When you first visit Lisbon, it is hard not to notice the spectacular tiles or ‘azulejos’ that are not just for decoration but are part of the construction. They glitter on the facades of apartment blocks, dazzle in the public squares, bring colour to the interiors of churches and even make a trip on the Metro more entertaining.
Azulejos first came to Portugal in the 15th Century, when parts of the Iberian Peninsula were still under Moorish rule. Although many assume the word is a derived from azul (Portuguese for “blue”), the word is Arabic in origin and comes from az-zulayj, which roughly translates as “polished stone”.
Lisbon’s abundant azulejo-clad buildings are not all centuries-old work, though. In fact, in the early 20th Century, azulejo art had fallen out of favour. Apparently the cultural elite despised it and said it was for the poor people! But an azulejos revival started in the 1950s, when Lisbon’s first Metro station designers wanted a low-maintenance, easy way to have the underground feel less separate from the outside world.
Parque and Restauradores stations, the most impressive examples among the seven originally built, are covered in geometric-patterned tile, many of which are the work of the prolific Portuguese artist Maria Keil, whose husband Francisco Keil do Amaral was the stations’ architect. Her decorative flair now features in 19 of Lisbon’s stations.
The 1998 World Exposition transformed the art itself. City authorities decided that a formerly derelict riverside site was the ideal place not only for the exposition but for a new Metro line. At Alameda station, images of navigators and ships reflecting Portugal’s seafaring history were created. At Olivais, olive trees were painted on the tiles, representing the grove that once stood there. And at Oriente, the exit station for the Expo site, artists from five continents were given their own space to create individual works with a maritime theme.
Since then, tile art has been installed in numerous other Metro stations including Cais Do Sodre, with giant Alice In Wonderland-esque rabbits covering the tunnel and donkeys, goats and writers brandishing quills at Alto dos Moinhos!