Poetic justice in Portugal?

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Condo tower pokes at the eye of Viana do Castelo, in northern Portugal. (Turismo en Portugal)

In what may be the first major demolition based on aesthetic considerations, Viana do Castelo, a city in northern Portugal, plans to demolish a modernist residental tower that, in 1973, deflowered the character of its historic center.

Not surprisingly, the eyesore has its supporters, who oppose undoing a historic wrong that, while providing nice views for the few, degraded the quality of life for the many. In “An edifice of waste and injustice in northern Portugal,” by Monty Silley, for The Portugal Resident, the professor at a law school in Hamburg, Germany, takes a dim view of the proposed demolition of the tower and condemns its “fabricated justification.”

Unlike some of the practically abandoned and severely dilapidated neighbouring buildings (some whose roofs have actually collapsed), the Coutinho Building is solidly constructed and still in very good shape. So while other properties in the vicinity are more in need of both aesthetic as well as basic structural rehabilitation, the Coutinho Building is perfectly fine. It would be destroyed due to its height alone.

Well, not really. It’s not the height but the ugliness of the tower’s design that most people object to. In many cities, towers of lovely design that soar above a low-rise townscape generate no agita among locals or tourists. Nobody objects to the Campanile in Venice’s St. Mark’s Square, for example, and in Paris the Eiffel Tower, though initially offensive to some, is beloved compared to the Tour Montparnasse, which all Parisians hate.

If the Coutinho Building were tall but lovely, it would be fine. It’s not its height but its lack of sympathy that should seal its fate. But the narrative erected by its supporters is also topsy-turvy. The city took a public market, moved it elsewhere, and sold the land to build the tower. This was said to bring the city into the modern era. Three decades later, the city saw the light. It hoped that without the tower the historic district might qualify as a World Heritage Site. In 2003 it condemned the new market relocated to make way for the tower in 1973 and saw to the erection of a low-rise building on its site. The UNESCO designation still fell through, alas, yet the city bravely pursued its quest to rid itself of the tower. In 2005, it used the sudden absence of a public market as an excuse to condemn the tower so as to make way for a new public market on the the eventually vacant original site.

Dodgy? Perhaps. But in today’s absurdist European town planning it took a bit of municipal legerdemain to seek poetic justice. Since then, proposed demolition on behalf of beauty has survived challenge after benighted challenge in court. It now awaits a final decision. Let’s hope that the court will rule for beauty as a civic good in Viana do Castelo, and that the public’s interest in freedom from visual pollution will prevail by dint of dynamite.

Next stop, Penn Station!

[Hats off to Malcolm Millais, author of Le Corbusier, the Dishonest Architect and Exploding the Myths of Modern Architecture, for alerting me to this news.]

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In Paris, the Tour Montparnasse and the Tour Eiffel. (Wall Street Journal)

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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5 Responses to Poetic justice in Portugal?

  1. kristen says:

    Very dodgy, totally illogical, wasteful, etc. (The whole thing is just too, too Trumpian!) I would bet there are pockets being lined with taxpayer money — and, according to the report David links to, possibly needing a bailout from the EU countries to get it done. I read a few local reports from late 2017, and while there were a voices of support to “bring the beauty back,” there were more voices angered by wasting public money on such a stupid venture, kicking folks out of their homes (not clear how well compensated they were — as of Jan., a handful of protesters refusing to move out were given ’til March to vacate) — and eminent domain issues…one of the most telling lines in the cited report: “The message sent to international investors, whom Portugal is so eager to attract, and more fundamentally to all Portuguese citizens, is already disastrous though: private property may be confiscated on such arbitrary grounds. Is it legitimate for the government to forcibly remove people from their property because despite being legally planned, approved and built, it later subjectively appears too big?”

    And check out aerials of the place — a few red-roofed buildings over from the tower in question is a whole patch of such things — why note tear those down, too?

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    • Why not indeed, Kristen! The library is especially hideous. I agree (and said) it’s dodgy, and am normally an opponent of eminent domain. It so often sacrifices public interest for private interest, as in the original move selling the public market here – though that was not a taking because the government already owned it. But even without being a taking it did sacrifice the public interest for the private interest. By the way, the tall building disrupts the beauty of the city’s central historic district, which is why it, rather than some of the other buildings, is targeted. The latest taking brings things back to the status quo ante, before the original sin was committed.

