Biblioteca de Alcântara: Sala Monteiro Serra; pintura afresco que representa o Palácio da Pena.

Alcântara Library, a Space of Culture

Original article published on 19 November 2021

Alcântara Library is part of the Municipal Libraries Network of Lisbon, it is the third largest public library in the city and it opened on October 5, 2020.

This project, which had been under development since 2018, had a large participation of the population, who were invited to express their opinions by sharing their suggestions for the occupation of this space.

Institutions in the area also have intervened, collaborating with ideas and establishing partnerships.

Thus, it was inaugurated, despite the pandemic, on the day that marked the 110th anniversary of the implementation of the Portuguese Republic.

The date was not random and in fact it couldn’t be more opportune!

The Alcântara Neighbourhood

The western part of the city was once made up of land belonging to the kingdom, which over time was divided and assigned to nobles who, in turn, built their summer palaces there. Of these, some remain, others have been lost, with only their memory remaining in old engravings and documents.

Although the earthquake of 1755 was not particularly violent in this area of ​​the city, the Royal Palace that existed in what is now Calvário Square collapsed and from the buildings that made it up only the old stables, the buildings that form the south front of the said square, remain.

After the tragedy, this side of the city, as it was less affected, attracted many displaced people and also members of the nobility who followed the example of the royal family that chose this area to build the new Ajuda Palace.

The area was then urbanised following the model of Pombaline downtown, with parallel and perpendicular streets, and the old Alcântara riverside and the Tagus riverside was occupied by industries.

These constructions formed the first industrial complex in Lisbon and provided work for a population of people who came from the interior of the country and settled there, living in deep poverty.

This occupation justifies the existence of social support institutions such as milk stations, public bathhouses, kindergartens… whose vestiges are still very present.

Find out more about the milk stations, an important social equipment at the time, in our article Milk Station Museum in Lisbon.

Find out more about the milk stations, an important social equipment at the time, in our article Milk Station Museum in Lisbon.

In this context, marked by fracturing social inequalities and severe misery, entities aggregating the most disadvantaged emerged, such as workers’ associations and collectives, which had a preponderant role in fights, linked first to the republican and anarcho-syndicalist movement, and later to socialists and communists fighting Salazar’s dictatorial regime.

One of the tragic episodes took place in the former Rua da Creche, where the communist painter José Dias Coelho (1923-1961) was murdered by PIDE (police force of the dictatorship regime) in December 1961, a heinous act that served as the motto for José Afonso’s musical theme, A Morte Saiu à Rua (death went out into the street).

It’s in this street, which after the April 1974 Revolution was named after the artist, that we find installed in the former Condes de Burnay Palace, the Alcântara Library.

Condes de Burnay Palace, Address of the Alcântara Library

Façade of the Alcântara Library building
Alcântara Library

The name of the architect and the first owner of this noble building are unknown, on the contrary of its occupancies and other interesting facts.

In this 19th century neo-classical building, between 1934 and 1973, operated Escola Comercial Ferreira Borges, a technical school, particularly important within the community, which prepared thousands of students for the job market, until it moved to Rua Jau and ended up integrating into regular secondary education. During all these decades, the Ministry of Education paid rent for the space to its owner, the Burnay family.

In 2012, the Lisbon City Council acquired the property with the intention of installing the new Alcântara Library there. However, the building remained vacant for some years. The requalification project designed by the architect Margarida Grácio Nunes arrived in 2019 and was awarded an honourable mention for Best Social Impact Intervention from the 2020 National Urban Rehabilitation Award.

The result is a pleasant space that simultaneously asserts itself as contemporary but also respectful of the original design, giving it a particular charm that invites you to stay.

From the palace, the garden and the Monteiro Serra room deserve to be highlighted.

In the former, a romantic waterfall fountain decorated with stones and coloured shells, coexists with a sculptural intervention by José Pedro Croft and a large urban art mural by EDIS One, which aims to raise awareness of the protection of dolphins in the Tagus Estuary.Inside, the Monteiro Serra room impresses us with its magnificent stucco ceiling, where fruits and game pieces reveal the former use of the space as the house’s dining room. Frescoes on the walls take us to Sintra, where Pena Palace and Countess d’Edla Chalet are represented.

Couple Burnay and their grandchildren
Chalet of the Countess of Edla
Pena Palace
Artwork by José Pedro Croft
Mural by EDIS One
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More than a Library

The garden and the Monteiro Serra room deserve to be highlighted.
Alcântara Library: garden and Monteiro Serra room

In addition to the normal book lending and consultation service, Alcântara Library is a more comprehensive space of culture and proximity to the neighbourhood’s population.

The building has traditional reading rooms but also multipurpose rooms and computers, a children’s and youth space for reading, games and other activities, a shop, an exhibition gallery and a garden, prepared for outdoor film sessions.

Here you can also find the Senior University of Alcântara, a children’s/youth choir, a community theatre group, yoga classes and much more, thus involving the local community.

The Alcântara Library is open and available to welcome new proposals… who knows, and why not one day, your project!

Get the latest information on events of the library on its website.

Read more about other libraries in Lisbon in the article 5 Municipal Libraries, Cultural Spaces between Walls with History.


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