The Tombo Tower was projected to receive the National Archive. Today we’ll be talking about this impressive temple guarded by gargoyles that conjugates in an exemplar way functionality and symbolism.
It’s also important to get to know the history and collection of this institution, whose mission is the preservation of part of the history of Portugal and the World. In case you haven’t, we suggest you read our article The National Archive of the Tombo Tower.
Today we’ll be revealing to you important and peculiar aspects of the conception of this relevant building of the city of the Seven Hills that you won’t want to miss.
The Building of Tombo Tower
The Architect Arsénio Cordeiro
When in the 1980s was put out to tender the construction of a building destined to preserve and protect such a valuable collection, it was probably not expected that the city would receive yet another architectonic construction of equal value.
The winning project was from the architect Arsénio Cordeiro (1940-2013) in collaboration with the architect António Barreiros Ferreira.
Graduate from the Fine Art Academy from 1967, with several collaborations and own projects throughout the 60s and 70s, this architect became particularly renowned in the 80s.
In addition to the Tombo Tower, he also won the tender for the construction of the monumental headquarters of Caixa Geral de Depósitos in Campo Pequeno.
The Tombo Tower, a Building of Excellence
The Tombo Tower, inaugurated in 1990 and situated in Cidade Universitária (university campus), has an area of approximately 55 000 square metres, distributed across seven floors.
The building is divided in three main areas: archive and investigation; administrative services; and public spaces such as reading rooms, an auditorium and an exhibition room.
There are currently approximately 150 kilometers of shelves storing documentation and these installations are even prepared to be expanded in case of necessity.
Moreover, following the earthquake of 1755, in case of calamity the building was designed to collapse perfectly straight, protecting its patrimony as much as possible under its rubble.
Temple of Memory
However, the Tombo Tower isn’t just a modern and efficient building; its aesthetic is composed by symbolic elements.
This grandiose building is constituted by two parallelepipeds, which are connected by a central structure.
This configuration that reminds us of a pylon from an Egyptian temple goes hand in hand with the base of the parallelepipeds that look like ramps of pyramids. Both these features remind us of the imposing constructions built for the eternity of Ancient Egypt.
No other aesthetic could be more adequate for a building destined to keep an archive of memories, since it has both a sacred and an unconquerable character.
On the other hand it harmoniously conjugates glass areas, which gives it transparency and lightness, with the limestone covering, a heavy material that is marked by its antiquity.
The two vertical counterfort-like parts on the façades form two Ts with the rest of the construction, to represent the initials of Tombo Tower.
Plus, its plan has the shape of a big H to represent the word History.
In order to value and reinforce this aesthetic and symbolic function, the architects invited the sculptor José Aurélio to come up with and produce the gargoyles of the Tombo Tower.
Thus, we can see in the south and north façades eight imposing gargoyles that simultaneously stand out and integrate the building.
The Gargoyles of the Tombo Tower
The Symbology of the Gargoyles
The gargoyles are sculptural elements that generally have zoomorphic or anthropomorphic shapes.
Even though they’ve originated a long time ago we usually associate them to the architecture of the grand Gothic cathedrals.
The purpose of these elements is to channel and deviate the rainwater from the roofs of the buildings. The water is discharged away from the walls in order to avoid infiltrations and the resulting degradation of the walls.
However, the gargoyles have one other not any less important purpose: symbolism.
They were the representation of extraordinary and imperfect beings that were put into service of the spiritual power of the Church. They were kept outside of the sacred space, but were their protectors. Thus, they’re the guardians of the temple and this idea is directly transposed to the gargoyles of the Tombo Tower.
The Sculptor José Aurélio
José Aurélio (1938) is a sculptor of excellence, his work is present in museums and private collections, both national and international, and he has won numerous awards.
His work includes among others, vast productions of sculptures for public spaces in different cities of the country and abroad, as well as the design of medals and coins.
We highlight the following artworks: a Mão (the hand) from 1966 in Óbidos; the Monumento ao Trabalho (monument for the workers) in Almada from 1993; the Escultura de 7 Rios (sculpture of the 7 rivers) from 1999 in Lisbon; and in São Paulo, Brazil the Porta de Abril from 2001.
He works with several materials, such as stone, wood and bronze, following a minimalistic aesthetic, with a geometric tendency.
At the time the project of the gargoyles of the Tombo Tower was a big challenge for the already experienced sculptor.
It wasn’t just the technical aspects, such as the fact that his work would integrate a building or its impressive size that were challenging. But also finding a way to pass on the message that those gargoyles belonged to the national archives.
The Execution of the Gargoyles of the Tombo Tower
The desire and necessity of integration in the building led the artist to opt for the cubic shape of the sculptural elements, in order not to contrast with the rest of the elements.
The biggest challenge was keeping the cubic shape even after sculpting them, which influenced the representation technique.
Each gargoyle was sculpted in a cubic monolith of 30 tonnes with more than 2 metres of side.
This fact demanded that the work was done in a workshop for the transformation of stone that had very specific conditions and that was located near the quarries of origin, in the region of Porto de Mós.
Moreover, all sides of the cube had to be transformed, which made this challenge even harder. Five sides were sculpted and on the sixth one was opened a rigorously cubic hole designed to attach the cube to the wall of the building through a protruding structure.
After being sculpted, the gargoyles weighed around 18 tonnes. Placing them on their destined place was also a very complex job.
The eight gargoyles of the Tombo Tower, four on the south façade and the other four on the north façade, are of two types: the guardians and the dichotomies.
The former, represented by four writing materials or ways of communication, are facing the outside.
The latter, fundamental elements of the history of humanity that are related to memory are between the previous ones and are facing the inside.
On the south façade we can find from left to right: A Guardiã das Ondas Hertzianas (the guardian of the Hertzian waves); the dichotomies O Bem e o Mal (the good and the bad) and O Velho, o Novo e a Morte (the old, the new and the death); and A Guardiã do Alfabeto (the guardian of the alphabet).
On the north façade, from left to right, we can see: A Guardiã dos Papiros (the guardian of the papyri); the dichotomies A Tragédia e a Comédia (the tragedy and comedy) and A Guerra e a Paz (the war and peace); and finally A Guardiã das Tábuas (the guardian of the tablets).
It’s definitely worthwhile going there and appreciating this impactful temple of memory, a building that has been classified since 2012 as a monument of public interest.
If you have binoculars make sure you bring them with you, as they will help you admire the magnificent gargoyles in the Tombo Tower.
If you’d like, you can purchase reproductions of the gargoyles of the Tombo Tower from Vista Alegre, an awarded collection with honourable mention from the German Design Award 2017.