Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Lisboa (Lisbon)

Praça da Figueira seen from the Castle
The framework of Lisbon’s urban structure is evident from the vantage point of the Castelo São Jorge, the Moorish Castle that caps the hill shared with the Alfama District. The cascade of rooftops ends at the banks of the Tagus River, wide and calm as it meets the Atlantic. The Bridge named “25th of April” is reflected in the Tagus; its silhouette is similar to San Fransisco’s Golden Gate, but it is more slender and miniature. 

The diagram of the city is the opposite of the two other Iberian capitals, Madrid and Barcelona.  Both of those cities have an organic and medieval core surrounded by the regular blocks of their “eixample” (Catalán) or “ensanche” (Spanish).  Lisbon’s core is a rational grid, though it lacks the chamfers of the other cities, and is surrounded by the organic fabric of both older and newer districts.

We try to imagine the scene in November 1755 when one of the strongest earthquakes to have been felt in Europe leveled the lower city, “Cidade Baixa.” Then the calm Tagus retreated and returned as a fierce tsunami, sweeping away thousands of people who had fled to the docks and open squares after the quake. The wave inundated the Cidade Baixa and piled debris onto the already liquefied earth. When the debris was cleared, there was an almost blank canvas in the lowest, flattest part of the city. Over the next few decades, King José I oversaw the planning and reconstruction of the Cidade Baixa. The labyrinthine plan of winding streets in the Cidade Baixa was replaced by a tight grid of wide streets (20-25’!), still narrow by North American standards. The blocks, though large and uniform for Lisbon, are also small by North American standards (230’ x 85’). Chiado and Alfama, with their thick-walled ancient buildings and crystalline bedrock, suffered less destruction than the Cidade Baixa. Therefore, they retained their Medina-like plans and street dimensions.

The Cidade Baixa’s buildings were the first to have seismic models built and tested before construction took place. Its waterfront square, the Praça do Comércio, is three-sided and opens to the Tagus. There is a monumental arch, on the north side of the square, which is the culmination of the Rua da Augusta, the central spine of the Cidade Baixa. It is the exceptionally wide street of the District, measuring 40’ building to building, and lined by buildings three to five stories tall, forming a section slightly taller than its width. The Rua da Augusta is anchored on its other end by the large square, Praça Dom Pedro IV, and its little sister, Praça da Figueira, which are separated by only one row of urban blocks.
Avenida da Liberdade
Praça Dom Pedro IV leads to one of the finest multi-way boulevards in Europe, the Avenida da Liberdade; Praça da Figueira points to Avenida Almirante Reis, not an really an avenue or boulevard at all, but a street that is wider and busier than its surrounding fabric. Both of the Avenidas converge on the Cidade Baixa.

Unlike the wider busier streets like Almirante Reis, many of the streets in the old city are curbless shared spaces. Drivers park opportunistically or where the subtle change in pavement color or perhaps a gap in the line of bollards says that they may. Most of these streets would not be considered to be serviceable by our giant fire trucks, though the occasional large vehicle moves through the old quarters at very slow speeds. The buildings are made with granite, clad with façades clad with glazed blue and white azulejos, and seem to be built with fire in mind. The streets seem to communicate the desired behavior to its users without many signs at all.

Descending from any of the sinuous alleys (called “becos” in Portuguese) the Avenida da Liberdade seems expansive and regular. There is a definite beginning, Praça dos Restauradores, and an end, the roundabout called “Praça Marques de Pombal.” The entire multi-way boulevard is only .7 miles long and has a subway line running beneath it. The boulevard has extremely generous side medians, which have a wide, paved promenade but also incorporate linear gardens, fountains, and reflecting pools. The side access lanes have one moving lane and two parking lanes, all of which are very narrow and slow-moving. The effect is that of an extended pedestrian realm which is occupies more of the r.o.w. than the central carriageway. The quadruple allée of trees in the side medians seems to remove the noise and intensity of the faster moving traffic in the center from the relaxed pace of the sidewalks and side access lanes. The buildings that line the Avenue range from 5 to 7 stories and feature styles as diverse as the polished tiled Lisbon vernacular, Neoclassical, Manueline Revival, Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and even a few modernist buildings to help us appreciate the enduring qualities of the neighboring older structures.

Leaving Avenida da Liberdade, the “Lisboeta” streetscapes convey information through changes in color, texture, and paving pattern rather than relying simply on signs, striping and high curbs to guide vehicles and pedestrians. Turning lanes or deceleration bays and the accompanying arrows are difficult to find. One may walk blocks and blocks without encountering many traffic signals, which are reserved for only the most intense intersections.

