Centro Ciência Viva in Bragança

Small miracles of architecture in the outermost provinces: the Centro Ciência Viva in Bragança. Design by Giulia de Appolonia. Text by Laura Bossi. Photos by Fernando Guerra, FG+SG.

On the border between Spain and Portugal, the plane flies over an autumnal sienna-coloured chessboard. Ranks of olive groves and vineyards sit on the parched hills, and clusters of white houses punctuate the countryside. As the mountains rise, the vegetation thins out and a line of windmills appears on a ridge, casting gangly shadows that dance on the earth. Such wind parks are a familiar sight along the road to Bragança, a consequence of Portuguese government policy over the past five years. Whatever the Green hardliners may say, that wind turbines are ugly is surely an arguable point. Norman Foster designed quite an elegant one for the German Enercon: a majestic object elevated to a giant scale. And on the Iberian peninsula Don Quixote may have tilted, but windmills are still everywhere. To aesthetes with a guilty conscience, it only remains to seek consolation in the intrinsic beauty of coal-powered stations, pending conversion to nuclear.

What to do? Start from the beginning, for example with children. Which is how, in Portugal, from the Knowledge Pavilion at the Lisbon EXPO (design by João Luís Carrilho da Graça, 1998), a network of centres dedicated to the teaching of “live science” came into being. Through games between interactive and video installations children can learn not only about the distance that separates us from the planets in the universe, but also how much “clean” energy is generated by a photovoltaic panel or a windmill.

All this happens in a town with a population of 30,000, about 15 kilometres from the northeast border with Spain. A small miracle: Bragança is an ancient town that lives mainly on agriculture, with a castle to keep watch over its tight grid of white houses. Here the old people lean against the walls in the sun. If you ask them the way, they reply vaguely: “Minha filha, não posso ajurdar-te” (Dear lass, I really cannot help you). Another fact verging on the miraculous is that it was an Italian woman architect who built and inaugurated, in June 2007, the Centro Ciência Viva at Bragança. Born in Pordenone in 1969, Giulia de Appolonia was part of a brain drain from the Erasmus generation. She lived for 13 years in Lisbon, where in 2003 she won the competition for young architects held by Bragançapolis (in association with Europan). Her thesis is that children, through architecture, can be trained to learn even quite complex scientific notions. The centre is thus built on the site of a disused hydroelectric station, at the end of a valley with a small river running through it. It is the architectural feature of a walk that follows the river and continues across the building’s roof-square to descend below the old castle.

Its devices are typical of sustainable architecture: the south elevation is in reality a large radiator, while next to the glazed front a Cor-Ten steel wall rises and accumulates heat. Harnessing the difference in temperature between interior and exterior, it drives a natural ventilation system. The glazed front projecting towards the river reflects in the water and conceals a secret inner core. Housed inside its glass, tiny points of light change colour as they twinkle rhythmically. But there is no artist or designer behind the alternating colours and throbbing textures of the glass. Just Nature herself and her own climate changes. Exterior sensors in fact transmit weather data to a software control unit which in turn governs a range of 16 possible configurations of forms and colours. So if you see little blue and white lights pulsing slowly, you can be sure it’s going to snow. If they move a little faster, it’ll be rain coming. And if you want to know what the outside temperature is, you’ll need to look at the intensity and gradation of colours: from the coldest to the warmest. For the old people of the town a glance out of the window is enough to tell them what to wear.”