Nerve Centres: transformations in Lisbon and Porto

By Paula Melâneo and Inês Moreira

Cities are undergoing transformations, and the effects of these are easily visible when strolling through their centres, both in terms of the impact of their consequences and in the day-to-day difficulties and interruptions caused by construction work. Restoration and rehabilitation have become prominent subjects, making their way into everyday news pieces that explore new uses, new business opportunities and the rise of foreign visitors, as well as new concerns regarding property, real estate management and access to housing, all of which seem to be currently redefining the lives of many Portuguese citizens. Architecture, urbanism and real estate are sensitive elements of city centres, and in this second decade of the 21st Century, have become a source of concern for and about the lives of Portuguese people.  


Urban restoration is in full swing in both Lisbon and Porto, essentially focussing on the transformation of their centres into platforms that are equipped to take in (new) people, new uses and new businesses. After decades of building abandonment and the gradual draining of city centres, the short-term tourism of an international middle class, propelled by the declining costs of air travel and the appearance of low-cost companies, has become a catalyst for a transformation that would be hard to predict only 10 years ago — let us recall that the Porto PDM (Municipal Plan), published in 2006, did not predict the importance that tourism would come to represent.  


Following investment into public transportation systems, Lisbon and Porto’s public spaces now benefit from ambitious public projects, including the restructuring of the Tagus and Douro riverfronts, which have been sponsored by tourist income and licensing or by the boost in the real estate market, both of which have contributed to municipal treasuries. Adding to these developments are also the public/private interventions in large-scale infrastructures that bring new uses and urban vitality, such as the reconversion of traditional markets and palaces into gastronomical spaces, the reopening of old cinemas, the closing off of streets to automobile traffic, transforming them into pedestrian spaces with terraces for leisure and entertainment, both during the day and night. 


In addition to urban regeneration, the so-called rehabilitation of existing historic buildings, most of which are privately owned, is in full swing, with a frequent trend of converting residential or commercial uses into new touristic uses, both in terms of restaurants or accommodation, as well as short-term renting, which despite being for residential uses, is specifically targeted towards the tourism industry. Large-scale building rehabilitation is a new important territory for architects — most of which are trained to produce new creations and constructions — who are now faced with new questions and challenges. 


Today, architecture deals with the appreciation of existing patrimony, with interventions articulated with pre-existences and their surroundings, or even with the fixation of a certain historicism — in so many interiors and exteriors that create new “old” spaces. It is not rare for the professional ethics of architects to be in debate with the drive of the market: to preserve, adapt, renovate or demolish? 


Whether through the investments of private funds in symbolic buildings of the collective imagination, or even in entire blocks — such as the Diário de Notícias building in Lisbon, or the Banco de Portugal and the D. João I block in Porto —; or through European funding, such as the four and five star hotels in Porto (local government admits to having less access than the private sector); or through the application of small family investments, urban rehabilitation has become visible in the streets, squares and avenues of cities, marked by the continuous trepidation and noise of the pneumatic hammers and scaffolding that cover the facades that during years were adorned with “For Sale” realtor signs.




These ongoing transformations are controversial because this reality presents a certain complexity. With the investment and new opportunities that come from these circumstances, architecture has benefited from new projects, after the hard-felt years of the Troika intervention. Two questions are raised: rehabilitation, which is more delicate and subtle, differs from the project oriented work and type of construction that architects had become accustomed to at the end of the 20th Century; and the positioning in the face of a veracious real estate market and civilizational model for a regeneration that is oriented towards tourism, which in turn should also be the object of contemplation by architects, who are central to any great urban transformation. 


While the more official discourse about the success of these interventions has reached the public through the media, it is necessary to encompass more critical perspectives, which is why J—A #255 aims to incorporate already articulated criticism towards urban transformation, both by professionals that interrelate with architecture and the city, as well as those that live it. We also hear from architects that have studied and analysed these new phenomena. 


Launching the theme, in February 2017 J—A organized the debate “Porto (que) Sentido? Urban Transformation between identity and artifice”, introducing this edition to the public. Organized by Carlos Machado e Moura, Pedro Jordão and Alexandra Areia, members of the J—A editorial team, at the Teatro Rivoli in Porto, the debate brought together a wide range of speakers representing the gradient of positions, expectations and strategies in the face of these transformations, with the contributions of Pedro Baganha (architect and representative of the Porto Municipality), Gui Castro Felga (architect and urban activitst – The Worst Tours), Francisco Rocha Antunes (real estate developer from Capital Urbano), Jorge Garcia Pereira (architect, investor and builder), Nuno Valentim (architect with a significant rehabilitation portfolio), Maria Ramalho (archaeologist and representative of ICOMOS – Portugal), Pedro Bismark (architect, critic and editor of Punkto Magazine) and Elvira Rebelo (historian and representative of the DRCN – Direção Regional de Cultura do Norte). 


