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Why buildings matter

What Britain can learn from Portugal

By Amanda Levete  

The Reichstag in Berlin, designed by British architects Foster + Partners ©Simone Cortes/Wikimedia Commons

Read more from Prospect’s “The Future of Cities” supplement

On the eve of the Mayoral elections in London, what do we want our cities to be like, what spaces and buildings should they consist of, and how can mayors influence them?

Can London follow the examples of two pioneering mayors from Portugal? In distinct ways, the Mayors of Lisbon and Porto have radically reinvigorated their cities.

Mouraria was once a hugely problematic district of Lisbon that, in spite of the number of initiatives and having significant sums of public investment, had failed to change for the better. In 2010, Antonio Costa, the newly elected Mayor of Lisbon, decided to lead by example by moving his office and his team out of the historic and palatial City Hall and into refurbished warehouses and factory buildings. Almost overnight, the drug and prostitution problems disappeared (or at least moved on)—and it is now a flourishing and diverse district. In 2015, Costa was elected as Portugal’s Prime Minister.

In Porto, Mayor Rui Moreira is combatting the economic and social problems caused by gentrification of historic districts in the city. Porto’s centre was abandoned a generation ago as industry declined, before a significant reversal in the 2000s for rapid gentrification. But it is a process that is leaving some of the city’s poorest residents behind and pricing them out of the benefits gained by the upturn. Rather than cash-in on now-prime real estate, Moreira has pledged not to sell a single council house and instead invest in a programme of renovations and converting derelict buildings into new homes.

Moreira has said: “We could easily make 10 per cent of our budget [€20m] every year by selling houses. If you do that you can build a bridge and lots of mayors like that. But it will kill the city. The city will lose all the flair which attracted people in the first place.”

It is ironic that Paris, one of the most overly protected historic cities once led the way with radical urban planning, from George Eugène Haussmann’s plan to the razing of the Les Halles and the construction of the Centre Pompidou, one of the most important and revolutionary buildings of the 20th century.

Now, three decades after Centre Pompidou, Mayor Anne Hidalgo is leading the “Reinventer Paris” programme of unlocking publically owned buildings with a view of stimulating contemporary interventions in the city of Haussmann, while the city is seeing the first tall buildings since it removed the height restriction on new towers that had been in place for over 30 years. Has Paris rediscovered the energy that led to the creation of Centre Pompidou? Or is it still wedded too much to the beguilingly historic—and tourist-friendly—city of boulevards?

And, as we lead up to the referendum on membership of the EU, how much of a city’s and nation’s identity is tied to its buildings and those who create them? Do architects design with have a Londoner/British/European identity or sensibility?

Perhaps the two most important civic projects in Berlin since the reunification of Germany are the products of British architects: the Reichstag by Foster + Partners and the Neues Museum by David Chipperfield Architects. These are two projects that go to the very heart of German identity and the sometimes painful reconciliation of the past century with the Berlin of today. And yet these were entrusted to sympathetic British architects who created two extraordinary buildings. This relationship is deep and reciprocal. In London, our tallest tower is designed by an Italian studio located in Paris and our most popular new museum by Swiss architects.

And AL_A has just been entrusted with the remodelling of Galeries Lafayette Haussmann in Paris. It is an icon of the city and the art of French living as much as it is a department store. The store receives 37m visitors each year; in comparison, the Louvre has nine million and the Eiffel Tower has seven million.

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