The smell of rain and the slowly breaking grey sky surprised us on the last day of our travels. Early in the morning, still in semi-darkness, we left Lisbon and made our way 100 km south for Montemor-O-Novo, a small city in the district of Évora in the Alentejo. Since the name "Oficinas do Convento" had already appeared several times on our journey, we felt very excited and curious about what would await us. Unfortunately, the weather was still not on our side and we reached the St. Francis Convent in pouring rain. Nevertheless, we didn't let the gloomy atmosphere get to us and started looking for the entrance with great anticipation. It took a little while until we found ourselves standing in front of a big wooden door, giving way to the courtyard of the old convent.
Upon entering, there was no soul in sight and we took the chance to explore the place in peace. The historic building in a somewhat desolate state is partly supported by steel structures. The new functions are embedded in the old walls of the building, which allows the age and history of the place to always be present. An archaic place, impressive with its high ceilings, massive walls and mysterious atmosphere. Unfortunately we were visiting the convent during winter, so we could only imagine the delight of the cute little garden in the middle of the courtyard, home to a couple of citrus trees and vegetable beds, probably providing self grown food during the summer months.
On our stroll through the corridors we encountered Margarida, who explained to us that the Earth Lab and the ceramic workshops are not located in the main building, but are distributed throughout the city as satellites and could be found close by. She offered a brief tour through the building and explained the different areas of the cultural association and its objectives to us. Next to the recovery and restructuring of the convent, the association focuses on creating the conditions for research, dissemination, training and production activities in the field of art and culture, thus maintaining the cultural heritage. The association is built upon four main pillars: an artist in residence program, different sculpture and technology orientated workshops, a print studio and a traditional construction lab, experimenting with natural building materials. Since its foundation in 1996 Oficinas do Convento have developed numerous projects in the fields of cultural heritage, architecture and visual and performing arts. The convent is home to several services in different fields of intervention: it hosts a variety of workshops, lectures, festivals and other educational activities in various fields.
Returning to the entrance, we were already expected by Joana, one of the architects of the association. A quick car drive later, we found ourselves in front of a small brick building, with an oven outside, embedded in various stacked hills of clay and earth. Guided by the aim to explore knowledge around the material earth and the preservation of traditional building methods and techniques, the Earth Lab was the original driver for the formation of the association in 1996. In the early years, the old factory was recovered and a space was created that nowadays serves as the educational anchor, experimenting with natural building materials.
Joana showed us around and explained the different steps of manual brick making to us. The only ingredients used are water and mud or clay. The characteristics and behaviour of the clay vary according to its origin and composition. The mixture mostly used consists of approx. 90% black clay and 10% brown clay. After excavating the clay it needs to be mixed with water and then be pressed into a previously well soaked form (approx. 24 hours). With the help of the fingers, the clay is pushed to all corners of the shape, from the outside to the inside, from top to bottom, ensuring that the brick will have a perfect parallelepiped shape.
Nowadays the Earth Lab is not only a place to fire bricks but as well a place to experiment with the material itself. It is a place dedicated to the continuous research of traditional construction techniques, seeking to preserve the local building culture. Furthermore, it is a place to develop new applications and uses for these techniques looking for an adaptation to the new demands of contemporary architecture.
We ended our tour with a broad understanding of the mission and dedication of the people holding the Oficinas do Convento together. A unique space, full of potential and opportunities. We quickly understood about the importance of keeping such exceptional spaces alive and are keen to understand where this knowledge will spread in the future!