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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Between ephemeral and eternal: the stone caravel

Here we are in the Lisbon’s district of Belem, approaching the white tower, built exactly 500 years ago to defend the Tagus estuary. The concrete jungle and asphalt rivers of Lisbon coexist with the serene park and the breezy walkway along the Tagus (Tejo) shore, just a few dozen meters away.

The wide river promenade was once a setting for an important exhibition: “Portuguese World Fair” took place there in 1940, just at the time when the rest of Europe … well, had other things in mind.

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At the starting point, in front of the Belem tower, an unfocused gaze quickly centers at a stone caravel: this is the area from where Portuguese ships departed to explore the unknown continents, back in the epoch of discoveries and glory. The Monument to Discoveries was built on the occasion of the mentioned Fair: Henry the Navigator and many other famous Portuguese of those times are sculpted in stone, with heroic expressions and brave postures, reflecting also romanticization of the epoch and its admiration by the then regime.

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However, the structure we see now is not the original one: the monument designed by the architect Cotinelli Telmo in 1940 was not meant to last at all. Like most other exhibits for the Portuguese World Fair, it was conceived as an ephemeral structure of metal support and gypsum coating, to last one summer. And so it was, after a while, in 1943, the monument was demolished, though some politicians found it a very powerful symbol of the nation’s aspirations and wanted to keep it.

There is evidence that the architect himself was against its reconstruction (however, I couldn’t find more details on that issue). But, he didn’t live to see it reconstructed. In 1948, he died after an accident – while fishing, he was dragged by a wave that crashed him against a rock.

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All the others thought reconstructing the monument would be great, once the idea was revived in the late 1950s.

And so, in 1960 (on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of Henry the Navigator’s death), it was rebuilt in concrete, dressed with stone, and given some extra functions: exhibition space, auditorium and a viewing terrace on top, to become one of the most visited sites in Lisbon of today. The square in front was decorated with a marble wind rose and a world map depicting Portuguese discoveries, a present from South Africa.

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In fact, the history of the monument is all about the political decisions, that made possible both creation of the first, ephemeral one, and building of the present structure, revived in stone. Outliving the poor architect and the Salazar’s regime too, the monument is today symbolizing pride of the glorious Portuguese 15th and 16th centuries. And more universally,  facing the unknown and making the world change.

Many Portuguese, not to mention foreign tourists, don’t know the above facts. I am happy to have found out this story in an exhibition on life and work of Cotinelli Telmo, that has just ended in the very monument’s exhibition space.

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Photo credits: 1st – from the 1960 brochure issued on the occasion of the monument opening.

Source: http://www.padraodosdescobrimentos.pt/wp-content/uploads/Doc1.pdf?6f4ee7

The rest of the photos – JS.

An example of happy marriage

Not being sure if it can be applied to people and their marriages, I claim that, as far as urban spaces are concerned, huge age difference is not an obstacle to living happily together. I believe the secrets are in mutual respect and in communication, the dialogue between the two. And here is the most creative example from my current city, Porto: the intervention of the architect Pedro Balonas at its Lisbon Square, completed in 2012.

For some decades, the Lisbon Square was a neglected and unsafe place, an eyesore in the very center of Porto. Around 2005, the city authorities decided to improve it. It took some time, about 6 million euros and a lot of architectural sensibility to get to the harmonious matrimony of the historical and the contemporary Porto at that very spot.

Only a person knowing and caring a lot about the place, and also knowing a lot about architecture, could moderate the dialogue between these two so successfully. Pedro Balonas is undoubtedly that kind of person. On the occasion of 250th anniversary of the Clerigos tower, a series of lectures was organized  in Porto during winter 2014/2015, and I was lucky enough to be at the opening session with Balonas as the main guest. Listening to the text he presented, “A máquina de olhar” (“The vision machine”), was as powerful and touching experience as passing through the newly built space itself.

The triangular shape of the plot, the differences in levels, the inherited subterranean garage, and, of course, mighty historical neighbours (the Clerigos tower, the Lello bookshop, the University of Porto Rectorate, the Lions’ Square, the CFP building) were all huge challenges, masterfully resolved by the author.

