Lisbon’s MAAT by Amanda Levete Architects

MAAT has opened a curvaceous new waterfront building by Amanda Levete’s practice AL_A. It transforms the riverside, reframes the idea of exhibition space, and reconnects this edgeland with the city behind it

Words by: Herbert Wright
Photography by: Paul Raftery

A dazzling, curvaceous form gleams as it cantilevers forward into a sweeping edge facing the river Tagus below it. A cut in its underside widens from one side, like the mouth of a shark. You know it will swallow you, but it is stationary, it is you who is approaching. This dramatic intervention in Belém, a historic waterfront quarter of Lisbon, is the new building that brings thrill to a cultural complex called MAAT. The 38,000 sq m design by Amanda Levete’s practice AL_A is a wide, low form that looks like some huge creature from the water which has clambered out and turned to face it, but has then been frozen in gleaming ceramics. This is an organic form that responds to the flow of the river, but with a far stranger fluidity, both inside and out. MAAT means ‘mate’ in Dutch and is also an Egyptian goddess, but here it stands for Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology. Its 3.8ha riverside site is still dominated by the iconic brick Tejo Power Station, built by French engineers Charles Vieillard and Fernand Touzet in various stages from 1908, but mostly dating from the Twenties.

South Elevation

1. MAAT’s new Kunsthalle, 2. New bridge, 3. New steps into Tagus river, 4. Central Tejo (former power station) and 5. Palácio da Ajuda

Ceramic tiles line the sweeping surface around the Kunsthalle entrance
Ceramic tiles line the sweeping surface around the Kunsthalle entrance

Decommissioned in 1975, the vast edifi ce was until recently the Museum of Electricity. MAAT’s four Central Tejo galleries are here (one is showing The World of Charles and Ray Eames until January). The new volume next to it is referred to as the Kunstshalle (culture hall). With its industrial heritage, riverside location, a cultural offering with an agenda and the new ‘wow-factor’ volume, MAAT has clear parallels with Tate Modern. The Kunstalle however is not an extension like Herzog & de Meuron’s Switch House, that connects internally with the old structure, but an autonomous volume connected externally along the river. As we shall see, it also connects beyond… The whole MAAT complex is the showcase of the EDP Foundation, backed by EDP (Energias de Portugal), in which the Chinese have invested heavily. It appointed Pedro Gadanho, previously MOMA’s curator of architecture and design, as MAAT director in 2015. At the Venice Biennale, he told Blueprint how MAAT would be ‘a constellation’ and it would ‘not try to do much design - that’s [for] MUDE [the downtown Lisbon design museum currently being refurbished] - or the history of art. We want a critical reflection on the contemporary’.

The Central Tejo element of MAAT was a power station. The Kunsthalle is beside it, crowded on its opening dayThe Central Tejo element of MAAT was a power station. The Kunsthalle is beside it, crowded on its opening day

He noted then that ‘Portuguese architecture is all about white boxes, but this [new volume] will create a special appetite. It’s organic and curvy’. At MAAT’s opening press conference, he contrasted its spaces with the paradigm of the gallery as white cube. Before exploring this new building, what of the urban situation? Belém is known as the staging post for Portugal’s great navigators and the birthplace of an irresistible egg tart, the pastel de nata, both of which spread across the world. But spanning Belém itself is a challenge. A mainline railway and highway run straight through it, cutting off the waterfront from the city. The only way to reach it on foot is over a narrow bridge at the station or a pedestrian underpass nearby. There was always good reason to do so - restaurants, iconic visitor attractions (including the 497-year-old Torre de Belém), and not least the river Tagus itself, spanned by the spectacular 25 de Abril Bridge. But the new spectacle of MAAT on its opening day in early October brought so many people that the rail footbridge had to be closed for safety reasons.

