Under Construction: Searching for Future Ruins on the Eastern Riverfront of Lisbon

Photo: Francesca Renzi
Andrea Pavoni takes a psychogeographical tour of Lisbon’s eastern riverfront, a fragmented landscape which is permanently “under construction” and ruined at the same time.
[Ed. note: this post is part of a roundtable on “Conflicting Imaginaries in East Lisbon.” Click here to view other posts in the series.]

“Robinson believed that, if he looked at it hard enough, he could cause the surface of the city to reveal to him the molecular basis of historical events, and in this way he hoped to see into the future.” (London, dir. Patrick Keiller, 1994)

In rua de Marvila, a short alleyway next to a car service takes you to a quirky tower, rising from a jumble of wires and roofs. Built in the sixteenth century by the Marques de Marialva, it has survived the nineteenth century crumbling of the homonymous quinta, the twentieth century rise and demise of a massive soap factory, and the twenty-first century swift valorisation of the plot of land the demolished factory left vacant, boosted by the fleeting promise of a redevelopment project that never took place, and halted by the plan for a third bridge over the Tagus that remained unfulfilled, too.1For more information on the history of this plot of land, check this recent artistic intervention: https://theponds.info/

By the end of nineteenth century, industrialisation retuned the pace of the riverfront of Marvila, a scarcely populated region of quintas and convents, to the febrile rhythm of factories, filling the air with the smells of their products, and the soil with their waste. About a century later, economic crises turned the riverfront into a spectral line of post-industrial corpses, isolated by a series of failed urbanisation plans, bypassed by oversized highways, stigmatised by blips of media-inflated moral panic, and overlooked by the urban regeneration project that unfolded, few kilometres north, around the 1998 Lisbon World Exposition. There it lay, a decaying urban fragment, physically, economically, and symbolically detached from the rest of city. A blank spot in the urban imaginary.

An overpass over the railway takes to the other side. Seen from there, the tower rises amidst the bushes, graffiti, and debris. A flight of steps leads down to rua do Capitão Leitão, the epicentre of a ‘cutting edge art scene’, as real estate developers like to imagine it.2https://mirabilisapartments.com/lisbon/marvilla-collection#:~:text=About%20the%20area-,Marvila,crowds%20and%20vibrant%20life%2Dstyle It is said the nineteen year-old Dom Pedro V saw Portugal’s first ever train passing by from this tower in 1856. The railway embodied Portugal’s dream of a first-class seat in the train of progress. Fontismo — after Antonio Fontes Pereira de Melo, minister of the newly formed Ministry of Public Work, Commerce and Industry since 1852 and Prime Minister between 1871–1887 — epitomised this socio-technical imaginary: Portugal’s promise, obsession, to catch up with the “civilised” nations, held by fast-paced industrialisation, infrastructural development, and spectacular exhibitions.3See, for example, David Justino, “Fontismo: ideologia e política económica”, presented at the XXXI Encontro da Associação Portuguesa de História Económica e Social, Coimbra, 2011; Filipa Vicente, “The quest for progress between Porto and Europe: photography, international exhibitions, and railways (1850-1900)”, in Exposições internacionais entre o jardim e a paisagem urbana. Do Palácio de Cristal do Porto (1865) à exposição de Paris (1937) (Porto: Fundação de Serralves, 2018), 35–63. On the notion of the socio-technical imaginary, see Sheila Jasanoff, “Future imperfect: Science, technology, and the imaginations of modernity”, in Dreamscapes of Modernity Sociotechnical Imaginaries and the Fabrication of Power, ed. Sheila Jasanoff, and Sang-Hyun Kim (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 1–33.