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      • BP says:

        So why not be honest about it? If the real reason the building is being “targetted” is to restore the city’s skyline, then wouldn’t it be better for the politicians, courts, and public to be able to weigh that against the arguments against demolition and have a real debate. As the cited article basically says, proponent’s of this action needed to use a new market as an excuse for taking the building down. But if it’s all just about tearing down the building because of it being too big, or even ugly, that might not hold water. The courts might reject it on legal grounds and I am convinced most of the general population would not want to pay the price for it either.
        At least you, David, are being honest about the facts of this case and are trying to have a real debate here about whether it is right to pay the all these costs for demolishing a building that some might find ugly (I do not think it is particularly hideous, especially in comparison with many other standing monstrosities from that era, although I admit it does stand out).
        But if the question is really “what’s in the public interest?”, I think it must be for the building to stay. It’s just not worth spending the tens of millions now to make this one building lower, especially not in relation to the local economy and how that money could be used to improve the looks of the rest of the city, some parts of which appear to really need more attention or total rehabilitation. The human cost, of dispossessing people from their legal homes is offensive to me, and you seem to generally be opposed to government takings as well.
        Whether you agree with the original design and construction or not (at the time, many locals applauded the building as a sign of development and modernity), that is not the issue now. We cannot go back in time to the 1970’s to redebate if the government should have originally moved the market and allowed this building. Mayb they shouldn’t have. Maybe that was their mistake. The fact is, they did. They in fact encouraged the developer to build a higher density project (actively suggesting changing the land’s use from 6 to 13 floors in return for a higher compensation which they then used to build a new town hall, which they were otherwise short of funds for). The question now is if it makes sense to use so much public money to kick out all the legal residents and then tear down the building? The answer to that, is clearly no.
        Even if the city should have a new market, they should build it elsewhere. There are now much better places for a municipal market to be located (both in terms of not destroying existing homes but also in terms of city planning, logistics/traffic etc.), it would save a lot of much-needed money, and it would respect the basic rights of people to live in their legal residences. Following-through with this expropriation does not return the simply status-quo, it wastes a huge amount of public resources and puts innocent homeowner’s out.
        If the objective is to beautify the city, that is a noble cause, but there are much betters ways to accomplish that goal with the given resources and without harming people. If the VianaPolis spending accounts were entirely made public, I am sure it would result in a huge public scandal. It’s probably not a coincidence either that one of the leaders of the building’s demolition was a former (and one must imagine disgruntled) resident of the buidling himself. The whole process doesn’t only not make sense, it’s dishonest, wasteful and stinks of wrongdoing!

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  2. BP says:

    The government has not been honest that the reason for this expropriation is only about, as you put it, “the ugliness” of the building. It’s very “dodgy” indeed how they claimed European money and World Heritage status would be forthcoming to convince local authorities to support the action. When both became clearly unavailable, they needed to use the market as a new reason for this action. They destroyed a perfectly well working market to push ahead this plan. I would not call that brave, but unethical and stupid. The real moral question here, as your first sentence begins, is if it’s right to expropriate people from their legally built homes for mere aesthetics? Perhaps if the government negotiated fair enough compensation to privately buy-out each owner to voluntarily leave. But here you have the government forcibly taking people’s legal private property away from them for a value they do not seem to accept (and the news reports is substantially under market rates). That leads to the second question here, does it make economic sense to spend the tens of millions of euros compensating every owner just to tear down the building? Maybe, if Portugal was a rich country with an unlimited budget, but all this money should be used in much better ways to really improve people’s lives. I am not sure if most Viana residents would actually prefer the building demolished or not (most seem not to mind the building that much); but if you’d take a poll giving them the option of seeing the building gone, or having an extra 500 euros each (the approximate amount unecessarily being spent per capita on this) back in taxes or on spending for other social services, I don’t think anyone would support bringing the building down. There is no justice in kicking out old and infirm residents from their legally bought and paid for homes– this is a disgraceful injustice!

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    • I am no fan of eminent domain, BP, and, as you know, I admit that the city’s takings were dodgy. But the whole thing started out with an injustice. The market was already public, so the city did not have to take it by eminent domain, but it did use the public land to benefit a private interest. Maybe citizens would take 500 euros to keep the building. For the same in other public services? Probably not. Anyway, nobody is offering either. Most probably will be happy to have their beauty back. So no, it is not an injustice.

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