Urban park restaurant
BEJA (PT) - Part of a larger ensemble of urban projects, the restaurant by Santa-Rita Architects reflects the difficulties of creating meaningful public spaces in emptying towns.
Since 2000, the Polis programme in Portugal has been channelling European funds into projects aimed at bringing the smaller, half-forgotten Portuguese towns 'into the future'. Providing for both urban refurbishment and environmental valorization, such governmental programmes, are an enforced achievement of late modernity in places that would otherwise have stood still in time and slowly decayed.
Located in the hot and parched prairie of southern Alentejo, Beja is one of those interior Portuguese cities that face abandonment by generations of people drawn to the urban conglomerations that flower by the sea. What was once briefly the capital of the kingdom and one of the richest duchies of yesteryear now simply wards off desertification. In such dormant cities, public space is destined for a largely absent audience and small gems designed by Portuguese metropolitan architectural talent adorn strangely empty crowns.
Such is the case of a new urban park on the outskirts of Beja's historical core, which now receives its own jewel in the form of a little restaurant that, rather appropriately, plays doubly with the idea of refraction. Indeed, this concise design not only plays with heat, water, light and sound waves, but also delivers the possible refractions of late modernity to a medium and an environment which is obviously not its own.
Part of a larger ensemble of urban projects that include a car park transformed into an oblique and undulating plaza, both Beja City Park and its restaurant are the outcome of a collaboration between the city's Polis programme and Santa-Rita Architects. This Lisbon-based office, headed by João Santa-Rita, was one of the first in Portugal to explore some of the avenues of late modernist architectural form, in conjunction with respect for the traditional presence of place and its qualities. Remnants of brutalism and deconstruction are thus filtered through a sensibility that is somehow topographical and topological.
As such, the restaurant in Beja's city park is not simply a response to a functional need but a topological feature that both refracts the architectural languages of late modernity and the physical conditions of this smallish piece of artificial nature. As in other recent designs by Santa-Rita, the building the building is half hidden, a mixture of architectural, topographical and landscape design.
Providing a territorial frontier for the park's north entrance, the concrete and glass structure evokes the earthworks of some Seventies land art. As one approaches City Park, only three oblique volumes – later discovered to be skylights – are to be seen erupting in different directions from a ground-level moulding. As a built enclave defined by a small hill, by ramps and open stairs, the restaurant thus offers its only true facade to the neighbouring artificial lake that constitutes the park's central element. Nevertheless, the building is not only to be read as an earthwork. In its main facade it brings architecture back into play and integrates further geographical elements into its composition.
To begin with, it integrates the element of water, which is particularly charged with symbolic overtones here in light of the surrounding dryness. Both as a cascade that flows from the walk-on roof to the lake and in the lake itself, water becomes the leitmotif for physical and optical refraction. Hence, one of the skylights is a golden eye bearing the reflections of the cascade pool. And hence, the variously slanting planes of the glass facade become more than an allusion to modernity's fragmentary character, and alternatively refract both lake and sky. The geometric rule that determines the slopes and angles of the planes, horizontal dispositions, skylights or structural elements thus becomes more than historical suggestion and establishes specific spatial qualities.
Since refraction is the main theme of this crisp design exercise, the simple interiors enhance the turning and bending of light waves and watery reflections. As such, perforated Viroc-clad volumes economically contain the infrastructures but, at the same time, also become polyhedrons that contort to receive and direct the light from the skylights above into the interstitial service areas. Waves of light and water therefore become the high notes of architectural and topological performance.
Architecture may play its part in belated modernization by simply bringing such discreet spatial qualities to join in with the quiet park life expected to fill these surroundings. In its games of light, reflection and architectural form, the elaborate languages of late modernity thus refract into the everydayness of a small city in desperate need of rejuvenation.
July | 2005 | Portugal | Pedro Gadanho