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View from Porto

Paulo Moreira’s modest redevelopment scheme in Porto is a telling example of the need for a more sensitive approach to regeneration

Porto’s historic core is a tableau dense with Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Neo-Classical buildings which drop, in a series of urban shelves and steep streets, to the north bank of the Douro river. Explored on foot or viewed, perhaps, from the retro-mod Portucale Restaurante 13 floors above the Rua da Alegria, the city centre’s sacrosanct UNESCO World Heritage Site status seems untouchable.

Not so. Two recent urban developments have ruptured the scene. The skewed geometry of the Praça de Lisboa, designed by Balonas & Menano and completed in 2013, clamped a concrete retail bunker on to an obliterated square within 100m of the iconic Clérigos Church and Tower by Nicolau Nasoni, and the conjoined Carmelitas and Carmo churches.

The latter is encrusted with Baroque details, while the front elevation of the Carmelitas church is quieter but stranger, caught mid-melt between the Classical and the Baroque. The Praça de Lisboa is a béton brut affront to these churches, and fundamentally alien to central Porto’s fabric.

Even more insidious is the Passeio das Cardosas development, designed by FA Arquitectos and completed in 2014. This flashy courtyard scheme in the Baixa quarter is bounded by historic terraces on two sides, and the back of the Intercontinental Palacio das Cardosas Hotel on the third.

It’s a DisneyPorto implant, worthy of a satirical deus ex machina script, in which a sophisticated contextualist - Cino Zucchi, say - is forced to do the design while suffering a severe psychoneural seizure.

The Cardosas scheme was led by the city’s Porto Vivo Urban Rehabilitation Society, supported by the then Mayor, Rui Rio. The planning approval process and private sector influence was occult enough to infuriate the national heritage watchdog, ICOMOS-Portugal, who said the scheme had not met UNESCO’s stipulations about new development in a World Heritage Site.

A few kilometres north of the city centre, in the Matosinhos district of Greater Porto - birthplace of Álvaro Siza - a small community lives in basic housing on an unstable shale hillside called Monte Xisto, which recalls the anarchic Jaywick community in Essex: Monte Xisto is close to the sea, and its ad hoc origins grew into what has been described as ‘an urban area of illegal origin’. In February, the young, historically sensitive Porto architect Paulo Moreira received funding for a regeneration scheme on a portion of Monte Xisto wrecked by a landslide.

Moreira’s scheme will provide better access, a basketball court enclosed by gabions filled with the rubble of housing destroyed in the landslide, a community garden, cafeteria, and new houses whose design will be a carefully contemporary take on the single-storey typology of Monte Xisto’s housing. Moreira aims to create ‘a kind of memorial of the history of the place’ that will begin to efface the shadow of Monte Xisto’s ‘illegal origin’, a phrase more applicable to the shiny new Passeio das Cardosas development. Porto Vivo may, or may not, have been Machiavellian in the way they hustled the scheme through. But they seem to have been architecturally ignorant in their approach. Regeneration is a must in a city short of money, in which only four per cent of buildings are in good condition and more than 20,000 properties stand empty. However, Porto’s USP is its superb historic character: one must hope the new politically independent Mayor, Rui Moreira, will be as ruthless with contextually crude regeneration proposals as Porto Vivo were in forcing through the Cardosas bling.

Lead Image

Regenerating an area devastated by a landslide, Paulo Moreira’s proposal for the hillside community of Monte Xisto is a carefully contemporary take on the area’s single-storey housing typology: tiled roofs, plastered walls and decorative gratings

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