Sara Gonçalves – The architect who designed Aula Magna's new life
She walks around the room like a curious girl who is still discovering every corner of her own work. She doesn't like to say that it's her creation, always with a keen sense of team, and is particularly tempted to value others as if it were this that gave her the inspiration to create. It's not false modesty, it's a genuine altruism imbued with an artistic generosity, sensitive to others and to what surrounds her.
As we go up and down the staircase of the Aula Magna, we meet a physician who is rehearsing for his thesis defence due to take place the following week. He asks her if she's the architect and congratulates her. In the presence of the woman who had already sat there 32 years ago, we asked them what they were feeling now that a daughter, a medical student, was also joining. The answer is clear, with the same sense of sobriety there is, however, in the new Aula Magna a lightness and harmony that had never existed in the past.
She feels shivers down her spine, she gets emotional and thanks dozens of times as if she were getting a standing ovation. Sara Gonçalves knew the Aula Magna before the fire and, touched by the words of those who praise her work, says that she understood the emotional dimension that surrounded the room. While, on the one hand, she felt honoured to have been challenged, on the other hand she knew that she was under a lot more pressure. She says she is lucky enough to be doing what she loves, but also that she's never indifferent to other people's emotions, because all her creations are aimed at them. While it's a fact that the noble and solemn appearance preserves the signature of the past, the new green chairs, lighter than the original olive green ones, brought with them the refreshing joyfulness of new times. "The original design was one of the most emblematic in the country and modern architecture," she says with a sense of responsibility, so she never wanted to replace it or override it. Everything counted in a room designed today to last for the next 20 years, temperature, light, acoustics, robotics and multimedia were new factors that decades ago had no weight.
Fascinated by the room, as if it had not been her work, she walks around and describes it, without my having to ask her any questions. I turn the recorder on and follow her without interruptions.
Sara Gonçalves: There were 2 levels in the original ceiling. Up there we had cable ducts, ventilation, a cat walk, which is a walkway along which technicians crawled to carry out maintenance work on the ceiling. That was one of my main concerns. The ceiling was very damaged and when we started working on the room, we knew we had to do something to make it easier to maintain and to create good acoustics in the room. Our work was based on two premises, the technical issue and the acoustic issue. Our fantastic acoustic engineer calculated all the inclinations of the curved and sound-absorbing panels so that we could preserve the concave shape of the shell that goes from the upper ring to the screen. Then we had to give it some dynamics, instead of having very well-behaved and aligned panels, while respecting the inclination. So the idea was to change their behaviour and disturb them by giving them rhythm. We added slight touches to the edge of the panels and played with them. By moving an angle, they automatically turned slightly askew. They're all different. Can you see it? (Pointing) The technical team was fantastic because they repeated it point by point. It looks like they're going to fall down, but they're not, they're firmly suspended. (Laughs) But there's another issue here, which has to do with maintenance, with the open ceiling that hides fire detectors and all the wiring; all connections are accessible without anyone having to crawl, along a walkway, to reach the various areas.
I only found out here, today, with you, that we are surrounded by very discrete wooden shutters and when they are all open they let in a light that "slices through" the room.
Sara Gonçalves: When we entered the room after the fire we were struck by the scenario... The smell was indescribable, it can't be described in words, no images can really depict it...This room was a devastating scenario but, at the same time, there was something sweet and beautiful, and a sweet and beautiful light came into the room on that November day. The scenery was rather gloomy, but the lighting was beautiful. On that day it was clear to me that the room had to have natural light.
But did you get to know the room before the fire?
Sara Gonçalves: Yes! At the time of our first approach to the project for the new Aula Magna the room was still intact. A few months later we got a phone call and we were astonished. At that point we realized that the project we had already started would have to be changed, because it would have to be much more invasive. A large portion of the room could not be repaired. We had to pay a lot more attention to issues related to safety, safety became our top priority. The room has a very interesting detail today, when a person arrives late, the curtains are automatic and serve as blackout. So, if someone enters the room late, the light does not disturb the event. But the fact that they're automatic is not a whim, it's a matter of safety. The curtain is in an emergency and smoke extraction anteroom and there are fire doors, so if there's a fire the curtain will never be an obstacle, it automatically opens as soon as the door is opened. The glass railing was also raised to 1mt10, so no one will lean and fall down. In the past it was just a brass rod printed with the Hippocratic Oath (English and Portuguese version).
But then we wanted to respect everything that was characteristic of the past, the wooden panels whose upper section was lined with leather. I kept the original design in its entirety, all the metrics of the squares, and tried to replicate it exactly on the ceiling panels. As for the light, when I saw it for the first time the room had yellow velvet curtains that could be completely closed. So I tried to create two atmospheres, either fully naturally lit or without any light from outside. We created a hidden system with doors that wouldn't show that they could be opened. And it worked great! The carpentry team was absolutely extraordinary. The construction company did a great job. The team that was put together for this project always worked focusing on the solution, rather than on the problem.
What was the greatest difficulty you faced here?
Sara Gonçalves: We knew would be the greatest difficulty right from the start and we took pride in it. It was the distance between chairs, which had been the same since the 1950s. At the time there were 80cm between chairs, now we have 1m10. That's because people are taller now, their physical structure has changed. If we wanted to increase the distance between chairs, we would have to start from the concrete steps of the original project. Or make a new platform under the existing floor, widening the rows, a task which would be very complex and destroy the entire geometry of the room, reducing the number of seats. So I decided to respect the past, struggling with the difficulty of finding a comfortable solution. We had to find a small, very geometric, folding chair, whose back would move up when people sat down. And we found that chair. The seat folds in and out and the position is automatically comfortable. Do you know what happened? By choosing that chair we were able to gain space; in the past people had to seat on their sides and today their knees don't touch the chair in front of them. When the chair is folded in we are able to comply with the current fire evacuation regulations, with a wide aisle that allows people to exit the room rather quickly. Besides that, they have a mechanical swing system. You know, it was Mr. Costa who passed that concern with the maintenance of materials on to me, namely for cost-related reasons.
You always mention the team, but you're the decision-maker when it comes to architecture. There's a signature here.
Sara Gonçalves: Yes, as a program defined together with the Faculty team. The only thing I did and believed as an architect was that I was dealing with this specific work with specific requirements, not creating a signature piece. The challenge was to respond to a program that was necessary and should be functional for those who need to use the room. And meeting the emotional and aesthetic expectations of those who have always used, and will continue to use, this room. I always saw myself as a means to an end. Of course that, as an architect who designs something, it's impossible not to fall in love with one's work, because one always leaves one's signature. I left my signature on the shutters and on the ceiling. The ceiling is the point of "disruption". (Laughs) In the harmony of the room and when we are attending a lecture, or event, we often need a place to fix our gaze. The ceiling was designed to create that visual uneasiness, "what it going on here?", that's what people will think. It was only a way to get our eyes to wander without losing focus of the speeches. Have you noticed that Nature is deceivingly perfect? Like the clouds that have different shapes in the sky, I wanted to create this dance on the ceiling.
Works are "children" that one leaves behind so everyone can admire them and care for them, right?
Sara Gonçalves: Always! We try to do the best possible job, but we know that we can never reach perfection. Ever. Even when everyone looks and doesn't notice anything, we look at the imperfections and we also look at what came out better than expected. Then we accept everything exactly as it is and, as with a child, we accept its imperfections and qualities.