original historic buildings and rural structures long absorbed into the discontinuous mesh of Portuguese suburbanisation. Public buildings such as schools thus acquire the role of social aggregators in the life of the community.
The recent renovation of the Caneças High School, by ARX Portugal, an office led by brothers Nuno and José Mateus, responds to this undefined and disconnected peripheral condition. The project was carried out under the auspices of Parque Escolar, Portugal’s last major public investment programme. Over the last three decades, the government has implemented programmes for new university campuses, regional libraries and the rehabilitation of museums, cinemas and theatres.
In 2007 the Parque Escolar was initiated to renovate Portugal’s outdated and rundown network of secondary schools. Despite some controversy surrounding technical infrastructure parameters and the criteria for the selection of architects, Parque Escolar has radically transformed around 200 schools throughout the country, ensuring exceptional conditions for future students. Through the programme, the modernisation of secondary schools has become a significant factor in educational outcomes, emphasising the importance of architecture in this process.
Rejecting the typified and generic solutions prevalent in the last decades of the 20th century, Parque Escolar set out to establish a ‘new culture of learning’. The strategy envisaged an understanding of the ‘specific situation of each school’, something that the dominant logic of rehabilitation over new construction persuasively articulated. The programme also aspired to activate relationships with cultural and social contexts, conceiving each school as a dynamic node in the surrounding community. ARX Portugal joined Parque Escolar in its third phase, which was characterised by a more experimental design approach. Schools by Inês Lobo, Aires Mateus, Pedro Domingos, José Neves, Diogo Burnay and Cristina Veríssimo explored different possibilities and showed what a high school could be.
“The loose and unsatisfactory arrangement of the pavilions was resolved with a new delimiting gesture to give unity to the whole. A raw concrete wall wraps around and configures the entire school in a single rectangular corral.”
The Parque Escolar brief is underscored by the central idea of the ‘learning street’, first defined in the 1960s by Herman Hertzberger, which gave architects licence to explore different organisations and formalisations of this basic concept. ‘The intention is to connect the various functional areas of the school via a three-dimensional path’, said Teresa Valsassina Heitor, coordinator of the programme. ‘This is structured around a succession of indoor and outdoor spaces with different purposes, related to different formal and informal learning situations.’ Caneças High School is one example where this investigation went further.
ARX’s approach has an impressive clarity that has decisively reactivated a moribund structure. Located on a sloping site, the original building was a typical Portuguese school dating from the ’70s, comprising six independent pavilions of undistinguished prefabricated, modular construction.
The interstitial and surrounding terrain was undifferentiated; essentially leftover space created by implanting the pavilions on the site. Lacking any architectural quality, the school had no sense of purpose or potential. Confronted with this prospect, the architects proposed a strategy of territorial clarification and programmatic conceptualisation.
The loose and unsatisfactory arrangement of the pavilions was resolved with a new delimiting gesture to give unity to the whole. A raw concrete wall wraps around and configures the entire school in a single rectangular corral. This defining element is then penetrated and invaded by a series of external public spaces − for instance, the school’s entrance to the east, a convivial courtyard to the south, and a connecting courtyard that opens onto the large sports area on the west side.
The permeability of the concrete membrane reveals a complex play of transitions between inside and out, exploring layers without rupturing the unity of the whole. The demolition of one of the six original pavilions creates a new generously proportioned courtyard, which extends the social spaces of the school. The wall addresses another important task, enclosing technical and support areas. Thus it simultaneously defines, unifies, connects and services. A palette of simple, sober materials enhances the sense of architectural accord: the solid concrete wall structures a set of articulated bodies in white plaster with generous glazed areas, capped by a faceted zinc roof.
“The school becomes an organism: an architectural body wrought from tensions, distortions and extensions and a spatial body emerging from movements, accelerations and pauses.”
In terms of programmatic concept, ARX’s response is equally clear. The architects allude to the simultaneous exploration of formal learning areas (classrooms and academic spaces) and informal learning areas (social spaces and circulation). Logically and pragmatically, formal learning spaces occupy the original orthogonal pavilions, whose basic structure has been preserved. But the real focus of the project is the formalisation of a more organic spatial device that connects the suite of pavilions.
Here, the idea of a ‘learning street’ is explored to its full potential, from an affirmative interpretation both of existing conditions and the needs of the programme. If the different floor levels of the existing pavilions implied a complex ground plane geometry, the triangulated form of the zinc roof results from the attempt to resolve the different heights of the original structures. Anchored by the pavilions, this new space of connection and encounter assumes a life of its own.
The school becomes an organism: an architectural body wrought from tensions, distortions and extensions and a spatial body emerging from movements, accelerations and pauses. Working models reveal the development of the relationship between this conceptual and abstract body to topography, programme and original elements.
Though project and programme are imaginatively resolved, this complexity derives largely from spatial and social intensification. Through processes of expansion and contraction, the project explores a fluid and sculptural spatial composition. Existing pavilions serve as anchors counterpointed by new collective spaces such as the library, reception and secretariat. The result is a socially charged enclave where circulation, meeting and sharing can take all place.
Experiential continuity between different areas is emphasised by a uniformity of materials, particularly the white plaster wall and ceilings and the use of mosaic in pavements and walls. At Caneças, the ‘learning street’ of the Parque Escolar programme is reinvested and reinvented.
The notion of intermediate and complementary spaces adjunct to formal learning areas becomes a reality. Yet these spaces are not only for extracurricular activities. These are true spaces of discovery, spaces that challenge students, alerting them to wider spheres of activity and engagement. ‘Human relations and activities are the basis of all knowledge’, say ARX. By capturing and familiarising strangeness through inhabitation and negotiation, the learning process is reflected in the individual and collective appropriation of space. Caneças High School does not just provide a learning environment, it actively participates in the pedagogical process.