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AL_A's MAAT attempts to reconnect Lisbon's historic city with its river

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Amanda Levete’s Kunsthalle at the MAAT provides four new galleries while attempting to stitch together a tricky site. Laura Mark takes a look 

PLANS • SECTION • ELEVATION • CLIENT’S VIEW • PROJECT DATA

As we drive towards Lisbon’s Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology my taxi driver remarks: ‘We have a saying here that the river is Lisbon’s lover. The city has a relationship with the river.’

Now the River Tagus has a fair new companion in the form of AL_A’s gallery, which sits at the water’s edge, its curvaceous tile-clad façade reflecting the water. 

The brief was for ‘a building that should not be boring’, Antonio Mexia, chairman of client body the EDP Foundation, tells the audience on day two of the four-day lead-up to the public opening. This is a highly anticipated building. 

As we tour the museum, contractors are working frantically to get it ready. They’ve rushed its completion to coincide with the launch of the Lisbon Architecture Triennale. They’re still installing tiles and they’re clearly bodging it to get it ready for opening. The finishes are a little rough. 

‘We’ll need until March to put right the things that need correcting,’ AL_A founder Amanda Levete tells me. 

She continues: ‘The more typical condition is that when a building is finished, it’s pristine and then left empty for two years; but here, the programme drove an accelerated opening date. It was a generous gesture on behalf of EDP, who, knowing the building would not be finished, recognised that the Triennale was a moment they could not miss.’

The 38,000m2 site is a tricky one. One of Lisbon’s main highways and a railway line run past it, dividing it from the historic city. Next year, the opening of a 60m-long bridge – also by AL_A – will reconnect the building to the centre to mitigate the effects of the roadway, which cuts through like a fault line. 

The building doesn’t rely on height for impact. It is low-slung and, viewed from the river, similar in shape to an eyelid. Conceived as a piece of landscape and public realm as well as an art space, visitors are invited to walk over, under and through the building. 

MAAT by AL_A

MAAT by AL_A

Source: Laura Mark

As you enter, you are confronted by the 1,200m2 main exhibition space, stretching out before and beneath you. Like Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, this space can accommodate huge, immersive art pieces. It is elliptical in plan and a curved ramp wraps around it, conducting the visitor on a slow walk down from entrance lobby to lower level. 

‘It felt counter-intuitive to walk into the building and immediately go down,’ says Levete. ‘But this was needed to ensure the overall height remained low.’

Levete’s Kunsthalle provides four new galleries, adding to the four in MAAT’s listed Central Tejo power station next door. MAAT aims to dedicate 60 per cent of its space to work by Portuguese artists, but the first installation is by French artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foester. Pynchon Park is a surreal playground. It fills the oval-shaped space with what at first glance look like yoga balls and large gym mats, all contained beneath a net hung from the walls above taking its cues from the architecture of Cedric Price’s aviary at London Zoo. ‘This site-specific work was conceived horizontally as a reaction to the architecture,’ Gonzalez-Foester says. 

This space then flows through to three smaller galleries that can be used for anything from performance to video art. These interconnecting volumes are a result of the building’s lack of a prescriptive brief. 

MAAT by AL_A

MAAT by AL_A

Source: Laura Mark

Despite the freedom in the plan, it did see some changes when Pedro Gadanho came on board as the museum’s director in October 2015. An architect who had previously been curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, he had definite ideas about what he wanted for the space. An auditorium was taken out, as was a ceiling suspended above the elliptical art space. In its place, a raw, industrial ceiling with lighting that nods toward Superstudio was added. 

The building’s all-white, glossy interior is like something from a sci-fi movie and recalls Future System’s Lord’s Media Centre, for which Levete won the RIBA Stirling Prize in 1999. This stark aesthetic could be fantastic but it is let down by paraphernalia such as some of the signage, M&E, obtrusive fire extinguishers and so on – just a result of its current unfinished state, one hopes. 

