There are a very few times when the specific capabilities of a site, the particular needs and aspirations of a sophisticated client and community, and the creative vision of an architect combine so profoundly as to produce a building that is a true masterpiece of architecture.  (Other forms of artistic expression similarly must be able successfully to create a communicative  interaction between the artist and the appreciators of what is created; but, aside from architecture, the audience is more variable, and the demands of the site less fixed.)   What our dear friend Charles Correa has created for the people of Lisbon—and the world—in the Champalimaud Center is just such a masterpiece.


Nancy and I have just returned from Lisbon, where we journeyed to see Charles's building complex.  Charles is an old Urban Age friend; but, aside from his wonderful Kunchan-Junga apartments (q.v., my description in my write-up of the Urban Age Conference there)   in his home town of Bombay, I had never seen any  of his other buildings.  (Having been blown away by the magnificence of this project, we plan to rectify this failure as soon as possible—probably beginning with his Picower Building at MIT in Boston.)


Just four years ago, Charles was brought to the waterfront site planned for this complex; and the unexpected process of discovery at that moment of the site's form and relation to the river led to Charles formulating basic outline of his plan that very night.  (I include below Charles's description of this moment, as it is wonderfully worth reading)   Not unlike Louis Kahn's Salk Institute in La Jolla—and, as I am, Charles is a great fan of Kahn—the experience of the Champalimaud Center is very much about the discovery of the body of water that lies beyond it.  And discovery lies at the heart of what both sites are about:  both are designed to house major institutes for scientific and medical research.  In the case of the Champalimaud Center, the complex houses both a world class center for research on cancer and neurosurgery (the scientific board for which is headed by James Watson)—and is combined with a marvelous treatment facility, as well; and the site has the added trope of being constructed next to the spot where 500 years ago Vasco da Gama set out to discover the world.


Like Kahn's Salk Institute, this complex consists of two groupings of low, essentially horizontal buildings, flanking an open plaza leading to the water; and, in both, the central experience involves the movement through the plaza between the buildings toward the water.  I find the Salk Institute to be one of the world's most satisfying and sublime buildings, and I was thrilled to discover that I think Charles's complex is far more extraordinary and successful!


To begin with, the Champalimaud Center is rich with elegantly sweeping curvilinear elements playing against the basically rectangular underlying structure, particularly of the western half of the complex, which houses the integrated research and treatment facilities—and the decision to place these elements together in a single building is one of many brilliant innovations that were produced by the interaction of Charles and the fabulous leaders of the Champalimaud Foundation (whose able and creative Board chairman [João Botelho] and Director [Leonor Beleza] we had the honor of spending time with during our visit).  I believe that by bringing these two functions into proximity with each other there will be an enhancement of the hopefulness for the treatment component and of the humanity of the research component.



There are any number of other novel decisions that were produced in this collaboration that I suspect will enhance the likelihood of significant scientific discoveries being produced by the researcher who will work here.  For one thing, it is an incredibly humane environment in which to work.  Whereas, as at most research facilities, the labs at the Salk Institute are relegated to enclosed basement spaces, the high-tech, state-of-the-art labs in the Champalimaud Center are on the second floor, and they have a glass wall with a view of the water.  (I do not believe I have ever seen any other laboratory facility with a view.)  The offices for the individual scientists are across a long, light, and airy two-story hallway, with a view at the end so wonderful that it has been fondly nicknamed "Sunset Boulevard.")  Those really familiar with the Salk Institute know that it is not a particularly happy environment in which to work—and that all but the most elite of offices (the few on the third floor which have views of the water) are rather dreary to inhabit.  There was also a decision made to house all the laboratory space of the Champalimaud Center together in one, long, expansive room rather than each group having its own separate room.  This high-ceilinged, open space with a glass wall running its length, has ample organizational structure to accommodate separate working-group identities within the overall space, yet at the same time proving the opportunity for inter-group interaction.  


