The volcanic mountains of Ribeira Grande inspire the foreboding ashen colours of the Arquipélago Contemporary Arts Centre (ACAC). But this is no supervillain’s secret lair or—worse—any bureaucrat’s headquarters. A new project formed through the collaboration between Menos é Mais Arquitectos and João Mendes Ribeiro Arquitectos, the ACAC represents a conversation with Ribeira Grande’s past, and reconciles the geographic and industrial history of the municipality to a new, modern structure. One of the most distinguished architectural projects of the decade, the ACAC won a RIBA Award for International Excellence in 2016, was shortlisted for a RIBA International Prize in 2016, won top prize for architecture at the FAD Awards 2016, among further prizes and shortlists in the European Prize and the X BIAU.
In the distance, the building resembles a silhouette or an act of puppetry, as stark black and ash grey brickwork intermingle with the warm yellow light emanating from within. The project intends to minimise the difference between old and new within the structure, by uniting the different scales and times of its parts through a manipulation of form and material. The volcanic stone masonry of the original construction alludes to the geographic features of Ribeira Grande, while the former use of the building—as an alcohol and tobacco factory—reflects the industrial history of the region. The term “arquipelago”—or archipelago, a mass of islands in a body of water—is instructive, as the precinct imagines itself as a large chain of individual buildings, contributing to the broader whole. Within the broader context of Ribeira Grande, ACAC audaciously announces itself as a unifying infrastructure, capable of bringing people together in the region. Establishing an art space like this not only expands tourist potential, but also provides opportunity for nascent artists to communicate.
The ACAC project reflects a dialogue between old and new, as “new buildings are placed next to the existing ones in a serene manner—underlining the architectonical memory of a given period… without damaging or subverting the spatial and constructive structures of the whole”. The pre-existing ex-factory has been reclaimed and reconstructed as a flexible project space for gallery work, and is positioned across from—and complimented by—the new construction, which is composed of an arts and culture center, storage, a multipurpose hall, laboratories, and artist studios. The new buildings fulfil the special conditions of an arts centre that were otherwise untenable within the spatiality of the pre-existing building, and their positioning across from an empty patio indicates a continuous dialogue between history and the present. Indeed, the new building could not be more different from the soot and monochrome of the reclaimed building. With pure white walls and ceilings, along with a light timber floor, the new development has an airy quality attuned to the flexibility and openness required by the space. Light filters in from windows and upper levels, though here it as an effervescent quality, creating an overwhelming sense of splendour within the clean, new space.
However, a closer examination of the reclaimed factory shows its utter suitability to the art centre project, as spacious former-factory floors lend themselves to large scale art exhibitions and other space intensive uses. There is an errant sentiment that industrial buildings are difficult to reclaim, due to their reputation as machinery-laden mazes, but ACAC refutes this wholeheartedly. Devoid of machinery, the entire space becomes an archetype of contemporary minimalism. The long picture windows provide a panorama of the external brickwork and patio: a textured vision of industrial form, reinforcing the overwhelming monochromatic colour scheme. Again, natural light filters in from windows which, in conjunction with overhead lighting in the factory hall, provides an even, gentle light. The ceiling and walls, with their crosshatched metalwork, provide an interesting historical reflection, but also provide a physical mechanism to recontextualise the artworks displayed in the space. Such a consideration is akin to New York City’s MoMA PS1, which uses its positioning in a reclaimed public school building to comment on the artworks shown within, providing interesting opportunity for site specific work, borne from the surrounding geographical, social, and historical contexts of the region.
In addition, the choice to re-use existing structures embodies a sustainable message, as well as a conceptual one, as the dense external walls of the factory offer energy efficiency through passive climate control. In addition, mechanisms to harvest rainwater were installed to minimise the project’s ecological footprint. These same considerations have been extended into the new development, which aims for simplicity through the presence of natural lighting sources.
The Arquipélago Contemporary Arts Centre balances history with contemporaneous considerations, emerging from the material conditions of Ribeira Grande, while also providing necessary infrastructure expansions, for the sake of creating a new cultural touchstone for the region.