Friday, November 15, 2013

Urban Figures (Lisbon)

Becket, November 15, 2013

Known as the "Baixa", literally meaning "lower town", the center of Lisbon's historic core sits on a narrow valley running north-south. To the east, the old Arab neighborhood of Alfama climbs up the hills of Sao Jorge and Sao Vicente. To the west, the neighborhoods of Chiado and Barrio Alto rise on top of the hills of Chagas and Santa Catarina (yes, yes, Lisbon is another city of seven hills, like Rome, Constantinople and a few others.)

In response to these steep slopes, Lisbon developed a number of ingenious and rather extraordinary forms of transportation, including several funiculars and elevators. Among them, the Santa Justa Elevator cuts a particularly memorable silhouette in the skyline of the city. Designed by the Luso-French engineer Raoul Mesnier du Ponsard and completed in 1901, the lift is a freestanding iron tower sitting on a set of wide steps a the end of the Rua de Santa Justa in the Baixa. Its slender shaft rises up to the level of Chiado, where it is crowned by a two-story lookout pavilion cantilevering on all sides. From that point, there is a bridge-like structure that connects the tower to the ruins of the Carmo Convent and the Largo do Carmo further west.

Visiting Lisbon in the early 1950s the great French filmmaker Agn├Ęs Varda took a number of beautiful photographs, among them one that shows two of Lisbon's legendary "varinas" balancing their characteristic baskets on top of their heads. Standing behind, the Santa Justa elevator seems to replicate the figures of the fishwives at a much larger, monumental scale, almost as a guardian angel for the city and its inhabitants.

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