Portugal is located on the Atlantic coast of the Iberian Peninsula, joined only to Spain’s remote western border, and isolated from the rest of Europe.
It is a proud country with a rich history, but a secondary role in current world political and economic affairs. It is a NATO member and U.S. ally, but with a socialist-leaning modern history. Generally speaking, Portugal is more affluent than African countries to the south, like its former colony Angola, but less influential than the rest of Western Europe, and possibly its most significant former colony, Brazil.
Spain and Portugal were under Moorish Islamic rule from approximately 700-1250, and Portuguese architecture is heavily influenced by this period of history.
During the 15th and 16th Centuries, the Age of Discovery, Portugal was a leading world power with an empire including colonies and ports in the Americas, Africa, and Asia. Explorers such as Vasco de Gama and Prince Henry the Navigator mapped the world and discovered the sea route around Africa for trade with India and Asia. A unique, nationalist maritime-themed gothic architectural style called Manueline flourished briefly, featuring carved stone naval motifs like chains, ropes, buckles, and gratings. (American architects missed a parallel opportunity during the Apollo program…)
Following the 16th Century, Portugal began to decline and never regained its former stature. In 1755, most of central Lisbon was destroyed by an extreme earthquake followed by fires and a tsunami which flooded up the Tagus River from the Atlantic. The historic center of the city was rebuilt in a modern grid street plan surrounded by medieval neighborhoods.
The 20th Century was a period of political instability, including revolutions, coups, and a series of governments, resulting in a right-wing dictatorship that lasted from 1933 to 1974. Portugal remained neutral in WWII, and Lisbon became a center of espionage and an escape route from Nazi-controlled countries. In 1974-75, a bloodless revolution created the current government. Some businesses and real estate were nationalized and the country took a democratic and socialist direction.
Lisbon’s history and southern European climate led to a rich cultural and architectural context, based largely on Moorish and Spanish elements of shaded cloisters, heavy masonry structures with vaulted spans and clay tile roofs, contrasting with elegantly detailed balconies, recessed doors and windows, and glazed tile wall finishes, both interior and exterior. Wood was scarce and used in limited applications for doors, windows, and special features. Iron grilles were common on windows facing streets. Modern buildings were typically concrete frame with clay tile infill walls covered with stucco or glazed tile, and red tile roofs. Sidewalks and plazas were paved in unique patterns of black and white granite blocks.
At the time of the Embassy project, Lisbon was noticeably less modern and sophisticated than other European capitals, but much more open, naïve, and friendly. Life was slower and less expensive. Relatively few people spoke English and the currency was Escudos. Taxis were ancient black diesel Mercedes, their dashboards covered with family photos and crucifixes. A long ride across town cost a few dollars, or less on the yellow, wooden-frame trolleys. There were not many new buildings, particularly in contemporary styles.
However, today Lisbon has become much more international, modern tourism having homogenized the world. Lisbon held a World Exposition or World Fair in 1998 which resulted in much new development and commercialization of the city.