I have browsed through my photo-documentation and found some interesting material to share: the “before” and “after” of the Lisbon Square I captured in 2010 and in 2014/15. The photos I took these days tell more than words about the dialogue and understanding between the old and the new. Maybe adding just one thing to understanding the images: the hydroponic olive orchard on the roof is not merely an architectural fashion – it is charged with meaning, as next to the Clerigos there once was a city wall with the so called “Olival Gate” (Porta de Olival).

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Before: this old aerial photo of the Lisbon Square comes from: mjfs.spaceblog.com.br/120724/Praca-de-Lisboa-PORTO/

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Before: my photo from the 2010 visit.

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After: the same spot, 2014/2015.

Enjoy the rest of the photos!

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The Douro valley experiences

The Douro valley on a warm, golden autumn day is a great place to be. There are people who travel half the world to get to see it, and I am so privileged to live nearby! Last weekend, the time has come to pay a visit to the region, passing through Mesão Frio, Peso da Régua, Pinhão and Quinta do Seixo, where I spent most of the afternoon.

The Alto Douro region has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2001 and it is one of the world’s oldest recognized and protected wine production regions. And its contemporary life is flourishing amazingly!

An average Portuguese is probably as much as a wine expert as a professional enologist in countries with less wine culture. Wine is a part of their everyday and a major pillar of the national economy. Never forgetting the traditional modes of wine production (which can be known from azulejo panels or learned about in museums), they however opted for the use of latest technologies in this industry nowadays. So there are robots, computerization and wine institutes with highest precision instruments involved to get the best of what nature has to offer.

Actually, Portuguese wine producers don’t hesitate to take the best of both worlds, and that can be seen in Quinta do Seixo: in 2007, the old structures there were recuperated and a modern winery constructed, upon a design by Cristiano Moreira & Associados. Cristiano Moreira (1931-2012) was a professor at the University of Porto, with significant experience in industrial facilities, and, in my opinion, refined approach towards the beautiful Douro landscapes, both cultural and natural.

Voilà, here I am at the Quinta do Seixo: at first glance, it seems to be an immense complex of vineyards, with a well-maintained old building, perfectly integrated into the landscape. During the tour, I discover lots of contemporary elements invisible from the outside. And later, with some a posteriori research, I realized the scope of construction works done!

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The quinta (the wine production estate) is situated near the village of Pinhão. The view to the wavy hills in all shades of green and earthy autumn colours is breathtaking. And there I come to the recuperated building itself. There is nothing in it that is not in harmony with the landscape. The technology is only visible from the inside: the robot-presses for the grapes instead of human labour and steel barrels for the wine to be preserved up to highest standards, the video-projectors everywhere and the latest-generation illumination. Maybe even a little too contemporary presentation, if you ask me!

Update: the interior design is a project of another architect, Paulo Lobo, who is responsible for many interesting contemporary interiors in Porto (thx Marta Costa!)

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But then, after the theoretical part, I get to taste the port wines, and that is an experience involving all senses. From the dark and elegant exposition and interpretation spaces, one gets to the bright, sunny tasting area, opening towards the landscape. Oh, how cleverly were the mirrors used to reflect the western sun and create shades and reflections! The division towards the outer space was nothing more but the thin glass surface that stretched throughout the entire length of the room. However, I was blessed with the best possible weather, so I spent most of my time outside at the terrace. The view stretched from Pinhão in the distance to the green terraced landscapes all around. The building and the terrace were just……nature rearranged: the layered stone façade with rich texture, the earthen esplanade with touches of grass and moss, and the shiny spotless glass surface reflecting once again the landscape.

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Silence is broken by glasses tinkling in a toast. And then, a sip of vintage ruby port crowns this magic experience.

Photos: all mine except the first one, which comes from http://www.afaconsult.com/portfolio/29911/92/adega-da-quinta-do-seixo.

How to create a monument to deindustrialization?

Two architects from Porto have recently challenged one of the axioms of heritage preservation theory: the one that says a monument may be dislocated only in exceptional circumstances. I know examples of dislocation being done when some public works (dams) of extreme importance were built, yet the values of monuments were also unique and worth preserving. But what happens if the monument has been put out of use and stops making sense in the contemporary city?

