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On Brazil’s northeast coast, the historic metropolis of Salvador de Bahia is one of the oldest colonial communities in South America, and one of the first planned cities in the world. As early as 1551, Salvador also became the first seat of the Roman Catholic Diocese in Brazil, ushering in a new era of Latin American liturgy. But while the city’s bishop still serves as the country’s national primate, the community presence of the Catholic Church across Brazil has gradually declined amidst changing demographics and social mores, public controversies, and a growing evangelical movement. For its part, however, the Church is evolving, too — and so is its architecture.

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Completed in late 2022, a 5,300-square-metre monastic complex in Salvador de Bahia’s working-class São Cristóvão suburb establishes a more open, sociable and community-oriented paradigm for religious life. While convents are designed to maintain a sense of seclusion and mystery, Italian architects Mixtura have introduced a welcoming and permeable new design language to support a mixed-use program that engages its neighbouring residents.

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Refectory exterior.

Built as part of of a larger social impact project led by the non-profit Fondazione Betania Onlus since 2010, the six-building cluster combines a church and monastic living quarters with a mixed-use program that straddles sacred and secular. The site includes a kindergarten for children from neighbouring favelas, as well as a flexible refectory — which serves as both a dining room and a community space — a library, an administration building and a sacristy (a facility where vestments and sacred objects are kept and prepared for mass).

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Refectory interior.

To support a diverse and open program, Mixtura opted for a similarly welcoming and contextually attuned design language. Locally sourced Brazilian wood cladding creates a dynamic visual signature for the six-building complex, while inviting natural — and carbon-free — cross-ventilation throughout the interiors. In particular, the communal, mixed-use refectory is distinguished by its movable wood walls, which allow the line between indoor and outdoor space to blur. Meanwhile, a heavier wood structural system is used across the ceiling, which cantilevers above the interior to provide shaded outdoor environments.

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The church building.

A more private, contemplative neighbour to the refectory, the church building features a similarly permeable façade, though one that remains closed to preserve a sense of sanctified dignity. Here, too, a generous shaded portico creates a comfortable outdoor space, while the neighbouring lawns also invite children and neighbours into the complex. Even the comparable subdued residential cell building features pleasantly shaded outdoor hallways, while the small library’s frosted glazing creates a visual focal point amidst the wood.

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The Library.

For the designers, the integration of local materials and carbon-free ventilation strategies supports an inclusive, community-oriented program for Salvador de Bahia residents. “As architects we strongly believe that architecture can positively change people’s lives. The convent is a project that we have been involved in, both professionally and humanly, for many years. It was not only about creating a building, but also about understanding the deep nature of the place where we were going to design,” says Mixtura co-founder Cesare Querci.

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The residential “cell” complex.”

“Salvador de Bahia is a special place, where Western culture merges with African culture to foster a unique cultural and religious syncretism,” Querci continues. “But its suburbs are also very fragile and dangerous places, where violence and crime are the paradigm people deal with on a daily basis… Here, good architecture can be an antidote to the marginality to which millions of people are condemned in suburbs throughout the world. It is a sign of respect and dignity.”

In Brazil, a Convent that Embraces Community

Italian architects Mixtura design a monastic complex that celebrates local culture and engages neighbouring residents.

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