CULT ROOMS The Pavilhão de Portugal.

CULT ROOMS The Pavilhão de Portugal.

Issue 51

, Starters



  • Words John Ovans
  • Photo Matthias Heiderich

Since the first world’s fair in 1851, held in the groundbreaking Crystal Palace in London, the exposition universelle has been a driver of experimental architecture and engineering. Often, these monuments—such as the Eiffel Tower (which was intended to be temporary), Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion and the Space Needle in Seattle—live on long after the fair has been forgotten, having given the architects the rare freedom to express themselves without many of the usual functional requirements associated with large-scale commissions.

For Expo ’98 in Lisbon, the first world’s fair to be held in Portugal, the organizers approached Álvaro Siza, one of the country’s most acclaimed architects, to design the national pavilion and centerpiece of the festival. He worked with his friend and fellow prize-winner Eduardo Souto de Moura, to conceive of the Pavilhão de Portugal. It consists of an “almost banal” exhibition hall, as Siza would later describe it, and a vast open public plaza, spanned by a 230-by-165-foot prestressed concrete canopy that frames a view of the Tagus River.

Seen from afar, the pavilion resembles a piece of paper draped between two bricks: The canopy, which is a little less than 8 inches thick and droops as if it is a piece of fabric, weighs 1,543 tons—a feat of engineering made possible due to the participation of structural engineer Cecil Balmond. Employing technology used in the construction of suspension bridges, Balmond supported the roof on steel cables. These are suspended between 50-foot-tall piers: nine reinforced concrete columns arranged asymmetrically, forming porticoes that are clad in traditional azulejo tiles glazed in the national colors—red facing the plaza, green on the exterior.  

The Pavilhão de Portugal has been celebrated for its architectural engineering, which disrupted notions of how concrete should behave, but it has been somewhat less successful in finding a purpose in the decades following its inauguration. After years of proposals, in 2015 it was handed over to the University of Lisbon before being redeveloped as a convention and exhibition center a few years later. The plaza, however, has always been appreciated, even if—with the exception of those attending the book fairs and music events held under the canopy—it is largely from afar.

You are reading a complimentary story from Issue 51

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