Projects along Lisbon’s waterfront, which in recent years have transformed the city, are threatened by economic adversity. Report by Ana Milheiro.
Since Lisbon hosted Expo 98 – the world’s fair dedicated to oceans and their conservation – the city’s riverfront has become a hub of urban activity, a phenomenon that has only stagnated in the last few years with the onset of Portugal’s financial crisis. The legacy of Expo 98 took the form of a new urban district, the Parque das Nações, which was built in the eastern part of the city and included social and cultural facilities, apartments, offices and shopping – all supported by a substantial new road and rail infrastructure. Regardless of architectural quality – which, in some cases, is highly questionable – the built structures are mostly the work of commercial architectural firms, and the implementation of the plans has given rise to an open debate in Portuguese society about the quality of public space. A political programme for intervention in medium-sized Portuguese cities, named POLIS, was set up along the lines of the Expo 98 model with the objective of regenerating urban space through landscaping interventions.
The formula was established and Expo 98 become part of the mental map of the people of Lisbon, a synonym for quality and a wide-ranging offer of cultural facilities and green spaces. The recently completed Tejo and Trancão Rivers Park, for example, which was developed as part of this programme by landscape architect João Nunes (PROAP), provides some 90 hectares of open and tree-covered space on the banks of the two rivers just beyond the Expo site north of Lisbon, encouraging new habits in the way exterior spaces are used by the urban population. The intervention zone extended southwards for some 20 kilometres along the riverfront to the leaning tower of the Port of Lisbon Maritime Traffic Control Centre at Belèm (Gonçalo Byrne, 2001), configuring a linear, horizontal zone that passed through dense historic areas and expectant urban voids.
In response to the urgent and desired needs for transformation, in 2008 the urban management company Frente Tejo was set up by ministerial order using public capital. The founding document made reference to land management for the riverfront space, recovery of centrality (which meanwhile had been lost to more competitive peripheral zones) and the introduction of new mobility rules. The intervention area extended along the north bank of the Tagus, encompassing consolidated historic zones, such as the Baixa Pombalina district (the central gridded district built reflecting Enlightenment ideals after the catastrophic 1755 earthquake), Cais do Sodré (a rail and river transport hub), Santa Apolónia (rail terminus for the Lisbon-Porto line), as well as the more peripheral Ajuda/Belém zone (the area surrounding the Jerónimos Monastery, a Unesco World Heritage site since 2007, and the Royal Palace of Ajuda and other monuments). The current financial crisis and resulting lack of funding dictated the closure of the company in 2011, with few works completed but a number still under construction.
Frente Tejo left its mark in the form of highly ambitious architectural works, such as the Coach Museum at Belém, a commission awarded to Brazilian architect Paulo Mendes da Rocha in 2008, which is due to complete this year. The decision to build a new home for one of Lisbon’s most popular visitor attractions led to some debate as to the proposed design: a metal and concrete 12,000 square metres macro-structure parallel to the river, elevated on pilotis and facing an open square. Brazilian architecture would leave its mark on the city in a poetic exchange with Porto Alegre in Brazil, where Alvaro Siza completed the Iberê Camargo Foundation in 2008. But the main opposition to the project was to come, significantly, from museologists, with criticism of the exhibition criteria for the collection relegating architectural debate to a secondary level.
The monumental scale of the Coach Museum led to this public initiative being associated with a certain tendency towards carefree spending and a demagogic approach that was also borne out in newspaper reports. Criticism of the proposed paving design for Lisbon’s central waterfront piazza, the Praça do Comércio (Luís Bruno Soares, 2009), focused on Frente Tejo’s operating style, which was considered authoritarian and not open to public dialogue. The design ended up being modified in an attempt to assuage the critics.
More consensual was the headquarters of the European Maritime Safety Agency (Manuel Tainha and Alexandre Marques Pereira, 2006), commissioned by the Lisbon Port Authority. The design invested in a more conventional urban organisation, contextualising a new square open to the river. However, its originality lay in the fact that the programme was neither a cultural nor recreational type but that it contributed to diversity of use in the old port zones by maintaining existing production facilities.
A similar decision lay behind the construction of the Champalimaud Centre (2010) at Belém, an advanced research centre for the neurosciences and cancer therapies, a unique facility that has placed Portugal on a competitive level in the international field of biomedical research. The strong presence of a private initiative on a key waterfront site, something rare in the capital until now, makes this building, by Mumbai-based architect Charles Correa, doubly significant.
Many former port facilities have proved attractive for new users. The Museum of the Orient, for example, chose the 1940s Cod Trade Regulatory Board building for its new home (João Luís Carrilho da Graça, with landscaping by Gonçalo Ribeiro Teles). With the aim of installing the José Saramago Foundation in the celebrated sixteenth-century Casa dos Bicos, Lisbon city council decided to sponsor the remodelling of the 1983 postmodern design by Daniel Santa-Rita and Manuel Vicente. This is one of the most interesting projects in this group of ongoing works in Lisbon. Little by little a new skyline and a diverse and plural waterfront has emerged that has managed to retain original uses, such as the Cais do Sodré intermodal station (rail, metro and ferries) by Nuno Teotónio Pereira and Pedro Botelho (2009).
The sheer number of architectural and urbanistic projects has turned Lisbon’s waterfront into an experimental laboratory. But many schemes remain unrealised, not least the Central Municipal Library and Archives (Manuel and Francisco Aires Mateus, 2003), the cruise ship terminal (João Luís Carrilho da Graça, 2009) and the Ribeira das Naus (PROAP and Global, 2012). Other projects for new residential districts along the river, most by private developers and involving international figures such as Renzo Piano (Jardins do Braço de Prata, 2001), Álvaro Siza (Nova Alcântara masterplan, 2003, with Carlos Castanheira and Luís Mendes) and Norman Foster (Boavista/Santos, 2007), also remain on paper. Inevitably the financial crisis has stifled willingness to invest in such projects, and what construction activity there is on the waterfront today is on works that were begun some years ago with funding in place.
Ana Vaz Milheiro studied architecture at the University of São Paulo. She is currently a professor at Lisbon University Institute.
First published in AT225, February 2012