Being both widely travelled and cultured men, the Lacerda brothers sought, in an impromptu fashion and with only a bare minimum of resources, to create a local museum of great quality, a sufficiently important nucleus that would turn Caramulo into a major cultural destination in Portugal. As they were good curators, and notwithstanding their skilful management of the policy of donations, they knew that the most difficult and most decisive step in the whole process would be the physical materialisation of the museum in the form of an architectural object designed to provide a dignified home for the various collections.
Their choice of architect fell upon Alberto Cruz, who, in spite of the fact that the historiography and general criticisms of his time do not attribute him with any traces of modernity, nonetheless belonged to a generation that was capable of designing and conceiving of architecture with the sense of monumentality that was necessary for public works. Alberto Cruz, a former functionary of the Direcção Geral dos Monumentos Nacionais, was also an architect who, because of the nature of his social connections, had grown used to designing buildings of great quality for a predominantly opulent and conservative clientele. For such clients, the architect produced works with a similar type of tectonic sensitivity to that displayed by his Italian contemporaries, Piacentini, Muzio and Gardella. However, contrary to what might be supposed, Alberto Cruz’s manifestly classical style did not derive from any lack of knowledge about the new and contemporary modernist designs, for, in 1957, he had, in fact, undertaken a lengthy trip to study North American and Brazilian museums at the invitation of the Ministry of Public Works, in order to “discover information and documentation that would be useful for the future Ethnology Museum of the Lisbon University Campus”, a project for which the architect’s services had also been commissioned at that time.
Although it is not certain that the Lacerda brothers were able to adopt the necessary historical and critical distance to understand the problem of the typology of the “museum” as a building of representation, it is possible that their rare sensitivity inspired them to choose an architect who was still familiar with the stylistic rules of classical composition, or, in other words, an architect who was basically capable of producing a museum in the traditional canonical sense. It was in this way that the Museu do Caramulo came into being as a building which, in its almost naïve classical formalism, suited the ethos of this civic equipment better than any would-be modernist structure. Consequently, it is a graceful classical portico that announces the museum entrance to the visitor on arriving at the magnificent plateau on which it stands.
One peculiarity that certainly affected the implantation and shape of the building from the very outset was the reconstruction and reconstitution of an 18th-century cloister originating from the Convento Franciscano da Fraga, in Sátão, which Abel de Lacerda had acquired in 1954 and saved from imminent destruction. The cloister was then transported to Caramulo piece by piece and reassembled and restored there with the necessary rigour and respect for the masonry, timbering and rustic tile work of the roof. In this latter case, the tiles that were used were sometimes acquired from the local mountain folk in exchange for new tiles.
Starting from this pre-existing historical context, which had been formally transferred to Caramulo, Alberto Cruz decided to use the cloister in a similar fashion to the impluvium of the Roman villas of Pompeii (as a central open-air courtyard where the rainwater was collected) and to build the whole system of exhibition rooms around it, creating a canonical square with 55-metre-long sides, from which there jutted out only the entrance portico mentioned earlier.
The apparent clarity of this design is largely matched by the very simplicity of the museum’s own organisational arrangement. On the ground floor, reached directly from the lobby, are the administrative services, cafeteria, temporary exhibition room and library, this latter space equipped with a small auditorium for lectures and other public events. Across from the lobby are the restoration and storage areas and the workshops, with a discreet loading bay on the outside.
On the upper floor, the symmetry of the layout is even more evident and exhaustive. Starting from the staircase with opposite flights, the visitor is invited to walk through the sequential U-shaped system of rooms following on from one another around the cloister. From there, and because of the stabilising effect produced by the reticular pattern of light emanating from the system of skylights, there is a seemingly baroque perspective, where the succession of porticos in the galleries, regardless of their size, reminds us of the exhibitional traditions of the old museum-palaces such as the Louvre, Pitti or El Escorial.
Displaying a certain ingenuity, the building’s walls combine a rustic masonry of schist forming a continuous surface from the corners to the base with courses of lias blocks in the cyma, pillars, lintels and outside recesses, and with broad sections of stone masonry, these latter areas mainly corresponding to the upper floors which, because of exhibition requirements, has almost no windows.
For those who are interested in studying the evolution of the architectural and construction work, through the analysis of the documentation existing about this building, it is certainly most impressive to see how the simple building specification and a few drawings sufficed to erect, with great rigour and quality, a building which nowadays would require detailed contractual descriptions, a whole host of drawings and technical conditions. Particularly if we bear in mind that at the end of the process we would almost certainly be left with a building that was of far inferior quality in regard to various aspects. This unbreakable bond of trust between the patrons, the architect and the building contractor, which it would be impossible to repeat today, is a clear demonstration of how the present day has completely changed the circumstances of a professional practice and a way of doing things.
Thus, in a time like our own, which is a period of confused responses to the needs and aspirations of humankind, it is with renewed interest that we revisit the history of a building that, displaying as much simplicity as it does inventiveness, has perfectly served the aims of the institution that created it.