By Kathleen Beckett | March 30, 2019 | The New York Times
LISBON — As Portugal lost its colonies around the globe, the country’s nearly six centuries of influence ensured a legacy of distinctive decorative style: delicate filigree jewelry, colorful azulejo tiles, intricate wrought iron work and black-and-white patterned stone sidewalks and praças, or plazas.
Those limestone surfaces are pedestrian objects in more ways than one: made to be trampled on, day in and day out, in places like Macau and Rio de Janeiro. “They are a carpet that people don’t always notice,” said Luísa Dornellas, director of the Escolas de Jardinagem e Calceteiros, the schools of gardeners and stone pavers.
But in Lisbon, the heart of Portuguese culture, the pavements are considered works of art. Since the City Council established the paving school in 1986, it has trained 224 calceteiros, or pavers, to maintain the limestone surfaces in the city as well as create new ones.Patterned pavements are as much a part of Portugal’s heritage as an after-dinner glass of port. The school’s information sheet says that, in 1842, the first patterned calçada, or pavement, was laid by a group of prisoners under the direction of Lt. Gen. Eusébio Cândido Cordeiro Furtado at the Castelo de São Jorge, the Moorish castle overlooking the city. The paving no longer exists but, at the time its black and white zigzag motif was a big hit. “The people of Lisbon enjoyed so much the pavement,” Ms. Dornellas said, that soon after much of the central Praça de Dom Pedro IV, commonly known as the Praça do Rossio, was paved in waves (about 64,600 square feet of the paving still delights residents and tourists).
Within years, many of the city sidewalks and plazas, as well as those in its colonies, were carpeted in small pieces of limestone, some laid in patterns but others just in white stone.
It took manpower. “Up until the 1990s there were 400 pavers” in Lisbon, Ms. Dornellas said. Then, as concrete and asphalt began to replace stone, the number dwindled to just a handful. The creation of the paving school reflected the city’s concern for the artistic heritage, but it also provided hope of jobs in an era of high unemployment in Portugal. Ms. Dornellas, describing the school’s history, told a success story of a man in his 50s, out of work, who studied at the school and then last year set up his own thriving paving business. Other graduates are hired by the city to maintain the public calçadas, which today continue to decorate much of the city; the school also has had trainees in many other countries.
It can take 18 months to complete the school’s course of study and receive a certificate marking graduates as professional stone pavers. “We now have about 20 students each year,” Ms. Donellas said, and they invariably are men: “We did have two women, but one dropped out.”
The work is physically demanding. Jorge Duarte, the school’s master paver and trainer (in Portuguese, mestre calceteiro e formador da escola de calceteiros) demonstrated how it is done.
Outside the school walls, blazingly white in the strong Portuguese sun, Mr. Duarte had been working on a perfectly flat area of about 22 square feet that had been prepared for paving. A kind of stencil, which the school and its students call a mold, lay on the ground. It was in the shape of a butterfly, about three feet wide; its exterior edges were lined with limestone pieces and then the mold removed so the empty spaces could be filled with stone of a different color.
The students create molds from sheets of laminate-like material; “they are used a few times and discarded,” Ms. Baptista said. Molds used on public projects, however, are made of wood or metal, which can be used repeatedly. The molds are archived, and the city has stored more than 7,000 in a warehouse.
After surrounding the butterfly mold with white stones, Mr. Duarte lifted the mold and began filling in the empty spaces with black stones. Each stone was a little less than a couple of inches in size, and he had chipped each and every one on all sides to fit precisely.
Machines can do that work but Mr. Duarte prefers to prepare the stones himself. “Some master pavers like to feel the stone,” Ms. Baptista explained. “The creativity flows from the head into the arm and the hand that breaks the stone.” So Mr. Duarte sat on his low stool — every calceteiros has his own — and went to work with a small hammer. Its metal head is sharp on one end, to chip the stone, and flat on the other, to tamp it down, once in place, tightly against its neighbor.
For the school’s work, the stones arrive from quarries as small pieces (in earlier years, Ms. Dornellas said, it used to arrive in huge chunks). White and black stones, the most popular colors, along with the less common gray, are from the Serras de Aire e Candeeiros region of central Portugal. The rare yellow and pink are mostly quarried in the southern Alentejo region.
The small stones create a mosaic, with plenty of cracks, or seams, that allow drainage when it rains. “And they are elastic,” Ms. Baptista said, able to shift and adjust when, say, a tree root grows underneath.
Once Mr. Duarte had all the stones in place, he picked up a heavy wooden maço, which looks like a small butter churn and can weigh as much as 45 pounds, and pounded them until they were level. Then, using a shovel, he dug into a mound of limestone that had been pulverized in the chipping process, deposited it on the pavement, swept it into the cracks with a broom, and then watered it to create what, once it dried, would be a porous mortar.
The smaller the stones, and the more complicated the pattern, the longer the work takes; for plain pavements, an artisan can create almost 110 square feet a day, Ms. Dornellas said. But if the pattern is more elaborate, only about 10 square feet a day is possible.
Somewhere in every pavement is the paver’s signature mark; Mr. Duarte’s is a heart. Several feet from his current project was a section of pavement with a stylized black spider design recently laid by three young men from Latvia under Mr. Duarte’s tutelage. At its center was his mark, a cluster of hearts. And on this particular day, with his hammer in one hand and chunk of limestone in the other, he swiftly chipped the piece into the shape of a heart and handed it, as a memento, to a visitor.
Portuguese calçada can be found “all across the world, in Rio, Angola, Macau, Mozambique,” Ms. Dornellas said. The United States has some examples, perhaps most notably in the John Lennon memorial in Central Park in New York.
The school’s staff members, including Isabel Polonia, coordinator of the paving students’ studies, are eager to keep paving relevant in a modern world, and artists have been called upon to create new designs. For example, the street artist Alexandre Manuel Dias Farto, whose tag name is Vhils, created one in 2015 in the Alfama, Lisbon’s old town, to commemorate the fado singer Amália Rodrigues, who died in 1999.
“The pavement starts on the ground and climbs a wall,” Ms. Baptista said. “When it rains it’s like she’s crying, recreating the emotion of fado.”
There even is a city monument to the pavers: Two bronze figures, one crouched and chipping at a stone in his hand, the other using a maço to tamp the surface. The statues, created by Sérgio Stichini in 2006, used to be tucked away on a side street, but in 2017 they were moved to a more prominent place, next to the grand Hotel Avenida Palace in the central Praça dos Restauradores. A plaque at the site reads: “Tribute from the city of Lisbon to the Pavers who build the ground we tread.”