Olaias Station

Going underground || Part 2

In my last article “Going Underground”, I wrote about the monochrome cartoon “azulejos” (executed by António Moreira Antunes) at the airport station of the Lisbon Metro. Other stations in the metro display a more colourful side of “azulejo” panels. Painted tiles as a decorative art form did not originate in Portugal, but Portuguese have embraced this art form with gusto.

The first European glazed and coloured tiles were made in Spain, particularly in Andalucia – a region that had long been under the influence of the Moors.

The word “azulejo” probably comes from the Arabic “azzellj” meaning a small polished stone.

The use of “azulejos” came to Portugal in the 15th century, courtesy of D Manuel I, who was so impressed with the decorated tiles he saw in Andalucia that he vowed to use them in the redecoration of his own royal palace in Sintra.
Interest in this art form revived after the restoration of the Portuguese monarchy in 1640, and greens and purples were added to the basic blues and yellows. Blue and white designs also became popular with the arrival in Europe of Chinese porcelains.

Eighteenth century tiles became richer and more and more complicated, but the need for mass production after the Great Earthquake of 1755 changed that trend. The Fábrica Real Cerâmica opened in 1767 and produced simple “azulejos” in large numbers.

The fashion to tile the façades of houses and churches grew in 19th century Brazil as a means to repel damp and to obviate the need for continual repainting. This practice spread to Portugal and all manner of private and civic buildings, notably shops, markets and railway stations, were tiled.

By the early 20th century, “azulejo” art had fallen out of favour among the cultural elite of Portugal. Although it was at that time considered unsophisticated art for poor people, the new metro needed low maintenance wall coverings, and the architect Francisco Keil do Amaral employed his wife, the artist Maria Keil, to design the tiles for the first 11 Metro stations. Her work gave a new impetus to the art of decoration by “azulejo”.

The idea of a Lisbon Metro first arose in 1888, but it was not until after the second war that Lisbon could afford to build it. Construction began in August 1955 and the first metro was inaugurated on December 29, 1959.

The metro system now has four lines: blue (seagull), yellow (sunflower), green (caravel) and red (orient). These lines extend over 44.2km and are served by 56 stations.

When Lisbon was awarded the Expo’98 status, it became important to connect the city centre with the Expo site by a new metro line. The 12 new and modernised stations provided a fresh opportunity for “azulejo” artists.

At Alameda, Costa Pinheiro reflected Portugal’s seafaring history with images of navigators and ships.

Nuno Siqueira and Cecilia de Sousa painted olive trees at Olivais and artists from five continents were given space to create a linked maritime theme at the Expo site itself (Oriente) on the Linha Vermelha. Not to be missed on this line is Olaias – a futuristic, wildly colourful area of glass art, colourful tiles and huge painted columns. It has been referred to as “the most impressive metro station in the world”, and I do not disagree. Since then, tile art has proliferated in the metro.

On Linha Azul, Nadir Afonso has painted beautiful modern stylised “azulejos” representing some of the capital cities of the world.

At Restauradores, Luís Ventura commemorates the 500th anniversary of the Portuguese arrival in Brazil for the very first time.

At Jardim Zoológico, Júlio Resende has created colour and movement with his plants and animals and, at Laranjeiras, Rolando Sá Nogueira has created beautifully bright eponymous orange trees.

One of my favourite tile decorations is at Martim Moniz on the Linha Verde. It is one of the original 1950s decorations. Martim Moniz was a Portuguese knight in the Christian force besieging Lisbon in 1147. At one point in the siege, the Moslem defenders were on the point of pushing shut a door which the invaders had forced open. He led an attack and sacrificed his own life by lodging his body in the doorway, where he was duly squashed.

The defenders were thus prevented from fully closing the door, and the invaders succeeded in pushing it open and were able to force an entrance and conquer the city. His sacrifice is commemorated in tilework on the walls of the station platform.

The southern terminus of the Linha Verde is Cais de Sodré, on whose walls we find a host of hurrying blue rabbits frantically looking at their watches, scenes cleverly borrowed from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. In the book, the White Rabbit mutters, “Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late”. Which of us has never had that feeling at a railway station?

For me, the Lisbon Metro is an Azulejo Wonderland, magnificent in scope and in interpretation. Portugal is famous for its “azulejos” and the new dimension given to this genre by this underground gallery is very clever, it is fun and it is inspirational.

The plans to extend the Lisbon Metro system link Cais do Sodré on the green line with Rato on the yellow line. This new circle line would include stations at Santos and Estrela, and the red line may be extended from São Sebastião to Amoreiras and Campo de Ourique. These plans give great scope for more “azulejo” panels in Lisbon’s underground gallery.

By Lynne Booker
|| features@algarveresident.com

Lynne Booker, along with her husband Peter, founded the Algarve History Association. lynnebooker@sapo.pt

Olaias Station
Azulejo Panel at Oriente
Lisbon metro network diagram
Restauradores Metro Station