words Fatema Ahmed
images José Campos
At the age of 80, India’s most eminent architect, Charles Correa, has completed a medical research centre, the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown, that he regards as “a summation of all the things I’ve been groping towards”. The cancer and neuroscience research centre, which also contains treatment facilities, is named after the Portuguese industrialist António Champalimaud, who was the country’s richest man when he died in 2004, and stands on a 60,000sq m triangular site that fans out on Lisbon harbour front to face the Atlantic Ocean.
The £87m centre is built on a diagonal axis marked by a 125m-long public path which passes between the main buildings – two gigantic curved structures made of Portuguese Lioz stone and connected by an enclosed glass and steel bridge. Building A, on the eastern corner of the site (viewed from the waterfront), contains diagnostic and treatment areas on its lower floors and laboratories on the upper ones. It also houses a sunken central garden which is covered by a pergola. The larger Building B, houses an auditorium, exhibition area, restaurant and, upstairs, the foundation’s offices. The path is ramped up on a 1:20 gradient over the flat site and winds through the centre in a manner reminiscent of Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute in California (an influence Correa acknowledges), before it stops at two concrete monoliths. Here the third element of the masterplan takes over: an amphitheatre and an outdoor garden. In total, over half the site has been given over to public use.
Correa has written extensively about what he calls “open-to-sky” spaces, and incorporated them into celebrated projects such as MIT’s Neuroscience Centre and the Gandhi Museum in Ahmedabad. Describing the relationship at the Champalimaud Centre between the open space and the large oval forms – “almost like ships on a sea of granite” – the architect says: “There’s nothing like emptiness … it’s not what you see; it’s what you don’t see.”
The main thing you don’t see until you’re at the end of the path, at the highest point of the site, is the Atlantic Ocean, which Correa presents as a surprise: “You know it’s there and as you walk towards it you’re really only seeing the sky. Once the horizon line disappears it gives you a great sense of unease. You know you’re going towards something.”