My Kind of Town: Lisbon is an expression of its inhabitants’ relationship to craft and place
I have written before that people have a tendency to see cities through the prism of buildings, and architects more so than most, but that is to misunderstand an essential truth, that the real city is made not of concrete but flesh.
My first visit to Lisbon was in June 2004. Euro 2004 was in full swing and England wAS doing rather well. My nine-year-old son Josef was (and still is) obsessed with football, so on a last minute impulse I obtained black market tickets to the England-Portugal quarter-final. I made a rendezvous with a white-suited ticket tout in a grand Lisbon hotel lobby who said I could choose to sit with the English or Portuguese fans. I opted for the Portuguese section. It was a match full of drama: Rooney broke his toe, it went to extra time and Beckham slipped in the penalty shoot-out. We lost. Josef was inconsolable but it was the moment when I fell in love with the city and people of Lisbon. Seeing how upset we were, a number of Portuguese fans jumped over seats, comforted Josef, gave him scarves and caps, and told us we had played brilliantly before hugging me – and suddenly the result felt right. As we made the long walk back to our hotel located on one of Lisbon’s seven hills, the atmosphere was electric. The entire city was high on elation.
People have a tendency to see cities through the prism of buildings, but that is to misunderstand an essential truth: the real city is made not of concrete but flesh”
The geography of the place is beguiling: those seven hills reveal dramatic vistas at every street corner, the Tagus estuary promises so much and you can literally see the line at which the river becomes ocean. Lisbon’s position on the edge of Europe has shaped its identity, its exquisite architecture, its cuisine and it has historically defined the sensibility of Lisboetas. Rather than being mired in European affairs, they have always looked outwards, towards the sea, towards Africa and South America. It is perhaps this inquisitiveness and openness that means no one really hates the Portuguese –a little local rivalry with the Spanish notwithstanding.
In 2011, we were commissioned by the EDP Foundation to design the Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology (MAAT), in the Belém district – from where the great explorers set off – on a spectacular, south-facing riverfront site.
And so began a number of trips to Lisbon. I started to understand the city as an expression of its inhabitants and their relationship not only to the sea but also to craftsmanship: the unique calçada pavements or the azulejos, the predominantly blue-and-white ceramic tiles that decorate countless walls of everything from churches to bars. Lisbon is high-octane, relaxed, tolerant and affordable, its climate is sublime and it has the best seafood in the world.
They have always looked outwards, towards the sea, towards Africa and South America. It is perhaps this inquisitiveness and openness that means no one really hates the Portuguese”
On one trip I discovered Sole Pesca, a former fishing tackle shop which had been turned into a tiny, vibrant restaurant serving only tinned seafood. What started as lunch quickly became an idea, and eventually a new project, Tincan, our 2014 pop-up restaurant in Soho.
On subsequent visits, I presented our project to the mayor of Lisbon as part of the planning process. The first meeting took place in the historic and palatial City Hall in Baixa, a building so sumptuous and grand I couldn’t resist taking dozens of pictures while I waited. Our second presentation was at a completely different address. I asked the newly elected mayor, Antonio Costa, why the change of venue? He explained that Mouraria was once a hugely problematic district, which in spite of a huge number of initiatives and significant public investment had failed to change for the better. So he decided to lead by example, moving his office and his team – and all the security that goes with it – out of the palace and into refurbished warehouses and factory buildings. Almost overnight, the drug and prostitution problems disappeared (or at least moved elsewhere) and Mouraria is now a flourishing and diverse neighbourhood. In 2015 Costa was elected as Portugal’s Prime Minister. Now this is the kind of mayor I want for my town.