With its white cobblestone pavements, Moorish-tiled facades, and pastelarias (cakeshops) on every corner, visitors to Lisbon frequently feel that they’ve stumbled into a fairytale. So it comes as a surprise to discover that the new National Coach Museum—home to 70 glass, gilded and glamorous historic carriages—puts a brutalist end to such fabulist fantasies.
Opened in May 2015 in the western suburb of Belém, the uncompromisingly modernist museum was designed by Pritzker prize-winning architect Paulo Mendes da Rocha to house 16th to 19th century coaches from the national collection, many of which once belonged to the Portuguese royal family.
Visitors approach across a cobbled plaza, and enter a vast steel, glass and concrete box—raised on columns—via elevators or unadorned stairs. Once inside, the airy space has little to distinguish it, apart from a series of trapezoidal windows, some of which frame the Tagus river outside.
Reflecting the philosophy of its 85-year-old Brazilian architect, the building is more functional container than memorable monument—allowing its dazzling contents to shine. But the $44 million museum has caused some to wonder whether the building can ever substitute the much-loved, neo-classical Royal Riding Arena, which has acted as the 110-year-old museum’s main home until now.
On a recent Sunday (the first in the month, when Lisbon’s museums are free to visitors), the new edifice was thronging with small girls making video films of the glitziest carriages, local couples taking selfies in front of charabancs, and grandparents exclaiming over vehicles they’d once learned about in history class.
Exhibits include a painted coach, lined in red velvet—used in a matrimonial exchange of Spanish and Portuguese princesses, a discreet coupé—made for King Joao V’s three illegitimate children, and a black landau—complete with bullet holes—in which King Carlos I and his heir, Prince Luis Felipe, were assassinated in 1908. But the star attraction is the Oceans Coach, a 1716 golden papal processional chariot with life-sized statues representing Apollo, the Atlantic, and Indian Oceans crowning its rear.
Judging by the crowds, it seems the fantasy-inducing contents will carry the day. Certainly, da Rocha’s building has permitted 34 new exhibits to emerge from the Riding School’s crowded archives—and the spare surroundings allow each to shine like a precious gem. The museum has finally been able to fulfil its “mission as a place of research, conservation and dissemination,” writes director Silvana Bessone in a recent guide to the museum, “in the wholehearted belief that it is a generator of culture and economic development.”
Yet it is with relief that we discover that the 1786 Riding Arena, across the road, is still open to the public, its frescoed ceilings and superb azulejos (painted, glazed tiles) perfectly offsetting the eight ceremonial coaches showcased within. Wisely, the original edifice, by Italian architect Giacomo Azzolini, has been transformed into a permanent annex that will also house temporary exhibition and multipurpose rooms.
Valerie Waterhouse covers Italy for Travel + Leisure. Follow her on Twitter at @val_in_italy.