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Galleria solar by Manuel Maia Gomes, Vila Do Conde, Portugal

Pink concrete forms and luminous walls flourish in the new arts centre by Manuel Maia Gomes. Photogrpahy by Fernando Guerra

A wall of coloured translucent glass adds an exuberant flourish to this project for an arts centre in the heart of Vila do Conde, just north of Porto. And while Manuel Maia Gomes’ architecture of weight and sobriety might bear all the reductivist hallmarks of the Porto school, the vividly hued glass marks it out as something else; something more nuanced and complex.

To some extent, the brief was not about new architecture per se, but the repair and reconstitution of the urban fabric in the town’s historic centre. The Galleria Solar specialises in cinematic art, video and short films, and operates a small bookshop. Gomes was asked to refurbish a building dating from the 16th century to house the Galleria, along with two floors of student accommodation.

He also had to devise a linking structure running from the gallery to an adjacent square, in order to encourage a flow of visitors, while reconciling a height difference of some 8m between square and gallery. Enclosed by thick walls of dark pink concrete, the simple geometry of the linking structure has a powerful monolithic quality.

Essentially a space of transition, with a long staircase running through it and a lift housed in a cylindrical volume, it becomes an event in itself, an ad hoc exhibition space for paintings, sculpture and video arts. ‘In this way people meet art’, says Gomes, ‘when simply walking through the city.’

The passage remains open from early morning until midnight, and openings cut into its thick walls frame glimpses of the town. Glowing with a jewel-like clarity, the wall of coloured glass bathes the space in a tranquil light, like the stained glass window of a medieval cathedral.

The luminous wall attracts visitors into the building; a literal light at the end of the tunnel. ‘The presence of the coloured glass also helps to finesse the transition between the historic house built of stone and the linking structure made of pigmented concrete’, says Gomes.

‘Both the stone and concrete are rough and untreated revealing the imperfections of their making’. At its upper level the passage connects with the foyer of the gallery. The original 16th century building had been compromised by an insensitive 18th century reworking.

So Gomes employs series of tactful, low-key insertions to extol what is left and re-exposes the building’s thick granite walls. The gallery is contained in an enfilade of spaces around a central lightwell, while the cells of student accommodation on the two upper floors have a monastic air with timber floors and white walls. A conical light scoop is thrust through building, illuminating the stairwell leading up to the residences.

Although the photogenic glass wall, has inevitably become emblematic of the project, Gomes’ approach is more thoughtful and resonates more deeply with time and the city than this ostensible preoccupation with surface and colour would suggest.

Architect Manuel Maia Gomes

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