MAAT by AL_A

MAAT by AL_A

Source: Laura Mark

On the roof of the Kunstalle, visitors can view the city of Lisbon sprawling up into the hills. ‘We’ve created a new outdoor public space where you can turn your back to the river and look out towards the historic city,’ Levete says ‘It is a perspective the people of Lisbon have not had before.’

As you stand back from the edge, the road and railway that cut the building off disappear from view and I can understand what she has tried to achieve. 

New architecture is not uncommon in this part of town, even though it is more closely associated with the historic nearby Jerónimos Monastery and Lisbon’s famous custard tarts. The first major project came 20 years ago with the huge Cultural Centre of Belem, later followed by RIBA Gold Medal winner Paulo Mendes da Rocha’s Coach Museum, completed in 2015. But, despite being in the same district, these projects feel disconnected and it’s difficult to walk from one to another. Unlike Levete’s building, which has gone some way to connect the historic riverfront back to the city, the other cultural schemes in the area sit in their own silos and do little to interact with either the city or the river. 

‘The buildings are too far apart to ever really be connected. A lot of investment has gone into the regeneration of the riverfront and really this building is a consolidation of that,’ comments Levete. 

The client isn’t expecting the new building to provide any ‘Bilbao Effect’. ‘Lisbon is still very peripheral,’ says Gadanho. ‘We don’t expect the same to happen here as when Bilbao’s Guggenheim opened. If we get more than half a million visitors in a year it will be over the top.’

And yet, with its 15,000 three-dimensional porcelain tiles which clad its riverfront façade glinting in the sun, it’s easy to imagine visitors flocking here. It is a fine building which is trying hard to pay respect to its city location. The real test will be in 2017, when the bridge connecting it with the city opens. Then, with its rushed construction hopefully finessed, we should be able to see the beautifully detailed vision Levete had in mind.

Level 00 floor plan

MAAT by AL_A

MAAT by AL_A

Level 01 floor plan

MAAT by AL_A

MAAT by AL_A

Section A-A

MAAT by AL_A

MAAT by AL_A

South elevation

MAAT by AL_A

MAAT by AL_A

Client’s view

MAAT will restore the historic connection between the city and the water. It will be a hub for attracting people who come here to enjoy art and architecture. 

More than that, however, it will draw people from the heart of the city to the panoramic views along the Tagus estuary, a riverfront area that has long been neglected but which, thanks to MAAT, will become a vibrant new destination within Lisbon. 

With its unique industrial heritage, a growing collection of Portuguese art and an innovative exhibition programme, MAAT will be a cultural space of discovery, critical thinking and global dialogue. MAAT will not only support the work of Portuguese artists and curators, but offer them a platform to connect with the international art community. 

Antonio Mexia, chairman, EDP Foundation and Pedro Gadanho, director, MAAT

MAAT by AL_A

MAAT by AL_A

Source: EDP Foundation

Project data

Start on site June 2014
Completion March 2017
Gross internal floor area 7,400m²
Form of contract Traditional
Construction cost €20 million
Construction cost per m2 €2,702
Architect AL_A
Client Fundação EDP  
Structural engineer Afaconsult
M&E consultant Afaconsult
QS Rui Carmine
Lighting consultant Afaconsult
Fire consultant Afaconsult
Security consultant Afaconsult
Acoustics consultant Afaconsult
Gas consultant Afaconsult
Traffic consultant Afaconsult
Demolitions consultant Afaconsult
Geotechnical engineering Afaconsult
Site supervision Tecnoplano 
LEED consultant Edifícios Saudáveis 
Energy certification e3e 
Landscape Vladimir Djurovic Landscape Architecture 
Restaurant and shop lighting SEAM Design 
Wayfinding R2 Design 
Project manager Tecnoplano
CDM co-ordinator Afaconsult (during project) Tecnoplano (during construction)
Main contractor Alves Ribeiro
CAD software used Rhinoceros, Revit, AutoCAD
Annual CO2 emissions 10.3kg/m2

 

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