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Reinventing the classroom: past, present and future of school architecture
A conversation with the curators of Classroom, a teenage view and Porto Santo School: A work by Raúl Chorão Ramalho, currently on view at Garagem Sul.

Garagem Sul is a space dedicated to architecture at Centro Cultural de Belém, a cultural venue in Lisbon known for its music, dance and theatre program. Classroom, a teenage view—curated by Joaquim Moreno—questions the architectural space of the classroom and its transformations. Porto Santo School: A work by Raúl Chorão Ramalho—curated by Madalena Vidigal and Diogo Amaro—presents the environment, matter, habitat and architecture of a singular work of a rooted, successfully contextualised modern piece. In this interview, we talked about understanding adolescence as an integral part of pedagogical projects, the importance of site and place and what lessons can we learn when architecture and educational curricula are thought of as one.

KOOZ The idea for Classroom, a teenage view, was inspired by the dire condition of a generation that had to experience the transition to adulthood during a pandemic and for whom the classic classroom was replaced with the domestic space of the home. How did this condition inform the themes and set of questions through which you chose to explore and organise this research on secondary education classrooms?

JOAQUIM MORENO The quick technological reaction to the pandemic was only possible because the classroom had already changed, had already become an obsolete hybrid, in the sense that it was not cutting edge, but it worked, and it was widely distributed. It was as much a space as a node in a much more complex learning infrastructure. And different responses were engendered depending on the age of students, with teenagers forced to an autonomy that they would normally only encounter in university. These mutual transformations of learning communities and learning environments were a productive lens on change, so the themes were organised through different entanglements between adolescence and the classroom. The emergence of adolescence as a new consumer category was fundamental for mass production and especially mass consumption, which called for a debate around the production of the classroom, not simply its construction or management. The end of bodily growth as the end of adolescence, and the role and place of these grown bodies in many ecologies, was paralleled with an inquiry into the energies and flows of learning environments. The question of autonomy, in the case of most teenagers, without political representation through vote, was the central question of the research, embodied by the theme of assembly, which looked for parliamentary spaces and process inside the school. The transgressive nature of adolescence, with its fundamental defiance of limits, borders, or social norms, was researched through the learning environments of art education, mirroring transgression in the experience of artistic freedom. The last theme dealt with those learning environments that prepare teenagers to the world of work, not simply to higher education, which, in many cases, simulate the working spaces of various professions.

"The question of autonomy, in the case of most teenagers, without political representation through vote, was the central question of the research."

- Joaquim Moreno

These themes were indeed questions, and we looked for what we called seed schools, to ground the research, trusting the ideas we were planting would grow into robust trees we could not see in the seed. The tree was a very important metaphor to deal with an historical subject defined by growth, because, like the trees, these seed schools have grown for a long time but are still alive and changing. And, like the trees, witnessing and supporting the much faster transformation of adolescence.

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KOOZ Through this archaeology what would you say have been the most interesting findings and/or case studies and why? To what extent has this pedagogical space evolved through time? And if so, what have been defining moments / factors in its evolution?

JM We called this an archaeology because we were researching a very recent historical subject and a very old and disseminated learning environment, mostly through their inflexions and consequences in the present of their learning communities, not through the historical lenses of their role in the canon of architecture or education. Some schools were very famous, some had lost most of their fame, and some others were unknown, or at least unsung. Having kept, or regained their original designs, and adapted to many pedagogies and inflections of adolescence itself, these environments provided the traces, the subtle changes, we were looking for in this archaeology of learning. And we confronted this evidence of change with some contemporary mutations of the original questions, tracking the changes of the ideas that were guiding our research. Production could also be about what energy the classroom produces or how the students participate in the production of their learning environments. Embodiment could inquire into local resources understood as energy, matter, as well as into cultural and technical practices, or on the difficulties of making classrooms that are both healthy and sustainable. Teenagers are leading the fight against climate inaction which is robbing them of a future, and their assemblies have long left the buildings, and their parliaments are taking the protest to the street. The fight against normativity is transgressing more limits, breaking the borders of the classroom and breaking the norms of class, social organisation, or neurological normalcy. And work changes faster than education, so the shops of earlier professional education mutated into office parks, multimedia studios, or kitchens and restaurants.

"Teenagers are leading the fight against a climate inaction which is robbing them of a future"

- Joaquim Moreno

The main conclusion of this research is that the classroom is way more diverse than we anticipated, and that it changes in ways that are not evident, and that some of these subtle changes can only be seen through the eyes of teenagers. The subtle archaeology is that we can better observe the transformations of secondary learning environments through the perspective of a historical subject they largely engendered. We can look for turning points—like technological incorporation, furniture and equipment, size, or mechanical systems—but without a teenage view on that process, we would still be dealing with a very schematic fiction about how those learning environments really work, a simplified vision about the subjects they engender. Archaeology is also a way to avoid imposing our narratives and anxieties about adolescence, of imposing the imagery of our coming of age on the present, a way to listen to other rumours and observe other inflexions, a way to learn from adolescence.