The beautiful, almost white stone cladding of the Champalimaud Center has a vitality—makes the gray cement of the Salk Institute seem drab by comparison—particularly in the intensely brilliant, seemingly Mediterranean light of Lisbon (which is as astounding as it is perplexing, since Lisbon is on the Atlantic, not the Mediterranean—and, even then, the light seems ore like that of the eastern Mediterranean rather than of the western)


The western building has an L-shaped inner structure, with the long arm of the L housing the laboratory space on the second floor (and the office space behind that), and housing the clinical spaces on the first floor.  As one enters the clinical areas through the magnificent, open, two-story glass fronted lobby, one sees through the glass wall on the inner side the reception area to the right ahead, and, to the left ahead, the vast rectangular expanse of the interior garden.  This three-story high space, open to the sky above, and walled in floor-to-ceiling glass from all the levels of the building that front on it, is full of majestic palm trees and other flora—designed eventually to recreate something of a tropical rainforest in its lushness.  Just off the welcoming first-floor reception area, there is a large patio which opens out into the left, overlooking the floor of the garden one story below.  This space—like the garden itself—is designed for patients and their families to be able to spend the often long hours required in such treatment in a warm and humane space.  Like so many of the innovative aspects of the Champalimaud Center, there is a very conscious effort here to provide in the very fabric of the building a humane and supportive experience, whereas traditional facilities so miserably fail to attend to the psychological and emotional needs of their clients in these areas.  Charles has utilized the water surrounding the Center, the brilliant Portuguese sky above it, and the plant life he has brought within it to create an environment for the patients and their families—and for those who labor on their behalf—that will be well-grounded in the vital life forces of the universe.  Similar loving attention has been paid to the treatment rooms:  unlike the small, totally enclosed, airless infusion rooms most facilities use for chemotherapy, the treatment rooms here offer the choice of more privacy or more interaction, and they face onto a bright, open courtyard of a private garden only for patients.  This space, viewable  from the treatment rooms, also provides a controlled exterior environment in which patients can be outside, yet sheltered from the world.  So much at the Champalimaud Center is designed to create a life-centered experience for patients and their families—rooted in the sun and air and water, and especially in the verdant plant life around which this part of the facility  is built.


Everywhere around and penetrating into the rectilinear core of the western wing are beautiful curvilinear shapes.  In this way the space is anchored in a classically timeless solidness, while at the same time being energized by the more organic sweeps of its curves.  Between the garden and the main plaza is a gorgeously complex curved wall that forms the main sweep out toward the water.  It is penetrated by a series of large oval openings which serve to provide sight lines from within out to the water—and world—beyond, while also providing glimpses from the outside into the tropic greenery and the shiny glass spaces beyond it (and reflecting it).


On the other side of the plaza is a complex of three spaces:  in the center of the progression toward the river, behind another elegantly curving wall on the east side of the plaza, is the most gorgeous semi-circular stone amphitheater I have ever seen outside of ancient Greek ruins.  (I could not help thinking it was a space in which I should wish to see Aeschylus performed!)


At the beginning of the eastern progression along the plaza is the Champalimaud Foundation building.  It has a large exhibition space on its first floor, and offices for the Foundation on its second.  The second floor reception area has a glass wall which looks out onto a curved triangular garden plaza which juts out toward the river—ever so subtly evoking the prow of a ship.


 The eastern-most corner of the beginning of the complex houses Charles's fabulous auditorium.  Fitted out with extremely comfortable seating—with the excellent visibility only sharply raked stadium seating can provide—this mind-bogglingly gorgeous space has a huge ovoid window opening (filled with an unbroken expanse of clear plexiglass), which is breath-taking both for the views it provides to the outside and for magnificence of its own sculptural form.


Between the Foundation building and the Auditorium building connected to it is a large, open cafeteria with outside patio service as well, named The Darwin Cafe.  This space is rather wildly and humorously decorated with enlargements of colorful naturalist drawings by Darwin himself.  Perhaps most importantly, it serves extremely delicious and creative food—totally unexpected in an institutional setting—and is open to the public.


Connecting the two halves of the complex. Charles has created a beautiful glass bridge which spans the plaza.  From his experience in the Indian heat, Charles knew to create air circulation within this structure, using an open spiral form on the upper part to create a refreshing, natural flow of air.  (In the photograph to the right, you are looking back out toward Lisbon’s area known as Belém; and you can see how Charles has also drawn the warm color of the Lisbon urban fabric into the site as well.)


All of the details of these buildings are elegant:  the finishes seem quite perfect, and Charles's color sense is superb.  Throughout the complexes there are bits of trim around windows and even whole walls of the richest yellow-orange color—reminiscent of a traditional color one sees in the old buildings of Lisbon, but of a depth and saturation that is pure Charles; and all of the other colored elements if this predominantly white interior space are splendid.


