After years of campaigning by residents and the ‘No Big Ships Committee’, and an unofficial June referendum that saw 99% of voting Venetians support banning large cruise ships entirely from their lagoon, on 7 November 2017 the Italian government announced a speculative plan to divert all cruise ships over 96,000 tonnes away from St. Mark’s and the Giudecca Canal, proposing a new mainland terminal be built to receive them instead. The plan was hailed by ministers as ‘the definitive solution’, and critiqued by campaigners as ‘meaning nothing’, to the blight and damage perceived as wrought by mega-cruise ships upon the lagoon and city.
Three days later on 10 November, the Portuguese prime minister inaugurated architect Carrilho da Graça’s Lisbon Cruise Terminal on a remarkably privileged city centre site on the Tagus River, beside Santa Apolonia train station, in the shadow of the National Pantheon. The 2500 passengers and 1000 crew of the ‘Jewel of the Seas’ were the first to dock at the still under construction terminal, berthing where Portuguese caravels once embarked to discover the world, opposite a historic customs house through which passed some of its spoils.
2016 saw Portugal’s 10.3 million population outnumbered by foreign tourists for the first time in its history, and Lisboetas are increasingly fearful of the impact tourism and foreign investment are having upon their own access to the city, but the threat of cruise ships is symbolic to Lisbon, rather than physical as in Venice, whose foundations tremble both metaphorically and in actuality with every passing maritime colossus. The terminal, financed through an international consortium, is emblematic of accelerating change and construction in Lisbon – as it finds foreign visitors and international investment (enticed through programmes like the Golden Visa) to be a 21c replacement for the trade in gold and goods that built the port city of old. If Lisbon gained its power through the Age of Discoveries, it’s perhaps now a discovery of Lisbon by the rest of the world that is increasingly fueling and shaping it today.
The terminal is also part of a long-term strategy to rehabilitate Lisbon’s riverfront, trading industry for leisure and stitching together the 16km between western Belém and eastern Parque das Naçoes, where Expo 98 was situated to entice and accommodate future urban growth 20 years prior. Expo’s urban plan’s prescience is beginning to pay dividends, as mounting pressures on Lisbon’s downtown hike the price of real estate and force a re-negotiation of the centre’s identity and capacity to continue as a hospitable residential zone. Between the terminal and Expo construction is underway on ‘Prata Living Concept’ – a Renzo Piano designed mixed-use riverside neighbourhood totaling 244,000 m2 and 499 apartments. Priced from 400,000 euros for a studio to 2 million euros for a penthouse, these flats are hardly designed to accommodate those priced out of the city centre, but Prata’s 30 phase one homes were 80% sold as they neared completion at 2017’s close: half to Portuguese, half to foreigner buyers. Between Prata and the terminal, the neighbourhood of Marvila is seeing more organic regeneration, as local art galleries and craft breweries set up in its ex-industrial spaces, paving the way for the lofts to come.
Maritime-focused Expo 98 was fittingly the site of Carrilho da Graça’s Knowledge Of The Seas Pavilion, which could be seen as a spiritual antecedent to his new cruise terminal - itself far more pavilion-like than his more monumental Expo structure. A simple wrapped box, it was the deliberate modesty of JLCG’s terminal’s design that saw Carrilho da Graça win the 2010 competition against offices including Aires Mateus and Zaha Hadid. Nestled on the dock between the river and Alfama’s historic hills, the building’s low profile and modest scale ensures the river is obstructed to a minimum from the city, whilst enabling the city to fully reveal itself from the decks of arriving cruises, which tower over the terminal’s roof. Walkways extending to ships maintain a constant elevation, atop thin columns, to keep visibility between the street and Tagus.