Dreams are the stuff that cities are made of: social utopias, technological mythologies, financial speculations. The urban is scattered with desires sedimented in temporal strata. Attending to the expressive force these contradictions exercise on the present requires abandoning the comfort of causal explanations. Some images may be of help. In them, the past flashes into the present, and the linear progression of history is shown as a frozen bundle of contradictions. Walter Benjamin called them “dialectical”.4Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1999.) This tower is one of such bundles. In it, uncannily entangled, the conflicting imaginaries haunting Portugal’s consciousness flicker: the memories of the glorious past, the resignation of present backwardness, the hopes for a future redemption. It stands as an urban fossil, its decadent structure allegorically expressing the conundrum nested within the Portuguese psyche: the central position Portugal believes it deserves to occupy in the world, and the bitter reality of its century-long subalternity.5On the contradictions feeding Portugal’s imaginary, see Eduardo Lourenço, O Labirinto da Saudade. Psicanálise Mítica do Destino Português (Lisboa: D. Quixote, 1978). On Benjamin’s notion of urban fossil, see Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1989), 160–5. Fontismo believed the industry and infrastructure could solve the contradiction. It didn’t quite work out.6Fontismo not only failed to advance the Portuguese society, which remained extremely rural, poor, and with one of the highest illiteracy rates in Western Europe. More troublingly, it was sustained on mostly private initiative and foreign debt, which eventually triggered a dramatic economic crisis that brought the country to bankruptcy in 1892. Today, cultural and hi-tech creativity supplant industrialisation in a narrative that would see the country shine as a start-up nation and hard-tech location, its capital becoming “a key agent of the creative economy in Portugal, in Europe and throughout the world”.7Graça Fonseca — by then the Lisbon Deputy Mayor for Economy and Innovation, and then Portugal’s Minister of Culture (2018-2022) — in the presentation of Lisbon – Creative Economy (Lisbon City Council, Municipal Directorate for Economy and Innovation, 2013) Seen from the outside, however, the image it projects is closer to that of a sunny and tranquil plot of land made available for foreigners to invest, travel, work, and retire in.8Besides the absolute (and worrying) centrality played by tourism in Portuguese economy, one could mention initiatives such as the Golden Visa, Digital Nomad Visa, convenient foreign retirement schemes, and so on. Bloomberg recently claimed that Lisbon, together with Dubai and Miami, is among the three best places in the world for digital nomads. See https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-04-26/lisbon-tops-hybrid-working-ranks-for-globetrotting-executives?fbclid=IwAR2lg6MrQJbd8TcHtkndTUisNDo17o3BMCW2lYNObBf7zNo2Uj7O_62M9DY The Marvila riverfront embodies this promise.

At its core, in the tiny, leafy David Leandro da Silva square, the former headquarters of two wine companies, José Domingos Barreiros (founded 1896) and Abel Pereira da Fonseca (founded 1907), face each other. Their flamboyant architecture is a reminder of their past success, when the logistical advantage of this narrow stretch of land, sitting between railway and river, made it a wine distribution hub. A century ago, in this square, the smell of wine and oak filled the air.9‘já cheira a carvalho das aduelas, e a vinhos de armazém […] neste Largo David Leandro da Silva’. Leonardo de Araújo, Peregrinações em Lisboa (Lisboa : Parceria A.M. Pereira, 1938-39), vol. XV, 76–77. A 2016 article argues the area now offers other logistical benefits: low rent, vast disused spaces, attractive riverfront, and a fetching post-industrial aesthetics.10http://rr.sapo.pt/noticia/47830/marvila_a_industria_foi_se_os_criativos_estao_a_chegar_basta_para_agarrar_o_futuro Now, it is the smell of beer, creativity, and of a wholly new way of living, that is available for breathing.11‘começou a cheirar a cerveja no bairro’: since 2016 the area has been rebranded as the Lisbon Beer district [https://www.timeout.pt/lisboa/pt/coisas-para-fazer/marvila-e-o-novo-lisbon-beer-district]. According to real estate developers, “creativity is in the air” [https://mirabilisapartments.com/lisbon/marvilla-collection]

In 2019, the small Brooklyn (sic) still had one of the lowest prices per square meter in Lisbon (€1,543).12https://www.dinheirovivo.pt/empresas/um-quarteirao-por-17-milhoes-vai-ajudar-marvila-a-renascer-12780782.html  It is not clear whether the article is referring only to the Marvila riverfront, or to the much vaster Marvila, whose area far extends west of the railway, in the valley of Chelas, which usually remains concealed beneath the trendy imaginary of Marvila that magazines, websites and real estate developers convey. At the time, a then-anonymous €17m investment turned a whole block, including the José Domingos Barreiros building, into a luxury development prospect. Today, the building hosts the Marvila Art District, a “new Art Movement” (sic) — that is, a series of ateliers artists enjoy for free, courtesy of Reward Properties.13https://madmarvila.pt/. Marvilla Collection is a project by Reward Properties, a joint venture between Neworld and RE Capital. See https://rewardproperties.com/ Soon, they will have to make space for the Marvilla Collection, and its promise of a “future life, lived freely, in one of the safest cities in Europe. Lived on your own terms, surrounded by all the conveniences of new-age city life.”14From the Marvilla Collection brochure, page 9. The apartments have been sold at a price ranging from €7k-to-10k per square meter, even before obtaining from the council the authorisation to actually build them. They must have been confident.

