A few years ago someone gave me a book called The Art of Azuleyo in Portugal (1988). It is illustrated mainly in black and white and not very exciting, but right at the back is a short chapter entitled Modern Tiles. It seemed there had been a significant revival of interest in architectural tiles in the 1950s that had resulted in some major public projects. The illustrations included two enormous panels by Maria Keil and Rolando Sá Nogueira for a public housing development in Lisbon built in 1959. Each murals covers a wall that supports a terrace two storeys above the street level and across which a flight of stairs runs diagonally. The author described the Keil piece as ‘one of the most monumental works of ajuleyos in Portugal.’ The design is particularly striking in the way it utilises and incorporates the treads and handrails of the stairs within itself.
Visiting Lisbon this spring, I made it my business to find time to locate these murals (the text mentioned a third by Júlio Pomar and Alice Jorge). I had of course done a bit more homework by now and established that there were four panels and that the were placed between five large blocks of flats on the Avenida Infanta Santo, a steep hill climbing away from the Tagus about half way between the centre of Lisbon and the tourist attractions of Belem. It is a residential suburb made up mainly of large blocks of flats and well off most visitor’s track.
As I do, I got off the tram at the wrong stop and had to work my way through the back streets, emerging onto the Avenida Infanta Santo about a quarter of the way up from the water. The Avenida is principally made up of large blocks of flats and is fairly charmless but the development of five great blocks at the crown of the hill lifts it with its self-confident boldness, and its two-tone pink paint. They were built between 1954-1959 and designed by architects Alberto José Pessoa, Hernâni Gandra and João Abel Manta. Le Corbusier inspired, they stand on slim legs at right-angles to the street and raised three storeys above it. Beneath them, two-storey shop units cut into the slope behind. On top of the shops, a terrace level steps down by stages as the flats descend the hill. The shops occupy two thirds of each street front, the other section being a retaining wall carrying a stairway to the upper level. The four retaining walls carry the tiled murals.
The four panels are linked by a broad theme of Portuguese culture and the relationship with the sea. Maria Keil’s panel ‘O Mar’ (The Sea) is at the top, its flickering diagonals making sails merge with the horizon and the waves with the structures of the wall and the stair. It is quite splendid. Sa Nogueira’s panel at the lower end takes the same subject in a more conventional and illustrative way. The row of lads sitting on the jetty are a nod to Keil’s awareness of the 3-dimensionality of the site. The third panel by Júlio Pomar and Alice Jorge illustrates the peoples of the Portuguese empire in a rather instructional way, kept apart from one another by irregular bands of paler tiles.
The artists commissioned were from a variety of backgrounds and included painters, printmakers and illustrators. Maria Keil was the one for whom architectural space was perhaps most natural and she was also responsible for the interiors of many of the Metro stations in Lisbon built in the 50s and 60s. Seeing the four together it is clear that she is able to think on a large scale and use and manipulate the architectural space with a confidence the others couldn’t match. I am so pleased I went to see them. If I am back with my students next year, I will endeavour to get them up the hill.
Nogueira’s panel is in poor condition but apparently a programme of restoration has been going on and damage to the others has already been repaired. Whilst these artists and their work are not well known outside Portugal, it is clear that they are appreciated here – despite my feeling intrepid and ‘off the beaten track,’ my visit was disturbed by a City Sightseeing open-topped bus.
In 1993, it appears that an additional staircase was added at the bottom of the hill and a new panel was commissioned from Eduardo Nery.
Setting off down hill to find the tram back to town I was not expecting to see any more art but… see 20th Century Tiled Murals in Lisbon Part 2 Eduardo Nery.
Meco, José, 1988. The Art of Azuleyo in Portugal. Portuguese Glazed Tiles. Bertrand Editora.