Charles Correa, Hon. FAIA, was awestruck the first time he walked the site for the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown in Lisbon, Portugal. Standing near the mouth of the Tagus River, within view of the Tower of Belém, built in the 16th century to fortify the city during the Age of Discovery, he felt that he was standing on hallowed ground.
“For me, this was a very special place,” he says. “How did Vasco da Gama and the other great navigators find the courage and imagination to sail down that bend, take that corner and plunge into the unknown ocean that lay beyond?” To Correa, principal of Charles Correa Associates of Mumbai, India, seafaring exploration seemed an extraordinarily apt metaphor for the scientific journeys that would soon be taking place at the Champalimaud Foundation’s new research center. João Silveira Botelho, one of the center’s directors, agrees. “That’s why we call it the Center for the Unknown, because, likewise, our discoveries are from the realm of the unknown,” Botelho says.
Correa’s design for the complex—a rare integration of research and clinical facilities (which are often considered separate disciplines) with aspirations to become an international leader in neuroscience and cancer research—taps the poetic dimensions of the site’s historic legacy. An open plaza paved in granite cobbles (according to the local tradition) slices through the site, weaving past curved lioz limestone walls toward the water’s edge. The path rises at a gentle slope that obscures the ocean view until the end, where two concrete monoliths frame a view to a pool of water and the Atlantic beyond. There, just breaking the surface of the pool, is an enigmatic stainless steel form that has been likened to the back of a turtle, a tropical island, or a treasure chest.
Funded by a bequest from entrepreneur António de Sommer Champalimaud, who died in 2004, the 641,500-square-foot facility is populated with doctors and researchers recruited from some 20 countries. The main feature of the project is the four-story research-and-treatment building, which occupies the north side of the site. Diagnostic and treatment areas occupy the lower two levels, while the upper two floors are dedicated to research laboratories built to accommodate 440 scientists. Double-height cutouts through the section of the building’s interior provide visual connections between the research floors, and an expanse of glass inside the spacious lobby gives patients glimpses of the research efforts conducted on their behalf. Glass walls on all four floors face a large indoor-outdoor sunken garden—Correa likens it to a Brazilian rain forest—defined on its south edge by a curved stone wall and topped by a pergola.
To the south of the main block, a smaller structure houses the foundation offices, a restaurant, exhibition space, and a 400-seat auditorium. A generous dining terrace extends from the restaurant, overlooking the waterfront promenade. Connecting the two buildings at the upper level is a 69-foot-long bridge supported by tension cables and encased in curved, laminated glass. “The bridge is a piece of engineering jewelry,” Correa says. “We wanted something very delicate.”
An important goal was to build the center as “a public campus, not a private campus,” Botelho says. “We created spaces where the public can be in all the places surrounding the building.” The third main element of the complex, the amphitheater, helps to fulfill that goal. This public theater hosts regular programs of music and lectures, conducted with the city and river as the backdrop. All told—counting the promenade, outdoor theater, and public gardens—the Champalimaud Centre allows public access to half of the site.
Underscoring the national importance of the project, the Portuguese government provided the land for the complex and pressed for its opening in 2010 to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Portuguese Republic. Likewise, the rich potential of the Champalimaud Centre is not lost on people such as neuroscientist Rui Costa, a Portuguese native who returned from the United States to work at the facility. “There are lots of museums for art, but this is for science—an awesome building that will call the attention of the public,” Costa says. “It’s a very important statement for Portugal.”