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My kind of town

John Chamberlain

John Chamberlain explains why, despite all Lisbon’s problems, he just can’t stay away

Lisbon: Beautiful but blighted
Lisbon: Beautiful but blighted

We crossed Spain and entered Portugal by car from London in 1962. Five large architectural students squeezed into a mini! We chose a mountain road at night but were turned back by police. That was 50 years ago.

The scenic route south was eventful. It being Christmas, Lisbon was busy – but hardly Oxford Street busy. Lisbon’s location, its several hills, is magnificent; a city with a domestic scale, both scenic and strange. 

António de Oliveira Salazar’s dictatorship, isolated and discredited, hardly apparent, hid a subdued order, silent but noticeable. There were trams everywhere, clean streets and the characterful BMC cars, old taxis, and double decker buses. 

There were no shopping centres, no frenetic London scene, no Carnaby St, the fashion was conservative and classical. Then dark suits were de rigueur for the street or the cinema. The first invasion of pop culture caused a riot. Traffic direction was an art form, a ballet-russo from raised podiums at each intersection. People had favourites, gave presents as thanks at Christmas. The few cars were mostly guarded at home and just rolled out at the weekends. The city had a retro atmosphere.

I lived centrally, in a dilapidated working district, Barrio Alto, now chaotic, overflowing with youthful disorder. Streets had a night watchman… a key man, holding all the keys to the front doors . You whistled if you wanted your door open, even at 3am. 

Today, although the trams (and key men) have almost disappeared, the quaintness remains. A domestic street scene prevails but with an aura of dilapidation… 

Cinderella city

Now Lisbon is a Cinderella city, abused and dilapidated. There is a climate of concern, the economy is moribund and people apathetic. Compared to London’s well kept buildings, Lisbon seems neglected. Buildings need rehabilitation and its many squares are ill-used. Regal buildings lie empty, awaiting rent reform or economic improvement. The essential beauty of Lisbon is cloaked by this notable accidental decadence. Amazingly, against the odds, the atmosphere is one of expectancy. The rags to riches dream is the Cinderella syndrome of fantasy. The hope is for better times to come.

The modern veneer of commercial investment, hotels offices, newer cars, adds nothing very eventful or exciting. The ‘Baixa’, Lisbon’s 18th century core, is essentially the same – more international chains, fewer local shops, and an air of indifference prevails. More traditional shops close each day; they are in decline, as everywhere. There is a serious need for regeneration. 

Portugal’s capital city has suffered serious depopulation. In the 1960s a million people lived there but now there are less than 700,000 residents. On the other hand, tourists fill the esplanades, enjoying what is one of the best climates in Europe. Here they see this disorderly charm as a benefit, avoiding the frenetic commercialism of other cities. To the visitor, everything is cheap and the restaurants are full. But stray from the tourist routes and those empty buildings are everywhere. That’s when you see the other side, and visitors who stumble on it are suddenly aghast at the disorder.


Lisbon is magic. It has a human scale, variety, Gordon Cullen type townscape, superb urban places, dramatic views – see Alfama, the oldest part of city, from the Nº 28 tram route… still in use, but  just! The city is easily navigated, delineated by the extensive river front. But this is an eternal building site, where new development is still being discussed; Lisbon’s politicians discuss a lot.

Majesty and neglect

Seen from a ferry boat, Lisbon is majestic, its reddish evening hue, tiled roofs and low profile resplendent. There have been a few new buildings and renovations over the last decade but whole areas are blighted; the state prevaricates, it has other agendas. Buildings become family disputes; they have low rents and lack of money feeds neglect. Rehabilitation is needed but accounts for just 20% of building work, while new building has stopped.

The crisis in the Mediterranean peninsula has reached unheard of proportions for architects: a 70% reduction in employment opportunity, and record bankruptcy figures appear daily. In Spain most graduates are out of work and  building has halted. Emigration from Portugal has reached 1960s proportions due to the banking crisis.

Eduardo Souto de Moura has suggested emigration as a career move in Portugal. The prime minister states that it is an opportunity not to be missed! Souto de Moura has gone to Zurich to open an office and even Alvaro Siza is rumoured to be thinking of closing up here. Under Salazar in the 1960s, emigration was designed to reduce urbanisation, to reduce pressure on the regime and divert investment to industry. It was always a response to despair, a forced exile from rural poverty. Now every graduate requires a suitcase.

But now I am back in Portugal. After leaving to find work in the UK, I realised that I couldn’t stay away. After two years of practising in Cornwall and then London, the planning system and the replication demanded on renovation work in the UK, the need for a raincoat and the meanness of a bedsit wore me down. So I am back in the beautiful but blighted Lisbon. And hopefully, soon, things will change… hopefully.

John Chamberlain is an architect based in Lisbon.