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Amidst Renaissance-era churches and crumbling tile facades, a colossal stone structure hovers unassumingly. Completed in 2005, the Casa de Musica in Porto, Portugal symbolizes a fight that is not unique to the miniscule country, but one that is strongly highlighted there. It is the fight against time, a desire to stay relevant beneath the weighty shadow of the Big 5, the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council in a rapidly globalizing environment. The Casa de Musica is an innovative concert hall in the Porto’s historical center, the Rotunda da Boavista, contracted in 1999 after the city received the European Culture Capital award. The mastermind of the project, Rem Koolhaas, sought to connect the old and new and public and private facets of the city that have long divided it.
“Through both continuity and contrast, the park on the Rotunda da Boavista, after our intervention, is no longer a mere hinge between the old and the new Porto, but it becomes a positive encounter of two different models of the city” states Rem Koolhaas, the architect in charge of the project.
The 22.000 m2 structure has spaces that not only showcase the talent of the Porto Philharmonic Orchestra to the privileged few, but grand staircases, bars, and terraces that support public concerts and experience.
The city of Porto is one that traces millennia of conflict and change. Historic references from as early as the 4th century and Roman times have been discovered, and remnants of ancient Celtic citadels have been found in the city center. The Condado de Portucale, or county of Portugal, was officially established in 868 a.d., and given away as royal dowry in 1095. This next several hundred years saw the evolution of the city from a small provincial state into an industrialized nation and little sister of England. The city felt the might of the Moors and Napoleon, and has been torn apart numerous times by civil war, and yet a Cicada Invicta, the Unvanquished City, still stands.
Today, the city’s ports continue to export the namesake port wine that has been its primary commodity for centuries. However, the economic state of the country is taking its toll on its inhabitants. Nearly bankrupt, Portugal is desperately trying to avoid the fate befallen on Greece and Ireland. The last two decades have brought woe in the form of Chinese textile competition and falling wage rates, and the ripple effects are evident. However, some marks of wealth still manage to squeeze by in a heavily stratified society. In Porto, one room shacks occupied by the families of a nearly extinct class of fisherman are sandwiched between artfully designed glass houses worth millions along the coast. The old world fights for its relevance amidst the punctuated wealth of capitalism.
When I visited the country of my ancestral origin, I knew nothing of its rich history or what to expect at all. I was gratefully swept away by my amiable cousins to my great-aunt’s estate in the country side, obtained by her through marriage. The central building is a formidable stone one, built in 1895 amidst grape vines and fruit trees. The land used to act as a functioning vineyard and the first floor of the abode a wine cellar, but now they have fallen into disuse. The rest of the home features relics from generations past, like a step back in time. The estate rests merely 20 minutes outside the city by car, but the rural area seems far from real.
Back in the urban center of Porto, I visited several apartments of relatives and friends, and was stricken by the similarity of them all. The exterior of the buildings all featured a characteristic apparent dilapidation, as though centuries of conflict had left a layer of grime over the whole city (later I was to find out that this gray aura was due to the type of stone the city was built out of, the local granite). This contrasted clearly with the interior design of every apartment, which was clean cut and modern. Sharp edges and metallic finish support sumptuous dark hardwood detailing. This juxtaposition of the primeval and the modern will always leave its mark on me, a reminder of lost time and lost memories that will never truly fade into the woodwork.
Consequently, of every country I have visited heretofore in Europe, Portugal seems the least Americanized – the country still clutches its heritage and many residents do not speak English. Perhaps, that is an unfair standard to level a country to when analyzing its industrial relevance, but it is a valid misconception in today’s media saturated world. Portugal, and the city of Porto itself must continue to evolve, or face extinction.