Porto’s architecture

An English-language pamphlet available from the main city turismo details four architectural city walks, each focusing on a particular style or theme. All major sights are included, but there’s a lot of uphill legwork involved.

The city’s oldest secular building is the medieval Alfândega Velha (or Casa do Infante), built in 1325, while from the same period date parts of the city wall flanking the Cais da Ribeira, completed in the reign of Dom Fernando. Unfortunately, most medieval churches and chapels were greatly altered in the eighteenth century, but the simple Romanesque and Gothic aesthetic remains apparent in the outward appearance of the Sé and the old church of Cedofeita – arguably Iberia’s oldest Christian temple.

Romanesque and Gothic

Porto’s eighteenth-century churches provide one of the country’s richest concentrations of Baroque architecture. The style was brought to Portugal by Italian painter and architect Nicolau Nasoni (1691–1773), who arrived in Porto at the age of 34, and remained here all his life. Together with local stonemason António Pereira, Nasoni bequeathed the city a marvellous legacy, characterized by his masterful conception of space, clever use of local granite and theatrical facades. The church and tower of Clérigos is perhaps his greatest work; others include the interior of the Sé, the adjacent Paço Episcopal, the facade of the Igreja da Misericórdia, and the churches of Carmo, Santo Ildefonso and São Francisco. All are remarkable for their decorative exuberance – notably cascading masses of intricate carvings, and lots of gold leaf – which reflects the wealth derived from Portugal’s colonies

In the second half of the eighteenth century, out went the luxuriant complexity of Baroque and in came the studied lines, pillars and capitals of ancient Rome and Greece. This Neoclassical period coincided with the booming port wine trade, which provided the necessary finance for the first concerted attempts at treating whole districts as architectural entities: broad avenues were opened, and much of the city’s medieval wall gave way to riverside esplanades. Neoclassicism also incorporated hints of Gothic and Baroque art, but most of all, Islamic, which reached its apotheosis in the Salão Árabe of the Palácio da Bolsa.

By the turn of the twentieth century Porto’s Neoclassicism had acquired a distinctly French Renaissance touch, thanks largely to the architect José Marques da Silva (1869–1947), who studied in Paris. His most notable works were São Bento railway station, the exuberant Teatro Nacional São João and the distinctly less elegant monument to the Peninsular War that dominates the Rotunda da Boavista. Art Nouveau saw little monumental expression in Porto, although several shops in this style survive, while the 1920s coincided with the establishment of the fascist Estado Novo, whose morose buildings reflected its overbearing character. The Palácio da Justiça facing the Cordoaria is a prime example, its blank facade bearing angular “heroic” sculptures (resembling those of contemporary Soviet socialist-realism).

 Álvaro Siza Vieira

Not until the 1950s did Porto see the emergence of a style of architecture that it could call its own, with the beginning of the so-called Porto School, centred on the city’s School of Fine Arts. This proved fertile ground for many of Porto’s contemporary architects, including Eduardo Souto Moura (Casa das Artes, and the conversion of the Alfândega), Alcino Soutinho (the conversion of the Casa-Museu Guerra Junqueiro; and Amarante’s Museu Amadeo Sousa Cardoso), and – most famously – Álvaro Siza Vieira, best known for his redesign of Lisbon’s fire-gutted Chiado district. In Porto, his masterpiece is the contemporary art museum at the Fundação Serralves (1999), but there are earlier works of his in Leça da Palmeira, north of the city: the imaginative Casa de Chá da Boa Nova (1963), a café-restaurant built into the rocks and with a grand ocean view, and the Piscina de Mar swimming pool (1966), similarly hidden in the rocks by the shore.