December 9th, 2009

Paving in Portuguese

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Ten years after its handover to the People’s Republic of China, the old Portuguese colony of Macau hardly abounds with the tongue of its former master. Portuguese signs still cling to shops and older buildings, but the language of the streets is unmistakeably Cantonese — with the occasional whiff of Mandarin coming from the direction of mainland tour groups. Macau’s future, its leaders have decided, is as a gambling destination, and increasing numbers of visitors from across Asia pack its Vegas-brand hotels night and day.

But the enclave’s Lusitanian design vocabulary remains remarkably intact, and nowhere is this more evident than in the patterns that swirl beneath its pedestrians’ feet. Calçadas (literally “pavements”), the unique street mosaics that decorate the cities of Portugal and its former colonies from Lisbon to Luanda.

The origins of calçadas are somewhat unclear. The popularity of tiles in Portuguese art first exploded with the introduction of geometrical ceramic arts by the Moors. Decorated tilework, known in Portuguese as azulejo, soon came to cover houses and churches across the country. But the first recorded calçada was not the product of an artist’s whimsy, but as a makework project for prisoners thought up by an army officer.

In 1842, military commander Eusebius Furtado ordered inmates in the Castelo de São Jorge, a Lisbon prison, to cover its courtyard with a zig-zag pattern of tiles. The result attracted attention from as far away as Paris, inspiring none other than Louis Daguerre to make it the subject of one of the world’s earliest photographs. Seven years later, Furtado was given a commission to lay out a somewhat more sophisticated, wavy pattern known as “the wide sea” in Lisbon’s central Rossio square. By 1895, use of calçadas was made mandatory for all new paving projects in the Portuguese capital.

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This history makes the popularity of calçadas in Portugal’s former colonies slightly surprising. By the second half of the 19th century, Brazil had already achieved its independence, and Macau’s Golden Age, which flourished around the late 16th and 17th centuries, was long over.

But in Brazil, Old World style proved popular among the growing middle class, and calçadas flourished the newly laid out bourgeois suburbs of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, prevailing along such now-famous stretches as Copacabana Beach and the Avenida Paulista (known as the “Fifth Avenue of Brazil”). When Brazil’s new capital, Brasilia, was being planned in the 1960s, artists were employed to design calçadas with a contemporary twist.

The history of Macau’s calçadas is somewhat more mysterious. The city was already well-established by the time the paving pattern became popular, but the tiles tended to be installed in districts that had already been built up in the 17th century, including its central square, the Largo do Senado. It may have been that the installation of calçadas in Macau represented a late attempt to assert its ties to the motherland; Portuguese sovereignty over the territory was finally recognized by the Chinese Qing Dynasty in 1862, after over three centuries of occupation (at which point the colony was also experiencing an uptick in prosperity once again — though due, sadly, to an uptick in the trade of indentured servants from southern China).

Today the calçada seems to be making a slow retreat, not unlike the long dénouement of Portugal’s erstwhile empire. The mosaics require backbreaking labor to maintain, making the traditional art of the calceteiros both rare and expensive. The surfaces of calçada-paved streets and squares also tend to be treacherously slippery. São Paulo is tearing up the tiles along the Avenida Paulista and replacing them with a cheaper form of sidewalk.

Despite the calçadas‘ hazards and the ever-decreasing salience of Portuguese cultural influence in Macau, the historic center of the city is a carnival of tourists who delight in the patterns, unique in East Asia — and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But beyond the casinos, Macau, the last colony Portugal let go, also doesn’t seem to change as rapidly as its Pearl River Delta neighbors, which makes it all the more fitting that the calçadas are so likely to remain.

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2 comments

  1. Christopher DeWolf says:

    Macau really has seen very little redevelopment compared to Hong Kong and any other city in the Pearl River Delta. Even with all of the new tourism and gambling investments, large parts of the city have been untouched for decades, and there seems to be a greater tolerance for leaving things as they are than in neighbouring cities.

    I’ve wondered why this is and it occurred to me the other day that, in addition to being a legacy of Portuguese colonialism, it might also have to do with the way that property is controlled in Macau. Hong Kong is essentially run by a cartel of developers and it’s extremely easy to knock things down and redevelop them. That might not be the case in Macau.

    December 12th, 2009 at 11:40 am

  2. mary says:

    I was there yesterday, and saw that they were making more of these sidewalks!

    April 18th, 2010 at 11:48 am

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