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On Unstable Ground: Pombaline Architecture in Portugal's Capital




Amongst Lisbon’s seven hills, the only thing more notable than the burning in your calves are the colourful facades of the buildings that line the streets of neighbourhoods like the Alfama. The streets are steep and narrow, intersecting with one another in a twisted manner. Hand painted tiles decorate the buildings and patterned calçada pave the ground beneath you. A place of unique design, the intrigue of Lisbon’s architectural landscape is more than what’s on the surface.


In stark contrast to the colour and details of the Alfama is the Baixa, Lisbon’s downtown neighbourhood that hosts shopping streets and large plazas. The streets of the Baixa are wide, easily accommodating heavy foot traffic of tourists visiting historic buildings and sights. The difference in style is more than an aesthetic choice. The area’s Pombaline style comes from a long history of destruction and power that shaped the Lisbon we know today.



Man versus nature

On the first of November 1755, as residents celebrated All Saints Day, Portugal was struck by an unprecedented seismic event. One of the largest earthquakes in history reverberated from its epicentre in the Atlantic ocean, concentrating its impact on Portugal’s coast. Not only was Lisbon’s downtown area the focus of the earthquake, but a subsequent tsunami doubled down on the destruction of the southern region. While some areas were spared, Lisbon’s central district was demolished, and the destruction did not end there. The chaos of the earthquake and tsunami paved the way for a fire, perhaps sparked by celebratory All Saints Day candles, effectively destroying what was left of the Baixia area’s infrastructure.

Under the rule of the first Marquis of Pombal, Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, and the design of his military generals, the Pombalino Plan was enacted. In order to rebuild the city as quickly and efficiently as possible, the engineers started a structurally robust building and design system to ensure Lisbon’s Baixa could withstand any future disasters. Main streets were highly regulated, the height of buildings and width of the streets became standardised, and the neighbourhood was organised into a uniform grid. The buildings themselves adopted an inner grid or, [i]Gaiola Pombalina[/i], along with outer stone walls and flexible wooden beams that allowed buildings to withstand potential seismic movement. Decorative additions to the outer facades and the use of [i]azulejo[/i] tiling was limited as well. Due to the expedited reconstruction time and the need to distribute funds as efficiently as possible, the outer facades of the buildings were allocated hierarchically, the more elaborate facades adorning only the most prominent buildings on main streets. This systematic ranking of buildings and reordering of Lisbon’s central neighbourhood reflects how Pombaline architecture came to be characterised by logic, standardisation, and order.


The legible city

The reconstruction of Pombaline Lisbon is regarded as a feat of innovation, yet the motivations behind the plan were not solely because of the disaster. The reconstruction was integral to rebuilding Portugal’s economic standing and maritime power, as well as for the Marquis of Pombal to assert his own power as a government leader. As much as Pombaline architecture was an achievement for Portugal’s national image and Lisbon’s wellbeing, the style was not embraced without criticism.

The standardised approach to city planning was a marker of Enlightenment thinking and ideas of utopian city design and urbanism that were prevalent across Europe and the United Kingdom throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. For cities that adopted standardised urban planning systems, these changes reflected an attempt to control wider social or environmental factors. For some cities like London or Edinburgh this was sanitation and disease, while for Lisbon it was control over natural phenomena. Anthropologist James Scott understands state plans for order and standardisation make a society more ‘legible’, and thus, more easily governable. Such broad state planning systems may therefore overlook complexities within local communities and impose a specific kind of power and order, regardless of pre-existing social systems. Additionally, the aesthetic style of Pombaline Lisbon can be seen as lacking in stylistic innovation, despite the important structural advancements the Pombaline style represents.

The rationale of Lisbon’s reconstruction is justified by the extreme circumstances under which authorities and architects were forced to adapt to. While undeniably effective, the standardised approach reflects the values and ideologies of the time. Enlightenment thinking prioritised innovation and progress, thus the triumph over nature and Lisbon’s unstable seismic geography was seen as such. Architecture itself comes to show how we exert power over the land and cities we reside in, and ultimately how these processes are situated in particular historic and socio-political contexts.



The ‘modern’ city

Considering Pombaline architecture’s significance within Portugal’s history and as an aesthetic attraction for visitors, proponents of Pombalino Lisbon’s cultural value have petitioned for the Baxia to become an official UNESCO world heritage site.

Fans of Pombaline style reference the rich history behind these neighbourhoods and Lisbon’s history as a global power, going so far as to call Lisbon the ‘first modern western city’. A claim as such raises questions as to what modernity means for a city. Understanding Pombaline Lisbon as a particular product of economic and political power as well as state control over its land and population lends to the understanding that Pombaline Lisbon’s historic status has been constructed and maintained by people in power. The interconnections between Pombaline architecture and power go beyond even Lisbon and the Marquis de Pombal himself. Pombaline style itself can be seen in Portugal’s former colonies like Brazil, where schools were established for training military engineers in the style. Minas Gerais, Brazil even hosts its own architectural UNESCO World Heritage Site. The transmission of knowledge and building practices in the colonial era can be connected to the idea of spreading modernity and establishing power. As much as technical advancements and aesthetics may be appreciated, the complex history of these practices gives insights into the way that global power relations shape our everyday lives.



Walking through Lisbon’s streets, the city’s unique design is impossible to miss. The diversity of architecture and rich historical background draw visitors in, allowing them to question how the very ground beneath their feet has come to be. In spite of an unstable history, Pombaline Lisbon remains a fascinating and complex artefact of Portugal’s history. The city is a dynamic being, shaped by the people and power who define it and, in turn, changing the way we think and organise ourselves in relation to our environments.





Streamers:

Pombaline architecture was an achievement for Portugal’s national image and Lisbon’s wellbeing, the style was not embraced without criticism.


Pombaline Lisbon’s historic status has been constructed and maintained by people in power.



As much as technical advancements and aesthetics may be appreciated, the complex history of these practices gives insights into the way that global power relations shape our everyday lives.


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