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University City of Coimbra: ‘tabula rasa’ as a project methodology
Autor(es): Campos, Joana Capela de; Murtinho, Vítor
Publicado por: Editorial do Departamento de Arquitetura
Accessed : 18-Jan-2018 00:57:36
JOURNAL OF ARCHITECTURAL CULTURE
José António Bandeirinha
Luís Miguel Correia
Alexandre Alves Costa
Joana Capela de Campos
History of Architecture III / IV
Biographies of Power:
Jorge Figueira and Bruno Gil
Joana Capela de Campos /
University City of Coimbra,
‘tabula rasa’ as a Project
CES, DARQ, UC
Portugal and its image experienced a re-foundation process in the30’s
and 40’s of the 20th century promoted for ideological propaganda,
which expressed itself as a profound regulation of urban intervention,
lead by the Ministry of Public Works and Communications.
Simultaneously, the University of Coimbra, a national symbol
and an overseas cultural exchange platform, had to follow that change
for modernization, which represented the national capacity
of entrepreneurship and evidenced the nation’s strength and power
on the international political stage and also its global inﬂuence.
The upper part of Coimbra, the Alta, suﬀered a signiﬁcant
transformation due to a process occurring from 1934 to 1975,
manifesting it by turning into a mono-functional citadel. These
transformations started in the40’s, when several demolitions,
determined in the master plan, marked the beginning of the works.
The aim of this paper is to highlight the project’s purposes that were
used throughout the process of transformations from that period of that
part of the Alta in the University City of Coimbra (UCC), taking into
account the role that public space assumed in the new urban spatial
organization. Through analyses of the master plans of the University
City works, it is possible to verify the connection and fusion between
the university citadel and the city, that is, between the university space
and its urban context.
While, in Europe, tabula rasa was a consequence of the destruction
caused by war, in Portugal it was a project methodology to achieve the
necessary space for construction. That was quite evident in this case,
where the “blank slate”, so precious for the creative process of the
Modern Movement, was made possible due to an assumption of power
by the state.
Any intervention in a city should be a conscious action respecting the
city’s own space and urban context, which has been absorbing diﬀerent
transformations throughout its history. In that sense, an urban space
could be read as an evolutionary text representative of: the urban
policies, the sociocultural dynamics and the technological knowledge
of each contemporaneity as well. So, it is the result of transformations
and development, not only of its evolutionary urban morphology, but
also of the evolutionary practices of appropriation by its populations
However, some events permit us to consider new solutions and new
approaches, mainly those which are the consequences of a traumatic
loss, self-imposed or not, of broken bonds and emotional links or habits
that everyone establishes in their own comfort zone and environment.
And the destruction wreaked in several territories during the wars in
th century provided the foundations for a growing consciousness
about the sociocultural legacy that is a city, especially, a European one.
Fig. 1 Master plan of COCUC, Luís Benavente,
1939 (IAN-TT, 1997, p. 21).
Although, in Coimbra, that consciousness was reversed and
contradicted when the government of the dictator Salazar decided to
construct a new UCC, upon the old original one that had performed
those functions since the 16
th century. The UCC was projected as a
space isolated from the rest of the city and above it, like a citadel,
which watches over its surroundings to protect and create a refuge.
However, the creation of the university citadel imposed an invisible
delimiting line on its urban context that has a real impact on its own
autonomy in the city.
Firstly, the ﬁrst and second master plans and the contextualization
of the theory behind them (similar to the theory of Athens Charter
of 1931) before the urban transformation of the Alta, since 1934
to 1940 are considered. Secondly, in contrast with the former, the
theory related to the master plans of the third Commission of Works
(CAPOCUC), since 1941 to 1975 (similar to the concepts of Athens
Charter of 1933), and its decisions and actions are highlighted
concerning the tabula rasa project methodology assumed since the
very ﬁrst design to construct the new UCC.
This case, simultaneously, leads us to think about the inﬂuence of
a political decision concerning a city and its capacity for resilience,
making it able to absorb any urban intervention with the passing of time.
If each decision, that is taken for a speciﬁc space in a speciﬁc historical
time, with some contingencies, has urban consequences within its urban
context, then this case is pertinent. The decisions taken were related to
a way of thinking about the city and the dichotomies of the 20
and also changed the paradigm for understanding the city.
Coimbra between Athens and Athens
When in 1934, the Minister for Public Works, Duarte Pacheco,
decided to construct the University City of Lisbon, Coimbra protested
vehemently and demanded public investment for the UCC (Capela &
Murtinho, 2015; Correia, 1946; Rosmaninho, 2006).
