Correcting the box
What is the form of a box? Boxes and their potential architecture are both fascinating and utterly problematic. Forty-five years since Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi made us learn to love the box, this most common of utilitarian structures has been the subject of preposterous and mostly failed attempts to turn it into Architecture. Many of these attempts were ambitious but seldom successful; most of them were too keen to inscribe the buildings with what we commonly accept as architecture, with its intricacies and mannerisms, and as a result, they ignored the very DNA of these buildings. When making architecture forces us to hide its generic character, it is an awkward mistake: a box is a box after all. The fact that boxes are ubiquitous today doesn’t make it any easier to design them. Mid-sized boxes are everywhere. They are an important constituent in an evenly covered field. If Big Boxes are a somewhat more gratifying design problem, simply because of their sheer size – it often is the only real quality these buildings seem to possess – scale also remains a key factor in the design of these mid-sized industrial buildings that seem to make up half of our present-day urbanised universe. In the slipstream of the ‘Decorated Shed’, any ambitious entrepreneur will have engaged himself over the last decades in beautifying his or her industrial container. Thus fitting both the desire to be seen, and seemingly fulfilling the cry for architecture in a place of perpetual sameness. But is that really what we should be after? Is it really what is at stake? These endless variants of company buildings, shoeboxes with add-ons: strange fronts, fancy signs, elegant entrances ‘du moment’, they all might make for a proud CEO, but they do not add up in this endless sea of small special features of self-indulgence. Like spoilers and stripes on a fancy car, they are merely a private affair; totems of personal taste and machismo – features the landscape simply endures.
How can a box transcend this pool of self-indulgent indifference? What is it that makes a box engaging, a space defining or simply powerful enough to transcend the private project?
To be any of this (and preferably all at once), a box needs to have territorial intentions. It needs to engage with the landscape it inhabits and find a proper scale to deal with it. In the meantime, it should give up its obsession with small intricate details: spoilers are not allowed.
A box that engages with its territory can be many things: it can be both simple and complex, long or short, high or low, but most important: it has to have the guts to choose what it is about and how it delivers; a good box acts without mercy with an intelligent version of an economy of means.
The building designed by Nuno Brandão Costa for Viriato is such a building. Perhaps the new building was fortunate to already find itself in a complex situation, a place that asked for clear decisions. Many things that were already there were perfect examples of mild self-indulgence. The site already had a workshop and a tasteful front. The fancy face was there, so the new building could find its challenge somewhere else. The Viriato box of Brandão Costa is an addition to the existing complex and seeks that opportunity as a possibility to give the whole complex territorial significance. Its negotiation with the landscape can be understood rather literally: the building is long and wide enough to make the complex exist. It is simple enough to make it understood. It is blunt enough to make the rest of the buildings – the existing ones – disappear.
The new building is stretched to its maximum dimensions and defines a clear datum. The landscape it inhabits is not flat, but in a rather uncompromising way, the new building seems to ignore that fact. The building is pure plinth and corniche – if the landscape goes down, that is considered a pragmatic opportunity but not a fundamental architectural theme. The theme defines the building and its appearance; the territorial opportunities make the building work. The plinth and corniche define the datum of the building and somehow narrate what the building would like to be. They show from up close where it reluctantly gives in, as if it is a carefully measured compromise. Although the building itself is very boxy and in fact quite clever in its sophistication for a box, it finds its final shape in the negotiation of what is there. Each of these negotiations makes for small corrections without ever losing the overall shape of the box itself.
The high voltage post on site provokes a complex formal decision, a bump in the platonic geometry. But it is so simple and effective in how it curiously reveals the fiction of the single-storied building, momentarily, that the moment you see it, you seem more convinced of the overall geometry. The explicit architecture of the box turns this major event into a footnote. The entrance to the showroom has an even smaller effect. It is a simple ramp that by its existence only emphasises the plinth, and again confirms the basic geometry. The angle of the adjacent street slightly tweaks the geometry of the box itself, but that also happens almost invisibly. Time and again, the box seems strong enough to take any blow of function and context without losing its steadfast character. Perhaps, most interesting in these series of small corrections of the flat and elegant volume is the positioning of the small stairway on its longest façade. By placing it at the plinth there just before the terrain steps down, it grabs all our attention, and the drop in the terrain becomes almost invisible. One keeps looking at the stairway and the pedestal. The simple building is of course in the end a complex tour de force. What seems like a pedestal along most of the façade, and before the previously mentioned stairway, turns into a beam, and carries the cantilever of the building above the loading dock. So, in a way, it loses its major feature (as a base) and it becomes ‘technical’. It is at this moment that one can see the extreme refinement, and perhaps manipulation of Nuno Brandão Costa’s architecture. By (over) designing a set of defining elements of his building, he somehow frees these elements, so they can do what they want. If the pedestal wants to be a cantilever, fine! It will forever remain a pedestal, no matter how it behaves. Does the plan need a bump? OK! It will forever be read as a box. Thus, Nuno’s corrections show at the same time the intricacies of great architecture, and the monumental features of a great building – a landscape defining box. Nuno Brandão Costa’s box is for that reason the many things he allows the building to be, but most importantly a few things he wants his building to be.
It is in what he wants, that one finds the essence of his architecture: a plinth and a corniche – ground and roof: the two horizontal lines of reference; the rest is secondary. This is no accident. If the plinth’s role is blatant and indisputable, it is in the treatment of the roof that the building finds its sophistication. On the shorter sides of the new building, the mirror glass cladding abruptly stops to reveal the beams of the roof structure: a Spartan skeleton, a naked structure. In all its binary logic, the plinth remains an architectonic intervention, ready to show the skills of the sophisticated designer. The roof, however, is shown as what it is, as the ultimate counterpart of territorial design: technical containment. Is this the ultimate design task of the architect in a sea of indifference? To have the guts to show all that we have left. And to put that on a pedestal. Anything more seems frivolous.
Location Paredes, Portugal
Client Móveis Viriato SA
Architecture Nuno Brandão Costa
Authors Nuno Brandão Costa
Collaborators Frederico Costa Leite, Marta Reis, Cintia Pires
Foundations and structure Ana Isabel Vale, AB Projectos
Hydraulic installations and equipment Ana Isabel Vale, AB Projectos
Electrical installations and safety Maria da Luz Santiago, RS & Associados
Air Conditioning Raul Bessa, GET – Gestão de Energia Térmica