Cesta de Piquenique

The «Algarve chimney»

The region’s most iconic symbol, the ornamental chimney is, alongside “platibanda” murals topping houses façades, the most characteristic element of popular architecture in the Algarve, despite sometimes being mixed with erudite influences. A clear expression of the mastery of ancestral mortar techniques, and of the possible interaction with floor and roof tiles, used in other architectural elements of the house, it aims, through complex principles of form and decoration, beyond its functional purpose, to show the creativity of the builder and/or the taste of the owner of the property on which appears.

In the Algarve, chimneys were originally extremely simple structures; an outlet for smoke. In general, when they existed, they were formed simply with a succession of floor or roof tiles, stacked at right angles. Until relatively recently, it was even common for rural dwellings to have no chimney at all. The smoke from the fire, often made on the floor, in a corner of the house set aside for this purpose, filtered out through a simple hole opened in the cane ceiling, and in between the tiles above. In the Lower Guadiana, for example, there are many settlements in which the locals say there wasn’t a single chimney.  

From the 18th century onwards, at least, and throughout the 19th century, new solutions began to develop alongside these older examples. Lower, horizontally, they became more and more enhanced in terms of form, decoration and colour, to the point where, in the early 20th century, in more humble homes, the modesty of the house contrasted with the exuberance of the chimney topping it.    

Looking at these first models, developing their independence from the vernacular language of houses and gaining their own freedom, although almost always keeping in line with the overall decorative language of the property, we can see that this first began in the more wealthy country homes, in so-called “country retreats”, which were rife throughout the 18th century. Revealing the characteristics of a more educated social class, with a greater “sense of urbanity” (because they owned by city dwellers), such chimneys gradually entered other classes, in which more imaginative models were built. It is therefore important, as historian Horta Correia and architects José Manuel Fernandes and João Vieira Caldas explain, to correlate the decorative languages of dwellings of more erudite origins with those of a more grass-roots nature, and rural expressions with urban ones, to thus better understand just how they influenced each other. It should be said that a study of this nature has yet to be made.

In the second volume of the well-known Guia de Portugal [Guide to Portugal], printed in 1927, the chimney is already shown as an item of great significance in the “typical architecture of the Algarve”, since it is laden with “an ethereal grace, (…) lace-like, fissured, and worked like a toy, slim and slender as a spindle or like a light and airy minaret, naïve and candid, like a discreet smile of the home”. It can be seen that, with relation to the shapes, many of them reveal reminiscences of a remote past, recalling, for example, at first glance, the Arab presence in the region and its minarets. In decorative terms, there are also dates often added to the chimneys, which helps in terms of dating them, or also, more rarely, anthropomorphic or naturalist figurative elements.  In any case, the decoration most commonly found is that of the geometric kind, following a timeless decorative style, at times subtly producing a lace-like effect through the mortar work or through the pattern achieved by floor tiles. In this sense, it can be said that the symbolic language of the shapes and of the decorative elements used is basically taken from the collective imagination of the populations: hence the diversity of elements found and also the reminiscences they seem to portray.

Using the types defined by architect José Manuel Fernandes, at least three major styles of chimneys can be found in the Algarve:

  1. balloon-like, where a conical volume tops a closed and decorated cylindrical body;
  1. featuring a horizontal grid, made up of a succession of floor tile, or mortar-based elements;
  1. vertical, generally brightened up with a geometric, angular and lace-like pattern.

The moment of greatest decorative expression was felt between the late 19th century and the early 20th century, basically following a European modernist movement, of frenzied development of means of communication, which came to make the circulation of goods, merchandise and fashions easier. In the Algarve, the arrival of the train and the development of the main road system – the EN125 road was the main means of communication at this time – conferred an “urbanity” never before seen, imposing on houses and their owners, exposure and a need for “urban communication” of another order. There is a need to “show” the revenue resulting from this greater ease of disposal of products, and a need to “get into line” with new fashions and decorative trends that were entering the region more easily. Investing in a chimney is, in terms of architecture, a good example of this, along with a decorated mural at the top of the house’s façade (platibanda).

The development of tourism and the establishment of the values of a “typical Algarve” ended up transforming the chimney into one of the principle symbolic elements of the region. It is said that from the 1950s and 1960s, onwards, few were the postcards of the region that didn’t feature one of its chimneys. Equally, in the early 20th century, a wave of architects appeared, spearheaded by Raul Lino, who tried to promote a “genuinely Portuguese” architecture, defining models and buzzwords that transformed not only architecture, but also mentalities, which came to take on many of these stereotypes as effective truths. It was definitively established that the lace-like chimney pot was of obligatory value, and illustrative of the typical features of the region. Only the well-known “Survey on regional architecture”, subsequently published under the title “Arquitectura Popular em Portugal”, by the Portuguese National Union of Architects, helped demystify, as a result of the extensive investigation made into traditional architecture. Victor Mestre and Filipe Jorge came to describe that movement as the “Portuguese-cisation of forms”, stating that this was the moment from which a fatal blow would violate popular values, undermining the soul of houses and objects. The decorated chimney, which until then, had been a clear attempt at individuality and distinctiveness, would become standardised, stereotyped and industrialised, until finally being mass produced from prefabricated models. In any case, it acquired trademark status for the region, transforming into one of the Algarve’s icons.

Miguel Godinho

Senior Cultural Heritage Technician | Cacela Heritage Research and Information Centre | Vila Real de Santo António Municipal Council

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