The period for the implementation of the ideal of a delimited area
for the constitution of a university city in Coimbra was from 1934 till
1975. It is possible to distinguish two diﬀerent moments during this
time related to the theory of dichotomy proclaimed in the two Athens
Charters, experienced by the group of architects that were chosen to
develop the master plan of the UCC.
The ﬁrst moment overlaps the ﬁrst and second Commission of
Works (COCUC), from 1934 to 1940, which contain the theoretical
approach defended by the Athens Charter of 1931, “to build in the
constructed city”, meaning that the urban context is a fundamental
principle for the project design.
The architects Raúl Lino and Luís Benavente were nominated
to study an urbanization project within the existent facilities of the
university in the Alta for the ﬁrst COCUC in December of 1934,
which demanded its isolation from the rest of the city (MOPC, 1934;
Rosmaninho, 1996, 2006). This stipulation was fundamental for the
future plans of the university because it was assumed that university
scholars’ results would be better with no external inﬂuences on
the students. There should be rigorous discipline within the space
designated for study, just as Ribeiro Sanches had suggested before
in 1759 (2003). It is very pertinent to note the contrast between the
values expressed in Sanches’ concepts and ideas in Salazar’s discourse
in 1937. For Salazar, Coimbra, and the Alta in particular, was already a
university city simply waiting for some adjustments and improvements,
in the form of new spaces and facilities appropriate for the students
and which would isolate the “holy hill” just for university activities
(1945, pp. – ).
Meanwhile, the transformation of the area into a main square, or
praça de armas according to Sanches’ proposal and in a profane sense,
should be contrasted with Salazar’s, into a citadel, more sacred vision,
he considered himself a spiritual son of the school (1945, p. XIX) and
legitimised his desire to develop the University of Coimbra by providing
better conditions. The consecration of the sacred myth becomes a
gloriﬁcation on three levels: the space, its image and its creator .
The second COCUC began at least administratively in 1939
(MOPC, 1939) with the function of revising and reformulating the
former master plan of 1936. That is why, oﬃcially, there were no
architects nominated in this reformulating team. Nevertheless,
Benavente collaborated in the new formulation of the plan but only in
an informal way (Fig. 1).
Both Lino and Benavente had a background and a cultural and
intellectual perspective (Bandarin & Oers, 2012; Choay, 1965), which
shaped their way of thinking about architecture and took into account
the urban context, in parallel with the theory of the Athens Charter of
1931. They worked in Coimbra and knew the city very well (Craveiro,
1983; IAN-TT, 1997). What already existed and its importance to the
identity of the place was too strong and too evident to be ignored,
therefore neither of them could design a master plan of the UCC
without being inﬂuenced by the urban context.
Benavente set out the principles that should guide the project:
to beneﬁt the value of the university’s existent architectonic heritage
in harmony with its urban context, making sure that any intervention
should be done carefully and new buildings should not interfere with
the historic visual perspectives which had been a permanent value for
centuries (IAN-TT, 1997, pp. 51 – 52). More than making reformulations
by demolitions or new buildings, it was essential to reorganize the
layout and surroundings of the university colleges. It was imperative
to redesign the structure of the urban area of the Alta that had lots
of problems related with hygienic and sanitary conditions. Also, a
concentration of the university facilities was necessary, as the pre-
existing mixed urban network was an unsatisfactory solution.
However, the most signiﬁcant interventions occurred in the public
space whether in the widening of the streets or in the constitution of
the main axes. The proposal to demolish the houses imbedded in the
aqueduct of São Sebastião was intended to achieve two purposes. On
the one hand, to widen Rua Martins de Freitas (known as Ladeira do
Castelo), which would be the privileged access to the Largo do Castelo,
which would also be enlarged and levelled, as a spatial distribution
point for the university area. This was also done to free the aqueduct, in
an attempt to restore its structural, constructive and patrimonial value.
Another proposed intervention designed an access street to both
the residential area and to buildings re-designed for university use,
thereby highlighting the cardus maximus of the Alta, between the
Museu Machado de Castro (MMC) and the Colégio de Jesus, ensuring
that the landscape on the Mondego could be seen at the southern top
without interference, since the Pátio das Escolas was “enclosed” by the
building of the Observatório Astronómico. This proposal was intended
to be an attempt at spatial clariﬁcation that, without imposing a physical
limit and without a functional separation, gave a greater dimension to
the university space in the Alta.