"The classroom is way more diverse than we anticipated, and that it changes in ways that are not evident"

- Joaquim Moreno

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KOOZ Porto Santo School: A work by Raúl Chorão Ramalho looks at the school built by Chorão in the 1960’s on the inhospitable and remote island of Porto Santo. Through a combination of local particularities, materials and resources, valuing both the potentialities and the characteristics of the island, the project creates a space where the values of language and modern architecture are inherently tied to the very site of the island. How could one speak of this as a school and exercise for the architect himself?

MADALENA VIDIGAL & DIOGO AMARO At the time of the school’s design process, started in 1959, Raúl Chorão Ramalho was an architect established in Lisbon but who already had an extensive building portfolio in Madeira Island. His previous works already show a mature acknowledgment of local architecture and construction particularities. This project comes as a natural continuation of previous experimentations which are closely bound to the context of the fascinating period in the history of architecture in Portugal, during the 1950's and 60’s.

"The Portuguese architects who stood out were those capable of establishing bridges with the local culture"

- Madalena Vidigal & Diogo Amaro

In direct response to the imposition of the nationalist style defended by the then authoritarian regime, the national architects’ union promoted, between 1955 and 1961, a survey of popular architecture, resulting in two volumes of the publication Arquitectura Popular em Portugal. Simultaneously showing a critical review of the architecture of the Modern Movement, this publication was aligned with the group that actively questioned erudition against vernacular architectures, much in line with the ideas defended in Bernard Rudofsky’s later exhibition and catalogue Architecture Without Architects (1964). These publications marked an entire generation of architects, including Chorão Ramalho.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Portuguese architects who stood out were those capable of establishing bridges with the local culture, analysing the spontaneity of popular and vernacular architecture and demystifying the idea defended by the then authoritarian regime of a unique Portuguese nationalist style. Architect Raul Chorão Ramalho allied this to the Porto Santo’s insular context, where he found the freedom to experiment contrasting concepts and debates, which established values still relevant today.

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KOOZ How does Chorão’s approach to the designing of this school speak of the pedagogical structure and methodology of the 1960’s?

MV | DA The Porto Santo Primary School is certainly a paradigmatic case of school architecture in the national and European context. Its radical design blends the architect’s cosmopolitanism with his interpretation of the geographical context and local culture.

The typology of a school is a challenge to any architect who is sensitive to the responsibility of designing a building that will represent universal values essential to the apprenticeship years. In the 20th century, there were great changes in the morphology of school buildings, from the introduction of the open-air school in the turn of the century, to the adoption of prefabricated buildings as a response to the destruction of the war. At the time, many intellectuals, like Aldo Van Eyck, Giuseppe Terragni and Alfred Roth were thinking about the new school in Europe and in the rest of the world. These concepts and ideas were not strange to Chorão Ramalho, who was aware of these international movements, and their influence is visible in the innovative project he presented in Porto Santo.

At the same time, the Porto Santo Primary School is a good example of the national avant-garde architecture that had been gaining traction since the 1st National Congress of Architecture in 1948, in Lisbon, when the “new” architects affirmed their critique against the revisionist spirit of the regime. It also had the particularity of having been built in a context of great insularity and, far away from the most famed circles of arts and architecture, it went unnoticed by the Ministry of Public Works and its austere policies, a direct contradiction to the standard school models of the “Plano dos Centenários”, a large-scale project for the construction of schools between 1941 and 1969.

"This human dimension draws the building closer to its community, and its spatial quality takes advantage of the local climate and environment potentialities."

- Madalena Vidigal & Diogo Amaro

As a result, the building assumes the influence of the architectural tendencies of post-war Europe, evident in the brutalist expression of its exposed materiality and in the subtlety of the spaces that serve as in the communication between interior and exterior: each classroom opens to its own patio. Nevertheless, it is drawn for the human scale that promptly refuses the monumentality of Hitchcock and Johnson’s “International Style” (1932). This human dimension draws the building closer to its community, and its spatial quality takes advantage of the local climate and environment potentialities.

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KOOZ Throughout the more than fifty years of use, and albeit its classified status, the architecture suffered renovations that have distorted the clearness and quality of the original project. Between 2020 and 2021 you engaged in the partial restoration and requalification of the structure. How did you approach this endeavour? How would you define your position towards preservation today?

MV | DA Recognising its historical, architectural and artistic value—in addition to its intrinsic affective value to the community—our work began a documentary survey that informed the architectural intervention. In October 2021, the school was classified as the first Property of Public Interest on the island. Based on the research done, we tried to restore, whenever possible, the original project. By identifying and restoring the original colours and removing additions made over the last decades, we tried to restore the initial clearness of the building. In the same logic, all the original carpentry was preserved and those that were in a high state of degradation were restored.

