It must be a great time to be an architect in Lisbon – especially a conservation architect. As with other ports, such as Liverpool, Marseille, Bristol or Bilbao, culture and the leisure economy are driving a revival that has turned into a mini boom.
Unlike other southern European cities Lisbon has a unique semi exotic atmosphere due to its location on the Atlantic coast and an imperial heritage that dates back to the days of Vasco da Gama’s discovery of the sea route to India and its time as a maritime superpower.
We visited a few weeks ago and discovered a city playing the regeneration game with cranes everywhere (which is always a healthy sign). Funding is flowing in for projects that will allow Lisbon to compete at international level as a world city. Whether good or bad, gentrification is an almost Darwinian process of displacement and rebirth. Whilst displacement of existing activities and communities to outer areas is the inevitable result of the resultant higher prices, new development represents an opportunity for employment and wealth creation. In terms of the buildings, gentrification can be a good thing if it secures their economic future in a sustainable way and if they are properly conserved.
Fortunately the transformation taking place in Lisbon has come at a time when the importance of retaining the scale and physical fabric of the old city, with its tiled facades and slightly strange fusion of the classical European and Indian styles, is fully appreciated. This probably wouldn’t have been appreciated in the same way 20 or 30 years ago when the emphasis would have been on the economic rather than cultural contribution that buildings can make. Lisbon has been able to ensure that the best buildings and spaces of the waterfront, the city centre and the hilly, labyrinthine old quarters are being brought back to life although often for completely different purposes. Hopefully the slightly reclusive charm that makes Lisbon so special will be retained as well.