In the middle of the ocean

Until very recently, I knew almost nothing about Cabo Verde, except that it is a tiny country spread over an archipelago in the middle of Atlantic Ocean, and that amazing Cesária Évora was from there. But, living in Portugal, one gets to find out more sooner or later: there are more Caboverdians living abroad then in Cabo Verde itself.

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A few days ago, I learned a valuable lesson about Cidade Velha, the world’s oldest colonial city, funded by the Portuguese in 15th century (1462). Simultaneously, I learned a lot about Álvaro Siza and the qualities of a great architect.

Cidade Velha has been on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 2009. Knowing the requirements and the contents of application dossiers and having been involved in their preparation before my present “Portuguese phase”, I could imagine how complex task it must have been to manage the inscription of a site in Cabo Verde, with scarce human and technical resources and all kinds of obstacles on the way.

That process was reflected in the documentary I have just discovered: “Siza Vieira, Arquitecto e a Cidade Velha”, directed by Catarina Alves Costa. The film is not recent (it dates from 2005), but it turned out still state-of-the-art and revelatory for me, as much about Cidade Velha and its people as it was about Siza and his sensibility.

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The idea to candidate Cidade Velha for the UNESCO World Heritage List was not new: Siza was invited by the local authorities to help in the course of preparations, in the beginning of 2000s. The film was following some three years of the process, capturing the dynamics of various, often opposed forces present. It was admirable how the architect dealt with the multitude of factors: being respectful to the people and their needs, at the same time recognizing and preserving the values of historical architecture and the sense of place, and not letting local politicians compromise the project. The film was an excellent reminder on how being a (great) architect is not about being an unconstrained creative artist, it is about swimming in the sea of opposed streams and forces and still bringing in new values for the people and their cultural landscape.

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How does one explain the need to preserve authenticity to people who replace their thatched roofs with roof tiles because the only thing they want and truly need are better living conditions? What to respond when they ask: “But why don’t you cover your own house with the beautiful and authentic reed?” How does one cope with the politicians who let one take the risk of failure and, when the work is done, ascribe the merit to themselves? How does one find a fine balance between the need for change and modernization and the heritage values? How to be respectful and down-to-earth, and still contribute personally as an author? That is also what the documentary was about. Conservators could learn from this film and from Siza, I believe.

From what I have found out, the document Siza was developing, the Plan of Recuperation and Architectural Transformation of Cidade Velha, was completed in 2008, beyond the scope of the film. The Plan turned out to be one of the bases for the successful candidacy of the site, even though it was only partially realized.

Photos: UNESCO

See more about Cidade Velha: Cidade Velha, UNESCO world heritage list page

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