The debate is broad, from the real estate investor who seeks profit through investment, delegating the limitations of interventions (and demolition) in buildings to architects and municipal limitations, counteracted by the archaeologist and heritage that defend the use of traditional construction techniques; tempered by the pragmatic approach of the architect who serves the desires and capabilities of the market, and the architect who is a specialist in the integration of various periods and techniques into the rehabilitation of buildings that are still in conditions that allow for that type of intervention. Underlying the discussion was the strong criticism of the “mono-cultural” regeneration dedicated to tourism, which excludes local inhabitants and multiple uses. The debate also resulted in the realization of the need for a renewed auto-criticism of architects as citizens involved in city and societal politics, which is built through renovation, rehabilitation or demolition.




There is a plethora of different architectural approaches to the rehabilitation of material heritage, both in terms of the nature of the current landscape of historical buildings, and in terms of the programmes involved in urban regeneration. We therefore publish projects that go beyond the programmes dedicated to tourism — hotels, hostels, restaurants. We have decided to debate tourism and its impacts through critical texts, opinions and essays that approach broader concerns. 


We selected three projects that represent intentions that are geared towards different programmes, scales and users. The conversion of an island in Porto on Rua de S. Vítor, by Bernardo Amaral (BAAU), a traditional private complex for precarious social housing transformed into individual housing with the intention of fragmentation into temporary housing – where a group of small houses with patios bring a new qualification. The reconstruction of a collective housing building on Rua Rodrigo da Fonseca in Lisbon, by João Appleton and Isabel Domingos (Appleton & Domingos), which had a first rehabilitation project that was interrupted due to a fire, leading to a reconstruction of its interior with attention to the architectural genesis of the building. The rehabilitation executed by André Camelo and Miguel Ribeiro (CREA) of the old Silva Araújo school, a functional institutional construction with modest interiors, which was accommodated and prepared to become the new headquarters of the Porto Santa Casa da Misericórdia.




In this edition #255 of J—A we present the opinions of various authors about what it means to “rehabilitate the city today”. The vast array of responses finds moments of consensus in terms of criticism. Albeit through different perspectives and arguments, there is a crossover of ideas, and especially of concerns. 


We invited Pedro Bismarck to develop the ideas that led to the J—A debate in February, where he observes the direction taken towards the restructuring of city centres, impulsed by their various political and decision-making agents. Joana Braga, with António Brito Guterres, contribute through a presentation of Lisbon’s public space, observing the intervention strategies and discourses that formulate from its regeneration, with a special focus on historical significance. 


The J—A team presents a perspective of the exhibition A Lisboa que Teria Sido, as a pretext for reflection on the contemporary ways of seeing and intervening in cities; a critical observation of the responses that have begun to be implemented in the face of the need to increase the density of buildings in the centres of Lisbon and Porto; a reflection about architecture and heritage concerning interventions for the preservation of memory; and an interview and video that observe the technical aspects of demolition — a phenomenon that affects both Porto and Lisbon – by a company that choreographs and surgically empties buildings and blocks: Costa Almeida Demolições. 


Ana Jara and Lucinda Correia, from Artéria Arquitectura atelier, talk to us about the methodology to rethink the production of architecture, based on their research for the project Lisbon Skyline Operation. 


Communication designer Guilherme Sousa, who is part of the Lojas com História team in Lisbon, explains the programme and presents his opinion about the different contemporary concerns surrounding the idea of material and immaterial heritage. 


Pedro Figueiredo contributes with a photo-critical narrative of Porto, looking at the demolitions of the interiors of emblematic buildings, where only the facades are left to cover new luxury hotels, built with generous European financing. Letícia Carmo analyses the urban regeneration of Lisbon’s city centre through the introduction of new uses related to alternative cultures as the propelling genesis of gentrification processes.  


Rui Gilman looks at the rehabilitation of the Porto Hard Rock Café, standing as a corporate operation that transforms a building of services and offices into a space for restaurants, concerts and entertainment, in the middle of downtown Porto. 


In line with the theme of this edition, we also integrated a selection of drawings produced during the AsSalto initiatives in locations where transformation is imminent. ◊