The Main Gallery, showing skylight. Ceramic tiling is visible through it
The Main Gallery, showing skylight. Ceramic tiling is visible through it

Nevertheless, 22,000 swarmed the place. That is something addressed in MAAT’s design. A 60m-long bridge will curve out from the building to land on the other side of the tracks, just a block from Belém’s other bright new showcase building, the Museum of Coaches, designed by Pritzker winner Paulo Mendes da Rocha. That too had a bridge incorporated into its design, but since opening in 2015, all there is to see of it is an unfinished ramp terminating forlornly within an open concrete pavilion. Indeed, the only recent case where the disconnect between city and Tagus has been successfully bridged across railway tracks is at Miguel Arruda’s airy Municipal Library in Vila Franca de Xira - but that’s 25km upstream from Lisbon. At MAAT, tenders for the bridge have been issued and the target completion is next March. Until December one of the three main exhibitions of the 2016 Lisbon Architecture Triennale, The Form of Form, is on show on the downstream side of the power station.

The Oval Gallery, here with Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s installation Pynchon Park
The Oval Gallery, here with Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster's installation Pynchon Park

To the east of them, the new volume faces another transformation to the MAAT site: 150m-long steps descend from the waterside promenade. They are only the third public river steps in Lisbon after those at the baroque Praça do Comércio and the recently restored Ribeira das Naus, both in the city centre. Further steps on the other side of the riverwalk rise into the new 190m-long volume itself, sheltered by its overhang. The Kunsthalle is clad in 14,751 ceramic tiles, white and crackle-glazed. Maximiliano Arrocet, AL_A’s project director for MAAT, says they ’are a response to the water’, reflecting its light and moods. Levete talks of ‘the extraordinary characteristics of the site, the southern light’. When she saw it with the sun low, it was ‘like the sea was a fire’. She asked, ‘How can we reflect that?’ Crucially, the tiles also direct natural light into the main gallery, as we shall see. The tiles are three-dimensional, creating shadows that Arrocet goes as far as to compare with a sundial’s. Portugal leads the world with its heritage and mastery of ceramics, yet these were supplied by Ceràmica Cumella of Spain, which had previously worked with AL_A on its Bench of Plates at the V&A for London Design Festival 2012. Arrocet says the Spanish were chosen for ‘mainly technical’ reasons - each tile is mechanically fixed, while Portuguese tiles are traditionally stuck on and two-dimensional.

As the sun passes across the river, tiling reflects sunlight through a skylight into the Main Gallery
As the sun passes across the river, tiling reflects sunlight through a skylight into the Main Gallery

Rita Almada Negreiros of can ran arquitectura, whose tilework includes the extraordinary Cota Zero water-ripple ceiling at Lisbon’s Terreiro do Paço maritime terminal, conceded that point when asked to comment, and said ‘my disappointment is that Portugal cannot supply this’. Portugal’s lost opportunity aside, the tiles brilliantly demonstrate AL_A’s strong, imaginative commitment to materiality. Elsewhere, two Portuguese materials are in play. Moleanos limestone extends across the curvy roof. The stone had to be treated to make it non-slip, preventing the hazard familiar to Lisbon where calçada pedestrian paving becomes treacherous in the rain. The roof is another of MAAT’s signature features, not least because it seamlessly connects to the waterside so you can walk up on to it. The roof is public realm, a gentle uplifted wave. It slopes gently down behind the river, towards the railway and a park by Vladimir Djurovic Landscape Architecture that will open soon. It brings to mind Snøhetta’s Oslo Opera House (2007), but Foreign Office Architects’ boardwalk-covered Yokohama Ferry Terminal (2002) is more of a precedent, with its similarly gorgeous curviness.

The Kunsthalle roof is public realm, and its surface was treated to be non-slip
The Kunsthalle roof is public realm, and its surface was treated to be non-slip

The MAAT volume rises just 12.4m from the riverwalk - 2m lower than the wall of the building it replaced - and the view is not just over the Tagus (breathtaking) but Belém on the other side, and the stately Palácio da Ajuda high on the hill behind it. Levete says the roof is a ‘metaphysical link between city and waterfront’. A little more than a third of the 8,100 sq m roof is green. The roof surface curves down and twists into a channel that leads to the entrance, at the upstream end of the indent beneath the overhang. There is no break between the lobby area, where ticketing takes place, and the space beyond and below it. The 1,180 sq m, double-height Oval Gallery balloons out in front of you, bounded on three quarters of its perimeter by a ramp gently descending to it, making a signature feature of disability access. Stairs descend on the Oval’s other side. Balustrades incorporate Portuguese Lioz limestone. Levete says it’s ‘counterintuitive to go into a museum and go down’, although Mies did the same at the Nationalgalerie, Berlin (1968), which otherwise is in complete contrast with its calm rectilinearity.

