Variation of modes of use: functions, users, schedules, etc.

Relationship between the ownership and the form of the investment that allows the transformation

Variation of the overall dimensions of the building

Proportional relationship between new spaces and existing spaces

Relationship between the structural adjustments and the existing structure

Relationship between the forms and types of pre-existing materials and those of the new intervention

Relationship between the image of the new and the image of the existing (mimesis / contrast)


Largo Doutor Jose Rodrigues, Coimbra, Portugal [40°12'33.1 N - 8°25'32.3" W]


Gonçalo Byrne Arquitectos



Gonçalo Byrne – Machado de Castro National Museum

PROJECT - Main Infos

PROJECT: Gonçalo Byrne – Machado de Castro National Museum

LOCATION: Largo Doutor Jose Rodrigues, Coimbra, Portugal [40°12'33.1 N - 8°25'32.3" W]

YEAR: 2013

ARCHITECT / FIRM: Gonçalo Byrne Arquitectos

BUYER: IMC Instituto dos Museus e da Conservação

SURFACE: 13.130 sqm

PRICE: € 15.000.000

The Machado de Castro National Museum (winner of the Piranesi Prix de Rome 2014, nominee for European Union Prize for Contemporary Architecture – Mies Van Der Rohe Award 2015 and as European Museum of Year by the European Museum Forum) is located at the Alta de Coimbra, in one of the highest points of the hill, whose history goes back to more than two thousand years ago, the highest hill of the city founded here by the Romans, between Olisipo (Lisbon) and Bracara Augusta (Braga) in a bend of the Mondego river in order to control it. The core of this place of intense sedimentation and historical superimposition is the Roman Cryptoporticus, a rectangular platform made by two vaulted layers (that, by the way, gives particular thermal characteristics to the place), built to contain the central Forum of the Roman City of Aemininum (Coimbra’s Roman name) at the end of the first century BC. The Forum, placed as usual at the confluence of the cardo and decumanus as an administrative, political, and religious centre has been demolished at the time but the cryptoporticus remained almost intact in its tectonics hosting, among others, the Romanesque church of São João de Almedin (since the end of XII century) and the loggia of Filippo Terzi (Bologna, 1520-1597, architect of Philip II of Spain, son of Emperor Charles V, from 1581 when the Spain crown was unified with the Portuguese). For almost two thousand years many building were built and demolished on its top, and in 1910 all the blocks were finally reunited in one single building, the city Museum. It was founded in 1911, opened and declared a national monument in 1913, hosting, as the second State museum of Portugal (from 1965), large collections of sculptures, precious metals, paintings, ceramics, textiles, furniture, archaeology, mainly coming from the disbanded monasteries and convents in the diocese of Coimbra. From 1950 to 1972 major reshaping was a deep made to the building, due to the reorganization of spaces and of the entire collection, according to the recent museological concepts. In additions to the internal rearrangements, during the Sixties administration offices and the technical services were built on two adjacent empty plots. These facilities had vertical accessibility, reaching every level of the new Museum without passing through the historic building. These new volumes redefined the original platform level of the Roman Forum, extending a panoramic terrace in a deep double visual relationship with the historic city and with the close presence of the Filippo Terzi Renaissance portico, in its powerful framing of the courtyard. At the same time a precious Jean de Rouen (a XVI century French sculpture) Renaissance chapel was dismantled from its original site and reassembled as an out-of-scale object.

WHAT - Program

PREVALENT CONSERVATION / CONTINUITY: The functional program remains predominantly the original one, with a limited new program.

The museum stands, in fact, on an artificial platform composed by the cryptoporticus, built halfway through first century BC, as the podium of the Forum of Aeminium; after a long period of abandon, in the XI Century the site hosted the Bishops’ Palace. Existing documentation can be found starting 1083 related to the existence of the church of São João de Almedina and, half a century later, of the cloister, a portion of which is still conserved inside the museum. During the XII Century, a new church was built, to replace the primitive. However, around 1416 the Bishops’ Palace is supposed to have been abandoned, probably due to the gradual decay of the construction and seismic episodes. At the end of the XVI Century new interventions were made connecting the two wings of the palace and designing a balcony towards the city, including the loggia attributed to Filippo Terzi. The unitary value of the building lies around its convergent historical evolution in current use; different specificities of its long journey help to solidify its value as a Museum, taking the building as a reference museographic material in a parallel reading to the exposed contents: the former imbalance between the enormous mass of the baroque church and the volume of buildings is resolved by Byrne with the additions, so to void the discontinuous perception of the museum by the courtyard corridors.

