Best of Portuguese Architecture – My Top 10 (part one)

Written by  //  May 8, 2011  //  latest  //  3 Comments

Sometimes someone comes out with an opinion so contrary to your own that it provokes you to revisit the foundations of your beliefs.

I was at a BBQ the other day and was asked to explain my reasons for coming to live in Portugal. The English host took offence that one of my reasons was the “great architecture”. “What architecture?” he blustered, revealing not just a strong opinion, but just how many drinks ahead of us he was.

So, just in case I’ve somehow come to live in Portugal under false pretences, let’s take a tour of those “foundations” I mentioned…

1. Gare do Oriente

One of the major train stations in Lisbon. Its audaciousness reminds me of the Opera House in Sydney. Part space ship, part electric tree…and if train stations are your thing then feast your eyes on the restored 19th century neo-manueline Rossio station in Lisbon and the extraordinary tiled history of São Bento in Porto.

2. Avenida Infante Santo

This particular street is just one example of the juxtaposition of architectural styles in Lisbon. New/Old, Ornate/Modern, Renovated/Dilapidated. It’s a funky, bold, exuberant city. Lisbon was completely flattened by an earthquake in 1755, and much like many modern European cities it’s a mish-mash of styles and additions from the 18th-21st centuries. Lisbon just pumps with character, wherever you go, as every little neighbourhood has its own fierce personality.

3. Churches of Bom Jesus de Monte (Braga) and Santa Maria (Obidos).

Yeah I know, it’s two, but they are examples of the same thing. Small, not particularly significant churches with super-sublime decoration. Santa Maria is baroque and 18th century, and Bom Jesus neoclassical and 19th century. But what they have in common is almost every interior surface is decorated. You might think that the effect would be gaudy but it’s elegant and lovely.

Multiple patterns against pattern, it makes me speculate whether the harmony is inspired by genius or created by pure chance.

4. Mosteiro Santa Maria da Vitoria (Batalha)

She rises from a boring landscape like a gigantic hairy spider; this monastery is so much in contrast to the environment that it seems alive. It’s a radical, fantastic building that reminds me of the audacious Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. Except Vitoria was built in the 14th and 15th centuries (and the Sagrada still isn’t finished). It’s sharp and scary from the Gothic Style, and it’s curly and knotted in the Manueline Style. The interior is just gob smacking. Full on.

As a whole, it seems an imposing, serious building, but one of the secrets of Portuguese Ecclesial architecture is the funny little details. The stonework is full of cheeky little critters, alien faces and naughty mythical beasties. It’s playful. So un-churchy!

5. Kitchen at Alcobaça

The Mosteiro Santa Maria da Alcobaça is, like Batalha, an UNESCO world heritage site, and is also an awesome piece of work. My favourite bit is the kitchen, very simply finished with grey/white fired glass tiles and trimmed with blue and white azulejos. It has a elegant Moorish quality with long curved lines and an infinite ceiling.

The Cistercian monks who lived in the monastery and were famous for their culinary decadence. A stream from the local river diverts into a pool in the kitchen, providing a water supply and fresh fish! The massive fireplace and chimney could cook a small herd of cows.

Next week… part two…

3 Comments on "Best of Portuguese Architecture – My Top 10 (part one)"

  1. Rochelle May 12, 2011 at 6:58 pm · Reply

    I’ve been living in Portugal for less than 2 weeks and so far I’m in love with the architecture and I haven’t seen much of it yet! The difference between Lisbon and the Monsanto area is so great with the Moorish/Roman/Celtic influences in different places. The stone work is amazing. I don’t see how anyone couldn’t see how beautiful it is over here.

  2. Manuel April 9, 2012 at 10:23 pm · Reply

    I think that there are two places that you should visit :

    Convent of Christ in Tomar (about 100 Km north of Lisbon) .When the Order of the Temple was abolished by Papal decree (and many of its members executed) ,the only country where the Order survived was Portugal .The Portuguese ,great procrastinators they are ,just changed its name from the Order of the Temple to the Order of Christ and then it was business as usual .
    Its an amazing place with its octogonal church and and amid the most elaborated stone work you can imagine there are many secret symbols witch meaning still remain a mistery today.

    The second is Mafra Convent ( 50 Km north of Lisbon ).
    The Portuguese King was despairing for having a male heir and made a promise that if he was to be blessed with one he would then build a Convent bigger than anything the whole
    Christendom had ever seen .
    Obviously his wishes were granted and a massive building,that was at the same time a Convent ,Royal Palace, a prison and an army barracks was erected . No expenses were spared and for its twin bell towers were commissioned in Holland not one but two fantastic sets of bells (the King was not for saving his pennies…) .Sometimes they have concerts there and that’s something not to be missed .

    (Portuguese expat in England and British expat in Portugal ,seriously !)

  3. Alena/USA February 27, 2014 at 5:30 am · Reply

    I’m with you. I most definitely have been considering Portugal because of it’s architecture. Anyone who hasn’t notice it may be drinking their way thru life. Thanks so much! I appreciate your info.

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