Gouveia Palace of Justice by Barbosa & Guimarães 30.09.11

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Gouveia is a small town in the foothills of the Serra da Estrela, mainland Portugal's highest mountain range. Architect Barbosa & Guimarães of Matosinhos, near Porto, has recently completed a court building for the municipality in a stately modernist style.

The building sits between two public parks at the northern end of the picturesque town, and is divided into three main sections. The registration functions and day-to-day legal processes of the town take place below ground, in a sunken plaza that is reached via ramps leading down from a podium. In turn, this podium creates a public square, which due to the topography of the site rises from pavement level to nearly a full storey at the other end. Finally, a grand open staircase leads up to the courtroom and related offices; these are supported on four cores that rise up 
from the square.

The architect has used a version of classic modernism to achieve the "dignity and symbolism that a building like the law court should always have". The podium is constructed of stone, in a firm and monolithic manner, while the cores that support the upper floors are inscribed with the Latin words "Domus" and "Iustitiae" ("House of Justice"), adding an appeal to strength and classical power to the arrangement. On the upper floors, constructed from white concrete, the varying spaces behind the facade are unified by the imposition of a vertical grid that folds inwards to meet the fenestration, simultaneously accentuating the corners of the building. The grand staircase is detailed so that it appears to "float" above the podium, a symbolic flourish again emphasising the strength and aloofness of civic justice. Inside, the architect has used a palette of white render and lush, deep red timber panelling, while "the courtroom stands out with a set of vertical skylights that subtly light the whole space".

The building presents itself in a number of ways: on the one hand it is a fairly typical example of the high-quality Portuguese modernist architecture that is the envy of other European countries – all white concrete and granite, mimicking and referencing local vernacular materials and traditions. But Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye can be seen in there, too, as well as classical allusions in the regularity of the grid. The building might also be read as a throwback to civic brutalism with its irregular windows and unfussy detailing.

What it's not like is Barbosa & Guimarães' other recent work: its Vodafone Headquarters in Porto (2010) is a completely different architecture, all trendy angles and silly windows. But then, the branding of a global media company is a very different challenge to the restrained expression of civic power and dignity in a rural area.

 

Image

Fernando Guerra/FG+SG

 

Words

Douglas Murphy

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Barbosa & Guimarães has used a version of classic modernism to achieve the "dignity and symbolism that a building like the law court should always have"

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