"Architecture is best when it is a conversation,” says the architect Manuel Aires Mateus. “If you start with a new building, there’s nothing to speak to.” Then he waves his hand — the gesture taking in the 18th-century Lisbon palazzo where we’re sitting at a sleek wood table with some pencils, paper and espresso. Oil paintings of Portuguese royalty look down on us from the filigreed walls.
This is Lisbon, the hilly city of red-tiled roofs, seen from a privileged viewpoint. Aires Mateus is one of Portugal’s best-known architects; working with his brother and a generation of contemporaries, he’s making this formerly insular place a global design destination.
You can see this out back of the historic-landmark house, where we step out for some sun; the courtyard is a crisp composition of pale stone and white stucco, almost surreal in the lemony sun. This is today’s Portuguese architecture at its best: boldly contemporary, and in dialogue with the past.
I’m here on a tour of the city with the Canadian curator Esther Shipman, whose service Culture Viewfinder is now offering small tours with a distinctive take on this country. Portugal is becoming better known not just as a budget Euro destination with excellent seafood – which, I can attest, it still has – but as a vital and vibrant city. “Portugal is on a lot of people’s radar,” Shipman says. “It has amazing food, amazing wine – and this remarkable resurgence of architecture.”
A June tour hits Porto, the country’s second city and a design capital, before heading into the wine country of the Douro to see a string of flashy new winery buildings. A fall trip comes to Lisbon and Porto, including tours of the international Lisbon Architecture Triennale.
Shipman, a design curator by trade, has a passionate interest in the country. If you follow architecture, this makes sense. The country of 10 million hits far above its weight; the most prestigious international architecture award, the Pritzker Prize, has gone here twice, to Eduardo Souto de Moura and Alvaro Siza.
A big public investment in museums and tourism facilities, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, is now paying off in a wave of spectacular buildings.
One of these is MAAT, the Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology. It opened in 2016 on Lisbon’s riverfront, combining a renovated red-brick power station with a swoopy flying saucer by the British architect Amanda Levete. Clad in Portuguese crackle-glazed ceramic, this remarkable building houses shows that bridge art and the design disciplines.
MAAT is on every design tourist’s radar. But before the end of our trip we get to visit the headquarters of EDP, the power company that pays the bills for the museum — designed by Aires Mateus, and not generally open to the public.
We wander downstairs and upstairs through the mazey building, covered in stripes of white aluminum that scallop the views and the sunlight into grids of shadow. It’s as beautiful and as ambitious a piece of architecture as anything I’ve seen recently. And as we walk out the door into the warm buzz of the city, headed for some fish and vinho verde at a nearby old market, I think back to Aires Mateus’s words: This will make for some great conversation.
The author was a guest of Tourism Portugal. It did not view or approve the story.
Join architecture critic Alex Bozikovic and other Globe and Mail journalists this July aboard the Globe Portugal Cruise. For itinerary and booking information, visit globedourocruise.com.