Baixa, the city of Pombal

Baixa, the city of Pombal, is the flat area of Lisbon that starts at Squares of Rossio and Figueira to the north and extends south to Square of Commerce where the city opens onto Tagus river.

Rossio, seen from Sapateiros st

Baixa, before the 18th century was a part of the city that had grown poorly, with crooked and narrow streets, poor access and public health problems. The existence of numerous churches and palaces of the nobility hampered any attempts to modernize Baixa.

On November 1, 1755, the city of Lisbon was hit by a major earthquake, followed by a tsunami and a fire that lasted several days. No neighborhood in Lisbon was hit as hard as Baixa. Simultaneously with the tragedy, the historic opportunity also arose to build a modern city in the center of Lisbon.

Baixa – view from Chiado

The new configuration of Baixa was only made possible by the political and administrative genius of the Marquis of Pombal, the man who supervised the reconstruction of Lisbon after the earthquake..

The general plan for Baixa was drawn up in just 5 months. The royal palace of Ribeira was removed from Terreiro do Paço, which was renamed Square of Commerce. Several streets were outlined in the North/South direction, which were named after professions (streets of Ouro, Prata, Sapateiros or Douradores), crossed by other streets in the East/West direction that were named after saints (Nicolau, Sta Maria da Vitória, Santa Justa, Assunção and Conceição). The main street of Baixa became Rua Augusta, which starts at Rossio and ends at Arco Triunfal of Square of Commerce.

Santa Justa st seen from the elevator
Santa Justa st seen from the elevator

The detailed plan was made in 3 years. Many innovative anti-seismic solutions have been adopted. The structural unit became the block. The existing churches were redesigned in order to integrate into the block. The entire political and social environment was so impacted that it can be said that Baixa is the city of Pombal, also known as Baixa Pombalina.

The construction process was very fast given the size of the project. Many elements were standardized so that they could be produced on a large scale. The stonework for the windows and doors was also standardized so that it could be cut in the quarries and brought to the construction site only when needed.

Baixa, corner of Augusta st and S.Nicolau st
Baixa, corner of Augusta st and S.Nicolau st – the mythological Phoenix bird represents the symbolic death and rebirth of Lisbon in the 18th century

The Pombalino block was designed to be scalable or exportable to other locations such as Vila Real de Santo António in the Algarve.

Baixa Pombalina is contemporary with St. Petersburg on the Neva or Washington DC on the Potomac, but unlike these cities that were built from scratch, this is the reconstruction of a pre-existing city.

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