One of the founding fathers of Portuguese modern architecture, Alvaro Siza Vieira, once said that tradition is a challenge to innovation.
However, it’s clear that the distinctive cobblestone streets and elaborate tile murals of Lisbon and Porto, Portugal’s first and second cities, have not been able to smother the flames of architectural innovation and design emerging in the country.
Some of Portugal’s most striking buildings are the ones not featured in tourist brochures. But international travellers are taking notice, and the country’s modern architecture is increasingly becoming a draw for those craving a more local and cultural travel experience.
As the country largely rebounds from the severe economic crisis from 2010 to 2014, so, too, has the tourism industry. The economic recovery has been buoyed by an entrepreneurial arts and design scene that has led design magazine The Spaces to ask if Lisbon is competing with Berlin as Europe’s coolest city.
To understand where the country’s modern architecture scene started, it’s important to look at the pioneering work of Siza, whose designs were less utilitarian buildings, more sculptures with functional spaces hidden within.
One of his best-known projects, the Boa Nova Tea House, has been transformed into a seafood restaurant, Casa da Cha de Boa Nova. The original teahouse was completed in 1963, one of Siza’s first projects and not far from Matosinhos, the town where he grew up.
Despite its national heritage status, the teahouse had fallen into a state of disrepair until Siza partnered with renowned chef Rui Paula to rechristen it as a seafood restaurant.
Driving along the seafront in the town of Leça da Palmeira, 20 minutes outside Porto, you might miss the iconic restaurant, its slanted red terra-cotta tiled roof and white plastered masonry disappearing into the boulders.
That’s no accident: The building was designed to blend into the natural landscape, to melt into the cliff face overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.
Descending the stairs inside, one emerges into an impressive west-facing dining room, framed by a floor-to-ceiling pane of glass that offers an unencumbered view of the waves crashing against the jagged rocks.
The windows are designed to disappear into the floor, allowing one to walk from the dining room onto the concrete patio and right out to the cliff’s edge. Despite its clean lines and minimalism, the 40-seat dining room feels cosy and inviting, thanks to the warm glow radiating from the red-coloured Afizelia wood sourced from Africa.
As a friend and I sat down for the seafood tasting menu, we were offered an aperitif of Porto tonic, made with white Port and fresh lime.
I have to admit I am not a food critic, but I couldn’t come up with a critical word if I tried. Each dish was meticulously executed, presented on a plate custom-designed to complement it and paired with a selection of Portuguese wines.
Some of the highlights of the tasting menu included: an amuse bouche of shrimp guacamole served in a small rose, salmon crème fraiche tucked into a thin and crisp cone, a tender octopus salad and a tart and peachy dessert so delicately plated it mirrors the clean lines of the restaurant’s design.
During a tour of the kitchen, we met Chef Paula, a charismatic chef who stops at each table and greets each guest with the warmth of an old friend. His philosophy is that each dish is inspired by both the restaurant’s architecture and the surrounding landscape.
In Lisbon, I would recommend at least four days to soak up the city’s vibrant cultural and design scene.
Check one architectural must-see off the list by staying at the five-star Altis Belem Hotel & Spa, a contemporary hotel located along the Targus River, about eight kilometres from the bustling city centre.
Designed by RISCO Architecture, the hotel is known for its narrow rectangular design, with pockets separating various parts of the hotel.
If the exterior of the hotel appears to be moving, it’s because it’s composed of a system of shutters that guests can open to allow sun into the expansive balconies.
In the lobby, a floating white staircase cuts across the backdrop of the sailboat-lined marina. The hotel is long and narrow and inside black minimalist accents contrast with the clean, white lines outside.
The Feitoria Restaurant and Wine Bar features a gold leaf Namban art mural depicting the Portuguese merchants who set off on ships to explore India and the Orient. It’s fitting, then, that the restaurant offers a view of the Monument to the Discoveries, which honours Portugal’s naval expeditions in the 15th century.
The hotel is steps away from the Centro Cultural de Belem, an expansive exhibition and arts complex designed by Vittorio Gregotti and Manuel Salgad.
If you don’t want the hassle of a self-guided architectural tour of Lisbon, E-architects, an architectural website and virtual encyclopedia, offers bespoke walking tours around Lisbon for those who want a more immersive experience.
All tours are guided by local architects, who tailor the tour based on a group’s interest, said company director Isabelle Lomholt.
“If they’re interested in contemporary architecture, then they get to see contemporary architecture, or they get to see a mix [of styles],” she said. “It’s architectural, but the [guides] also know history, stories, the quirkiness of the city.”
One stop on the tour is another Siza design, the Portuguese Pavilion, with its delicately curved concrete sail, built to coincide with Expo 98. If you’re commuting by train in or out of Lisbon, you’re likely to pass through one of its main train stations, the Gare do Oriente. It was also commissioned for the World Expo, with Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava designing a station topped by an intricate network of metal and glass lattice that resembles a canopy of leaves.
Catarina de Almeida Brito, a Portuguese architect and writer working in London, sees nods to traditional mosaic tile design in contemporary work.
“There’s really great examples of projects that have incorporated tiles and traditional features in modern architecture,” she said.
De Almeida Brito said because of decades of economic troubles, Portuguese architecture has always been about doing a lot with a little.
“The lack of capital means you have to design things very carefully,” she said. “We have a very strong heritage that’s not of luxury. That’s been very well carried through to modern architecture.”