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!