Genius Loci

Better belated than never, here I come with a glimpse into a recent conference on places and meanings: Genius Loci, held at FLUP in late April. As if the programme was tailor-made to correspond with my latest research interests! The presentations within seven major thematic sections were organized in parallel sessions. And there lied a little problem: I simply couldn’t be at all presentations I wished to attend!

FLUP’s Department of Heritage Studies organized the event on the occasion of its twentieth anniversary, together with its specialized body named CITCEM (standing for the Transdisciplinary Research Centre “Culture, Space and Memory”). The diverse areas covered ranged from sacred spaces, over heritage management issues to representations of vernacular and transitional worlds.

The atmosphere at FLUP was amazing: a river of curious people engaged in learning something new and passionate about knowledge exchange. I heard about creative geography of cinema, learned valuable facts about the spirit of Porto, about Portuguese architectural regionalist movements, got acquainted to theoretical approaches on walking as a mode of construction of place, on hybrid spaces and place-making. Some of that, actually, by serendipity, stumbling upon presentations: while waiting for the desired speeches, the others that were to attend in-between revealed themselves equally interesting!

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Last but not the least, the position and architecture of the FLUP’s building certainly contributed to the inspiring atmosphere of the event. The postmodern edifice is a work of Nuno Jennings Tasso de Sousa from the end of 1980s. It was designed for 4000 students, combining a myriad of open and covered spaces, carefully integrating the interplay of light and shade, and viewpoints leading the curious visitor to discover the surrounding cityscape and the architectural accents of the building itself.

Photographing heritage

Porto has a very special photographer: Luís Ferreira Alves is dedicated to capturing Porto’s spirit through its architectural heritage. As much as to the city’s historical landmarks, his architectural photography focuses to the more contemporary built legacy created by protagonists of the Porto School of Architecture.

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They actually seem to be the reason why Luís Ferreira Alves dedicated to the architectural photography in the early 1980s, after some soul searching in the area of experimental film and amateur photography. At that time, he helped out a friend who needed photos of his project for an exhibition, and after it was presented at the Faculty of Architecture, interest was raised among architects and commissions followed. Alves then made a risky move: he abandoned his permanent job to dedicate completely to architectural photography.

It turned out the right choice.

Now we know him best through beautiful photos capturing his city and its heritage, like the ones that embellish the recently reissued luxury album Sentimento do Porto. But there is one more curiosity about this author: he specializes in exposing the process of heritage transformation through photographing restoration works. These are far beyond the documents testifying of the works done in the project dossiers, they make one rethink heritage and see it more clearly as a living thing, with a potential to change and adapt to the present times.

This gives visibility to the hidden layers of the monuments’ and the city’s history that often remain inaccessible and overlooked, and (here I borrow the spot-on expression of Pedro Bandeira), helps demystifying heritage that comprises a significant part of our surroundings and daily lives.

My “discovery” of Luís Ferreira Alves comes just on time to share the news of an exhibition that is about to be open in Porto: “Nasoni – Regressos” is about the restoration works on the city’s symbol – the Clérigos church. The opening is on April 21st, 2016, in MMIPO (Museu da Misericórdia do Porto). No need to mention the name of the author!

Details on the exhibition are here.

The cultural landscape of Porto

Lately, the Saturday afternoons I spend in Porto are booked: they are dedicated to new discoveries related to the city’s cultural landscape. The discoveries touch Porto’s natural environment, the man-made structures and features, and the character and values of its people.

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Yes, this article is about the new, third edition of Um Objeto e Seus Discursos, that goes on from the beginning of March all the way to December here in Porto. The idea is simple: meeting weekly at a different place, with a different group of interesting speakers, whose starting point for a talk is an object significant for the city and its history, be that history distant or quite recent.

Thanks to this initiative, I have already had an opportunity to visit some spaces normally inaccessible to public and learn lesser known facts and episodes about Porto. And after two years, there is still so much to uncover about its cultural landscape. The 2016 discoveries started with food: the history of “tripas à moda do Porto” was addressed, but it wasn’t all – the typical dish of Portans could be tasted as well!

And there is so much to look forward to! I am especially curious about visiting the Palacio da Bolsa, where Gustave Eiffel’s desk is kept, finding out if one of the bodies buried in the Clerigos church really belongs to Nicolau Nasoni (there is archaeological research ongoing), or discovering lesser known details of Porto’s urban history through a visit to over a century-old public toilets.

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

Happy 100th anniversary!

A little belated, though, but I hope two days don’t mean that much of delay for a proud hundred-year old!