The roof curves  round into a passage to the entrance, and will lead down into a new footbridge
The roof curves round into a passage to the entrance, and will lead down into a new footbridge

The Oval Gallery’s very shape is calm, but the dark ceiling is a raw frame for hanging equipment and indeed heavy artworks. Levete says that this ‘very technical ceiling’ is what Gedanho asked for. Gadanho’s plan is that works on show will see artists responding to the space and, until March, French artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s Pynchon Park installation makes the Oval Gallery a sort of playground-prison in which imaginary aliens are observing you and you can’t leave until an accelerated diurnal cycle has passed, but there are balls and book-like mats to lounge on. It plays on the museum’s theme of utopia/dystopia, but its references to the novels of Thomas Pynchon may be a little obscure, to say the least. Nevertheless it creates a fine theatre of activity to watch from the ramp, just as the aliens would. Like a yolk in an egg, the Oval Gallery is the heart of the whole, near-elliptical, exhibition area.

The cantilever over the entrance steps, which face the river
The cantilever over the entrance steps, which face the river

The Main Gallery, which Gadanho says is ‘the most stable space’, runs behind the Oval’s southern, riverside wall. Its long, column-free 1,050 sm space curves slightly and lugubriously beneath a skylight, whose shape, as Levete explains, is ‘traced by the path of the sun. The sun hits the water and bounces off the ceramics’. The glass is fritted towards its edge, disguising its neoprene seal. It flows towards the small Video Room, which is within curving walls and below the lobby. At the other end of this subterranean realm is the Project Room, dedicated to Portuguese artists, and the only gallery with a section of straight wall, paralleling the power station’s eastern end. In March, a cafe will open beside the entrance, above the Main Gallery along the space between its skylight and the riverwalk. An Education Centre will open on the same level, on the northern side. Pictograms for way finding notices on walls have been developed by Porto graphic designers Lizá Defossez Ramalho and Artur Rebelo of R2.

A total of 14,751 ceramic tiles clad the Kunsthalle
A total of 14,751 ceramic tiles clad the Kunsthalle

They are clear and delightful - for example, their stickfigures remain minimal but somehow humanised. Gadanho says that ‘we’re living through a period where art has a social engagement’, and that he wants ‘to trigger a debate beyond what television offers in your everyday life’. Tate Modern in particular has demonstrated that whatever the debate may or may not be, contemporary art can create a mass audience - but it was the architecture that was the initial draw. So it will be with MAAT and its new Kunsthalle. The choice of AL_A has proved inspired. It is the architecture, rather than the art or technology, that so far gives MAAT its strongest voice, a siren call that was heeded on day one when visitors swamped it. It will raise Amanda Levete a step upwards on the international stage that is set to be followed by another in her practice’s current V&A Exhibition Road project. Locally, the new MAAT building already at least matches the impact of nearby flagship buildings by Mendes da Rocha and Vittorio Gregotti, architect of the fortress-like Cultural Centre of Belém (1993).

As the sun rises behind the 25 de April Bridge (opened 1966), its light starts to play on the ceramic tiling
As the sun rises behind the 25 de April Bridge (opened 19866), Its light starts to play on the ceramic tiling

But the extreme fluidity at MAAT is a total contrast to these rectilinear structures, as different as Zaha Hadid is to Mies. There is a fourth recent great project in Belém, with more in common with the new building. Further downstream, at the very end of town, is Charles Correa’s Champalimaud Centre, two curving Lioz-clad volumes and an amphitheatre floating dreamily in a public riverside park. The curves and materiality at MAAT may differ, but both projects have a metaphysical dimension and respond to the timeless Tagus. At Belém and with MAAT, Levete has found good company to materialise dreams.

The Kunsthalle is beside the Tagus riverside promenade and has Lisbon’s newest steps into the water
The Kunsthalle is beisde the Tagus riverside promenade and has Lisbon's newest steps into the water

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