The building is an exercise in raw simplicity, avoiding any complexity of materials in response to demands of budget, footfall, maintenance and conceptual clarity. Interior floors of polished concrete face off against technical ceilings. The building’s structural box of black-pigmented concrete graphically identifies itself from the cream concrete walls and roof draped over it, an envelope that falls over the box like a table cloth, creating a shaded entrance canopy. Rising and falling in an angular topography across the top of the building, like a low-bit mimicry of Lisbon’s valleys and hills, the rooftop offers a public viewing platform. A low cylinder contrasts with all these sharp lines, crowning the roof and surrounding the lift-shaft to accommodate a potential bar for the many private events the roof will doubtlessly entice. A rectangular pool of water besides the building maintains the memory and walls of the historic dock, cooling the area on hot days. Executed in the stern lines typical to Carillho da Graça’s work, the building broadcasts its flexibility and functionality. It’s a no-frills structure eschewing any desire to be an icon. When the trees grow in the landscaped park and parking lot surrounding it, the building will disappear a little further still.
The building still engineers itself a few moments of drama. Its façade dips and inclines, descending in a sharp point on city-side to delineate entrance/exit. Hovering just above the ground, this suspended point suggests the building as a floating volume – a gesture possible through significant technical innovation in creating a new, lighter concrete for the building’s envelope. Through mixture with a powdered cork substrate, the concrete achieves 40% less mass and high resistance to thermal flux, enabling the façade to be engineered out of a single material. The cork-concrete also gives an earthy aesthetic to the building’s ‘shell’. From a distance it looks a little like travertine, whilst up close the visible grains of cork particles across the sandblasted surface gives the façade a rough look of encrustation, as if exhumed from the sea.
Inside the building is pure functionality, but within the ground floor entrance hall the structure allows itself a rare moment of frivolity. Three structural columns extend vertically to support the sloping roof, but a fourth leans at a cantilevered angle – like a drunken sailor – conjuring an unexpected moment of surprise within a building of rigorous logic. Yet the falling column also functions as an orientation point – gesturing towards the programmatic needs of a high security building, whose internal volumes allow vantages from one floor to another to allow both surveillance and light to extend throughout.
An international point of arrival through which thousands will move at once, the programme of the terminal is necessarily highly controlled, housing an extraterritorial zone that extends to the quayside (where a barbed-wire topped fence delineates the wharf). But this hasn’t prevented JLCG from perforating and wrapping the building with public spaces and pathways. Snaking up the outside of the building’s western edge, a zig-zag-ing ramp gives access to a public café on a first floor terrace, before a gap between building and envelope allows access to the aforementioned rooftop; conceived of as a public plaza, a snaking glass barrier delimitating circulation. It’s a noble gesture of giving back to the city, and integrating the building within it, which one imagines was subject to significant negotiation throughout the design process given requirements for severe security.
The terminal’s inclined façades, twisting forms, low profile and public rooftop make comparisons between it and the Amanda Levete designed MAAT unfortunately somewhat inevitable. Designed two years before Levete’s museum, (which opened in 2016 to great fanfare up the shoreline in Belém), JLCG’s building has completed two years after it, making the terminal, cruelly, feel a little like a late-comer to a riverside party it helped instigate. Despite their radically different programmes the buildings feel like siblings born of competing architectonic parentages. MAAT’s sinuous curves and shiny bespoke tile cladding give it the appearance of a debutante courting in its finest dress, with a whiff of indifference to the requirements of its programme (its curvilinear interiors offer a distinct challenge to exhibition curators). JLCG’s angular robotic terminal, in comparison, feels confident in its raw nudity – like a rendering or architectural model made (literally) concrete, seeing no need to wear more than its programme’s needs.
Tourism has been growing exponentially in Portugal since the 2011 apex of the country’s deep financial crisis. Courted enthusiastically by the pro-enterprise Socialist coalition government navigating the country away from austerity, perhaps it’s even been the country’s lifeboat. As riverfront re-development continues, one hopes future projects will adopt some of the unpretentious terminal’s best aspects of modesty and holistic thinking, allowing the city and river – and vitally foreign and local interests – to converse, not compete.
Justin Jaeckle is a Lisbon-based curator and writer working across contemporary culture, art, design and the moving image. He is curator of Architecture on Film for London’s Architecture Foundation, and a programmer for Doclisboa International Film Festival.