The architecture of a Cultural Center

            The architecture of a Cultural Center

Flávio Kiefer  -  In CEEE Erico Verissimo Cultural Center, Memory that Generates Culture, Culture that Genaretes Memory. BORDINI, Maria da Glória. Porto Alegre: CCCEV, 2002.


Telling how CEEE Erico Veríssimo Cultural Center became real in less than two years could be a very simples task. It would be enough to tell what happened from the middle of the summer of 2001 on, when some people brought me a proposal to recover the Force and Light Building to receive one more cultural center in downtown Porto Alegre, as many times a client brings a necessities program for the architect to materialize with the help of a builder. In fact, nothing was much different with project. Only that to this day I don’t know how I didn’t suspect that excess of confidence with which Fernando Schüler, Marcelo Menna Barreto, Maria da Glória Bordini e Luis Fernando Verissimo presented me their ideas. Neither did I realize that soon the decisions would involve institutions as CEEE, PUCRS, AC/ALEV and, consequently, the Culture Department, LIC, MERGS… The idea was introduced to me with such simplicity that it seemed perfectly feasible to me to organize a team of competent professionals in the middle of February, to design an anti-project and budget the costs in 45 days and to submit it for approval by LIC on the 31st of March 2001!

From then on, I had already boarded the roller coaster. From that date to this day the process of developing the architectonic project and all the complementary ones, have their approval by the respective departments and prepare the beginning of the construction became an obsession for all of us. We had only one certainty, which could not be announced for the risk of demobilization: the opening would be on Erico Verissimo’s birthday on the following year. But to those who asked we showed daring: the aim was three months before that. Pedro Longhi’s excitement and Daniel Andrade’s sureness fortunately made anyone believe us.

If it were the construction of a new building, with a simple project, it would be a hard task to pull through anyway. What to say, then, about this idea of putting literature and electricity together in an old building, abandoned for its unsafeness and almost insalubrity? Besides, since it was a public building protected by historical endowment, it wasn’t true that all the discussions about its improvement would be approved by the Culture Department? And thus it was done. Due to scarce time, the solution was outline an architectonic study for a building with such complicated and uneven ground plans, while the occupation of spaces according to an initial planning was being defined. The whole time we tried to conciliate the sometimes contradictory claims or intentions of those to occupy the same physical space… Besides that, of course, we had to make compatible this whole proposal with technical and legal conditionals, which, to my surprise, became extremely strict in relation to historical building. Old, yes, but “updated”. In face of all that there was no other possibility: only a genereal recycling of the building, or its re-architecture, would get good results.

If the task was not easy, fortunately, some projects are favored by aura that makes things simply-happen. In this case, the name Erico Verissimo and the godfather Luisa Fernando Verissimo certainly explain the magic that is now being inaugurated. The sympathies this project brought in and the personal involvement it collected from those who were being requested were impressve. The idea to introduce the Erico Verissimo Cultural Center ended up getting its own light, renewing the memory of the Force and Light building and bringing to “Rua da Praia” one more character that made its history. The effort for the “cultural corridor” is significant and bringing Erico Verissimo’s memory to this street, a city debt. Only that can explain the success of this enterprise.

Before anything else, one needs to remember that we are honoring the architecture of our city one more time. It is undeniable that behind this great cultural enterprise is the architecture of this building, coming mainly from its façade and from its cultural reference for Portoalegrenses. Porto Alegre still owes a tribute to the architects who left such an important built heritage to the city. If it wasn’t for them, wouldn’t downtown be inevitably abandoned to its own luck? Wasn’t it their art that motivated the renovation of a number of buildings for cultural aims, bringing important groups of the population back downtown? But who knows them? Did any of them deserve a street name, a park name? Strange city this Porto Alegre, so rich in architecture and so poor in architects…

Honestly, the Force and Light building, the former CEEE building, is not an example of architectonic excellence, but its façade is very demarcated by time characteristics, its store is very interesting in terms of space, with its stained glass windows, stairways and pillars. Moreover, it is a reference for electricity in Rio Grande do Sul and one of the office buildings in Porto Alegre. In terms of construction, it reveals a lack in erudition, some improvisations and many mysteries. It is impossible to understand the amount of uneven floors it presents or the existence of a large triple right-foot hall in the back of the building and in an inaccessible place – the access was through an inclined bridge that crosses the ventilation well. Even the objective of its construction, from 1926, is unknown. What is confirmed is that at the end of its construction, in 1828, newspapers publish the news of its being rented to the Electric Force Brazilian Company, for the installation of its regional headquarters and electrical appliances store. Examining documents and dates from the short period between the purchase of the land (1925), and the beginning of the construction (1926) and its leasing (1928), we believe that the building had never had a previous tenant. The several stories about the building purposes (a casino with a luxury brothel, etc.) propably have theis origins in the initial intentions of the owners who, for some reason, did not carry them out. The rumors do bring a plausible explanation for the existence of several large halls, most of them at the back of the building and with inappropriate accesses for theis importance. Nonetheless, the succession of uneven floors inside the building, which excessively complicates internal circulation and architectonic clearness, showing a certains constructive empiricism atypical for the construction engineer, Adolfo Stern, remains unexplained. In relation to the use of the upper floors and the great back halls we do not know anything.

