Lisbon is situated in a particular geographic setting shaped by the hills of the Estremadura tableland and the large estuary of the Tagus River, the main symbol of Lisbon's architectural, economic, and political renewal. The ancient city is located just at the point where the Tagus joins the Atlantic Ocean: in fact, after a long journey of some 1,000 kilometers, the river ends in a delta surrounded by sandbanks that link the ocean to the Mar de Palha (Sea of Straw), a kind of tiny Mediterranean on the Atlantic coast. The river and the ocean are the main geographic elements that explain the economic and urban development of this city.
Lisbon can be considered a meeting point of various cultures. It is a place where many different architectures have always coexisted: the Baixa (downtown), the commercial space of the city, designed by right-angled boulevards in the 18th century, is perfectly connected with the irregular design of the Alfama, the medieval quarter. The Italian architect Vittorio Gregotti clearly points out that we can speak of structural characters in a country which, because it has strongly defended its national identity for almost one thousand years, has also been more capable than others of accepting, interpreting, and elaborating both the input from distant lands gathered by great navigators, and the Arabian, Spanish, Italian influences which followed. Each street has two backdrops, its own narrow perspective and a distant reference point, full of sunlight: the river, the facing hill, the dome of the church, the old palaces.
For these reasons, Lisbon is a singular place, one of hills, valleys, and slopes; of buildings made of plasterwork and tiles of blue colors (the so-called azulejos, which decorate ancient buildings); of streets paved with glasslike stone and basalt; and with a riverfront like a frontier, a symbolic space of arrival. Probably founded by Phoenicians, the urban development of Lisbon began in 205 B.C., when the Romans structured the first town along three functional points: the castle (the hill), the civic center (the slope), and the port (the riverfront). After the Romans, the Arab occupation, the Christian reconquest, and the age of the great discoveries all contributed to the city's evolution into the 20th century when multiple cultures and urban models coexisted.
It is evident that since the 18th century, the architectural history of Lisbon has been characterized by great urban plans that totally reoriented the city and underlined its strong relationship with the river and the sea. Even in recent years, since the end of the Salazar dictatorship (1932-74), Lisbon has undertaken deep transformations with many new architectures, from the smallest of designs to the largest infrastructural projects. This is a clear effort to bring the city into the new millennium; the traditional architectural models have been left behind for showing a new approach to contemporary architecture. Projects such as the Competition for Ideas for the Riverside Areas (1988), the project and construction of Belém Cultural Centre (1988-92), the Strategic Plan and Lisbon Master Plan (1990-94), and the World Exposition '98 in the eastern area prove this turnaround in that people consider Lisbon a riverfront city, as it was in the past.
The first significant project was the World Exposition '98 citadel (Parque Expo), placed in the northeastern area of the city on a five-kilometer riverside stretch on the Tagus that was an abandoned industrial area. The urban conversion of this large zone was one of the main aims of Expo '98: the great new infrastructures, such as the Vasco da Gama Bridge and the new railway station, allowed its perfect integration with the heart of the city. The World Exposition focused on the theme of the oceans and celebrated the Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama, who first discovered the sea route to India: another way to define Lisbon as a waterfront city on the Atlantic coast.
Expo '98 displayed different and brilliant ways of making symbolic architecture. A fascinating example is well represented by the high-tech railway station Gare Do Oriente, planned by Santiago Calatrava: glass and steel become a contemporary homage to Gothic structures. Other buildings, such as the Oceanic Pavilion (planned by P. Chermayeff of the Cambridge Seven Associates) and the Utopian Pavilion (planned by R. Cruz with Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill), are metaphorical symbols of the sea: the accurate design evokes waves, shells, and caravels. The Oceanic Pavilion, hosting the largest aquarium in the world, is the most spectacular building of the citadel. It is situated at the quay of Doca dos Olivais, in the heart of the Expo. Four stone towers surround the huge central tank housing the marine habitat. This building displays a particular architecture made of textured stone walls and a glass roof; the whole mass, rising from quiet waters, recalls a large ship. The Utopian Pavilion, too, with its particular design of an overturned caravel, evokes the vessels used in the past ages for the great discoveries. There's also a multifunctional covered stadium, suited for cultural and sporting events.
However, the architectural icon of Expo '98 is represented by the austere Portuguese Pavilion, planned by Alvaro Siza with Eduardo Souto de Moura. Built in front of the dock of the Tagus, the Portuguese Pavilion shows an extraordinary and unusual space configuration: the large outside place for ceremonial functions (the pavilion is to be the future home of the country's Council of Ministers) is designed by a curved concrete veil that is suspended at either end by steel cables. As opposed to many of the surrounding buildings, Siza chose a horizontal design, which better relates to the shore of the river.
In the western area of the city is the Belem Quarter, the ancient fortified port and a point of departure of cargo vessels. The magnificent Belem Cultural Centre (1988-93) is just situated in this significant area overlooking the Tagus, with some of Portugal's most important monuments, such as the 16th-century Monastery Dos Jeronimos. Planned by Gregotti, it is a large multifunctional citadel with an opera house, a concert hall, a museum, and a congress hall. The whole building is faced with rough limestone offset by white frames around entrances and windows. The internal spaces are part of a rigorous scheme that expresses a relationship with the external surrounding landmarks: the river, the large Plaça do Imperio, and the ancient monastery.
An earlier and significant intervention in the urban context of Lisbon is the Reconstruction Plan for the Chiado (1991-94) by Siza, considered one of the most remarkable urban developments currently taking place in Europe. The old Chiado is a transition zone between the Baixa, the urban area rebuilt after the earthquake of 1755, and the Bairro Alto, the most important commercial place in the city. In August 1988, a fire destroyed most of the ancient Pombaline buildings facing the three main roads of the quarter: Rua Do Carmo, Rua Garrett, and Rua Nova da Almada. The main purpose of the Restoration Plan was to preserve the historical and architectural value of this ancient district, respecting the original features of the buildings. Siza reinvents the architectural Pombaline language in a contemporary key: the facades reflect the simplicity of that age, austere and severe, with modular proportions and narrow balconies.
New public walkways, once closed by gates, have now reappeared and showed small, unexpected courtyards. Furthermore, Siza's actual work on the very large Baixa-Chiado Subway Station might be considered symbolic of the renaissance of this fascinating area. Besides, even the enlargement of the National Museum of Contemporary Art, now renamed Chiado National Gallery (1994), is a clear sign of the cultural and economic renewal of this old quarter. Founded in 1911 within the walls of an 18th-century convent and bakery, the museum now hosts a collection of contemporary art. The project was commissioned to J. M. Wilmotte. His intervention respects both existing structures but introduces a modern architectural language to enhance the exhibition spaces.
New materials, such as steel, stone, and glass, perfectly coexist with the brick of the ancient walls. Today, Lisbon is a capital where contemporary architecture is increasing. The strong economic expansion is supporting different projects even for educational areas, public green spaces, and housing. Furthermore, this great waterfront city always shows its beautiful old suggestions, and "near the river, where the land is flat, it sometimes reminds of Venice with its golden sunsets shading off into the fog" (Siza).
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