However, in addition to the master plan presented not freeing the
UCC from existing buildings, despite the many demolitions proposed,
it did not promote its isolation either, therefore the design was not
capable of representing the government’s aspirations (Correia, 2015).
Thus, the ﬁrst plans of 1936 and 1939 were rejected by Duarte Pacheco
because of not corresponding to the ideological purposes of him.
The Minister already had other plans, with other solutions,
expressions and languages. Several national and international events
were happening and being prepared (Acciaiuoli, 1998; Almeida, 2002),
giving rise to a so-called ephemeral architecture (Telmo in Telmo &
Santos, 1938) that fulﬁlled the aspirations and designs of a true Estado
Novo imposed by Duarte Pacheco.
The tabula rasa paradigm as a project methodology
The second moment corresponds to a mono-functional citadel,
theoretically close to the Athens Charter of 1933, which can be
diﬀerentiated into two phases: the ﬁrst, from 1941 to 1966, during which
the interventions were more purposeful, and the second, from 1967 to
1975, with more resigned and conformed actions.
The third attempt to carry out a plan that corresponded to the
Minister’s ideals took place in 1942 (Fig. 2), by the CAPOCUC (named
in 1941). The head-architect Cottinelli Telmo was responsible for the
various general plans, from 1941 to 1948. His successor, the architect
Luís Cristino da Silva (until 1966) allowed the construction of the works
to be continued according to the guidelines in Cottinelli’s master plan
and continued with the trend of a monumentalist character.
Fig. 2 Master plan of CAPOCUC, Cottinelli
Telmo, 1942 (Correia, 1963).
CAPOCUC can be considered as a continuation of the previous
Administrative Commissions of the Portuguese World Exhibition
(CAPOEMP), between 1938 and 1940 (CNC, 1939, p. 5), held on the
occasion of the commemoration of the nation’s centenaries (Acciaiuoli,
1998) and the commission working on the plans for the marginal area
of Belém (CAPOPIZMB), between 1941 and 1945. In fact, the atelier
located in the Praça do Império de Belém for the ﬁrst CAPO, was
used as main atelier for the others two commissions (from now on it
is referred to as the atelier de Belém). While the ﬁrst CAPOEMP had
an ephemeral mandate, suitable for only one exhibition, the other two
functioned longer and more consistently than the requirements of the
urban programmes in question.
Fig. 3 Alta’s demolitions in several streets and
Largo da Feira (AAEC, 1991, p. 95).
In any case, the three master plans were based on the same
choice concerning the operating guidelines and the methodological
and conceptual approach were delineated in a kind of tabula rasa,
which was made possible by several demolitions, a reﬂection of the
ministerial support that the atelier de Belém had (CNC, 1939, p. 6),
because, designing degree zero is an essential and constant value of the
modernist movement (Zevi, 1982, p. 41). In this case, the process of the
transformation of the existing urban fabric was only possible through
a complex process of the demolition of buildings, the reorganization of
streets and extensive topographic remodelling (Fig. 3 and Fig. 4).
Analysing the three plans, the assumptions claimed by Cottinelli
Telmo about the straight line can be veriﬁed as a symbol of order, of
orientation, of the goal attained, of apprehension, of dignity (Telmo,
1936, p. 24). The architects at the atelier de Belém imposed a particular
kind of monumentality, order and axiality through the design of the
several projects. For the head-architect it was essential to institute a
new order on the picturesque disorder, by means of the geometrical
imposition and creation of a new image or scenario in the existent
urban context, thus restoring its lost dignity to the city (Telmo, 1936).
In formal terms and spatial conception, the UCC’s master plan is
similar to the University City of Rome — built on a level area, where
the buildings assume a hierarchical and compositional position for the
adjacent spaces, with disciplinary memory as a strategy of approach and
justiﬁcation . Taking advantage of its local topographic conditions, the
UCC’s master plan assumed the overlap and imposition of a monumental
Fig. 4 Plan of Alta’s demolitions (AAEC, 1991,
language, intended to stand out, in a dominant and controlling position
over the city, without being contaminated by the common occurrences of
urban daily life — a university citadel crowning the lusa Atenas.
