255 Years Ago Today: The Lisbon Earthquake

On this morning 255 years ago, Lisbon was one of the richest cities in the world. Wealth had been flowing in from Portugal’s colonies ever since the great wave of Portuguese exploration began in the 1400s. A new palace and opera house had recently been completed, and the 300,000 or so residents were observing one of the biggest feasts of the church calendar, All Saints Day.

Then disaster struck in the form of a massive earthquake, estimated to be about 9 on the Richter scale of intensity (by comparison, February’s Chilean quake measured 8.8 while Haiti’s one a month earlier was 7.2). Fires and a tsunami followed, and by the time fires had burned themselves out, the waterfront and much of the sumptuous new construction was gone.

But the city was rebuilt quickly, under the guidance of a man who was, in effect, probably the greatest urbanist of his day, the Marquês de Pombal. Evidence of his leadership can be seen still in the lovely centre of Lisbon.

After the Great Fire of London in 1666, a portion of London’s centre was rebuilt along lines suggested by Christopher Wren. In the early part of the 1700s, Turin had also been expanded beyond the city walls, following plans which featured squares and streets laid on grids. Pombal, acting as the king’s right hand man, and his engineers looked to both these major changes in urban structure for ideas, but in the end forged ahead to plan a new city center that was the largest urban reconstruction project ever undertaken until Napoleon III hired Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann to remake Paris more than 100 years later.

Several things are remarkable about the whole project. One was the way that pre-cut wooden shelters called barrocos were built from wood purchased in North Sea countries, in order to provide temporary shelters for the people of the ravaged city. The reconstruction plan also exhibited remarkable concern for hygiene. Newly built houses were connected to sewer pipes buried under the street so that the waste would run unseen and unsmelled to the river, giving Lisbon an underground system of sewage collector pipes at a time when London was ferrying night soil up the Thames to be dumped in fields and Napoleon’s reworking of Paris’s sewer system was 50 years in the future.

Under the rebuilding plan, the streets on the devastated low land — the Baixa — were rebuilt on a grid with buildings of a height that would be safe in a future quake and where sunlight would reach the ground level for most of the year. The grid idea had been used a century earlier when the Bairro Alto which had been laid, but such a large scale reworking on lines which reflected Enlightenment rationality was unique in Europe. Two grand squares called the Rossio and the Praça do Commercio still anchor the center of the city today.

Also innovative was the way that standardized elements were mandated for the reconstruction—window and door shapes of fixed dimensions, as well as interlocking designs for the azulejo trim, for example—in order to profit from economies of scale in their fabrication. And 80 years before the “invention” of the balloon frame style of building in the United States which dramatically lowered construction costs and increased ease and rapidity of building, Pombal’s crews came up with the “gaiola” or “cage” style of wood framing. The impetus was the observation that wood was more resilient than stone during earth quakes.

The principle is the same as that used in the strong, light wood-framed house developed in the 1830s in Chicago, and which is used in modified form today. But, while the boards in Lisbon were cut to standard sizes, they were attached with mortise and tendon joints, not nails: milled boards and mass produced nails would have to wait until the Industrial Revolution had really begun to roll.

The gaiola or cage form of building invented during the rebuilding of Lisbon was reinvented 80 years later in Chicago as “balloon frame” construction.

The Rossio, a signal part of Pombal’s plan for rebuilding Lisbon, remains a beautiful public space.

The Carmo convent was never rebuilt, but its ruins give a taste of what Lisbon was like before the earthquake.

The straight lines, relatively low heights and grid pattern required by Pombal’s plan are still visible today.

Mary Soderstrom‘s new book, Making Waves: The Continuing Portuguese Adventure, will be published in November by Véhicule Press. It is an outgrowth of her earlier books about cities which allowed her to travel and discover that the Portuguese were everywhere before other Europeans.

This entry was written by Mary Soderstrom , posted on Monday November 01 2010at 12:11 am , filed under Architecture, Environment, Europe, Heritage and Preservation, History, Public Space and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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