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Part 2 Project 2010
Alex Whitton
Mackintosh School of Architecture, UK
Porto’s historic centre exhibits a paradox; a disconnect between an excluded, inner-city poor and a transient tourist population. Ironically, the tourists are attracted by the very ‘picturesque dilapidation’ that perpetuates the social exclusion. The cathedral square is the point where the two sides meet; dense, dilapidated, ‘domestic vernacular’ and monumental, civic-scale ‘city face’.

The aim of this thesis is to form a programme that can express this tension; bringing together the inward, domestic nature of a homeless refuge, with the outward, civic face of a performance centre. A dialogue between the internal world of the rehabilitation process and the external world of performance, as a means of breaking the cycle of inner-city exclusion. This tension is expressed in the relationship between the building’s two contrasting elements; the ‘solid’ of the refuge tower (light, air, view and separation) and the ‘void’ of the carved performance spaces (acoustic isolation, subversion and a sacred, vertical light).

The building is placed at the junction between the domestic fabric to the north and the civic fabric to the south. To the north, the refuge tower acts as focus for a wider rehabilitation process that will re-integrate clients back into the community as they re-build and re-occupy the highlighted, disused plots. To the south, the new auditorium acts as the focal point of a new route, connecting key historic buildings at the top of the hill with the Ribiera below. The auditorium reconnects the upper and lower squares, framing views to and from the cathedral above and turning the square below into a monumental performance space.

The building’s form is an expression of the contrasting environmental requirements of the two programmes. The Refuge; a lightweight, prefabricated, south-facing tower, maximises solar gain, natural light and cross-ventilation. The Performance Centre; a series of carved granite, acoustically isolated voids, maximises top light, thermal mass and earth cooling by means of labyrinths integrated within the depth of the retaining walls. Hence, a dialogue between a monolithic, site-specific, permanent, space of performance and a systemized, flexible, kit of parts that can respond to the changing needs of a refuge.

Alex Whitton

Sixteen students chose Porto as their city to explore with the historic centre the focus of their studies. A circular route was identified loosely following the original city wall. The individual sites were broadly clustered together into four territories each with different attributes and challenges:

Alex focused on the territory immediately around the Cathedral Precinct and was concerned with a number of issues pertinent to this area. He successfully combined a social agenda of how the city might start to address its acute problem of homelessness, with an urban agenda of how to extend the public realm beyond the confines of the Cathedral precinct.

He developed a hybrid programme - a building offering sanctuary for the homeless but also one that uses music and performance both as palliative care and as a means of social integration back into the city, with a large external amphitheatre at its heart. This space both negotiates the dramatic change in level across the site and creates a new public place in the heart of the city.

The project essentially comprises of two main elements – the external amphitheatre with the Music centre located around it and underneath (and consisting of a number of rehearsal spaces, library and cafeteria), and the corner tower which connects to the adjacent residential blocks and houses the resource for the homeless (meeting rooms, consultation rooms, administration and temporary accommodation). The amphitheatre and its surrounding accommodation is made of stone and is intended to feel as though it has been literally carved out of the ground, whilst the tower is more filigree and composed of sliding screens that open and shut depending on the level of privacy and level of environmental control required.

I believe Alex's project to be an all too rare example of a student project which has both a serious social agenda and a strong urban and formal ambition, developed with great sophistication as he explores issues from the large-scale (social and urban) down to the detailed (acoustic, environmental and ones of materiality) with great conviction.


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