In the grounds of the Serralves Estate in Porto (home to the Contemporary Art Museum) is what is considered to be one of the best examples of Art Deco architecture in Portugal, the Serralves Villa. The estate is on what was originally the Quinta do Lordelo estate, which was owned by Carlos Alberto Cabral, the 2nd Count of Vizela, a wealthy businessman who regularly travelled around Europe and who was inspired by the art and architecture saw there. Cabral inherited the estate in 1923 and two years later began planning a new house, while extending the grounds of the estate. Initially he commissioned the architect José Marques da Silva to modify the existing house, but eventually the plans changed to have a completely new house built on the site, designed by the French Art Deco architect, Charles Siclis and developed by Marques da Silva; while the interior was designed by the French Art Deco interior designer, Jacques-Émile Ruhlmann with some decorative touches from other major designers of the time, including Edgar Brandt, Ivan da Silva Bruhns, René Lalique, Jules Leleu, Jean Perzel, Alfred Porteneuve and Raymond Subes. The house was finally completed in 1944 and Cabral and his wife Blanche lived, what I imagine must have been a glamorous lifestyle, there until financial difficulties forced them to sell the house and estate in the early 1950s. At the time of the sale a condition was written into the contract stipulating that the house could not be altered in any way, and thank goodness it was, as the house we see today is virtually the same as it was in the 1940s.
The first thing I noticed as I approached the house is that it is pink, very pink (thanks to Alfred Porteneuve, who was said to have been inspired by one of the galleries in the Machado de Castro Museum in Coimbra), with lots of large windows. It is a streamlined geometric design, with two main facades: the front entrance, which is a semi-circular shape with round columns, and the back entrance which has rounded corners and large vertical windows that give uninterrupted views of the beautiful garden below. As I entered the house, I was slightly disappointed that it is unfurnished, so that all that remains of the original house are the fixture and fittings, restored lovingly in 2004 by the Portuguese architect Álvaro Siza Vieira (who also designed the neighbouring Contemporary Art Museum, which was completed in 1999), and I had to use my imagination and what I knew of these types of houses from films set in Hollywood mansions of the 1920s and ’30s to picture what it must have looked like in its heyday. But a few things have survived.
A large wrought-iron gate, entitled ‘Les Danseurs’, designed by the French metalsmith Edgar Brandt, decorated with Art Deco-style figures playing musical instruments, opens into two of the main ground-floor rooms, the Hexagonal Room and the Marble Room. Other rooms on the ground floor include the Dining Room, Billiard Room and Library, in addition the chapel, which was the original 19th century chapel with an Art Deco exterior built around it, and the basement which housed the kitchen, pantry and utility areas.
A large black-marble-topped table, designed by Raymond Subes, is affixed to a wall in the Dining Room. A sleek, curved staircase leads to the upper deck of the former library on the ground floor. In some rooms the floor is made of exotic hardwood, in others, marble. Details on the door handles are clearly Art Deco. Rooms have large mirrors on the walls and on cupboard doors to maximise the amount of light. The rooms on the first floor include the Fireplace Room, the Countess’ Bedroom, the Count’s Bedroom, the Guest Room and the bathrooms.
The guest bathroom, in white marble, is the more tasteful of the two bathrooms, with a large marble bath and washbasin, while the master bathroom (designed by Alfred Porteneuve) is done in pink marble and looks a bit more ostentatious.
In the Fireplace Room, on the first floor, two armchairs (the only furniture in the entire house) are placed in front of the balcony to give us an idea of what it must have been like to sit that room in front of the balcony windows and get a perfect view of the two-tiered garden below. The garden echoes the Art Deco style of the house, marked by two straight pink tiered paths with a water channel flowing between them into the pond at the end of the garden. From the pond the eye is led back to the house. The garden is now used for art exhibitions and on the day we visited there was a display of Joana Vasconcelos’ work which, although far removed from Art Deco style, blended in perfectly with the surroundings.
The villa can be hired for business and private events, including wedding receptions and I wonder if the Art Deco theme is extended to the tables, chairs and tableware at these events. I really hope it is!
The Serralves Villa is part of the Serralves Foundation, Rua D. João de Castro, Porto
Opening hours: April to September: Monday to Friday from 10am-7pm; Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays: 10am-8pm. October to March: Monday to Friday: 10am-6pm; Saturday, Sunday and public holidays: 10am- 7pm. Closed 25th December and 1st January (24th and 31st December closes at 4pm).
Full entrance ticket €18. Entrance to the Serralves Villa and park only €12
Bus: 201, 203, 502, 504 On foot: it is possible to walk from the centre of Porto to the Serralves Estate. We did it, but it is quite a long way (from the Palácio da Bolsa to Serralves is approximately 5km and takes around an hour). We walked from the historic centre of Porto via the riverfront road, turning right a few metres after the Arrábida Bridge and cutting through a pretty park (Parque da Pasteleira). We walked back to the centre of Porto via the Avenida da Boavista, which leads to the Casa da Música and the Praça Mousinho Albuquerque.