The image of Porto: on the observation and the anti-reductionism applied to the city of Porto

There are many ways of observing the city. What we can talk about the observed city is that it is, at the same time, a shrewd memory and a say in the matter.

While revisiting some books, I stumbled in a quite simple sentence hidden in the end of the contents page of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” of Jane Jacobs, saying:

Picture 1

Jacobs’ sense of illustration © Jane Jacobs

So, the observed city is, in fact, the life of each one in that city, or part of it in the same exact proportion. That’s how we, knowing so little about our own life, tend to know so little about our own city. The same matter that make us humans lies in the cities not in the form of stones and concrete, but in the collective construction of the habitat.

Apart from those properties, there is an intrinsic value that, similarly to the radioactive decay of carbon-14, sets the experience and observation of the city in time, always making the observations outdated in their own specific decay.

Alexandre Braga Street and Bolhão Market shadow Jacobs’ sense of illustration © Carlos Trancoso

Alexandre Braga Street and Bolhão Market shadow
© Carlos Trancoso

The city of Porto is one of those cities that demand caution in the process of understanding it. It must be seen as a whole that can´t be explained by simply adding the constituent parts, making it a good example for the holistic fans. The acclamation of Porto as unique and singular isn’t something new. Instead, we can ironically see that acclamation in its ruins.

Bindweed Oporto © Carlos Trancoso

Bindweed Oporto
© Carlos Trancoso

Avoiding talking about speculation and the classic “family heritage” problems, these ruins seem to exist in the sake of testing the limits of the city’s consistency. This spectacle of the ruin is managed in a conspicuous (though pretty much unrecognizable) setting established by the volatile rules of some powerful city players.

Abandoned building in Aliados Avenue © Carlos Trancoso

Abandoned building in Aliados Avenue
© Carlos Trancoso

This lack of information is present in many parts of the city. For example, we can find an abandoned building in one of the most loved (and photographed) avenues of the city that has the acronyms of the Porto football team (F.C.P.), a well-known institution that manages several millions of euros per year. Although we try to relate institutions to the people who run them, like the presidents and CEOs, there is also a huge not so well understood influence of those same institutions precisely on who is in charge of them. Possibly, that’s why the “Barões do Seixo” House in Cedofeita neighborhood, owned by the FCP’s president, is also abandoned and ruined.

“Barões do Seixo” House in Cedofeita Street © Carlos Trancoso

“Barões do Seixo” House in Cedofeita Street
© Carlos Trancoso

Usually, the thoughts that arise from the observation of the city tend to be inconclusive. As Debord says:

The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.[1]

This mediation, in terms of imagery, is pretty much everywhere you look. Nevertheless, we don’t always need to see this with malice. It’s like Kevin Lynch said:

A vivid and integrated physical setting, capable of producing a sharp image, plays a social role as well[2]

This images that Debord and Lynch depict are the ones that constantly shape our holistic perception of the city.

The ruins are there to constantly remind us of that “whole” Oporto that we caress and need to nurse for the future.

Caldeireiros Street © Carlos Trancoso

Caldeireiros Street
© Carlos Trancoso

It’s still important to have some remote hope, as Jane Jacobs states about the need of cities for aged buildings:

“Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings”[3]

Rua de Trás Street © Carlos Trancoso

Rua de Trás Street
© Carlos Trancoso

This states the potential of cities like Porto, where you can find room for new ideas to be brought to life. The eternal Paulo Cunha e Silva called it “liquid Porto”. A living matter in constant change.

With no doubt, it’s the littleness and closeness of Porto what makes it so big and open.


[1] (DEBORD, Guy. The Society of the spectacle. New York: Zone Books, 1994 p.5)

[2] (LYNCH, Kevin. A imagem da cidade. Lisboa: Edições 70, 1999 p.14 – Free Translation)

[3] (JACOBS, Jane. The death and life of great American cities. New York: Modern Library, 2011 p. 245)


Author: Carlos Trancoso