On February 1st, 1916, the works on the new city avenue, today known as Avenida dos Aliados, began in Porto. The importance of the work can be illustrated by the fact that the very president of Portugal of the time, Bernardino Machado, was present. On a second glance, it becomes clear that one of the most well-known public spaces of Porto is actually composed of three spaces: the Liberdade Square, the Humberto Delgado Square, and the Aliados avenue. The idea to create a grand public space dates back to the beginning of 18th century: the role model was the main square of Madrid, Plaza Mayor. But the full conditions to conduct the works and create the Aliados avenue as it is known today were reached only in the first decades of the 20th century.

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Its construction began with a demolition: the space had been intersected with several streets and contained built structures … and orange orchards! So, on February 1st, 1916, the ancient city hall building, that was situated in the southern part of today’s Aliados, defining one of the façades of the Liberdade Square, began to disappear.

Each square meter of the avenue, the squares and the surrounding buildings tells a story of Porto’s architectural and artistic trends, social life and economy over the last century. Among many important names that contributed to it, I would like to point out three: Barry Parker, Henrique Moreira and Álvaro Siza. Parker was the author of the green gardens of Aliados many Portans still remember, suffer for and idealize a little bit. Siza, together with Souto Moura, changed the square to what it is today: maybe it could be less grey, but the city needed a paved space for huge public gatherings, and the eclectic architecture of its “façades” finally came under the spotlight.

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The third gentlemen, Henrique Moreira, has given much of a soul to Aliados: he is the author of two sculptures situated there, the Youth (known also as The Girl of Aliados) and the Abundance (or The Boys).

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Across the river

Almost two years have passed since my arrival to Porto, and I am turning less and less visitor and more and more inhabitant of the “invincible city”.

After the dreamy, rainy and uneventful post-Christmas epoch, the time has come for the new urban experiences. The decision was simple, to cross the river and get to know the heritage of Vila Nova de Gaia. Despite being named “the new town”, Gaia has a long history, reaching back to Celtic times. And by area and number of inhabitants, it turns out to be a much bigger city than Porto today! So far, I knew the river bank, the mount Pilar, the terraces of Arrabida Shopping and the Yeatman hotel, but the reason to visit them was primarily to enjoy amazing views to the historical center of Porto! Other sites I have visited in Gaia are few: the inevitable wine cellars, several beautiful but isolated beaches, the genuine fishermen’s neighbourhood of Afurada (on the most important day for the community, the St. Peter’s day), and the Teixeira Lopes Museum.

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An injustice that has to be corrected … but hey, if one wants to prepare, it is difficult, for the latest monograph on Gaia’s heritage was published in 1908! Finally, in 2016, the conditions have been fulfilled to address the problem. And I found out the key facts a few days ago, at the Solar Condes de Resende, an ancient country villa now converted to the Municipal House of Culture. Heritage people are often very passionate about what they do, and J. A. Gonçalves Guimarães is no excuse. The director of the Solar Condes de Resende is a proud “gaiense” (born and raised in Gaia), with the background in history and archaeology. He personally presented to the public the ambitious project of the future monograph (or better, a series thereof), giving an insight into the scope of work that follows and even sharing unresolved questions still to be discussed by the editorial team. And no, it won’t take long: in a little more than a year, the first book will be ready. Meanwhile, more lectures will be organized once a month in the Solar, with the aim to present the Gaia’s heritage to a broader audience. I look forward to finding out more, both from the future books and live, from the true “gaienses” that probably best transmit the very spirit of the place.

“Porto Desconhecido”

What’s heritage without the actual people it is meaningful to? What’s tradition if it isn’t a living thing reinforcing one’s sense of identity and belonging?

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These were the questions that came to me naturally after the “Porto Desconhecido” exhibition and conversation some weeks ago in the Soares dos Reis museum. “The unknown Porto” made public some local stories, memories and customs thanks to a number of caring stakeholders – common people, young and old, who worked together in representing their traditions (celebration of the day of Saint Rita in São Nicolau neighbourhood in Porto) in an animated film, as much as the people from cultural institutions who came up with the idea, gathered the stories at various points in Porto and organized the logistics.

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The conversation was meant to contextualize the activities done and inform on the work, gathering museum experts and other participants at the stage: acknowledging that both parties were equally important for the success of the project! After the short film projection, it was endearing to see the exhibition, with pieces of scenography created with love and care for the city and its traditions by São Nicolau social center users.

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Bonding the people between each other and with their city, as well as unpretentiously reminding us, the observers, of what living heritage values are, that was the message of “Porto Desconhecido”.