But the very heart of this complex is the sweep of the plaza that carries one forward through the center of it.  The curves lead one forward and around on a slightly-inclined path that carries the eye off into infinity.  Somewhere into the progression, one sees the two monolithic cement columns Charles has positioned at the culmination of the plaza.  These beautiful forms are natural concrete in their color, except that in the upper most portion blue pigment has been progressively blended into the concrete, enhancing the effect that they seem to blend into the sky above.  As one nears the columns, one begins to see the water beyond:  the infinity reflecting pond just beyond the columns, and the Tagus River and ultimately the Atlantic Ocean beyond that.  The effect as one approaches it is quite amazing:  first one sees an undifferentiated presence of water, and eventually one becomes aware that it is part a man-made pond, part natural body of water, moving off into the unknown distance.  In the middle of the pond is an ambiguous dome-shaped presence just emerging from under the water that seems to suggest a reference to the unknown monsters of the deep—but in a not too frightening a way (perhaps a nod to the fact that there are scary elements to all of this—even if the main thrust is to encourage one to feel reassuringly rooted in the grand movement of life).


This is site the place from which Portuguese explorers set sail to discover new worlds, and hopefully the Champalimaud Center will be the place in which scientists manage to discover new and better treatments for cancer.  Meanwhile, it is an inspiring outgrowth of the enlightened ideas and dreams of the Champalimaud Foundation and of the City of Lisbon and the country of Portugal—and it was in part undertaken to mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Portuguese republic.  It is also the culmination of the ideas and artistic creativity of a magnificent man—Charles Correa.  The interaction between these elements has produced an edifice of monumental architectural importance and magnificence.





You may find it helpful to view this flyover animation of plan



And here is Charles’s essay about the origins of the plan:



The first time I saw the site was on April 2nd, 2007.  We were planning a visit to Boston, when the Director of the Champalimaud Foundation, João Botelho, phoned to say they were getting a wonderful waterfront site just near the Torre de Belem, and could I come to Portugal right away?  I had visited Belem many years before and of course I remembered that extraordinary moment along the coastline where the river Tagus starts to merge with the Atlantic Ocean. For me, this was a very special place. How did Vasco da Gama and the other great Navigators find the courage and imagination to sail down that bend, take that corner and plunge into the unknown ocean that lay beyond?  It seemed an extraordinarily apt metaphor for the cutting-edge scientific discoveries that the Foundation hoped the new Chamapalimaud Centre would engender.


I remember we arrived in Lisbon some time in the afternoon (after an all-night flight form Bombay, and change of planes in Frankfurt).   I went to meet João almost right away, as I was hoping to see the site before it grew dark.  But by the time we got there, the gate had been locked, so we started walking down the public riverfront promenade that skirts the edge of the site.  It had begun to drizzle, and though neither of us had raincoats or umbrellas, we kept pressing on, so João could show me the confluence of the river and the ocean.  He kept saying: it’s just a little further on; it’s just around the corner; and so on.  Finally, we turned back.  The experience is still extremely vivid in my memory. That night, going to sleep, I knew that whatever else we did, the site must be structured along a powerful architectural diagonal axis, an open-to-sky space, going right from the entrance to the opposite corner, where you finally see the river beginning to merge with the ocean and the great unknown.


After that, everything fell naturally into place.  Tossing in bed that night, I started imagining two powerful stone walls defining that axis – but I soon realised that there had to be other connections to the existing public promenade along the waterfront.  So by morning the concept had metamorphosed into three volumes of built form, with the public plaza in between.  The largest volume would of course house the main facilities: the doctors, the patients, the researchers – and all the support systems and spaces they required.  The smaller volume would be the conference centre, with its ancillary facilities, the auditorium, restaurant, and the Foundation offices. These two volumes would be connected by a glass bridge.  The third volume would be an open-air amphitheatre, facing the river, available to the citizens of Lisbon for free concerts, scientific lectures and discussions, and so forth.


In between these three volumes would be the public plaza – leading from the entrance driveway diagonally through to the opposite end of the site.  The plaza level would be imperceptibly sloped upward, so that as one moves towards the ocean, all one really sees ahead is the sky.  The vast enigmatic sky.  Two huge monolith columns would announce presence of the Infinite Unknown that lies beyond.  And as one finally reaches those monoliths, one sees . . not the river, nor the ocean . . but a pool of water . .  . in which there is a mysterious object.  What is it? The back of a turtle?  A malevolent jellyfish? An exotic island?   It is what you have set out to discover.  And when you reach this high point . . . magically the water of the pond seems to merge with the river beneath it . . . and thence with the vast Atlantic ocean beyond.