The Electric Force Brazilian Company began a series of interventions in the building as soon as it took it over, adapting it to its purposes and opening it up at the end of April 1929. The Company had its name placed on the façade, constructed a drawn back access with a side door and a shop window. The press gave great importance to the opening date, mainly for the novelty electric appliances store and extremely illuminated window. The building became a reference in the city, related to the idea of electricity; the idea reinforced by the old electric light sign and bu the cement letters on the façade, which are still there today, with the words Force and Light.

From its opening to its transformation into a service center for the Electric Energy State Company – CEEE, the building did not stop undergoing adaptation and reconstruction, many of which damaged its architectural quality and the difficult reading of its internal ground plan. Several mezzanines and restroom adaptations were made. The series of reconstruction and attempts to update the building, with the introduction of air conditioning and other modern facilities, resulted in such a chaotic whole that it ended up being emptied, security reasons included. All that ended up damaging the architecture of the inside of the building, which excepting the ground floor store, has its greatest value precisely in the scale and proportions of its rooms.

What motivated the endowment of this building were its façades and its value as historical reference. On the upper floors, one finds interest In the window and door frames, in the marble that covers the stairs and in the atmosphere provided by the internal face of the façade over the front rooms. Onde room on the second floor really stands out, a true “noble hall”. Great part of the stone door and window frames of the back façades are functional and do not demonstrate any formal or compositional concern in their project. Old elevators, which occupied the empty space of the stairs, were substituted, losing the interest they must have had.

Given these contingencies, the re-architecture of the building tried to conciliate its primordial values with the intention for its new use. In a certain sense, the new program can value the architecture of the building much more than the function that occupied it for so many years and that ended up internally disfiguring it. A cultural center dispenses with most of the interventions made, allowing for the recovering of original aspects even prior to the occupation by the Electric Force Brazilian Company. However, the north of re-architecture is to recover the idea of locality that the building has had, bringing the animation, the intense life back into the building, turning it into not only useful, but live reference to the city. To achieve that, since one can’t go back to the past, we need to operate modifications and additions that make the building revitalization possible. It is necessary to provide youth with a double reading: a contemporary space built in a place that has a previous history and that both were and are interesting in their time; and what the elder may remember the past, enjoy the novelty and make comparisons.

The first visit to the building called attention to some difficulties. How would it be possible to integrate the store and all the ground floor levels with the rest of the building, accessed only by exclusive circulation? How would it be possible to carry great quantity of people in such small elevators? How would one create the necessary spaces for the necessary infrastructure (air conditioning, services)? The answers to all these questions were the background for the conception of a joint cultural center which uses the original conception of the building plans, although they have never been used with such clearness: two rectangles connected by an overpass. The idea was to highlight the existence of two ventilation wells, bringing them inside the construction. The one on the left was used for the building of new elevators and a hall for the floors circulation, creating a centrality and an internal reference. The use of steel and glass, even in the interpaving, demarcating its insertion and the possibility of light getting to the lower floors. The one on the right turns into an inside empty space, acting as an integrating and guiding space, valued by the abundance of light and artistic work on the triple height wall, and an invitation to go upstairs for an architectonic tour. The construction of an inclined pavement in the great triple right-foot hall created the necessary space for the auditorium, leaving an important area outside from circulation for services and technical equipment.

This arrangement allowed the occupation all the way to the fourth floor with spaces for the Cultural Center common use and more public circulation, as the auditorium, the electricity museum, the exhibit rooms and the cafeteria. The foyer in the fourth floor can be used for multiple presentations and occasional musical performances or midday concerts, spreading music through the building. The fifth and the sixth upper floors preserve the original lay-out and since they are located above the inside empty space of the building, they are naturally more reserved and can be dedicated to the administrative, technical and research activities. Dominating the last floor, a great library shelters the private archives of gaucho writers.

The former ground floor store was changed into the large space for reception and circulation of visitors. The former logic of the building was disrupted by the partial demolishing of the wall that divided it into two. Now only one entry receives the visitors, who are guided to the elevators by the stairways. Those physically challenged were not forgotten, they can continue using the former ground floor circulation, turned into a false underground, that also works, with the built in tunnel, as a second emergency exit

The intention is that the ground floor, including the reception, information desk, cafeteria, and a bookstore selling the Center authors collections and the publications and releases that it will promote, becomes a lively place for meeting and intercrossing, a point of centrality and convergence for the whole cultural complex. A more protected and reserved exhibit room is linked to it. From there, by the elevators, one gets to the other activities and, certainly, to the discovery of an emptiness full of meaning, with the work by Lia Menna Barreto that integrates the second, third and fourth floors.

The architecture, of course, does not have the power to give a soul to places. People do that. But CEEE Erico Verissimo Cultural Center was born out of a very intelligent sewing, which could prove that private and public interests can walk together, as well as education and culture. Moreover, it hs proved that with creativity and good sense even electricity and literature can share the same house. Willingness to do it suffices. All indications are that this Cultural Center bring us many lessons and good surprises yet, maybe becoming an important reference in terms of cultural management. In this field we certainly have a lot to learn.