We recently visited the 1940s-50s wing of the University in Coimbra. It is a very strange place, and one which instills conflicting feelings even to this day. After all, when almost all of Europe was finally free, the Spaniards and we would endure dictatorship for about another 30 more years. The University’s design and scale makes no apologies for reflecting the Estado Novo rhetoric of total state control, like the Mussolini buildings at the EUR in Rome.
Furthermore, its construction razed to the ground a significant amount of the existing, charming and lovely vernacular city, while leaving the most important monuments alone. Le Corbusier’s plan for Paris was similar in concept – a concept which, ironically, was implemented here by the fascists. Unfortunately, a disregard for the cultural value of the traditional town as a cohesive whole was, and still is, part of the majority of the architectural profession’s code of conduct.
Back to the Architecture, one trait that is annoying about the Estado Novo Architecture in general is its pettiness. Take these buildings: they are enormous in scale, but its ceiling heights are low, and those plastic roller blinds – none befitting the dignity required, all seemingly telling you: you work in a big building, but you are small. To make it worse, they are right in the middle of the historic University palaces, which are magnificent and aptly scaled, so the meanness of design of 1942 is immediately apparent (not that we think low ceilings and plastic blinds have anything to do with most Architecture in the last 60 or so years).
In spite of all of the above, we think a lot of details are great in these buildings, especially in the hardware and lighting (can you tell by the recent entries?) and we are happier that they have some kind of classical order to them, as opposed to being a dysfunctional blob or social housing lookalike which would had likely been the choice du jour had the University been built today. The stonework is solid and not thin and hung from a concrete wall. The cornices extend, and protect the walls below, as they should.
And sometimes, just sometimes, if you forget where you are you could start to see a little deChirico in there. If only, like the EUR in Rome, it could have been built in a deserted place.
photos above taken from here.
Universidade de Coimbra, 1942