Zeitblick / Das Online-Magazin der HillAc - 12. Juli 2011 - Nr. 40

Means of Transport

Going Up-town

Transport mostly focuses on horizontal movement. Natural obstacles such as hills or mountains may add the third dimension to ground travel, but still going from A to B is essential. And aircraft usually only take off because flying is a more convenient way of reaching a distant destination. Apart from climbing trees or mountains, our moving vertically in the same place is limited to man-made multi-storey constructions. Ladders, ramps, stairs, elevators and escalators help us to get to the next level in houses, towers, mines, ships and even planes.

Thus an elevator in a building is a commonplace thing, but an elevator on its own, without a building, is something special.

So is the Elevador de Santa Justa, the means of transport which was created to help the citizens of Lisbon, Portugal, go from Baixa, a part of the city which is only a little above sea-level, up to the more elevated Chiado.

Walking down the narrow Rua de Santa Justa in the heart of Lisbon, you notice that the lane ends or seems blocked by a peculiar building. On top of a straight, bluish-grey stem there is a bud which looks a little bit like a part of the Eiffel Tower.

The Rua de Santa Justa / Foto: HillAc; I. Sidor

The similarity is not accidental. The structure was conceived by a man who combined science and art and craft in a way comparable to that of his teacher, Gustave Eiffel. The engineer Raoul Mesnier du Ponsard, of French descent, had been born in Porto in 1849. An expert constructor of elevators and funicular railways, he designed the Elevador, which was built in 1902 to link two quarters of the city.

Two wood-panelled cabins with glass windows each transport two dozen passengers 32 m (105 ft) up to the Chiado or Bairro Alto (upper town) level of the elevator. Today they are driven by electricity, which replaced steam power as early as 1907.

The top of the Elevador with its three platform levels
Foto: HillAc; I. Sidor

The complete Elevador is 45 m (nearly 148 ft) tall, since its top section offers another two levels. These can be accessed by a spiral staircase, which is, like most of the structure, made of metal.

Metal constructions, especially those of the late 19th or the beginning 20th Century, exude a strange kind of beauty: Not yet hidden in concrete, proudly showing their strength, a token of man’s ability to use the elements of nature to (seemingly) defy the rules of nature. And they are at the same time not only useful and designed for purpose and efficiency, but conceived as an aesthetic object reflecting the spirit of the period.

This is certainly true for the Elevador. Lancet archs in neo-Gothic style are combined with Moorish elements. Reticulated metal seems to lose its weight and becomes almost fragile.

Craftsmanship and a little decaying beauty: A staircase of the Elevador
Foto: HillAc; I. Sidor

Having reached the top of the elevator, you can see that it was not only meant to provide easy access to an upper part of the town. I say “an upper part”, because Lisbon is made of hills and valleys and the Chiado is just one elevated part west of the Baixa whereas to the east there rises the Castelo de São Jose. Squeezed in between is the rectangular grid of houses which forms the Baixa, result of master plan to rebuild the lower town after the devastating earthquake of 1755.

This plan also gave the city some impressive squares, such as the Praça do Comercio which – being wide open to the Tejo and thus to the seas of the world – symbolizes to me the spirit of the sea-faring nation Portugal. But there is also the Praça Dom Pedro IV, called Rossio by the citizens of Lisbon, a bustling and beautiful place. The platform of the Elevador is an ideal vantagepoint to see it.

A view from the Elevador towards Rossio with the statue of Dom Pedro IV,
the first Emperor of Brazil, and the National Theatre at its north side.
Foto: HillAc; I. Sidor

The fine view of the heart of Lisbon, the rich ornaments of the structure and, again, the very idea of treating a city like a house and installing an elevator make the Elevador de Santa Justa an extraordinary means of transport I will always remember.

© HillAc / I. Sidor