JOHN FREDERICK ANDERSON
Grid Cities- Pombaline is a series of photographs that make a visual study of the work of Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, later the Marquês de Pombal, and the reconstruction of the city of Lisbon and the sea port of Vila Real de Santo António on the Algarve. Carvalho was a Secretary of State to King José I of Portugal when, on the morning of November 1st 1755, a powerful series of three earthquakes struck southern Portugal, demolishing much of Lisbon and various coastal towns, provoking three devastating tsunamis and causing enormous loss of property and life. Carvalho survived, and was instructed by the King to take charge of the chaos and rebuild Lisbon and other urban centres that had been destroyed.
Carvalho supervised the plans for the reconstruction of Lisbon that had been drawn up by military engineers Manual de Maia, Eugénio dos Santos and Elias Sebastian Pope. Within a year of the catastrophe, building in Lisbon began in the area known as the Baixa, where the streets were laid out on a grid plan with fixed widths for roads, and large squares. The reconstruction introduced early designs for anti- seismic buildings, and pioneered prefabricated building techniques. ‘Pombaline Style’, as it became known, proposed structures of up to four floors with arcades on the ground floor, and an aesthetic style of discreet visual details on the façades, indicating the building’s social hierarchy and use. Pombaline Style was a rational interpretation of the Rococo style, based on the new proposals of the Enlightenment- reason and science, using restrained decoration and azulejo tiling. The Lisbon that Carvalho rebuilt is known as the first modern city in the west within the global scheme of Enlightenment Urbanism.
The timing of the earthquakes, on the holy day of All Saints, provoked a wide-ranging theological and philosophical response, with speculation on the message and meaning of the natural disaster seen as a manifestation of divine judgement. Scientific and philosophical responses came from leading figures of the European Age of the Enlightenment such as Voltaire, Jean- Jaques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant amongst others. The beginning of the modern science of seismology can be traced to a questionnaire designed by the Marquês de Pombal, assessing the events of that fateful day over 250 years ago.
Each photographic image in the series layers architectural cross-sections of the 18th century planned city and the modern structures that have emerged since then, as grids that blend together to form organic inter- textures, revealing evidence of life the citizens have etched onto the urban surfaces. The images concentrate on façades, the screen of urban life that shows its public surface to the outside, yet also conceals an inner world and contrasting visual vocabulary of private space. With the façade as the screen, the meeting point between private and public exhibition can be explored. Extrapolating the aerial framework of the grid, the visual narrative derives its structure, continuity and meaning from the interpretation of the grid on vertical surfaces. The result is a mosaic of fascinating richness, where combinations of textures form new layers of meanings.
Each of the prints in the series have three or four individual images layered as multiple exposures, made on location at the time on one sheet of 5x4 inch film. Each final image overlays distinct grid structures and details centuries or decades apart, collapsing time in a truly unique photographic vocabulary. The photographs show the aspirations and details of a bold reactionary plan, controversial at the time both architecturally, philosophically and conceptually, that attempted to employ scientific rationalism to overcome a catastrophic emergency. The resulting areas of Baixa in the city of Lisbon, and the reconstructed town of Vila Real de Santo António, allow the visitor and resident to enjoy the new breath of life the spirit of Pomblaine architecture proposed, inspired by the enlightened vision of those who lifted both urban centeres from the ruins.