How a sustainable approach to development can breathe soul into a city.
Stepping into the belle-epoque relic of the Odeon Cinema, set just off Lisbon’s chic central avenue Av. Liberdade, is like stepping back in time. Sunlight streams through the glass-roof, arched like the hull of a ship, casting a chessboard of a shadows on the wood and rubble piled up in the centre; but look around, and the original features – the crimson balconies and wrought-iron balustrades, the monumental stage – remain intact. Outside, in the bustling sunshine the intricate art-deco facade is covered with dust-sheets to preserve any further disruption to what is considered to be a corner-stone of the city’s cultural patrimony.
Built in 1923, this beautiful silent cinema was once a glittering honeypot of the city’s social scene. Yet as the big brand competition increased and the Golden Age of Cinema, epitomised by the 1940’s-60’s, declined, it fell to disrepair, eventually closing its doors in the mid 90’s after struggling on for a decade showing pornographic matinees.
For Arthur Martins, L’Odeon’s long-time confident and care-taker, it was one of the saddest moments. Intrinsically involved with the property, Martins started work at the cinema when he was just 12 after his father died, rising up through the ranks to become the cinema’s projectionist. It was during this time that he first saw and fell in love with his future wife, an actress in La Novia, a film he had run countless times Eventually, the pair crossed paths, and 56 years later, are still together. Yet the fate of L’Odeon doesn’t stop here…
Something about its evocative architecture, its light-hearted soul and the air of celebration it encapsulates inspires serious passion. When French developer and landscape photographer Julien DuFour first came across the building, ‘it was love at first sight’. Unfortunately, L’Odeon had already been spoken for. Promised to another buyer, the sale was set, and heartbroken, Julien and his portuguese partner, developer Jorge Capelo, opted to name their new-found company, now Odeon Properties, after the iconic belle-epoque beauty.
“In Greek and Roman times, the Odeon was the place where all culture and artistic activities came together, which we felt was so suited to how we approach development in Lisbon and the city’s creative undercurrent”, says Julian. Almost a year later, something pushed Julien to give the owners a call to check in on his beloved. As fate would have it, the previous sale had just fallen through, and the pair moved mountains to make it theirs.
“The previous project had planned to demolish the interior of the theatre and turn it into apartments, all of its history would have completely disappeared and the building would have become something else. For Jorge and I, this was completely impossible. It has to keep its soul, its DNA. It’s really something special and we couldn’t sacrifice these features. We believe it is part of the patrimony of the city, so we would rather build much less, and instead value the story that the theatre is telling is.” Working with the respected architect Samuel Torres, the pair opted to keep the complete interior of the building and construct just 10 apartments, opening the space to the public with “one fantastic restaurant”.
The spacious 1 to 3 bedroom properties have been designed as evocative, theatrical ateliers. Ranging between 100 to 230 square metres, they prioritises original features, such as 5 metre high ceilings, combined with steel frame-work inspired by the belle-epoque style of Gustave Eiffel. “Living here, you will feel like you are really living somewhere special, somewhere unique in the world”, shares Julien. Hand-in-hand with the preservation of the cultural heritage, state-of-the-art facilities are set to include a robot-run parking technology x, where owners can call their car up using a magnetic key, or schedule its delivery through an app so it will be waiting for them as they arrive. “There was no way we could put a garage under the building and jeopardise the foundations, so this was a solution that enabled us to offer an even better quality of service to the residents”.
While the apartments are set to be amongst the most stylish and unique in the city, when it comes to the restaurant, Jorge and Julien are adamant to keep the offering affordable and available to everyone. “We are talking to a number of different Portuguese chefs at the moment to partner with. We have had interest from well-known international restaurant groups and individuals wanting to do something, but that wouldn’t be inline with the soul of the building. The experience has to make sense to the property: we want to offer €10 lunch menus and then a more elaborate dinner menu. The Odeon was never exclusive – it was treasured by the public and should stay the same way”.
To begin to bring life back to the grand-old dame, Odeon Properties recently partnered with hospitality company Silver Spoon for a series of pop-up events to celebrate the building and its transformation. “The owners almost cried when they saw it. For us, it’s not about real estate, but about celebrating and honouring this piece of history”. A boutique agency, its an approach the pair take to all of their residential developments, choosing to take on just one project at a time and focus on making it something special. Previous projects include São Bento, Flores 45 and Ferragial 29.
“Now is a really exciting time to be in Lisbon, to see its rebirth and watch lots of places and properties coming back to life. Our job is to make sure that what we do is stunning and captures the soul rather than just ticking boxes and doing things quickly. In some cities, this approach to regeneration has come at a serious cost, with places losing a sense of what made them special in the first place. This is the last thing we want for Lisbon. I believe the approach to development has to be sustainable, so that it enhances the city without changing it all over a generation”.