The stunning José Saramago foundation in Lisbon

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Architects Manuel Vicente and João Santa Rita turn a 16th-century residence in the Portuguese capital into a modern home for the works of the literary giant.

For fans of the late, great Portuguese Nobel laureate José Saramago, who presented surrealist scenarios and sent up politics and religion in such books as Blindness and Seeing, there are two new reasons to rejoice. The first is the publication of a lost work – the novel Claraboya (or Skylight), which he wrote in the 1950s and will soon be translated into English. And the second is the completion of the new home of the Fundaçao José Saramago.

Run by Pilar de Rio, the writer’s widow, the foundation is housed in a 16th century building in Lisbon known to locals as Casa dos Bicos (House of the Spikes) or the House of Nozzles. Built in 1523 as a residence for the viceroy of India, the building represents a hybrid of Italian Renaissance style that recalls the Palazzo dei Diamanti in Ferrara, and Portuguese late Gothic, as seen in its Manueline windows. Despite its prominence, the building fell into disrepair through the years. The architects, Manuel Vicente and João Santa Rita, were tasked with preserving it while they modernized it.

They soon discovered that the building was concealing a much richer past than imagined. In gutting the building, they uncovered archaeological ruins dating back to the Romans and the Moors, and sections of the medieval Ferdinand Wall. Preserving these ruins became part of the renovation’s focus; they are now on permanent exhibit for the public to see.

Once these ancient elements were protected, the focus was on carving out a space that will continue Saramago’s legacy well into the future. Situated on the four main levels, the foundation is a modern marvel. Central to its striking character is a marble staircase and ramp system, enclosed in marble walls with cutout arches that lead to various spaces. Steel lattices are used as barriers for the ramps; they mimic the cross-hatched bracing that protects the fully glazed rear façade.

The first floor is an exhibition space, with walls clad in jacket covers of Saramago’s novels in their various translations, and glass-enclosed display cases containing his manuscripts. On the second floor are the administrative offices, including that of del Rio, who has a direct view outside to the olive tree underneath which Saramago’s ashes are buried. The third floor houses the library, and the fourth floor, an auditorium for film screenings and book launches.

You can see more of David Pereira’s photographs of the foundation here.

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