Thursday, December 27, 2012

Ten Cities 10) Lisbon

Becket, December 27, 2012

"Lisbon is destroyed and they dance in Paris!"
(Voltaire, "Poem on the disaster of Lisbon", December 1755)

The great earthquake of 1755 not only left Lisbon in ruins but also shook Europe's philosophical foundations to the core.  In his letter protesting Voltaire's wholesale loss of faith, Rousseau argues that Lisbon's earthquake was, more than anything else, an indictment of the city: "... concede, for example, that it was hardly nature who assembled there twenty-thousand houses of six or seven stories."

By contrast, the Marquis de Pombal, King Joseph's prime minister, took the disaster as an unique opportunity to build a newer, better city.  Mountains of debris were quickly replaced by new buildings with seismic timber structures, and medieval streets gave way to a regular pattern of rectangular blocks.

The Baixa Pombalina (Pombal's Downtown) is an uncompromising but nuanced grid running between the grand square--Praça do Comércio--at the edge of the Tagus River and a reconfigured Rossio square to the north.  The blocks are rectangular, most of them elongated in the north-south direction.  But look carefully and you'll notice that the lower blocks are oriented in the opposite direction, creating a distinction between the commercial area around the Praça do Comércio and the more residential area to the north.  In turn, this change of orientation creates an elaborate pattern of distinctive streets and avenues, some dead-ending on the transversal blocks and others with open views to the water.

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