Casa do Infante

How rewarding was my recent visit to Casa do Infante, presently the Historical Archives of Porto!

Rewarding for two reasons: the form (an example of an architectural intervention with a great deal of sensibility), and the contents (possibility to find out so much about the city’s long history and urban development via the permanent exhibition, as well as enjoying temporary exhibition on German architecture of the 1950s).

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Numerous transformations, all shown within the exhibition, have marked this building complex, dating from the 14th century. It is important to mention that it has much older structures underneath, duly researched and also duly displayed. The most important inhabitant of the house was D. Henrique (born there in 1394), a crucial character in the history of Portugal and its age of discoveries.

The latest restoration/transformation project, between 1998 and 2003, was lead by Nuno Jennings Tasso de Sousa (also well known for his design of the Faculty of Philology of Porto). Revisiting the previous intervention of Rogério de Azevedo from the 1960s, Tasso de Sousa implemented more contemporary understanding of conservation principles, exposing the historical layers of the house for educational purposes, introducing all the many contemporary elements needed for a state-of-the-art archives and respecting the principle of reversibility at all times. There is a lovely term he used to describe the intervention: that of “diachronic reading”.

And just to have an idea of the scope of work, the total area remodeled amounts to 7869 m2.

Here is the architect’s text with more details on the intervention: http://www.vitruvius.com.br/revistas/read/arquitextos/06.071/360

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).

Deciphering. The Saramago’s travelogue revisited

I am back to José Saramago’s Viagem a Portugal (1981), but this time I look carefully at the cover of the recently translated Serbian edition, published by Laguna (Belgrade) in 2012, within their complete collection of Saramago’s works.

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The image represents a detail of a panorama of the historical center of Porto, with the – the city cathedral overlooking the downtown – as its main focus.The appearance of the image brings to mind an old drawing or etching. Seemingly, this is an old photograph done in sepia technique, which gives it a particularly poetic touch and evokes nostalgia for the times long gone.

The book contains twelve other, duly credited images: Saramago’s text is accompanied with photographs commissioned from Dragoljub Zamurović, a well–known serbian artist. Strangely, there is no data about the source of the cover page photo.

A closer inspection reveals an interesting detail of the cover image – the sky was replaced with a background consisting of a fragment of an ancient map of Portugal. However, the origin of the map could not be determined. The part of the map title included, though, indicates that it may be from a Dutch or Flemish source. Also, the sepia effect was used with intention to conceal the fact that the initial photo was a fragment of a contemporary urban setting. This effect made the old and the new elements of urban tissue blend better.

The exact spot where the panoramic photo was taken can also be determined – it is the little belvedere in Rua da Bataria da Vitória, near São Bento da Vitória monastery.

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I easily found an image very similar to the one actually used for the book cover through an online search. However, the panorama included contemporary structures, such as a number of residential buildings, or reconstruction of the tower next to the cathedral (work by Fernando Távora, developed between 1995 and 2002, built on the foundations of the so called Casa dos 24, I already wrote about).

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The contemporary structures were mostly excluded by cropping the picture.

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Then, artistic filters were applied using graphic software, to blend older and newer structures. The original background was replaced with an image of an ancient map of Portugal.

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It is even possible to determine approximately how old the image actually used for the book cover is, without particular field investigation. The following image (kindly provided by Manuel Morais, as well as the details of the location where it was taken) is from September 2007, while the above panorama that was then cropped was taken by Francisco Bernardo in November 2009. The roof of the deteriorated building next to the yellow house on the photos had already collapsed between 2007 and 2009, so the initial photo (where the roof still existed) has to be older than that period, but also more recent than 2002, when Fernando Távora’s tower was completed.

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Saramago, member of the Portuguese communist party since 1969, considered himself an atheist and pessimist, and was also well known as a severe critic of catholicism. However, in the introduction of the book, the writer himself emphasized that he had no intent to advise, and also that his journey was just one of the possible stories, representing both the person experiencing and the places experienced. It is his version of a journey through Portuguese culture, encompassing 588 settlements, from far north to extreme south of the country.

Significance of artistic and built heritage for understanding contemporary Portuguese cultural identity was decisive to Saramago. Among the sites visited, a great number is dedicated to religious buildings and sites, being the Church powerful and dedicated to creating lasting values. Thus, the unknown designer’s choice of the cover image is not surprising, despite the writer’s political views.

Thank you, M!

More about the amazing Dragoljub Zamurović: http://www.serbia-photo.com/ (will get back to his artistic photography!)