However, in the case of Coimbra the intention was for the UCC’s
master plan to expand its dominance to the city. And in this aspect,
there was a direct inﬂuence of Albert Speer’s master plans for Berlin
and Nuremberg, whose monumental axiality and scenic idealization
were designed to create perspectives and cinematographic eﬀects that
greatly appealed to Duarte Pacheco and Cottinelli Telmo (who also was
Faced with the spatial limitations of the main axis of the project,
the Porta Férrea — Rua Larga — Praça D. Dinis (former Largo do
Castelo), the outcome was that the axial expression that was intended
to establish a new order over the city would also be limited. This
lacuna in the project was solved with the introduction of the Escadas
Monumentais, which, in addition to solving a marked diﬀerence in the
levels of the topographical dimensions, allowed the UCC’s main axis to
be extended. In fact, the axis has repercussions on the city. It projects
beyond the Escadas Monumentais, to Rua Venâncio Rodrigues and
Rua de Tomar both planimetrically and visually, since, at the top of the
street next to the penitentiary building, there is a visual axis with the
University Tower (Fig. 5).
But the Escadas Monumentais still have another symbolic purpose
— direct access to the reception area reserved for those who intend to
ascend to the “select persons” of the nation (Salazar, 1945, p. XXII). In
this sense, the concept of “University City” assumes the connotation of
a university citadel within the city by eliminating urban functions, that
the organization of space was the purpose for the “specialization” of
university functions within the stipulated limits.
A second phase, already signalling a resignation and later
conformity, was assumed from 1967, with the appointment of the
architect Vaz Martins (until 1969, with the end of CAPOCUC), ending
with the conclusion of the last building in the master plan, in 1975. A
resignation to the evidence that, despite all its design strength and
monumentality, the project implemented would no longer correspond
to the new demands looming on the horizon that the University would
have to respond to in the last decades of the millennium.
There was a diachronic sequence corresponding to the proposals
for the construction of the UCC during the process of intervention
on Alta, which involved diﬀerent sets of plans, presented by the two
teams of architects.
The ﬁrst moment corresponds to Raúl Lino and Luís Benavente’s
plans, the intervention in the Alta tried to be an exercise of “building
in the constructed city”, establishing a dialogue between the pre-
Fig. 5 Plan of CUC, Cristino da Silva, 1954
(UC, Process of WHA UC–AS to UNESCO: AUC,
CAPOCUC, File 364).
existing and the new. In a second moment (the UCC’s master plan),
which corresponds to the design and construction of a mono-functional
citadel, exclusively for university use. In this moment two diﬀerentiated
phases may be observed: the former, a more vigorous proposal and the
latter a more resigned and conformed activity.
The purpose of the intervention carried out in the Alta during
the 20th century is still experienced today. The wall imposed by the
citadel on the old city was replaced in the Cottinelli’s master plan
by the street, which in this case is not an element of connection but
rather an element of rupture with the city space, contributing to the
isolation of the UCC. The diﬀerence of scale between the university
space and its urban context with adjacent private constructions was
promoted by the ideological imposition of the Estado Novo. Through
its design, it becomes a contribution to achieve an intentional spatial
rupture and a redeﬁnition of the urban landscape, using the contrast
between the conceptual and formal scale and also the language of
In Coimbra, the concept “university city” prevailed in the master
plans proposed, although its concept was not overtly discussed.
The sense of the violence of the implementation of the UCC, in
its contemporaneity, extended for many decades and is commonly
assumed to have been injurious to the country. It is pertinent, however,
that in one of the most detrimental moments to its condition as a city,
in terms of the permanence and spatial continuity, it was assumed as a
(university) City when a delimiting line was instituted by the settlement
of the mono-functional citadel.
If, at ﬁrst, the tabula rasa methodology was a sign of progress, it
quickly turned into a sense of the loss of spatial identity, without the
territorial and spatial markings that had been permanent features until
that moment. There was only resignation concerning what had already
been done, from then on.
The project methodology of tabula rasa, or the creation of a
completely blank slate, the new start, promoted by the atelier de Belém,
is pertinent for its dichotomies, paradigms and choices that inﬂuenced
the spaces, the uses, the behaviours and, above all, the life of the city.
In the present case, the imposed urban development works, which
were not very respectful of pre-existing heritage values, are part of the
basis for the subsequent recognition of the University of Coimbra — Alta
and Soﬁa as a World Heritage Site (Fig. 6), due to their contribution
to the history of architecture, the city and the country. In a total of 21
classiﬁed buildings in the designated area of the UCC, 6 have been the
subject of renovation/extension within the scope of this extensive urban
operation, which has signiﬁcantly transformed an important and central
zone of the city of Coimbra. And that remembers what Yourcenar has
set out in writing, Time (is really) that mighty sculptor (1996).
Fig. 6 University of Coimbra – Alta and Soﬁa
World Heritage Site (UC, Process of WHA UC–AS
1 ≥ Due to the considerable levels of destruction resulting from the 1st World
War, the ﬁrst Athens Charter “was drawn up in the proceedings of the 1st
International Conference of Architects and Technicians of Historic Monuments,
in 1931, where some theories and experiences, particularly the Italian, for
example Gustavo Giovannoni’s, were debated” (Capela & Murtinho, 2015, p. 129).
