Concept Design

October - December 1978

The initial site visit was a formal FBO requirement, and a non-traditional phase, to study and confirm site feasibility by developing a Concept Design for FBO approval.  It was also to evaluate climate, geography, culture, politics, and history, and local architecture and construction practice.

Site analysis included context, access, micro-climate, contours, vegetation, and existing structures.  We measured and photographed everything on the site and obtained a land survey and measured drawings of the existing historic buildings.  We hired local consultants who advised us about local architecture, construction, and culture.

Bassetti and Metler went to Lisbon first get organized, and Bassetti picked me up at the airport a week later when I arrived with a suitcase full of drawing supplies.  Initially we stayed at the York House, a small inn in an historic former convent.  After several weeks, Bassetti, Metler and his wife and son, and I were moved into a government apartment.  We worked in a one-room office in the old embassy, a former apartment building, on Av. Duque de Loulé.  An unexpected highlight was the administrative staff addressing us with the title “Architect," such as Architect Kirk.

Working in Lisbon with locals, we experienced Portugal much more intimately than we would have as simple tourists.  Bassetti was in and out, meeting senior embassy officials, traveling, taking Portuguese lessons, and pursuing other activities.

As explained previously, U.S. embassy properties are not under the jurisdiction of the local government.  We met with local officials as a courtesy to inform them of the general project program, schedule, etc., but the project was not subject to land use or building codes, plan reviews, building permits, or local inspections.  (It was the chance of a lifetime to say “Permits?  We don’t need no stinkin’ permits!”)

We never met the ambassador, but we got to know staff people well while working in the old embassy, even though we never had any official project meetings with them.  They helped with local knowledge about travel, restaurants, shopping, and even an embassy recipe book handed down by generations of embassy staff.

We traveled on the weekends when we were not working, and the embassy regularly issued bulletins about places to avoid, such as socialist demonstrations.  Our local consultants told us about remote and undiscovered places such as Mansaraz and Lindoso, which were historic, architectural gems, untouched by modern life.  (By the 2000s, many of these places had been discovered and turned into condos and tourist destinations.)

In determining site feasibility, we encountered a complex web of design problems: preserving a beautiful site while adding large structures, drives, and parking areas, reversing the direction of site access, and finding a symbiotic relationship between large, new contemporary office buildings and the fragile, historic residential buildings.

The concept design was completed in Lisbon during the two-month initial site visit.  It was presented in five drawings which Bassetti took to DC for review by the FBO Panel at the end of the initial visit.  It was approved without changes.