"The exercise of working with limited resources in the preservation of a work with great value forced a deep reflection."

- Madalena Vidigal & Diogo Amaro

The limited budget made a deep and complete intervention impossible and required a rigorous exercise of prioritising the work, so we decided to keep all the non-original but useful elements, including doors, sanitary ware, as well as the additions of the library and storeroom, assuming an intervention that was sometimes anonymous and invisible, but conscious and necessary. Nevertheless, all the interventions were carried out to enable and facilitate the full restoration of the original project. The exercise of working with limited resources in the preservation of a work with great value forced a deep reflection—the search for a balance between the need to preserve and restore the original elements and what was necessary for the new use.

"Porto Santo School", exhibition by Madalena Vidigal e Diogo Amaro, Garagem Sul March 14-September 10, 2023. Photo: Tiago Casanova

KOOZ In continuing with its educational and cultural programme, the building now hosts a programme of activities and artistic residencies. How do both the island and the school continue to explore ideas to the world that, like children, we would like to inhabit? How and in what ways does the exhibition aim to transport us to that place of possibilities and present the environment, material, habitat and architecture of this singular building?

MV | DA The Primary School of Porto Santo is a necessary testimony, a contribution for the preservation of an architecture that celebrates the cultural values of a particular location in an innovative way. These examples are difficult to maintain in our current world, as we are immersed in a globalised culture that makes it hard to keep connected to what really defines us, while we bear witness of the gradual homogenization and impoverishment of the architecture of our cities and landscapes.

"As we are immersed in a globalised culture that makes it hard to keep connected to what really defines us."

- Madalena Vidigal & Diogo Amaro

The singular character of the building’s spaces and its plasticity seem to suit this new appropriation. The same intelligence in observing and valuing the potential of the territory employed in the school’s architecture inspires this new project. Its new purpose was born from the careful observation and analysis of the particularities of the island of Porto Santo and from reading and listening to the characteristics of its community.

Porta33 is committed to work towards the continued affirmation of this building’s value and of the significance of its architecture, raising awareness and reconnecting the community with its own identity and memory while seeking to contribute to the sustainable development of the territory. This case-study laboratory/building will continue its life as a source of inspiration, encouraging new research into novel forms of architectural and artistic production.

Bio

Joaquim Moreno (Luanda, 1973) is an architect, graduated from the Faculty of Architecture of the University of Porto. He holds a Master’s degree from the Escuela Técnica Superior de Arquitectura de Barcelona and a PhD from Princeton University. He teaches at the FAUP, Architecture School at Porto University and at the Architectural Association in London (AA). He curated, with José Gil, the Portuguese Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2008, and the exhibition Carlo Scarpa. Túmulo Brion. Guido Guidi at Garagem Sul in the Belém Cultural Centre in 2015. He is the author of The University on Air: Broadcasting Modern Architecture, a book accompanied by an exhibition at the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) in Montreal in 2018. He has also edited, with Paula Pinto and Pedro Bandeira, the magazine InSi(s)tu, was contributor of Jornal Arquitectos and writes regularly to national and international publications.

Diogo Amaro (Coimbra,1992) is an Architect (FAUP, 2016) and cabinetmaker (FRESS, Lisbon - 2020). Between 2015 and 2018, he collaborated with architecture studios in Buenos Aires and Lisbon, and in 2017 he won the Viana de Lima - Architecture award. Between 2018 and 2020 he deepened his knowledge in wood crafts with the master cabinetmakers from FRESS, during which period created his first furniture collection entitled Chicago series. In 2022 he participated in the Venice Biennale of Arts and Crafts Homofaber as a young ambassador. Currently she is developing research and practice in architecture, and furniture design and making, in Porto.

Madalena Vidigal (Lisbon, 1992) is an Architect (FAUP, 2016). Since 2017 , she acts in different fields of architectural practice, such as research, publication, curatorship, design; challenging the disciplinary boundaries of the profession through several national and international collaborations. Motivated by regenerative processes and solutions, she has participated in vocational training and actions, among them with Passa ao Futuro (Évora, 2022) and Building Beyond Borders (Morocco, 2023). She concluded a post-graduation in Social and Sustainable Architecture (ESAP, 2021). Currently she is collaborating with Hori-zonte Arquitectos and A-Grupa Collaborative Urbanism Network on the project URBiNAT Porto: a healthy corridor for the neighbourhood of Campanhã, in Porto.

Together with Diogo Amaro, they collaborated on the project to reactivate the Porto Santo School - Porta33, which received an honourable mention in the 2nd edition of the Architecture Award of Madeira Island (2022), and from which resulted the exhibition «Escola da Vila: construção de um lugar comum [construction of a commonplace]» (2021) with an itinerancy inaugurated in March 2023 in Garagem Sul - Belém Cultural Centre, in Lisbon.

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Published
03 Jul 2023
Reading time
15 minutes
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