Open House launches in Lisbon- my amazing day

Saturday 6th October 2012 was a big day for Lisbon: the launch of the city’s first Open House. This annual weekend which throws open the doors of places of architectural interest to the public, free of charge, started in London in 1992. I brought it to the Portuguese capital as an idea to address the disconnect between the architectural community and the public. The Lisbon Architecture Triennale liked it so much, they not only ran with it, they appointed me Curatorial Consultant. Together, we built a program with 54 locations, a package of guided tours and participation by leading Portuguese architects, a terrific guide book and not least an army of heroes in the volunteers we recruited to supervise places. Our public awareness campaign went national on TV and press. All was set- all we needed now was for people to turn up!

Here’s how the Saturday went for me.

The first Open House tour gathers in the Águas Livres apartment block lobby

Just before 10am on a cloudy morning, I strode up to first Open House destination, the pioneering Águas Livres Apartment Block, a handsome 10-storey 1956 building. With me were Manuel Henriques, executive director of the Trienalle, and Victoria Thornton, Open House founder, director of Open-City and head of Open House Worldwide, which now spans about 20 cities. Although built by an insurance company, the Águas Livres block shares much of the Modernist vision of 1950s social housing seen in projects like Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation in Marseilles, or Leslie Martin’s Roehampton Estate in London. High-density multi-storey housing design may have produced nightmare sink estates in the 60s and 70s, but in the early days design standards were strong, still driven by ideals about light, space and community. From the moment I stepped in the airy Águas Livres lobby, I could feel it – light flooding through a long wall of glass, a balcony corridor floating above a communal area, walls of wood and stone, and not least, modern art integrated into the very building. Equally wonderful, we were in the presence of its original architect-  Bartolomeu da Costra Cabral, who designed it with Nuno Teotónio Ferreira. A small crowd was gathering, including Fernando Sanchez Salvador, local Open House Curatorial Consultant, and Patricia Marques, performer of miracles as Lisbon Open House’s organiser. When Da Costa Cabral started talking, his distinguished voice spoke across six decades. I don’t mind admitting I felt quite awe-struck!

Architect Bartolomeu da Costra Cabral with your correspondent Herbert Wright

The block is well preserved and inside it exudes a cool 1950s style. Everywhere, design is efficient and enlightened. Even the service entrance had a stone relief in the wall beside it. Why not? Art is for everyone. Upstairs, we entered a flat with amazing views, the balcony angled from neighbours for privacy. Attention was drawn to details like the metal window frames, storage spaces up by the hallway ceilings, and wooden floors built on cork for sound insulation. This is real design for life. Da Costa Cabral had one more level to show us- the communal penthouse level. He’s a sprightly fellow, and shunned the lift for the external stairs! We stepped out into bright sunshine on its generous patio, high above the jumble of Lisbon around Rato and the aqueduct on one side, and level with the whimsical 1980s PoMo towers of the Amoreiras complex on the other side. What a view- and what a privilege to share it with Da Costa Cabral himself.

The Etar de Alcantara waste processing plant lies under a green roof planted with local species

The next stop could not be more different- a sewerage-processing plant called Etar de Alcantara (2011) designed by Manuel Aires Mateus. Different not only in use and location- stretched along an urban expressway beside the great Monsanto Forest Park, where road and rail flyovers arc into the sky towards the 25 Abril Bridge- but also in style. The entrance is cut into the concrete wall of a bunker set behind a brushed steel grid fence (an element perhaps to deter grafitti- a housing estate just to the south was once a notorious narco-market no-go zone). A long sloping concrete channel, like a storm drain, leads us to a glass wall on one side, and a grass slope rising opposite it. Climbing the slope, we see how the vast complex is covered by a great and varied spread of hardy plants that fill the air with herbal aromas. This green roof, by Frederico Valsassina, virtually renders the complex invisible from above. Crossing to the offices, we enter a strangely sterile world of pure white. Along an endless corridor lie blank rooms behind white doors. As if it wasn’t already ultra-clean enough, hand sterilisers are located here and there. If Stanley Kubrik’s 2001 had had an Earthbound location, this could be it.

Fernando Sanchez Salvador, local Open House Curatorial Consultant, at the Etar de Alcantara

Patricia had worked with the Aires Mateus team and doesn’t understand why I’m silent about it. As we leave, a waste truck enters, the vehicle entrance opens and a whiff of shit wafts out from the building’s interior. It’s only later, reflecting, that I get it- the synthesis of the long concrete channels and clinical-minimalist interiors is a calculated, cool and brilliant response to its function, the green roof literally topping off a conceptual tour-de-force.

We broke for lunch before the next stop, then walked across the scratchy park by the Torre de Belem to our next stop. Patricia, ever on the case, was fielding reports  from across the city- Lisboa Open House locations were busy! When we reached the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown (2010), a large biomedical research institute and treatment centre by the Tagus river, we could see that for ourselves. Despite our VIP party, we’re told we’ll have to wait hours to get a tour.