WHO - Financing

TOTAL CONSERVATION / CONTINUITY: The investor is the property owner.

The Museu Nacional Machado de Castro has been hosted in the building since the beginning of the last century, when the Coimbra City Council agreed to lease the palace to this purpose. The promoter of the last refurbishment has been the Instituto dos Museus e da Conservação.

HOW MUCH - Absolute Dimensions


PREVALENT CONSERVATION / CONTINUITY: The overall dimensions increase moderately with respect to the pre-existing surface.


BALANCE BETWEEN CONSERVATION AND REPLACEMENT: The overall dimensions are about twice the pre-existing volume.

The main entrance of the Museum keeps both the original gate of the ex-bishop’s palace and its central courtyard as an essential void, emphasizing hidden underground void structure, and comes to its edge through the Terzi portico. This main volume is very precisely limited to the original perimeter of the Forum and the external façade of the cryptoporticus, strongly enhanced in its urban function, is now separated from the adjacent new building by a public staircase that makes possible its experience as a fecund presence in the Museum and as a foundational centre of the city of Coimbra. Within a history of two millennia, which the site accumulates, many stories intersect. The archaeological site shows us several buildings that remained overlapped or crossed, generating misunderstandings, hesitations or unexpected revelations: the new museum tries to recover the dimension of the public space of the Roman Forum, reinforcing the value of daily permanence and use, without neglecting limitations and constraints of a museum.

HOW MUCH - Relative Dimensions

PREVALENT REPLACEMENT / DISCONTINUITY: The new spaces are prevalent with respect to the pre-existing spaces.

Almost all the existing spaces of the museum are transformed by the new intervention. Due to the complex nature of the historical remains, and especially of the cryptoporticus, there was a careful work of demolition and new construction in order to obtain a sustainable balance between the different systems of construction and to reduce their impact on this base. In the Machado de Castro, as a visitor enters the museum he is welcomed by the central court with a view of the city sloping down towards the river, framed by the loggia designed by Filippo Terzi; the two side wings carefully contrasted with the modern urban balcony and a terrace, that give the views of the city.

HOW - Design Strategy STRUCTURE

PREVALENT REPLACEMENT / DISCONTINUITY: The supporting structure is predominantly a new structure.

New structures are designed not only to support new buildings but also to show the ruins of the old ones; entering the complex, on the right side wing, Byrne designed the additions in glass and steel: two materials that are sometimes hidden and weaved into the old walls to strengthen the old structures. Byrne's attempt is, first, to tie up the history, by keeping all the parts, and the historical character of the existing structures on site by hiding and minimising the intervention on the historical structures. Secondly, he links it to the context by introducing the contemporary addition and design intervention with a daring volume. Here the solution to break away from the past is to consider the methods and techniques used in the historical structures and gradually introduce newer techniques, not to break away but as a tool to enhance the definition of the site.

HOW - Design Strategy MATERIAL

BALANCE BETWEEN CONSERVATION AND REPLACEMENT: The materials chosen for the new intervention balance similarities and differences with the existing ones.

The lower volume adapts to the existing layout of the streets; the stone cladding is not mimetic, but consistent with the solid matter of the surrounding buildings. The implantation repeats the settlement solution with its morphology and hierarchy originally tied to the cryptoporticus of the Roman Forum which in its turn is tied to the museum. The spatial experience is revealed as a condenser of the urban surroundings, defined by similarities, analogies or oppositional perspectives of the city itself and its centuries-old history.

HOW - Design Strategy IMAGE

BALANCE BETWEEN CONSERVATION AND REPLACEMENT: The new intervention balances elements of continuity and discontinuity with respect to existing structures.

The adoption of contemporary criticism of the constant mingling of container and content is the primary feature of the project in order to correct the rupture of scale and historical context caused by random juxtapositions: to resolve it, Byrne designed the two new elemental volumes that, defining a neutral space illuminated by diffused light, show the sequence of the fragments of the apse of the Tesoureiro Chapel. The gallery occupies the entire volume of the polygonal shape that rising for four levels generates, at its end, the terrace of the restaurant platform, where it lays the rectangular volume of transparent and translucent glass that at night becomes the lantern light of the city, creating a neutral spatiality reinforced by the diffused light. The design maintains the architectural traces that are representative of the main phases of its formal evolution, maintained to consent the unitary apprehension, based on a succession of cultural marks impressed in the building.