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Monday, September 08, 2008

River Aquarium



River Aquarium in Mora, Portugal by Promontorio Arquitecture

Photographs are by JoaoMorgado.

In 2004 the government of the Alentejo region of Portugal held an international competition for an aquarium and interpretation center in the Ecological Wild Park of Gameiro, along the Raia River. The design competition, aimed at shifting the region's economy to one of eco-tourism, was won by Promontorio Architecture, who teamed up with cosestudi for the exhibition design. The result, the Fluviario de Mora, is a striking melding of contrasts, particularly light and dark, and traditional and contemporary.

One first notices the shape of the building's enclosure, a shed-like form that intentionally recalls the regions traditional whitewash barns. But this project departs from the old barns in its construction and its porosity: the pitched roof line is created by a series of what the architects call pre-cast concrete porticos, repetitive trusses that merely imply a volume, as the space between lacks any material infill. The exhibition spaces are actually enclosed by "a set of mute boxes", in which the in-between space creates a promenade for visitors to engage the adjacent lake, an extension of the exhbibits inside.

Another evident contrast is between the building's external appearance and the exhibition spaces inside. The precast pieces, white like the whitewashed barns that inspired the architects, give the building a strong presence in the landscape, an object formed of parallel planes. Where the outside is light and white, the inside is dark and black. Where the former makes the building stand out, the latter makes the aquatic life of the exhibits do the same. This balance of light and dark, coupled with the design of the porticos, creates a complex back-and-forth between inside and outside, at once distinctively separate entities defined by opposites, at other times more vague in the division between the two.

What is most commendable about the project is what is not visible: the water's cycling through the building. Water is initially supplied by a well on the site, but it is constantly being reused, as the exhibits attempt to recreate the life support systems of various habitats. While the aquarium habitats inside and the lake outside are not linked by more than a walkway, the parallel between the two is clear. The quality of aquatic ecosystems must be conserved for the diversity of species inside to thrive in their natural habitats. A building like this that allows visitors to experience the variety of some of the waterlife that exists is a good start.

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