Wednesday, 1 December 2010

The Architecture And Crafts Of Madeira

(This is the concluding installment of Patrick’s report on his trip to Madeira.)
The architecture of Madeira. Oh me oh my. Not just the prestigious stuff like the luminous Art Deco Central Market (1940) nor the stunning hotels, but the vernacular, down to the last details of street furniture. Even their bright yellow S.O.S. phone kiosks are memorable, for Corbu’s sake.
It’s a sign of the median excellence that Oscar Niemeyer’s Casino and Casino Park Hotel stick out like the concrete sore thumbs they are. I was so dazzled by the new Eden Mar hotel kitty korner from the Girassol that I telephoned its designer, one Joao Conceicao, who in short order arrived with a blonde translator so beautiful it took all of my devotion to architecture to stick to the subject.
Senhor Conceicao led me on a two-hour seminar about the work of his friends and associates who make of Madeira the world’s most satisfying architectural composition. He kindly annotated with name and date the photos I had taken during my week of euphoria there.
Let’s just say that modern Portuguese architecture is more—much, much more—than the legendary Siza-Alveira. There are about 20 architects at work on Madeira. He estimated that perhaps 25 to 30% of the construction on the island is architect-designed.
The dean of local architects, F. Eurico De Sousa, was too tied up to accept my luncheon invitation, but he wrote me a charming letter on the state of his art in Madeira: “The work I’ve had to do since our 1974 revolution has been bureaucratic, with projects with no money to build them, public instruction, and so on. My colleagues from before the revolution have continued their work very well—the architecture of Brasas, Gors Ferreira (who has left us), and the Lisbon architect E. Tavares.” He then provided his visitor with a quick check list of winners:
Brasas, Hotel Gorgentho.
Ferreira, Hotel Madeira, Companhia de las vejas.
Tavanes, Mercado (The Public Market).
Marcel Costa, Hotel Navio Azul, Edificio do Jornal.
Joao Conceicao, Hotel Raga, Hotel Eden Mar, Hotel Baia Azul.
Caires, the Madeira-Regency Club.
Carlos Roman (Lisboa), Madeira Palace.
It was interesting to me that when I started schmoozing the manager of the Gorgentho in his parking lot, he told me that the dazzling blue tiles that counterpoint the plain beton balconies are much less expensive to take care of: It costs $100 a square meter to paint such a high-rise hotel.
The tiles are the greatest legacy the Moors left the Portuguese. And they’ve everywhere on the island, from plaques of saints above the front door of humble homes, to the stunning historical vistas of trading on the walls of the Mercado or of the history of transportation on the Toyota dealer’s.
And the crafts, Lord God almighty, the crafts. The world capital of wickerware is a village called Camacha, just outside Funchal. There you can palaver with crafts persons and ogle an amazing wicker bestiary. I picked out an exquisite dark brown globe-shaped container, a humongous flower basket which is now bringing a temporary order into the chaos of my newspapers and magazines, and a workaday pail-shaped piece to protect the fake plastic wicker five-liter wine jug I had bought on the mainland and loved because it was so ugly. Camacha is a must for any person who is levitated by great craft work.
I bought a peasant wool hat (with ear flaps to lower when it gets nippy, as it does in the mountains) because its untreated black sheep’s wool appeals to my low-life character. It was a ludicrous $14, after a little friendly dickering. A splendid figurative (tulips) pure wool sweater set me back a silly $35 at a roadside market.
I hate their wine, but I grew to love the local passion flower juice, both at breakfast in unfermented form and as a powerful nighttime liquor. Incidentally, don’t buy in “duty-free” stores or tourist-trap shops. Shop with the locals in their supermarkets.
The locals love it if you try to learn Portuguese. It’s amazing what a little “Bom dia” (good morning) will do to passersby. I went at it tooth and nail with language tapes for the vocabulary and Jobim’s latest cassette for the difficult phonemic inventory (especially the “ssch” sounds!).
As I do wherever I travel, I had a local shave me. (It’s for a pseudo-anthropological jeux d’esprit called “Close Shaves: The World’s Razors at Hazard’s Throat.”) I picked my barber at random. It was a great shave—two separate latherings followed by a pumice stone to close the pores and a sweet-smelling astringent to open them back up.
I opened my mouth as the barber closed in for the tough parts around the nose and chin. He commanded “fecha bocca”—“shut your mouth.” I knew what he meant and complied. That’s always the greatest moment when you’re learning a new language. It’s relatively easy to read, with a pocket dictionary at hand; and it’s just a little bit harder to spew out phrases; but understanding what’s thrown at you is the toughest.
How much did I like Portugal? I called Grand Circle to go back for another fortnight this month, first a week in Cascais (the editor of Arquitecti, the leading architectural magazine of Portugal, has asked me to do an article on the Argentinean-born American architect Emilio Ambasz), and then a week in Torresmolinos—with an EXPO 92 sneak preview and a visit to Madrid to review the new Reina Sofia, their recycled palace of a modern art museum.
The basic cost of this Grand Circle Tour of three weeks (Cascais, Algarve, Madeira) was $1,505, including single supplement. That’s for four- and five-star hotels, with your own kitchen in the Algarve. Lunches and dinners were extra.
I know it must sound Utopian to you—mere intoxicated blather. But I’ve never seen people who work so hard, who are so generous and open to the visitor, and who are so blessed by flora and climate. Oh, there are dull patches, such as the too hoity-toity dukes and duchesses manqué at the Reid Palace, where the view is great but the cost of tea is prohibitive. They’re into their centennial this year, stiffly.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, April 10, 1991

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