The conference was organized by the International Museums Ofﬁce (21st – 30 th
October), in Athens and for the ﬁrst time, the city was understood as a whole
with Giovannoni’s rationale (Jokilehto, 2005), rejecting “the idea of a ‘historic
centre’, as a hermetic place protected from further urban inﬂuence; on the
contrary, the whole city should be developed and considered as an integrated
system of spaces and linked places” (Capela & Murtinho, 2015, p. 128).
2 ≥ Comissão Administrativa do Plano de Obras da Cidade Universitária de Coimbra.
3 ≥ The second Athens Charter was a contrasting perspective to the Athens Charter
of 1931, about the assumptions of the construction of cities. It “was drawn up
in the proceedings of the 4th International Conference of Modern Architecture,
in 1933. It is also known as the Town Planning Charter, which said that heritage
should be taken into consideration if it could contribute to urban development”
(Capela & Murtinho, 2015, p. 129). The Modern Movement theory highly inﬂuenced by
Le Corbusier’s rationale, developed a “new ideal for the city, which denied
the academic style of copying the past for the existent city” (Capela & Murtinho,
2015, p. 128). It was based on the tabula rasa approach, developed by Le
Corbusier, expressing the ideal way to build a new city upon the ruins of the
traditional one and considering the blank slate as “the only solution capable of
meeting the social, hygienic and moral requirements of a European city” (Capela &
Murtinho, 2015, p. 128).
4 ≥ Comissão de Obras da Cidade Universitária de Coimbra.
5 ≥ Salazar chose to be presented in some sculptures and statuary with the
insignia of a Professor of the University of Coimbra (Amaral, 1938, p. 25), using
the seventh ideological myth of the foundation of the Estado Novo, the catholic
essence of the national identity (Rosas, 2012, p. 328), to consider himself “the
chosen one” to govern the nation (Salazar, 1945, p. XXI), which happened from
1932 to 1968.
6 ≥ “In the citadel the new mark of the city is obvious: a change of scale,
deliberately meant to awe and overpower the beholder. Though the mass of
inhabitants might be poorly fed and overworked, no expense was spared to create
temples and palaces whose sheer bulk and upward thrust would dominate the rest
of the city. The heavy walls of hard-baked clay or solid stone would give to the
ephemeral ofﬁces of state the assurance of stability and security, of unrelenting
power and unshakeable authority” (Mumford, 1961, p. 65).
7 ≥ The Athens Charter of 1931 leads to the well-known text of the Venice
Charter, adopted in the II Congress of Architects and Technicians of Historic
Monuments, in Venice (from 25
th to 31st May of 1964), where Luís Benavente played
an active part collaborating in the production of the document.
8 ≥ Benavente took part in the Commission of the works of the MMC.
9 ≥ The experience at national and international events, such as the
International Exhibitions of Paris (1937), New York and San Francisco (1939)
and the Portuguese World Exhibition (1940) or the exhibition of Modern German
Architecture in Lisbon (1941), created a dynamic allied with the constructive
impetus applied to the whole country. This dynamic did not disappear without
culminating in the Exhibition of Public Works of 1948, where the ﬁrst Congress of
Portuguese Architects took place.
10 ≥ These architects would be responsible for the guidelines and general
indications that were assimilated in the speciﬁc projects, where many architects
intervened, such as: Alberto Pessoa, Baltazar de Castro, Lucínio da Cruz, Walter
Distel and Cristino da Silva.
11 ≥ Comissão Administrativa do Plano de Obras da Exposição do Mundo Português.
12 ≥ Comissão Administrativa do Plano de Obras da Praça do Império e Zona
Marginal de Belém.
13 ≥ Piacentini deﬁnes that to work the organization of space was the purpose
of the project; working with the architectural and volumetric composition and
evoking the conception of the agora and the forum (Persitz, 1936, pp. 12 – 20).
14 ≥ This intervention had other repercussions at the level of the expansion of
the city. It was necessary to relocate all the residents of the Alta, who had
been displaced by the extensive demolitions therefore social and residential
neighbourhoods were built in Celas (1945 – 1947), Cumeada (1945 – 1951), Lomba
da Arregaça and Fonte do Castanheiro (1946 – 1950) and Conchada (1948 – 1952)
(Rosmaninho, 2006, pp. 324 – 327).
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