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Lisbon phoenix.

On 25 August 1988, a great fire broke out in the heart of Lisbon and burnt down part of the Chiado, the oldest part of the city. The event struck dismay into the hearts of everyone with affection for Lisbon; but particularly those Europeans who, in addition, had atavistic memories of ravage an destruction. The stricken city appealed for aid, and France, with the Grands Projets coursing through the national bloodstream, offered assistance. The task of planning the reconstruction of the area was given to Alvaro Siza, but the Portuguese Cultural Heritage Institute commissioned the French to take charge of reorganising and enlarging the existing Chiado museum of modern Portuguese art. Renamed the Chiado National Gallery, it was to serve as a focus of national pride and optimism for the future.

Jean-Michel Wilmotte, whose scheme for Nimes City Hall had impressed the then President of the Institute, was appointed as architect and an association for preservation of the museum, set up in France, found the money from national and EC sources.

The original museum was established in 1911 within the walls of the old convent of Sao Francisco, a handsome eighteenth-century building on the steeply sloping Rua Serpa Pinta. For a number of years before the fire, the museum had been closed to the public, so that paradoxically, the fire was its saviour. The roof of the building had been licked by the flames, it had otherwise escaped the conflagration.

The building is shared by the city's School of Fine Arts which was unwilling to cede the space necessary to enlarge the museum; and adjoining building were therefore acquired and cannibalised. They included, on the eastern side, an old bakery with traditional brick ovens known to have been furnishing the city with bread at the time of the earthquake of 1755; on the other side, a former caretaker's house and a dilapidated pavilion.

At Nimes, in the Louvre and elsewhere, Wilmotte has shown how modernity can co-exist with the traditional. Making modern scratches on old patinations is his real and often reiterated passion. Faced in Lisbon with a number of disparate and separate parts, he has established a sequence of spaces in which the new lightly impinges on the old, extends it and links it.

The museum's permanent exhibitions occupy fomer galleries in the eighteenth-century convent and these have been refurbished and refined. Originally accessible from the convent garden, the museum is now entered from the street by passing through the vaults of the old bakery, a vast hall under graceful arches of brick and stone. It is a dramatic entrance. Visitors climb a suspended metal stairway and cross footbridges held in space beneath the vaults. Here is the beginning of a tortuous journey through the different parts of the museum. The entrance hall is the heart of the scheme, its arteries lead successively to the various galleries, to the curator's offices, the bookshop, cafe, terrace and garden.

Above the vaulted entrance hall is the temporary exhibition area An eloquent symbol of the enterprise -- and of hope -- consists in the old wall of bread ovens which have been left revealed and carefully restored. They baked the bread that fed the suffering population of Lisbon during the eighteenth-century earthquake.

Within this exercise in architectural knitting, the only self-contained piece of modernity is a new metallic pavilion. Designed as an `exemplary museum module', this building was constructed on the site of the old pavilion, too dilapidated to restore, and provides additional exhibition space; as does the remodelled house once belonging to the convent caretaker. This is now a tower in which the visitor is led through a succession of corridor-like galleries, to the garden where the circuit ends. Raised above the level of the sloping street and protected from it by the convent walls, the impassivity of which is pierced by port-holes, the garden at first seems inaccessible. But it is finally revealed as a harbour of greenery, inhabited by sculptures which stand out in relief against walls and the rhythm of the portholes and wooden-slatted shutters.

Characteristically, Wilmotte is content to allow the old to speak for itself; in making fresh architectural annotations, he deploys a Modernist vocabulary of firmly modelled geometries and few materials to achieve the timelessness consistent with historic framework. There is a certain solidity in his work that produces handsome architecture (though this can verge on the corporate). His palette, always restrained, is apt to be restricted. In Chiado, it is predominantly one of white and grey: grey stone, grey metal and plain white walls. This is a cool building -- thought by some to be too cool -- in a city full of light and colour; but by coolness, he has imposed coherence on a warren of changing spaces and changing levels.

As one might expect, lighting and the various methods of displaying the collections are immaculately designed.

Chiado houses collections of works of art from the mid-nineteenth to twentieth centuries. It was opened last summer and its rebirth in the centre of the historic quarter has symbolic significance. Standing on the rooftop terrace of the cafeteria, over the temporary exhibition gallery, the visitor can look out over the city and the Tage; above, the four chimneys of the old bakery stand out like a standard against the sky.
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Title Annotation:renovation of Portugal's Chiado National Gallery
Author:McGuire, Penny
Publication:The Architectural Review
Date:Jan 1, 1995
Previous Article:Wing forward.
Next Article:Brought to book.

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