The bank of the Tagus river is shaped by the silhouette of the capital city of Portugal, a city creeping through its vistas, a city where the streets are narrow and the buildings are four stories high, a city that is full of colour and life, the city of Lisbon.  

Like every other city, Lisbon has also seen some major changes, be it social or political, which impacted the daily life of the locals thus influencing and redefining prominent styles of architecture found in Lisbon.

Rebuilding the City: Lisbon - Sheet1

Social structure

Before the 20th century, the social welfare of people was looked after by the Roman Catholic church. In the late 1960s, state-operated systems of welfare had come up, improving the economy and stability of the country, aided by the development of parliamentary democracy. Portugal shifted from an authoritarian regime to a provisional military government before becoming democratic. 

Post the second world war the city got divided into classes: the upper class, the middle class, an urban working class and a majority of rural peasants. The social status of people was maintained by class endogamy.

The rural north of Lisbon had rigid social classes, whereas the south was full of immigrants.  In 1976 the constitution defined Portugal as a republic and formed a classless society, and Lisbon has been less socially stratified since.


In 1930 about 80% of Lisbon’s population lived in rural villages. Due to the rise of urbanization by 1960, and the increase in migration, 35.8% of the population was now defined as urban. A drop in population was observed due to migration to northern Europe but by the 1970s the numbers had picked up as people returned from Africa after decolonization. 

The rural south of Lisbon was now home to several landless day labourers.  By 1999 Lisbon recorded a population of 9.9 million over 100km2, further emphasising the concept of apartment complexes.

Culture and its impact on architecture

Lisbon is a city of balconies and terraces. The vernacular buildings in Northern Lisbon are identified by the use of local materials, a two-storey high house with a red tubular clay roof and thick granite walls. The ground floor was used for storage and as a shelter for animals. Most of these houses had verandahs and a big hearth in the kitchen with a chimney and a parlour for guests. 

In southern Lisbon, houses were one storey and had whitewashed flat-roofed houses with blue trim windows and doorways. These vernacular houses were built based on Lisbon’s hot summer conditions. Tall buildings are absent in Lisbon due to the seismic activity and undulating surface. 

Portuguese architecture is characterized by azulejos, glazed ceramic tiles that cover the facades and interiors of churches. Government building and private houses. Azulejos were used as geometric as well as representational patterns. Representational patterns were conventionally depicted in religious or historic areas. 

Returned migrants in Lisbon covered their houses with azulejos to represent their social status. A variation of this, the mosaic, was used on the sidewalks of major avenues of Lisbon.

These avenues enclosed important public spaces. Pastel stucco was used on the main administrative and government buildings in Lisbon.

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Azulejos on a building ©

Another style observed in Portugal is Manueline, a form of ornamental that mixes elements of Christianity with ropes, shells and various other aquatic imagery. Lisbon being located on the banks of a river has a very strong connection with water, to an extent that the entrance to the city is from the waterfront. 

A Baroque-inspired archway marks the entry into the central city. The city elevates from the brink of the river, some areas being in a much higher elevation than the other, thus forming cliffs. The landward sides have uniform buildings that date back to the 18th century. 

Lisbon is designed in a manner that freights, warships and ferryboats have ports that are well connected to the centre of the city, which is where most trade happens. The ports are usually overflowing with people at dawn due to the exchange of fish. The reflection of Lisbon’s major occupation is reflected in its architecture and city layout. The port asserts its importance by providing intimacy to Lisbon. The inland is colourful and houses the fruit and vegetable market. 

The streets run parallel to each other and are named based on the original inhabitants, further emphasizing the social stratification that existed in Lisbon.

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Baroque-inspired archway ©


Post the Peninsular Wars of the 1800s, Lisbon has expanded in terms of land area and population, and city halls were built, harbours were modernized and the railway system marked its presence. 

In 1880 a new main streetAvenida da Liberdadewas opened, a major highlight of the modernization process. It had a six-lane carriageway with blue mosaic sidewalks, sheltered with palm trees, fountains and other water-based ornamental features with hoster some aquatic life.

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Avenida da Liberdade ©

In the 1970s apartment complexes began to rise to accommodate the rapidly expanding urban population. Lisbon does retain its 19th-century characteristics but it no longer has multicoloured houses, parks and gardens spread across the city. The four-storey buildings and streets were gradually replaced by edifices in a bland style, stripping most of the original character of Lisbon and its architecture. 

Rehabilitation of historic districts such as Castelo and Alfama is areas destroyed by the earthquake in 1755 have undergone major developments in the last few decades. Lisbon began to blossom since it was designated as a European city of culture in 1994 and hosted the World’s Fair Expo’98.

In the process of its preparation, the Belem Cultural Centre was constructed in 1992 which showcased Lisbon’s art and vivid culture.

The city started establishing cultural centres, public libraries, research institutions and multifunctional auditoriums. The expo kindled the spark of inaugurating construction along the Tagus river. Commercial complexes, hotels and entertainment venues cropped up. 

Despite the rapid growth of the city, Lisbon stays true to its architectural style and one can find narrow, sloping cobblestone streets that are adorned with mosaic and pastel buildings with balconies overlooking the streets.


Kavya Turaga is a third year architecture student from Bangalore. She believes that every building has a story and a soul, which helps in understanding its unique character. She finds inspiration in the smallest of things and is passionate about architectural photography.