Over the next few weeks I quickly sketched up these ideas into coherent drawings and sent them to João – who immediately understood the concept.  It was then sent to Hillier, who were the consultants for the labs and clinics – and luckily, it received their support as well. That was a crucial moment I shall never forget.  No project can be better than the client who commissions it – for ultimately so much depends on their imagination, and their determination to make it happen.  This is where the Champalimaud Foundation came up trumps.  And this why three and half years later (i.e. from the date I first saw this site); we could have, incredibly, the Inauguration ceremony by the President of Portugal to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Republic.


Incredible because a project of this size and complexity involves the diverse skills of a vast array of specialised consultants, who understand and can deal with the detailed requirements of the doctors and their diagnostic equipment, the patients and their therapy sessions, the scientists and their research laboratories, etc   and we have to integrate them in a manner that did not diminish or dilute  the overall concept.  Finally when the working drawings had been completed, construction started on site.  This was another key moment – for in architecture as minimalist as this, the structure and the finishes must be impeccable.  First came the concrete columns, beams and slabs - starting with the basement.  They were beautifully done, and to a very high standard.  Then the stone cladding.  We had chosen Lioz stone – and prepared drawings showing the exact dimensions of every stone on every surface.  Again, beautifully done.  Then finally the glass. Last of all the overhead bridge: which must be a gossamer thing of glass and steel tension wires.  What we got was perfect: a superbly engineered and fabricated piece of engineering jewelry.  The elegant way it connects the two stone walls on either side is unforgettable.


Sometimes I look back and wonder how it all came together so smoothly . . . and what would have happened if when João and I visited the site on Aril 2nd, 2007, that gate had not been locked - or if it had not been drizzling.  Then we would have just walked in though the gate and seen  . . . a perfectly flat site with trees and a few sheds. And perhaps then the project might have ended up looking like most other research labs  -  just a rectangular box with a protective fence all around?  On the other hand, perhaps not.  For I believe that architecture must always be informed by its site.  Norbert Schulz has written eloquently about what he calls the Genus Loci, the essential meaning of a site – and Architecture’s unique responsibility to express, to release, that meaning, A musician can play the same Chopin concert one evening in Tokyo and the next in Brazil and the third in Paris – with every note exactly the same. But not the Architect.  For a building is rooted in the soil on which it stands, In the climate, in the technology, in the culture – and in the aspirations! - of the society that uses it.  This is why the same building cannot be repeated anywhere and everywhere in the world


Now when I review the whole experience, I am astonished (and grateful !) that the Champalimaud Foundation had the courage and vision to back such a way-out configuration of built form and decide to go ahead.  It takes extraordinary drive and determination on the client’s part to get a project this size built so beautifully – and on time.  For in this project, what stands out are two things: the architectural expression of the genus loci of this site, and the client’s amazing empathy and encouragement for what we were trying to achieve.



*                               *                               *

In conclusion, I must repeat what I said at the Inauguration, viz. that I’m proud this project is NOT a Museum of Modern Art. On the contrary, it uses the highest levels of contemporary science and medicine to help people grappling with real problems; cancer, brain damage, going blind,  And to house these cutting-edge activities, we tried to create a piece of architecture.  Architecture as Sculpture.  Architecture as Beauty.  Beauty as therapy.


And we have also attempted to use NATURE as therapy.  The WATER around us.  The SKY above.  The benison of the RAIN FOREST -  reminding us of the infinite fecundity of nature and its power to heal us. All these are therapy for the patients.


Of course we have a site of astonishing Beauty and great historic Memory -  the place from which went forth the great Voyages of Discovery, a perfect analog of the discoveries that contemporary scientists will be making here, on this very piece of land.  This is why more than half the site has been given back to the citizens of Lisbon to celebrate their history – without in anyway compromising the privacy of the medical activities, and vice versa. The site plan is a yang-yang pattern of interlocking spaces, focused along a central plaza – in which, the slight upward slope is crucial.  For it changes your sight lines and your horizon. (It is not what you see, but what you don’t see).


Lastly, I am proud that this project tries to express the essential nature, the genus loci, of this historic site in Belem without resorting to ersatz versions of the architecture of the past.  No, we have used throughout a contemporary voice to express not only the truth about this site  -  but also to celebrate a very crucial moment (arguably the DEFINING moment) in the history of the Portuguese nation.



Charles Correa                                                                             October 2010

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