A Portuguese Museum Reconsiders the Story of Modern Architecture

Diandra Cohen Diandra Cohen

At the 2014 Architecture Biennale, Louise Braverman who received an A+Awards Special Mention for her firm’s Village Health Works Staff Residence, was one of 100 architects from over 40 countries that were called to participate in the exhibition “Time Space Existence” at Palazzo Bembo and Palazzo Mora. The exhibition entails a site-specific yet philosophical prompt about the ability of notions of time, space, and existence to “enlarge human awareness of our own personal existence as a human being within a specific space and time.”

“Time Space Existence” at the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale, via Louise Braverman, Architect

Centro de Artes Nadir Afonso by Louise Braverman, Architect

Braverman’s Centro de Artes Nadir Afonsois her site-specific reference for the “Time Space Existence” exhibition because the Boticas, Portugal project is an example of a building that is “situated” in place, time, nature, and society. Braverman has embedded the museum in the hillside, making it literally and figuratively a part of the land. She explains that the building has both an “urban face” as well as a “pastoral side,” and as such does everything but disregard its environs in time and space. Braverman carves out this definition as “situated modernism,” a term coined by Sarah Williams Goldhagen, a leading figure in understanding and interpreting modern and contemporary architecture andNew Republic critic.

The video below, narrated by Goldhagen, walks viewers through Braverman’s 3D experiential exhibition in Venice, accompanied by a 100-year historical timeline.

While viewers are delighted by the 80-painting homage to Portugal’s esteemed geometric abstractionist painter and pioneer of Kinetic Art, Nadir Afonso — who early in his career practiced architecture with Le Corbusier and Oscar Neimeyer — they are both immersed in Braverman’s 20,000-square-foot museum that is nothing short of eye candy, as well as listening to Goldhagen who positions the building within a modern historical context between 1914 to present.

2014 Venice Architecture Biennale via Louise Braverman, Architect

Braverman notes that Centro De Artes Nadir Afonso “breaks new ground” in forward thinking design in the medieval hill town in the north of Portugal. Down the street from the museum is a new City Hall, positioned at the intersection of newly built national highways funded by the EU; in effect, Boticas has an emerging urban center within a pastoral environs. Braverman’s new museum aims to integrate itself in as many ways as possible as a cultural extension of the town, as opposed to position itself in Boticas as a wholly and radically distinct entity.

Centro de Artes Nadir Afonso via Louise Braverman, Architect

Braverman has accomplished the cognizant feat in myriad ways. Since the entry hall is a double-height, incorporating a bright photomural of the artist and other sketches, and the outdoor café, children’s library, and stairway to the interior and exterior auditorium are visible, passersby are beckoned to engage with the transparent and friendly “urban face” of the museum.

Exterior Wall


The museum also incorporates a geometrically abstract green roof that pays homage to Afonso. On the interior, the art is viewed on locally sourced rustic stone cyclopean retaining walls that reimagines the essence of an indoor/outdoor space. The walls block direct sunlight, adding to the conscious use of energy while protecting the artwork.

Embedded Museum

The museum’s geometric roof garden

In the video walking us through the Centro de Artes Nadir Afonso, Goldhagen asks, “What is modernism’s relationship to local cultures and place?” using the museum as a literal example. She questions whether modernism (viewed through a “baseline” lens between 1914 to present) is a practice defined by a set of conventions that are each compiled to create a distinct style by which we can identify the aesthetics of a building: for example, flat roofs, open plans, new materials, un-ornamented form. So, is it visually recognizable?

Goldhagen considers the answer with a firm “no,” because the elements which comprise modernism as a style is indistinguishable from buildings that are not necessarily modern. There is evidence that architects have practiced modernism defined as a style outside of the modernist era. Therefore, modernism must be a “practice or a set of actions in which individuals engage when designing buildings … actions they believed would help [make] their building modern … better suited to the social life of inhabitants in this world.”

Enter the concept of “Situated Modernism,” defined as a set of actions that change in time and space according to a building’s “situation” in time and space (and culture, landscape, nature, and society) rather than a set of static aesthetic styles. In the words of Goldhagen, “Modernism is the practice of designing a building suited to modern life … situated in place, time, nature and society … far better accounting for the realities on the ground [than flat roofs].”

Finally, globalization and the notion of Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat is raised in the narration. On the one hand, globalization can be viewed pessimistically as an anti-“progressive homogenization that will lead to a dystopic endpoint of worldwide sameness,” — or the phenomenon might position modernism as a remedy to finding the right balance between local and global cultures.

The Portuguese artist’s foundation in nearby Chaves along with Braverman’s Centro “will serve as an engine driving economic, cultural, and community development in the region … poised to become a global destination” Braverman says, suggesting that the convergence of “globalization” and “situated modernism” can yield stunningly successful architecture.