Travel blog: Visiting Portugal

April 24, 2013 /

Braga, Porto, Cascais, Marco de Canavezes, Lisbon, Portugal

View of Sé, in Porto. Photo by Jakob Harry Hybel

By Jakob Harry Hybel

Portuguese cities are abound with characteristically narrow and colorful tiled buildings, and having skimmed through the mandatory guidebooks before my visit, I was expecting this. But on my architectural sightseeing, it struck me as odd how relatively few modern buildings I encountered.

Of course, as I quickly came to learn, there is a fairly obvious reason for this. The long reign of dictator Salazar held all practicing architects in a strong-hold. Until its collapse in 1974, the totalitarian regime controlled all the new development projects and they wanted everything to be kept in traditional building styles.

The first architect to take steps in a new, modern direction was Fernando Távora. He proposed, on the basis of traditional vernacular architecture, to create a new kind of Portuguese modernism. In the spirit of Adolf Loos, whom he admired greatly, he simplified the traditional housing typologies in order to find the essence of the Portuguese building tradition. For most people outside Portugal, Távora's work remains relatively unknown, but his importance as instigator should not be underestimated.

Loosening the ties to tradition

Portuguese architecture, in its modern guise, is most often associated with one famed, Pritzker Prize-winning architect, Álvaro Siza Veira. A pupil of Távora's, Siza was arguably the first Portuguese modernist to free himself of the shackles of tradition and formulate a whole new set of rules.

Siza is reluctant to talk about his architecture as having a specific language, yet few architects have such a distinct, immediately recognizable signature as he. Even though his expression has evolved somewhat through his career, key elements reappear over time in his buildings. Among the key traits that you can be almost sure to find in his work are the outstretched, typically white and intersecting volumes, his use of external and internal patios and his consistent use of the same few materials: white concrete, bleached, white interior and marble covering the floors and skirting the walls.

But all of his buildings are very contextual, especially in their scale. Hence, though in their immediate appearance they seem very similar, not two of Siza's buildings are exactly alike. Below are a few projects of his that made a particular impression on me.

Leça Swimming Pools (1966)
Álvaro Siza Veira
Leça de Palmeira, Porto

This is one of Siza's earliest projects, but it is certainly an early highlight. Situated in the Northern suburbs of Porto, the terraced pools in rough concrete are lowered from the pedestrian promenade and nestled into the natural rocks of the beach. Unfortunately, the pools were drained when I visited. But even so, you could easily sense the connection between the sea and the pools, as well as the impressingly delicate integration of nature and construction. You get the feeling that the pools have been there for as long as the rocks.

Leça Swimming Pools. Photo by Jakob Harry Hybel

Leça Swimming Pools. Photo by Jakob Harry Hybel

Bouça Social Housing (1978, finalised 2004)
Álvaro Siza Veira

This social housing project in the suburbs of Porto was originally built in 1978 as a response to the increasing housing demands for the socially vulnerable, but only half of the planned blocks were finished before the political winds shifted. More than 20 years had to pass before construction was resumed and in 2004 it was finally completed.

Siza wanted to avoid the sense of isolation often found in social housing projects and instead introduce a transparent community. All the apartments are narrow with three levels and a staircase leading down to a common area from the second level and access to a gallery on the third. The repetition of the staircases is countered by the crosscutting of the galleries and pathways that connect the blocks.

Though the apartments are small and cheap, it is interesting to note that they are not occupied by people of low means, as they were originally intended for. On the contrary, the residents tend to be rather well-off people, who live there mostly because of the signaling effect. This makes for a perfect statement of the fact that architects rarely control the fate of their buildings.

Bouça Social Housing. Photo by Jakob Harry Hybel

Bouça Social Housing. Photo by Jakob Harry Hybel

University of Porto, Faculty of Architecture (1992)
Álvaro Siza Veira

The Faculty of Architecture in Porto, adjacent to the university campus, is a highly well-integrated composition of buildings set on a terraced site high above the estuary of the Douro River. The space between the buildings is beautifully articulated by the use of skewed vertical and horizontal volumes in combination with sparse planting. Inside, the windows open up the otherwise closed volumes while subtly indicating the flow through the buildings.

