The Portuguese city of Pombal’s castle testifies to the power of time as being the main contributor to the transformation of the built environment. The top of a hill overlooking the valley of the Arunca River has been occupied since the time of the Roman Empire, and since then has had a variety of roles and has been a determining factor in many spatial and social practices. From a small provincial community, the castle evolved into a vital defensive structure in a territorial network of military apparatuses, and eventually became a tourist destination and an identifying feature in the region. After working on the reorganisation of the hill surrounding Pombal Castle, comoco arquitectos were commissioned to design a visitor centre for the castle’s ward, including the landscape design of the area and the revitalisation of amenities already installed in the Torre de Menagem (the castle’s keep).
The commission’s main challenge was to develop a design strategy that could live up to the richness of the castle’s multi-layered history without being either ostensive or subdued. It was important to find the castle’s voice among the very many built artefacts that occupy the space. These artefacts, most of them ruins or derelicts of the past, are parts of the collective memory that we would like to critically preserve and, furthermore, to enhance. This was the idea behind the fundamental principles that guided the design approach.
The design strategy for the landscape design of the castle’s ward and for the revitalisation of the castle’s keep was relatively straightforward. First we repaired the existing limestone cobble pavements and filled in the remaining parts with gravel. In a later phase we made minor changes in the railings in the cor-ten steel volume and designed the layout and furniture for the exhibition spaces that occupy the rooms of the tower. The main challenge for the commission was to design a new volume to accommodate the visitor centre. The design brief for this amenity stated that it should offer three spaces: a reception area for visitors, a room in which to view a virtual history of the castle, and a storage area.
As the area of the castle’s ward is relatively small (1,200 square metres), and contains many elements, introducing a new volume implied an inevitable confrontation with the existing elements that define that space. In the end, this circumstance became the driving force behind the development of the project’s main idea. We thought of the new volume as an object that should embody some ambiguity: On the one hand it should seamlessly mingle with the existing features in the castle’s ward, and on the other hand it should become a conspicuous new addition to the existing built structures. In other words, we sought to have a creative dialogue with the situation “as found”, attempting to take advantage of the new structure as a way to activate dormant spatial experiences.
The program was reduced to the minimum and the centre’s volume was shaped in such a way as to make it a spatial device inspired by the tectonics of the castle’s stone masonry, especially the stairs connecting the platforms inside the castle’s precinct. In fact, the new volume creates a new platform that enables access to the level of the 16th century Manueline-style windows on the southwest side of the castle’s curtain wall. It creates a liminal space that recreates the spatial experience of the castle as a device for exerting control over the landscape at the same time that it serves as a safe haven for those looking for protection from the threat of the unknown.
Our design strategy for Pombal Castle’s visitor centre pursues a deliberately ambiguous condition between a topographical feature – a limestone monolith, and an amiable wanderer, a stranger in search of a welcoming new home in which to rest.
Pombal Castle Visitor Centre Pombal, Portugal
Client: Pombal Municipality
Architecture: Luís Miguel Correia, Nelson Mota e Susana Constantino
Project / Construction: 2011-2014
Site Area: 1,200 square metres
Structural Engineering, Hidraulic and Acoustics: ABL – Gabinete de Projectos Lda
Electric devices: Luís Ribeiro
Mechanical devices: João Gonçalves Madeira da Silva
Contractors: ALVAPE, Construção e Obras Públicas, Lda
Photography: FG+SG – Fotografia de Arquitectura