This is what happened to the Maria Pia bridge in Porto, designed and executed in the second half of 1870s by an Eiffel’s collaborator, a Belgian engineer named Théophile Seyrig (Seyrig has also designed the other bridge, that of Dom Luiz I, that is still in use and links Porto with Gaia).

The Maria Pia bridge is out of use since 1991. Not even pedestrians can cross it – I personally checked, but there is a locked gate that prevents access. It has no purpose but to be beautiful. Around it, in the central zone of Porto, there are five more bridges that took over the transportation functions.

So why not repurposing the former monument, dedicated to great achievements of the industrial revolution?

This is what the team of young architects, Pedro Bandeira and Pedro Nuno Ramalho, suggested in their entry for the competition that was held last summer in Porto: dismantling the bridge, and then reassembling it at a prominent position in the Porto city center, making it a major landmark, and thus contributing to local identity and economy by attracting visitors. They have even calculated the costs, and it turned out quite feasible (way more affordable then building another Casa da Música, for example)!

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However, I think their proposal is more valuable in a philosophical sense: we are living in the post-industrial age and some proper monument of the present state of things is to be proposed.

It is also a way to give a breath of life to the structure that has lost its sense in the contemporary epoch. Reversing the process!

This brings to mind Le Corbusier’s thought on historical monuments I remember from the Athens Charter: “Death, which spares no living creature, also overtakes the works of men. In dealing with material evidence of the past, one must know how to recognize and differentiate that which is still truly alive. The whole of the past is not, by definition, entitled to last forever; it is advisable to choose wisely that which must be respected”[1].

Photo credits: http://www.pedrobandeira.info/Relocalizacao-da-Ponte-D-Maria-2013

 

[1]Le Corbusier, The Athens Charter, New York 1973, p. 86 (The Athens Charter was first published in 1943).

Porto, the bank of materials.

The Bank of Materials of Porto is one of the newest initiatives of the city authorities in the realm of built heritage. It was opened in 2010, with the idea to collect the repetitive elements from the Porto façades: the ones being in disrepair, or the ones about to be demolished or modified. If a citizen needs to rehabilitate a façade, the Bank of materials provides them exemplars of the repetitive elements (be it tiles, stucco, stone or cast iron details) at no cost at all.

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Not only this is useful in restoration of built heritage, but it’s also enchanting to see examples of materials used for construction and decoration in Porto over centuries, all at one place! Most of the exhibits are ceramics and tiles, dating from 15th century to the recent times, but there are also hundreds of stuccoes, various wooden, stone and iron artifacts. Such as ancient street or commerce name plaques, that were duly saved (while many of them actually still proudly remain on the buildings).

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Porto is the city of respect for the things old, I deduce!

Many thanks to Zé for this discovery 🙂

Torre da Sé in Porto.

Hereby I present another discovery from the yesterday’s historical city tour – the Torre da Sé, designed by Fernando Távora in late 1990s-early 2000s (to be precise, between 1995 and 2002). The tower is situated in the very heart of the historical city – just next to the cathedral. And it doesn’t lie about its epoch: it is unmistakeably contemporary addition to the continuity of the Porto’s history of architecture. The main materials are granite (so, the traditional stone building was reinterpreted and continuity established) and glass (to provide a sense of our own epoch and also reinforce interaction, since the tower is meant to be a public space).

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This kind of intervention is probably among the most demanding and sensitive tasks for an architect. And I think he did it with a success, maintaining his own identity as an author, yet being highly sensible to the historical values of the environment.

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The tower was actually built on the ruins of an ancient building, the so called Casa dos 24, upon a call from the then mayor of Porto, Fernando Gomes. Casa dos 24 – because it is where the 24 local officials used to gather. The proportion system of the tower emerged from the interpretation of an old text containing the description of the previous building. The main unit is “o palmo”, which amounts to 22 centimeters. So, the tower is 100 palmos tall (22 meters, that is), the walls are exactly 5 palmos thick (110 cm), and its length and width amount to 50×50 palmos, that is 11×11 m. Of course, the interior system of measures also conforms to this palmo module.

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One more curiosity: the Távora’s building does not have any particular function, but to enable visual experience and enjoyment of the city!

Btw, FT lived between 1923 and 2005, he was a very important figure in Portuguese architecture and rethinking relations towards the past, so I’m sure there will be more posts about him here.