Shrinking City

After a fairly long absence on paternity leave, last weekend I went back to Porto. This is Portugal’s second city and metropolitan area, although no longer it’s second larger municipality in terms of population – a position now taken by suburb cities like Gaia and Amadora. They call it invincible or invicta.

PortoThis is a city where I lived for considerable parts of my life, and a city to which I usually commute to teach every week.

This is also the proud home of a World Heritage city center and a few prestigious institutions: Port wine; a football team, the oldest filmmaker alive who is still in activity, Manoel de Oliveira; an architect that ranks in between the world’s finest and its connected architecture school, Siza Vieira and the Oporto School; the Serralves Contemporary Museum; Rem Koolhaas’ Casa da Música…

Porto is a small city –like the Talking Heads ironically sung of London– and, on top of it, it is also a shrinking city.  Misquoting Paul Virilio, one could even say it is a city on the brink of disappearance – if not dangerously sinking into long-term cultural and economical insignificance.

What was once the symbolic center of the so-called economical motor of the country now appears as the shy capital of one of Portugal’s two poorest regions. As I’ve learned in shock this weekend, half of Porto’s population receives the Guaranteed Minimum Income, a social welfare measure for those who live below the line of poverty.

Indeed, my personal view is that Porto’s cultural and economical contraction is to be attributed not only to its mediocre political leadership over the last few years, but also to its blatant social inequality.

In what seems to be a sort of unspoken taboo, Porto’s society, like that of any Thirld Word country, is neatly divided in two: a rich bourgeoisie that inbreeds in the posh Western area of town and cruises the urban landscape only inside their black Mercedes, Audis and BMWs; and, on the other side, a poor population that still resembles that of a 19th century half-industrial, half-rural city.

While there are always exceptions, the elites themselves lack vision and civic spirit. And, contrary to Lisbon’s steadily rising middle classes, Porto’s lower middle class minorities totally lack expectations and opportunities.

As geographer and friend Álvaro Domingues was telling me, this is a centrifugal city. Although it has a renowned university, it doesn’t have the economical drive to keep the people it educates. And this also strongly reflects in the culture and identity of the city.

CasaMúsicaCasa da Música in context, via Plataforma Arquitectura

Samewise, cultural institutions in Porto are also almost neatly divided in two strata: the highbrow state-supported institutions, like Serralves and Casa da Música, and the radically alternative art, music and design scene, which, although vibrant and inspiring, faces the eternal dilemma of catering forever for the same small audience or simply give up. Given that there is no real funding for middle size local initiatives, there is also no bright future to look upon.

SerralvesThe art museum squats the inner city emptied-out buildings…

This is probably the main reason why, like so many before and after me, at a certain point –and more precisely after 2001, when the European Capital of Culture represented the city’s swan song rather than creating an expected cultural boom–  I have decided to live elsewhere.

Ultimately, Porto’s strong scenery and historical tradition seems to offer a place more interesting to (re)visit, than to create something in. Until the city comes to its senses again, people there permanently run the risk to emulate the incredible shrinking man’s coming out of the fog into an ever-smaller destiny.



6 responses to “Shrinking City

  1. Mafalda Rangel

    Porto: the “washing machine” city

    Your post reminds me your latest NAI’s book release talk about fiction versus reality, when it comes to visions of urban sceneries. To me, it seems that Porto still relies on it’s old fictional image: a washing machine. It’s a city that has always had the ambition to grow from the cultural point of view but for some reason, it keeps on repeating the same centrifugal movement, by washing and re-washing the same values, personalities and icons. Have a look at the upper part of the old city. People call it the new “Bairro Alto” or “Porto’s movida”. Yes, there’s in deed a flow of nightwalkers that move to the old centre each friday and saturday evening. But that’s not more than the fastest washing machine cycle, that rinses the same old clothing over and over again. Someone forgot to keep in mind that a city is a living organism, not a washing machine.

    Regards from Rotterdam, NL

  2. xana campos

    apetece escrever uma short-storie romântica e optimista sobre essa futura cidade atravessada pelo estreito douro, a cidade de Porto-Gaia, à falta de melhor inspiração, com a sua sucessão de pontes pedonais, e outros interfaces, como tantas outras cidades europeias, como Londres, Paris, ou Buda-Peste, cuja heroína vive no velho bairro de matosinhos, cheio de restaurantes vietnamitas e japoneses, bem perto do maior mercado de peixe da europa. Se hoje Vila-Nova-de-Gaia é a 3ª cidade do país, Porto-Gaia passaria a ser a 2ª, talvez… A paisagem, ou a imagem, seja da ribeira às caves, e ao longo das duas margens, tem uma coerência de vazios expectantes em jardins verticais, e é como uma só. De que é que estão à espera?

  3. Gonçalo Castro Henriques

    Pedro Gadanho, lived in Porto, and knows well the city, where he became an architect. I appreciate, since long time, his independent visions, and accurate thoughts. His now “outside” vision of the city is an opportunity for reflection.

    Personally, as an Architect, that made the choice of returning and living (fighting) in the City, I would argue that people shouldn’t neglect our spirit of resistance, free-initiative, and capacity. But I believe, that we agree, that is time for the dwellers and the citizens, to re-invent the city. I believe that “Yes we can”.

  4. Living in the city of Porto for a few months I start to know the city part by part. The main historical points and places I visited most of them, like the riverside and the sea. And driving thru Porto feels like you always got lost, but then somehow there always are points that some recognizes. And yes you start to think this is actually a small city that somehow feels bigger than it is. However I discover in Porto every day some new parts and hidden places like the fantastic big inter gardens, I will soon start to explore the region of it. Perhaps the real dynamic is not anymore in the main city but in the areas around it, like Gaia, Maia and Matosinhos. Perhaps somebody can guide me around?

    ps: nice weblog! really interesting!

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