Capital’s dreamy images, endlessly replayed in magazines and real estate billboards and websites, assume a spectral inconsistency among these streets, signalling their existence through their felt absence. As one struggles to find basic amenities such as public transport, cash machines, or food stores, there is little trace of “countless shops, services and leisure facilities”, “quirky bars and restaurants, indie shops, cool neighbourhood and a cutting-edge art scene”, and the amount of people one would associate a city’s ‘trendiest neighbourhood” with.15From the Marvilla Collection brochure, page 7. New places open and close in the span of few years, or months, leaving behind eerie, empty shells.

While the Faustian pact between artists and developers is consummated, it is almost as if ephemerality and transiency are being purposefully engineered, the “cool” vibe intentionally kept at a low intensity, confined to glossy magazines, rare clubs, and extemporaneous events. In the last years the area’s seemingly indefinite, under construction atmosphere, has predictably failed to attract new inhabitants. In the meantime, property values have skyrocketed beyond any realistic gentrification prospect. Now, it is on sale for a wholly other sort of new inhabitants. The place, it seems, has quietly transitioned from post-industrial decadence to luxury status, without having to deal with much community in between.16When an existing community had to be dealt with, in fact, violent methods have often been deployed. See, for example, https://www.esquerda.net/artigo/marvila-empresa-continua-tentar-despejo-de-inquilinos-apos-recusa-da-camara/59905

In fact, one should not be deceived by the forest of cranes that populate the area. If everything seems under construction, it is already in ruins, too.17‘aqui tudo parece que é ainda construção, mas já é ruína’, Caetano Veloso, “Fora da Ordem”, 1991, after Claude Levi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques. There is no contradiction, though. This may well be the condition of contemporary urbanism, that of being permanently under construction and ruined at the same time, as urban spaces are increasingly stretched, bent, and prolonged onto the delirious dreamscapes of valorisation by financial and economic speculations, whose scale and speed keep overflowing local experience, agency, and comprehension. As a result, the urban turns into a planetary construction site, whose “holes in a sense are the monumental vacancies that define, without trying, the memory-traces of an abandoned set of futures.”18Robert Smithson, “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey”, in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, ed. Jack Flam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996 [1967]), 72. All around, an invisible pile of debris grows skyward.19Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the philosophy of history”, in Critical Theory and Society: A Reader, eds. Stephen Eric Bronner and Douglas Kellner (London: Routledge, 1989 [1940]), 258. They are the invisible ruins of the already obsolescent futures that sit on the present, jolting intermittently, like phantom limbs.20Andrea Pavoni, “Lisbon in a Phantom Limb”, Desired Landscapes 4 (2020), https://desired-landscapes.com/; Jaspar Joseph-Lester, Andrea Pavoni, Suzanne Prinz, and Julie Westermann (eds.), Future Ruins: Lisbon (TriggerPoint, 2020). It feels like an “impasse”, that is, “a space of time lived without narrative genre”, a urban experience that lacks the aesthetic forms through which to make sense of it, individually and collectively.21Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 199. This calls for creative and speculative methodologies that, eschewing the arrogance of causal explanations and the naivety of bottom-up enthusiasm, are able to attend to the multiple temporalities, locales and subjectivities inhabiting this state of indefinite suspension.

In the meantime, the place keeps brewing, as if entrapped in an endless build-up which never quite kicks in, a frozen imaginary of unceasing expectation between a gone past and a yet-to-be future, an apt rendition of Portugal’s own contradictory complexion. In 2011, Nunes and Sequeira defined the area’s mood as “urban fado”, a nostalgia for its once vibrant life in the midst of present alienation and before what seemed like a bleak future.22João Pedro Silva Nunes and Ágata Dourado Sequeira, “O Fado de Marvila. Notas sobre a origem citadina e o destino metropolitano de uma antiga zona industrial de Lisboa”, Forum Sociológico 21 (2011), https://doi.org/10.4000/sociologico.382 Ten years on, many things have changed. The place now reclaims a cultural and economic centrality that back then would have been unthinkable. Yet, an urban fado seems to be still reverberating, paradoxically, through the atmosphere. The nostalgia is not gone. Only, its orientation has been reversed. It is a nostalgia for the futures that could have been, that have already gone, whose ruins are slowly rotting among the tissues of the present, imparting that uncanny sense of inevitability – that sense of having always arrived too late – that the contemporary urban experience is unable to shake off.23See Mark Fisher, Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures (London: Zero Books, 2014).


Photo credits: Francesca Renzi (@francescarenziph)

Research Funding Information: Andrea Pavoni’s research is funded by FCT/MCTES [CEECINST/00066/2018/CP1496/CT0001] and [PTDC/GES-URB/1053/2021]


Pavoni, Andrea. "Under Construction: Searching for Future Ruins on the Eastern Riverfront of Lisbon." Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 7, no. 4 (November 2022)
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