There is a variety of bollards, from simple spheres carved out of stone to more elaborate but diminutive iron ones capped with finials. Speed tables and textured intersections signal drivers to proceed with caution, especially where pedestrian traffic is heavy. Asphalt is used sparingly. While cobblestones are generally used to demarcate the carriageways, the sidewalks are paved in intricate black and white mosaics. These mimic the delicately tiled façades. The effect reinforces the notion that the street is a unified space that has a floor and walls, and which is scaled for the comfort and enjoyment of pedestrians.

The black and white patterns, especially the wave patterns, were replicated in many of the colonies, including Brazil. Rio de Janeiro’s sidewalk patterns are a direct descendant of Lisbon’s. The landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx later abstracted the Portuguese mosaics and evolved the identity of a Luso-Brazilian paving style. Burle Marx even had these designs installed along Biscayne Boulevard in Miami, though with American textured pavers, and without the intricacy and texture of the tiny Portuguese paving stones. Most recently, the latest block to be pedestrianized in Lincoln Road, just east of Alton Road, has returned back to the black and white Portuguese mosaic paving style. It is much more successful than the Biscayne Boulevard project due to its use of the original black and white Lisbon-style paving stones.

But in Lisbon, it is not only the paving pattern that rewards the pedestrian. On wider, busier streets with many pedestrians, one can find sidewalks that run for several blocks without being interrupted by the side streets. Drivers approaching the wide street from a side street must proceed onto a speed table, or steep ramp 6”-12” higher than the elevation of the side street. They drive very slowly, whether they are turning from the wide street onto the side street, or the inverse. Of course, turn lanes are rare in the center city, which helps to calm the traffic on the busier streets as cars queue behind the vehicle waiting to make the turn.  The visual effect from the pedestrian standpoint is a continuous sidewalk lacking curb cuts. This inspires confidence in the pedestrian and sends a signal to drivers that they are intruders onto the pedestrian realm and are briefly welcome provided that they are well-behaved.

There seem to be few cars for a city this size, but that is made possible by a public transportation network that weaves into the fabric of Lisbon. In addition to buses, there are at least five scales of electrified railway servicing the city. They are:

1. High Speed Rail. Though not as fast as France’s TGV or Spain’s AVE, Portugal’s intercity trains stop at the main train stations and connect to other large Portuguese cities such as Oporto as well as cities in Spain and France. Feeding into these train stations are both commuter railways and subways. Intercity and commuter railways are known as “comboios.” 

2. Commuter Railways. These trains feed into several stations distributed about the city. Trains go to the seaside town of Cascais, to the mountain retreat of SIntra, and to other towns along the Tagus. Within the City limits of Lisbon, these trains have more frequent stops and are used like a subway. 

3. Subway. There are several lines that follow the main corridors that radiate from the core of the city (Cidade Baixa) and the Port. These all have transfer points with larger train stations and tram and bus terminals. 

4. Streetcars. There are sleek, articulated street cars that glide along several large streets in the city center. 

5. Trams (known as “eléctricos”). Trams are charming, single-vehicle, antique trains that are integrated into the streetscape in unexpected ways. Tracks cross lanes of traffic, public squares, and may even move onto and off the sidewalks. Cars are short, narrow, and light, compared to modern streetcars, enabling them to navigate the medieval fabric and challenging slopes of the old city.

Though we appreciate all of the different trains, we look for excuses to ride the trams. We stand at the spacious rear of the tram, which feels like a bay window. On the tighter curves we are worried that the tram may scrape a building. Though the streetwall is solid and tall, we know from our visit to the castle when we looked down on the city that there are generous gardens behind some of these doors. A loquat tree in bloom is withholding its fruit until the orange trees have been picked. The fruits of Africa, Brazil, and Asia have joined the European fig and olive trees in the gardens of the Alfama. All of these fruits are arranged in neat boxes in a produce stand in the main square of the Graça neighborhood.

The tram driver has paused at the turnabout here in order to pick up passengers. While we wait, we can catch the smell of kale soup, bacalhau à Brás, and chouriço being prepared, the clang of a simmering copper cataplana, or a verse of Fado music drifting down from the upper floors. Is there a more exhilarating trolley ride than Number 28, between the Chiado’s Largo de Camões and ancient Alfama? Judging from the conversations overheard on the tram, it seems as if all of the different colonies visited by the navigators have begun to return to colonize Lisbon.

The tram’s interior is varnished wood on both the benches and the floor. Outside are glimpses of the Tagus River. The echoes of centuries of Arab culture are discernible in the jagged outline of Castelo de São Jorge looming above the Alfama. On the tram we can hear the distinctive accents of two African gentlemen talking. One is from Angola, the other from Moçambique. Or is the accent from Cape Verde? But at the next stop, a student from Macau or Goa or East Timor may climb aboard. The senses are awakened by the life brought close to us by the dimensions of the streetscape and by a shared journey in this agile yellow tram.

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