Your correspondent Herbert Wright explains the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown at a model in its main building

Hmph! Last year, I’d met Champalimaud’s great Indian architect Charles Correa in Mumbai, and then visited the centre to write a feature about it. Was I going to pass by on the place now? No way- I’ll conduct a tour myself! I gather my party and expain how Correa’s first major work was opened by India’s first prime minister, and about his twin influences of Modernism and sacred Hindu architecture. Standing around a model, we see his idea of ‘three stone ships in a granite sea’. The first is the main building we’re standing in, and we pass through a 19m-high glass wall into its spectacular open-to-sky internal garden, with great egg-shaped apertures in its wall.

A great glass screen separates the Champalimaud reception from the enclosed garden

We continue, out to walk beneath a glass bridge over the 125m-long axial path between it and the second ‘ship’, the administration building. The path echoes Louis Khan’s Salk Institute and leads to two concrete columns, an enigmatic water sculpture, and the Atlantic beyond. There is a metaphysical quality here, and it captures the ‘genius loci’ of the place- this is where Portugal’s Great Navigators sailed out into the unknown. The third ‘ship’ is the sun-drenched amphitheatre- I’m glad to see evidence of skateboarders there. Fernando comments that there is a de Chirico sense to the place- I readily concur, and I also see Dalli’s soft shapes in the great curved openings that punctuate the limestone buildings. My tour ends outside one 14m across, the auditorium’s window, which had to be glazed with acrylic by the same team that did Lisbon’s aquarium.

Cassiano Branco and Pardal Monteiro cartoons in the new Aeroporto Metro station

I’m a big fan of Art Deco, and Lisbon has a veritable feast of it. Its two greatest local practioners were Porfirio Pardal Monteiro, whose work I would explore on Sunday, and Cassiano Branco. (Cartoons at Lisbon’s new Aeroporto Metro station show them- Monteiro, on the right, and Branco, who would not work with the right-wing authoritarian Estado Novo regime, on the left). The  Hotel Vitória (1937) on the grand Avenida de Liberdade is one of Branco’s greatest masterpieces. We find the place thronged by young people holding the green Lisboa Open House guide. We have brought these people out to celebrate the city, and here they are, patient and keen!

Your correspondent Herbert Wright with the crowds waiting to enter the Hotel Vitória

The Hotel Vitória

The Hotel Vitória was a nest of Nazi spies during World War 2. Now, it’s the Communist Party HQ, who of course have everything under strict control. We edge into the entrance, where a telephone booth looks something in a Raymond Chandler novel, and we’re parked in the café, where the Party have prepared excellent displays about the building. It’s an hour’s wait for the tour led by António Olaio. He leads us out to look at the facade, which combines the clean solidity of Modernism with the lyrical playfulness of Art Deco, then at last up into the building. What a contrast to the showy exterior- faded rooms bare of detail and colour. But the roof terrace, with its wonderful pergola and top-most circular balcony, is magnificent in the warm evening sunshine.

A few blocks away is a building I had been particularly looking forward to- the Igreja do Sagrado Coraçao (1970), a radical Brutalist church by Nuno Teotónio Perreira (co-architect of the Áquas Livres block).

Igreja do Sagrado Coraçao (Church of the Sacred Heart)

But the light was fading, making its angles and layers in heavy concrete dark and broody. The public passage cut down and under the church felt gloomy and sinister. Furthermore, a mass was underway to a congregation depleted by urban flight and age- it seemed rude to disturb it. Patricia and I descended to the crypt, a miss-mash of concrete surfaces including breezeblocks and wooden saints that felt uncomfortable with it. I felt oppressed. Perhaps my judgement is harsh- the church interior with its spatial drama deserves a look another time.

Patricia and Jorge confer in the Aires Mateus home

It was night when we reached the Home of Sofia & Manuel Aires Mateus (2006), within an eighteenth century building between the Baixa and the Cathedral. In the darkness, a queue rose up the street as if for a cool ‘in’ club. Inside is one of the most amazing residences I have ever seen. A labyrinth of vaults and passages on different levels, all striped to stone or plastered white, it felt like a dream- a sort of underground art gallery and archive woven into baron’s castle quarters made contemporary.

Dining space

Night in the garden of the Aires Mateus’s

I sit by a wall of books and talk with volunteer Jorge, who takes me on a brilliant personal tour, down into the deep cellar that was once a cistern, into the new extension of bedrooms, out into the garden with views to the river. I am blown away. The more I see of Aires Mateus’ work, the more I realise what an extraordinary command he has with spaces in odd places, and light within them… even underground. It is almost nine, and still, people are surging in.

Hungry, tired and saturated with eye-opening architecture, we emerged. Lisbon’s first Open House had been a fantastic success. And tomorrow, there would be more.

About herbertwright

I am a London-based writer interested in art, architecture, the future and more. I am the author of three non-fiction books. Published articles online appear on
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