University of Porto, Faculty of Architecture. Photo by Jakob Harry Hybel

University of Porto, Faculty of Architecture. Photo by Jakob Harry Hybel

Santa Maria Church (1996)
Álvaro Siza Veira
Marco de Canaveses

In many of his projects, Siza explores the staging of natural light, and with the Santa Maria Church in Marco de Canaveses some 60 km east of Porto, he succeeds in making it appear almost sacral. In one end of the church, a flood of light is streaming down from two tile-clad towers and in the other diffuse northern light is drawn in along the curved white north-western wall. I am by no means religious, nor is Siza, but there is a certain air of spiritual sublimity in this interplay.

Santa Maria Church. Photo by Jakob Harry Hybel

Santa Maria Church. Photo by Jakob Harry Hybel

Changing the course

Another prominent figure of the so-called School of Porto (with which Siza is also frequently associated) is Eduardo Souto de Moura.

Souto de Moura started small. Since he started practicing in 1980, he has made primarily residential houses and renovations. However, since he worked with Siza on the Portuguese Pavilion for the EXPO 2000 in Hannover, he has made a name for himself and his projects has started to increase in scale and differ considerably in expression.

He began to free himself more and more from Siza's strict contextualism. Instead, he said, he wanted his buildings to introduce a new order on the site. But despite his best efforts to downplay the relevance of the context, the buildings I saw all seem to relate to their surroundings in their own way.

Braga Municipal Stadium (2003)
Eduardo Souto de Moura

The roof of this spectacular soccer stadium in Braga 60 km north of Porto is held in place with wires mounted in the cliff. The rest of the stadium is made of rough concrete with all the stairs and ramps of the grandstands exposed. This adds to the stadium's clear sculptural quality, both seen from a distance and up close from the stand.

Allegedly, Souto de Moura has little interest in the sport - but if anything, it only makes the fact that he has been able to create such a dramatic scene for the game to take place, an even more impressive feat.

Braga Municipal Stadium. Photo by Jakob Harry Hybel

Braga Municipal Stadium. Photo by Jakob Harry Hybel

Paula Rego Museum (2009)
Eduardo Souto de Moura

This museum in the seaside city of Cascais West of Lisbon, made for and in collaboration with local artist Paula Rego, is highly recognizable due to its characteristic twin pyramid-shaped towers and its red-coloured concrete. Once you enter, it is a different story though. Here, the spaces are toned down and very well proportioned for their purpose.

Also, what first appeared to be a rather brash and monumental exterior changed appearance, when I went back outside. Now, the building seemed to resemble an internal organ, like a heart with the two towering chimneys as its arteries. Somehow, seeing it from the inside gave me an entirely different understanding of the building. 

Portugal-18-Paula -Santos.JPGPaula Rego Museum. Photo by Jakob Harry Hybel

Escola de Musica (2011)
Eduardo Souto de Moura

It is not often seen that an architect decides to revisit one of his own projects and redesign it completely. Nevertheless, this is the case with the Escola de Musica in Braga. The existing building on the site, or the remains thereof, was one of Souto de Moura's earliest projects from 1984. It was originally made to house a marketplace but financial downswings caused it to slowly wither and eventually, it was abandoned.

In 2009, on the city's behest, Souto de Moura chose to transform the rundown complex into a music school. But he did so leaving certain parts of the original structure, namely the pillars of the central market street, in their decrepit state. Thus, they stand as witness of the previous life of the building - as a modern ruin that tells the tale of time's passing.

Escola de Musica, Braga. Photo by Jakob Harry Hybel

Escola de Musica, Braga.  Photo by Jakob Harry Hybel

Architecture and politics

Portugal is one of the few countries where you can actually see the political development manifest itself in the architecture. Of course, in the last four decades since they got rid of the oppressive regime there have been many reputable architects that would be worth mentioning here.

But in a way, Souto de Moura and Siza serve as good examples to sum up the country's collective (and ongoing) struggle to achieve a new footing and self-perception. They both stand on the shoulders of Távora and have expanded on his take on modernism. However, they both had their own interpretation of his teachings and view on which direction they wanted their country to take.

Last updated: June 13, 2014

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