Don't let urban art cover up neglect of Lisbon's crumbling heritage
John Chamberlain - The Guardian, Friday 4 February 2011
Rachel Dixon suggests that Lisbon council's liberal offering of derelict buildings to graffiti artists provides some alternative landscape for the itinerant tourist (Quick on the draw, Travel, 29 January). Highlighting recent examples in the city, she seems torn between viewing the results "either as a scourge or what makes a city unique".
The graffiti initiative highlights poignantly the total absence of an urban strategy for regenerating the city centre. Estimates suggest there are more than 4,600 buildings empty in the central area, 50% either abandoned awaiting demolition or approval. Dixon mentions the Crono Project as an alternative to "abandoning Lisbon's crumbling heritage to the developers". Everyone likes to demonise developers, but in this case the responsibility for such a state should be laid at the door of the planning authorities.
The historic centre of Lisbon is commercially in decline, and has fewer than 10 residents. Small businesses are closing, franchising is everywhere. The Chiado area, close to Bairro Alto and destroyed by fire in 1988, is renovated and improving but too slowly. British architect Terry Farrell's proposals for the river frontage are now forgotten after being demonised by the local architectural community. Thirty years ago, as an architect involved in Bristol's and London's urban partnerships, I made proposals here to the Lisbon council and was ignored.
Dixon enjoyed Bairro Alto's restaurants and hectic nightlife with its "mix of trendy locals and knowledgable tourists". This classic residential area has grown gradually over the years without official intervention. The examples highlighted – the Crono Project, Hall of Fame, the Galeria de Arte Urbana – may well provide opportunities, as Dixon says, "to distinguish between meaningless scrawls and impressive pieces of urban art". But few locals are impressed. Many don't appreciate Lisbon council "turning over derelict buildings to street artists with stunning results" and would rather see more positive use of public money.
However, it's a beautiful city. Dixon should ignore the artwork, report the dereliction, and visit the few conservation projects that can be found. These are what make Lisbon unique, not itinerant spray jobs
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