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What Could Be Next for a Noted Lisbon Modernist Relic?

Paige Vickers

Welcome back to The Architect's City, a monthly series inviting an emerging architect to reimagine an existing structure in his or her city, submitting a speculative proposal for Curbed readers.

Views from the balcony of what was once the Panoramic Restaurant of Monsanto show a band of green treetops, a stretch of white cityscape that spans Lisbon's old and new quarters, and a glimmering slice of the Tagus river beyond, mouthing toward the Atlantic. Bracketing the view is blue: a blue sky above, and below, a blue smash of broken glass, reflecting and refracting the sky's color. Wherever there is a vista at the Panoramic Restaurant of Monsanto, wherever there are windows—and the view is the focal point of the space—there is broken glass.

Last used as a club at the top of a 2,400-acre city park, the modernist structure has slipped ever further into riotous abandon since the mid-1990s. Windows have collapsed, graffiti long ago joined the reliefs by Portuguese ceramic muralist Querubim Lapa on the walls and the stained glass sculpture at the entry, chunks of ceiling have tumbled to the ground. And in recent months, a discussion has emerged: what to do with this city-owned modernist relic, which some estimate will require 20 million Euros to fix?

Lisbon's Monsanto park slides across the western top of the hilly city, nearly half as big as the urban area itself. Until the 1930s, the park held farmland and quarries, which had depleted the hillsides, ravaging its ecosystem. The park was reforested, plotted with hiking trails and cycling routes and tramcars, given a racetrack, even; it hosted the 1959 Portuguese Grand Prix Formula One race. Quarries and mills were overgrown and amenities added. Architect Chaves da Costa added his peaked modernist restaurant in 1968.

The 7,000-square-foot restaurant sits at the top of a central hill, seven-hundred-odd feet above the city's riverfront, with an open seating area and commanding views of the city below its central feature. Its uses evolved: In the years since its construction, it has been Lisbon's most lush restaurant, a bingo space, a club, and then a warehouse. "This is one of the best views in Lisbon," says Subvert's Tiago Rebelo de Andrade. "You can see the old part and the new part of the city, so you have a connection to the entire city."

After an economic battering during the global recession, Lisbon is bouncing back and growing. On an urban level, much work is needed, and in the last seven years, there hasn't been much money to fund it. Crumbling ceilings, boarded-up windows, and exuberant graffiti are not unusual sights in Lisbon. A 2008 count cited 4,000 abandoned buildings of the city's 55,000; more recently, the city council last year estimated that 12,000 of Lisbon's buildings sit in various stages of decay.

Yet an art, architecture, and investment community eager to get involved has, in recent years, rallied. A design-savvy city council revised the rent-control laws that had allowed the stagnation and created grant programs to keep creative talent in town, resulting in a vibrant young creative scene and economy; inexpensive retail spaces and visa incentives offering E.U. visas to property investors have invited investment from abroad.

This is why, according to Subvert, Lisbon is in dire need of a city museum, a space in which examination of the city's urban and built environment can occur on a regular basis. "There is no discussion of how the city will grow," says Rebelo de Andrade. As Monsanto's abandoned restaurant has come up for architectural discussion in Lisbon and beyond—it was the subject of a recent college architecture competition, and its photogenic decay has cropped up in travel photo essays—it seems a logical location.

Subvert's intervention of the restaurant is minimal, and layers a contemporary aesthetic underneath Chaves da Costa's original modernist crumble. Empty window ironwork is left intact, with large glass panels layered behind them. Where lumps of ceiling have fallen, nothing covers the holes.

"We wanted to leave it as much of the city is: unrefurbished," says partner Diogo Ramalho. "We wanted a mix of our architecture, the restored modern architecture, and the unrestored. The view is more central than the building itself."

So is the open space: Open spaces remain open, allowing for flexible use by exhibitions, classes, lectures, and more. This use echoes the exuberance of the shared retail façade called Arquivo 237 out of which Subvert worked until a few months ago, which functions as an office-shop-gallery-social club. On a cobblestoned street that juts off a main drag in posh Bairro Alto, the space hosts exhibits like molded glasswork by a young local designer and art and architecture talks: three speakers give loosely defined design talks every Wednesday, which are collected in art books published every ten weeks.

Amid a young art and architecture scene voracious to improve the city and eager to intermingle—architects and designers have created food-sharing networks, given family enterprises new spin, founded artist collectives, and more—an official space where conversations and exhibits about the city can occur feels urgent. "It's an open, multifunctional space where people can gather," says Ramalho. "The idea is to reconnect with the city."

· Lisbon coverage [Curbed]
· The Architect's City archive [Curbed]
· Curbed Features archive [Curbed]