The design of the new Convent of the Franciscan Fraternity of Bethany in Salvador de Bahia has involved us professionally and humanly for many years. It was not only about designing a convent as a building, but also of deeply understanding the nature of the place where we would go to design. Salvador de Bahia is a special place, where Western culture merges with the African one, translating into a very unique cultural and religious syncretism.
What strikes you about Salvador is the smile of the peoples, the generous nature and the tropical climate, but also the jarring danger of its fragile suburbs, contexts that are difficult to frame in a unique way, where violence and crime are the paradigm with which people are used to dealing every day.
The Convent is located in this context, in the São Cristóvão district, one of the poorest and most dangerous in Salvador, where each new architecture can be an opportunity for social redemption.
Whether it's a church, a square, a school or, as in this case, a convent, architecture can be an antidote to the marginalization to which millions of people are condemned in many suburbs of the world. A sign of respect and dignity.
We wanted to create a special building but at the same time "easy to understand". A hospitable and safe place to call home, which represented the nature of the clients, religious dedicated to prayer but also to hospitality and moments of celebration and sharing typical of the Franciscan and Marian charism that distinguishes them.
Thus, like a large tree offering shade and shelter to the traveler from the sun and rain, the New Convent will welcome the local community by offering a place of suspension of conventional time and space.
The Convent is situated in the neighborhood of São Cristóvão, one of the most dangerous and fragile of Salvador.
The Franciscan Fraternity of Bethany is there since 2010, albeit in a temporary structure, and in 2012 it created a kindergarten for more than 100 children from the neighboring favelas, as part of a wider social project that after the completion of the convent will see the realization of a school.
The importance of creating a convent building in an area like this goes beyond its purely spiritual function: it means creating a safe meeting place for a very large community.
The functional program
The design of the new convent took place through a long-time participatory process which allowed us to focus on a complex functional program that combined the requests related to the lifestyle of the clients, religious dedicated to prayer, hospitality and to fraternal life, with the needs deriving from the climatic and social conditions of the site.
The design took place partly in Italy and partly in Brazil, to fully understand the spirituality of the client and the meaning of creating a convent in such a particular context.
Living the life of the convent we understood how important it was to organize the spaces around the rules that mark the day, rules made up of individual moments of prayer and moments of sharing, but as the same time how the often-extreme conditions of the subtropical climate, influence the lifestyle.
Since the building would not have had mechanical air conditioning systems, it was necessary to offer protection from the sun and shelter from the rain but at the same time leave the air to flow between the buildings.
Since it was a religious building, it was clear that it should also embody symbolic values for all the faithful who would frequent it, a constantly growing community, accustomed to living in a highly degraded and often marginalized context. A special building that is familiar at the same time. A safe place to call home.
The planimetric concept
Planimetrically, we reinterpreted the classical introverted conventual typology multiplying the number of cloisters and thinning out the buildings to allow the wind, which constantly blows from the east, to reach all the buildings and open areas. The convent's morphology is articulated around five green cloisters: at west, facing the access door and the main municipal road, there is the public part of the complex, dedicated to welcoming, with the refectory at south, the church in the middle and the sacristy and reception hall at north. These buildings, although autonomous and recognizable, are ideally and formally united by a large wooden roof which gives them architectural unity. In front of the chapel, in continuity with the large roof, there is a covered square, a meeting place that offers shelter from the sun during the day and allows the church to accommodate more than 500 seated people. Between the sacristy and the administration buildings to the northeast stands the library, a translucent polycarbonate’s volume suspended on four cumaru’s wood pillars that at night becomes a luminous lantern that allows its contents to be perceived. To the south-east is the building that houses the cells of the monks and nuns, the only 3-floor building consisting of a precast concrete structure, a very widespread and reliable technology in Salvador. It's surrounded by a wooden exoskeleton that houses the distribution gallery and systems of wooden brise-soleil necessary to avoid overheating of the walls and to guarantee shelter from rainwater.
The complex, which has no mechanical ventilation systems, seeks to enhance the climatic peculiarities of the context. From the ocean, to the east, a constant breeze blows, therefore, the building was fragmented to allow the wind to circulate within the complex, in a succession of spatial compressions and decompressions. Each building adopts low-tech bioclimatic strategies according to the function it hosts. To the west, where the buildings with the greatest number of visitors are located, the envelopes are permeable to the wind, with brise soleils and movable panels to regulate the flow of air. This is the case in the refectory and in the church, where the brise-soleils have the dual function of filtering the light and preventing overheating.
The reception hall and sacristy building to the north-west, on the other hand, has a more closed building envelope to guarantee the right privacy and security for the functions it hosts. The walls are in fact in masonry, with an increased thickness to increase the thermal displacement. Here too, 4 full- height panels allow you to maximize air circulation if necessary.
All three buildings are protected by a large roof, raised above the building envelope, which favors the escape of hot air, helping to maintain environmental comfort even in the hottest periods of the year.
Adjacent to the sacristy is the library, which stands out as an independent body from the rest of the building and which has a translucent polycarbonate cladding. Completely open on the ground floor, it takes advantage of the fireplace effect to cool the rooms.
To the northwest, however, the building with the chapter house, the training rooms and the workshop adopts the same strategies as the sacristy/secretary, with a raised, ventilated roof.
The accommodation building, the only one with 3 floors, has a prefabricated reinforced concrete structure surrounded by a wooden exoskeleton. Here the distribution is entrusted to external balconies, sheltered from the rain and the sun and covered with wooden brise-soleil systems. Cross ventilation is guaranteed in each cell with Venetian blind systems above the doors and windows.
The use of photovoltaic panels for the production of electricity, hot water and the recovery of rainwater make the convent complex almost completely self-sufficient from an energy point of view.