Student Proposals Are Challenged by the Elements on Madeira Island

Students hiking on a rocky peninsula above the sea
Sean Steed (B.Arch. '18), Harris Girocco (B.Arch. '18), João Almeida, and Andrew Wong (B.Arch. '18) at Ponta de São Lourenço. photo / Christopher Andras (B.Arch. '18)
Two students outside a building in the fog
Andrew Wong (B.Arch. '18) and Ka Yin (Evelyn) Fung (M.Arch. '18) at Pico do Arieiro visitor center. photo / Christopher Andras (B.Arch. '18)
Students view artwork at a museum
Harris Girocco (B.Arch. '18), Zeyu Cai (M.Arch.II '17), Victoria Maleva (M.Arch.II '17), Caroline Niederpruem (M.Arch. '18), Sean Steed (B.Arch. '18), Evelyn Fung (M.Arch. '18), João Almeida, and Jerry Liu (B.Arch. '18) at Art Gallery Porta 33. photo / Christopher Andras (B.Arch. '18)
A stone wall and path in dense vegetation
One of the 'levadas' or aqueducts in the Laurisilva forest, a UNESCO World Heritage site within the Parque Natural da Madeira. photo / Caroline Niederpruem (M.Arch. '18)
A man and two students
From left, Jordan Alejandro (M.Arch. '18), Paulo David, and Stephanie Cheung (B.Arch. '18) in the office of Paulo David Arquitectos. photo / Christopher Andras (B.Arch. '18)
April 4, 2017

In late February, 13 undergraduate and graduate students in architecture investigated the extreme landscapes of Madeira, Portugal. The field trip was part of the architecture option studio titled Designing on the Limit, taught by Visiting Critic João Almeida and Gensler Visiting Critic Paulo David.

Madeira is an archipelago comprising seven islands and two islets off the northwest coast of Africa. The main island of Madeira is volcanic, green, and rugged, with high cliffs that give dizzying views of narrow pebble beaches. Deep valleys and dense arboreal forest contrast with a bare, harsh environment above the cloud layer on the peaks. Primitive stone paths, known as the royal paths, are still present on the island. The irregular coastline was the setting for the students to "rehearse several exciting architectural exercises," according to the class syllabus.

"I wanted to guide the students through an experience within a small but extremely diverse territory," said Almeida, who is a native of Madeira. "Although the island is small, it has an impressive array of landscapes and microclimates." The students who chose to enroll in a second class titled Architectural Model Techniques and Presentation Drawings — also taught by Almeida and David — had the option to pursue the development of models and presentation drawings upon their return to campus.

Most of the students selected sites along one of the hiking trails near Caniçal, on the tip of the eastern end of the island, as the setting for their proposals. "It is a unique place where we can see both the south and the north coasts simultaneously," said Almeida. "Along the path we experienced strong winds, calm passages, abrupt mountainous slopes, and sheltered contact with the ocean — all within a few hours' walk."

As they conducted an extensive analysis of their chosen sites, the students were challenged to divide their work and presentations into five steps: time, place, program, matter, and technique.

Caroline Niederpruem's (M.Arch. '18) proposal consists of four interventions aligned sequentially on Caniçal. "It is the first glimpse of the island you see as you arrive by plane or by boat and the last view of the island as you leave," she said. Niederpruem's interventions are based on the four elements of earth, fire, wind, and water, "serving as a sort of monument to each as you hike the six-kilometer round-trip route of Caniçal," she said.

Ka Yin (Evelyn) Fung (M.Arch. '18) was also impressed by Caniçal. Her proposal is a music retreat on three sites within the area — a bay, a cave, and a cliff rock — where she proposes a performance stage, a flute tube, and a piano capsule. "Playing with the sound of waves and wind, the design makes use of the acoustic effects of the sites and the instruments to create a symphony between human and nature."

In addition to the natural sites on the main island, the group visited the offices of David's firm, Paulo David Architect, and toured the David-designed Casa das Mudas Arts Centre, in Calheta.

"By touring this and other built works, the students were able to have a better sense of place within our architecture that deals with and emphasizes natural landscape without imposing itself over it," said Almeida.

For Fung, an unforgettable experience was having lunch at a restaurant located in a bay at the bottom of a 90-foot cliff, accessed by cable car. Another highlight was a hike up Pico do Arieiro, one of the highest mountains on the island at 1,818 meters. "The wind was so strong and the cloud basically covered up the whole trail, with zero visibility," Fung said. "We had to return on another day."

Niederpruem's favorite moment came on the last day. “We went on the most strenuous hike I've ever been on,” she said, "a 10-kilometer walk from the mountaintop to the valley below." The route took them through part of the Laurisilva forest, a UNESCO World Heritage site that conserves the largest surviving area of primary laurel forest now confined to Madeira, the Azores, and the Canary Islands.

The other students who traveled to Madeira were Jordan Alejandro (M.Arch. '18), Christopher Andras (B.Arch. '18), Zeyu Cai (M.Arch.II '17), Yuxin Chen (B.Arch. '18), Stephanie Cheung (B.Arch. '18), Clara Eizayaga (B.Arch. '18), Harris Girocco (B.Arch. '18), Xuan Yu (Jerry) Liu (B.Arch. '18), Viktoriya Maleva (M.Arch.II '17), Sean Steed (B.Arch. '18), and Andrew Wong (B.Arch. '18).

For Almeida, Madeira's diverse microclimates and topography presented unique challenges for the students' projects. "To actually visit and sense the place was crucial for them," he said.

By Patti Witten