Summer School: Something special happened in the Azores, by Guillermo Escolano

Summer School: Something special happened in the Azores

by Guillermo Escolano Martínez

From the beginning of our adventure the presence of the island was felt through instant shared messages in an established group, where we had already been introduced. Like whispers on the wind, something started to spread. Natural spontaneity began to unroll along the social media threads while we shared impressions of the Portuguese capital where we met before departing to the Azores. It already started to smell of the Atlantic aroma of our island destination. Teachers and organizers already knew each other, and these good vibes definitely resulted in setting up an initial mood of conviviality and a great atmosphere. Before the journey started, a special bond had already been weaved. People were coming from all around the world: India, different parts of the USA, France, Italy, Germany, Spain and also Portugal. Some even had to take several flights before arriving in Lisbon. Our first face to face gathering took place in Hotel Fenix in order to catch a bus to the airport. There followed the arrival at Horta airport, and subsequently we voyaged by ferry to the other island where we were destined to stay, Pico Island. This peak, framed in our imagination the perfect natural entrance to our highly anticipated course. The participants formed an attachment to this picture in our collective mind’s eye during the entire course.

From Madalena harbour, we drove towards our destination along roads surrounded by piles of volcanic stone following long winding and serpentine roads. We started to notice the character of the place with the volcano above always “watching” us. We arrived at Lajes do Pico, located in a beautiful settlement. Our area of accommodation had something of an apocalyptic, scattered, semi-abandoned feeling: with concrete walls and humidity with moldy green edges. Despite the beautiful picturesqueness of the original Azorean town, something needed to be fixed on the outskirts of the town. This set of buildings, out of scale and out of place, were however splendidly located in a setting surrounded by nature. Each of these scattered buildings, with their different functions, connected our daily routines during the course, and helped to develop a further bonding connection as the spaces were closely shared. They marked until the end of the course, our very close understanding of this site where we were about to intervene, or at least, propose to do so.

The structure of the course followed previous summer courses. Ours within a two-week period proved indispensable. The first week study-drawing relevant architecture within different settlements of the island. The second one, to the design of a master plan: a proposal for the town where we were accommodated.

During the first week we got to explore amazing settlements and sites the island contained, whenever discussions about what to draw during that day allowed it plentifully! Each example in the island brought compelling reflections on scale, urban space or phsychological usage of texture, to mention just some of the themes. The areas of intervention were very well chosen for didiactical purposes by the tutors. This allowed us to get acquainted with local traditional architecture and detect a very broad range of elements of local architecture and urbanism. In each location, the areas covered, we were divided in groups, always changing to work with different colleagues. Each one taking care of different themes such us details, facades, mass studies, streets guidelines, the structures of private residences, etc. Time was short but sufficient. All the work enabled us to achieve results which were very often superb for 2, 3 or 4 hours rounds of drawing. We shared our findings in a closing round “critique” of very constructive drawings. With this exercise, we definitely identify some of the technologies of these local architectures for the second phase. How can one design a place without understanding the local architectural traditions and culture before making a proposal?

Throughout the entire course, the development went very smoothly as people got highly involved. This was also due to additional types of unique moments with which the island regaled us. Social momentum added without any doubt further levels of joy with the “peak” special connections we all experienced. For instance, just when the day started, during our fantastic sugary breakfasts (the local produce justified the richness of this type of meal), from our peripatetic walkways to our lunches, or during the regular informal chats at the end of the day where we commented and reflected upon the working day, and shared further architectural interests and even spontaneous outbursts of dancing and impressions, the bond was forged. Also, in the different venues we visited, where locals toasted with us, letting us taste the flavours of their volcanic heritage, enjoying their melodic sonnets and joining their popular dances, the special connection flourished. This type of symbiosis with the local culture and customs, shared in our souls an even deeper connection with the volcanic island. A veritable gift received unexpectedly from the heart of the Atlantic.

The course was further enriched with complementary evening lectures. Most of these lectures were delivered in a pleasant local museum with a cosy auditorium resembling the shape of a ship, as if you were in the living room of this particular town. From inside this ship’s deck we listened to presentations about the geological history of the archipelago, geo-political relationships and the astonishing custom of whale hunting directly connected to the history of the place. With this, watercoulour and perspectives workshops, stone-masonry demonstrations and other of the island’s architectural histories delivered by specialist speakers, our drawings became more prepared and somehow rooted to the native traditions and place.

In week two we turned to creativity. Creativity with a sense of responsibility toward the location and how traditional cultures worked here in the past but with complete freedom. First, the different groups worked on the overall masterplan. How beautifully challenging it was to share our knowledge and our experiences of the past week as a team agreeing on a common proposal in an incredibly short period of time! The masterplan required us to fulfill the town prospectus in relation to sustainable touristic sites, complete the urban framework providing necessary public utilities and to better relate to the natural scenario the urban framework backed. Afterwards, all proposals were synthesized into a common one. And the last days, within groups, the different areas of the plan were detailed with outstanding drawings. The results of this plan and the entire course were well exhibited in the local museum. The proposal will hopefully serve the inhabitants to inspect some guidance on how to develop the future of their homeland. What a special duty of care we were charged with. The outcome, for a two week course, were in quantity and quality, I must say, outstanding.

The special connection helped to produce this vast and magnificent body of work that seemed not to want to end there. The last day before our departure, after the exhibition opening, we gathered again in one of the scattered pieces that served as an atelier of the existing incomplete plan. We suffered its design inconvenients as users while working, but this last night, served as the focal point of the dinner and as a close up scenario before the curtains closed. Its completely glazed façade turned now into and asset and let us enjoy, as a group, for a last time, the incredible sight of the sunset behind the volcanic mountain. I still visualize the emotive moment when most of us were looking, that same moment, at the horizon. Lyrically poetical local and nostalgic popular songs were sang while taking in this unforgettable view. Indeed, the volcano united us all, and through its enchanting feeling, suggested to us all, that this course was not just about the specific architectural proposal of the course. This course was indeed about what the person that gives his name to the institution promoting this summer workshop asked once in a lecture in Madrid: “comprometeros”. That is: to compromise, with this traditional and lasting architectural approach in current times. Rafael engaged with the audience at the end of a symposium conference in Madrid. A kind of agreement to keep together walking towards this direction seemed to be the real core of this course and was bonded. A special connection which we await to see where it drives us all.

More information about the summer school can be found at the following link:

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