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São Bento Railway Station

Porto, Portugal
1 of 2Atlas Obscura

The São Bento Railway Station project began in Paris, when Marques da Silva, with his usual sense of pragmatism, chose Central Station as the topic for his final coursework. This choice was understandable, not only in his ambition that the city of Porto would construct such a building, but also remembering that Victor Laloux, his tutor at the École des Beaux-Arts, was the architect of the Gare de Tours and, in Paris, the Gare d´Orsay, a prime example of the Beaux-Arts culture.

The arrival of the railway line in Porto city centre had been preceded by several delays. To make it viable, besides opening a connecting tunnel at the Guindais slope, it was necessary to demolish the Ave-Maria Convent which occupied the seat of the earthworks essential for the station platforms. The infrastructure was completed in November 1896, and in this same month the first train arrived at São Bento, though there was still no station. In December of the same year, Marques da Silva defended his academic project in Paris and was awarded the title of Architect Graduate of the French Government.

Returning to Porto with his new status, Marques da Silva presented his project at the City Hall in May 1897, gaining a good public reception for his formal proposal. This publicity allowed him to approach those responsible for Public Works, suggesting that they entrust him with the station project planned for São Bento. To ensure the viability of the commission, Marques da Silva was required to produce detailed drawings. This allowed him to revise his academic designs and adapt them to the building conditions specific to São Bento. After a few political delays, he was finally awarded the project in September 1899, being paid in advance for the work still to be done, and also for the proposal which he had already presented.

For some years Marques da Silva developed several versions of his first draft, responding to the successive views of the various committees to which he submitted his plans. This first draft, in its many versions, is characterised by the presence of the great metal nave in the composition of the main facade. The main issues for discussion on the designs were the provision of the Post and Telegraph Office in relation to services for passengers and luggage, and doubts over the implementation and design methodology of the metal structure. From the initial drafts a U shape was clearly adopted, with a central entrance wider towards the front, and facing towards the Praça Almeida Garrett (Almeida Garrett Square), and at the top oriented in the direction of the railway tracks.

In 1903 the building works began, following a new design which Marques da Silva delivered in March of that year. Although it later became subject to alterations and adjustments, it was this design which characterised the fundamental elements of São Bento Railway Station as we know it today, in particular the decision to build a great foyer independent of the metal roof above the station platforms.

Along with several insults to his skills as an architect, including having the direction of the works taken away from him in 1909, the project took its course. In 1911 Marques da Silva designed the Post and Telegraph Office, which resolved the relationship of the building with the rua do Loureiro (Loureiro Street), and which never came to be built. This commission did not signify an increase in his authority over the execution of the project of which he was the author, and over which he continued to struggle until 1916. In this year the Station works were finally completed and the Station foyer, decorated with blue tiles (azulejos) by Jorge Colaço, was inaugurated during the festivities of the 6th anniversary of the Republic.

From its academic origins to the final expression of its construction, São Bento Railway Station is a paradigmatic example of Beaux-Arts architecture. The composition of the design, dictated by an objective functional logic, is governed by a system of orthogonal axes based on volumes with a specific unity of construction. In conjunction with this articulated volumetric mass, the design gives coherence of character based on a specific decorative princíple. In this case, the granite materiality creates a monumental mass in which the windows and entrances, more than being merely transparent, function as perforations in a solid building. It would eventually be this most original characteristic of the Station which, as a formative monument of urban identity, introduced into the city´s construction practices a unique sense of taste.