words Owen Pritchard
Thalia was the Greek muse of comedy and pastoral poetry, and in 1843 the count of Farrobo constructed a theatre in her name in Lisbon to stage plays, operas and lavish parties. It was built in the grounds of his palace on the outskirts of the Portuguese capital. But in 1862, the comedy turned to tragedy when a fire burned the building down, and the penniless count could not restore it. For the next 150 years, the Thalia Theatre stood ruined.
In 2002 the count’s palace was bought and occupied by the Portuguese ministry of education and science, and in 2008 it commissioned a study to restore and extend the ruined Thalia into a multipurpose performance space. The €2.7m restoration was carried out by two Lisbon practices, Gonçalo Byrne Arquitectos and Barbas Lopes Arquitectos. The ministry had previously worked with the young Barbas Lopes on a project that had been shelved, and was keen to pair it with Goncalo Byrne, which had considerable experience on restoration projects. “The client had a vague programme about a performance space and demands for safeguarding the ruin,” architect Diogo Lopes says. “The ruin was an objective, static problem that we had to work closely with engineers to preserve.”
The response was to provide a monolithic reconstruction of the mass of the theatre in terracotta concrete, enclosing the performance space and adding structural support to the crumbling theatre. “We used the ruin as a kind of shuttering,” Lopes says. “The new construction would preserve the existing, but we thought it would be senseless to mimic the original materials. We used a deactivated concrete that would provide the strength we needed and has a tactile quality, but would not appear too new.”
The original foyer was reconstructed in a neoclassical style and the portico and marble sphinxes restored. Beyond the entrance, the spaces are voided, with few technical fixtures for performance to allow the theatre to be as flexible as possible. A new single-storey glazed wing houses a reception, services and a cafeteria. “The lower wing was about the urban condition,” Lopes says. “We wanted the glazing to be reflective, acting like a chameleon and drawing the context on to the facade.”
The restored Thalia resembles a mash-up of the Neues Museum, a Peter Brook performance and a Rachel Whiteread sculpture. The architects have developed a response that draws on the character of the ruin and facilitated a programme that will reactivate a place built for an aristocrat’s amusement. “Lisbon is made of idiosyncrasies and singular stories about eccentric people building like this in the past.” Lopes says. “We have worked to reactivate the heritage, tectonics and memories of the site to build an urban marker.”