On the second floor of an elegant colonial building in the heart of Lisbon’s downtown district Baixa, José António Uva’s open-plan office spreads across a series of light-filled rooms where architects, engineers and designers pore over plans. “We just moved here last year”, he explains, guiding to a roof terrace overlooking Baixa’s famous grid-formed streets. Seen from above, this bustling downtown area gains a new perspective. One of the world’s first examples of urban planning built after the city’s 1755 earthquake, its elegant, uniform structure guides and contains the busy commerce below. But then much of José António Uva’s approach to Portugal is rooted in reimagining his native country from a fresh perspective.
While Uva holds an MBA from Pan-Euro business school ESCP and originally worked in London as an investment banker, his soft gaze and infectious smile hints at the dreamer’s soul that lives underneath. It was this bigger vision that inspired him to return to his native Portugal 18 years ago, leaving behind a corporate career to dedicate himself to the dream of restoring a 780 hectare derelict family farming estate in the middle of Portugal’s Alentejo. A passion project pieced together through painstaking restoration, 14 years in the making, São Lourenço do Barrocal opened quietly in 2016. It has since been garnering a legion of loyal fans, including Monocle editor and guardian of style Tyler Brulé, who rated it as the magazine’s top Spa Hotel. Combining food sourced from the organic garden, pristine natural surroundings and an eternal lazy Sunday pace, it’s a window into the best of Portugal’s rural lifestyle. Yet look further, and Uva’s approach to Portuguese heritage offers insights into how the country (and the world) can surf the wave of mass tourism that currently threatens to engulf its charming seaside capital.
What is the story of São Lourenço do Barrocal?
In the 1820’s an ancestor of ours bought a beautiful part of the Alentejo, known as the bread-basket of the country due to its agricultural riches. While the region constitutes over a third of Portugal, only 5% of the population live here, and up until the 19th century, it was predominantly royal lands. Then it started to be sold off in large chunks to farmers producing wine, cork, olive oil and cereals. São Lourenço was originally 9,000 hectares set around the hilltop hamlet of Monsaraz, a stunning Medieval village with a castle and impressive views. The property was privately owned for 8 generations. Then in 1975 it was nationalized by the government who came in after the revolution and took over the banking and farming industries. Squatters soon moved in, my parents left and moved to Brazil, and for 10 years, there was nothing anyone could do. By the mid 1980s when we got it back, it was derelict and no one wanted to start up the farm again. I had this dream of renovating the whole estate and growing organic produce, but it was scary! You had 8,000 square meters of 200 year-old buildings that were roofless and only fit for the resident cats and pigeons. I moved into a small cottage in 2002 and begun researching the land, talking to geologists and biologists to form a layer of intelligence to evolve into a master plan.
A hotel made much more sense than a farm, as long as we could integrate the new creation into the farm’s way of life and not lose the deep connection to the land. Naively, I thought I could pull it off in 3 years. It took me 14. I was 26 when I started and I was 40 when we opened it. Along the way, there were some hard times when I seriously doubted if it would ever come to life. A lot of the renovations were done by hand; it was a serious labor of love. We wanted to maintain the original character of the buildings as much as possible, so it took us 3 years to collect 400,000 old wood-fired terracotta roof tiles from the surrounding villages to retile the roofs. The project was a collaboration between Pritzker prize winning architect Eduardo Souto de Moura and my wife Ana Anahory’s design company, Anahory Almeida. We wanted to breathe new life into the original buildings, converting the old dog kennel into a restaurant and the olive-oil press into a bar. The process was really a question of trial and error to feel into what worked where and how to live each space without having to change it very much, or worse, turn it into a pastiche. At end of day, it can’t be a wedding cake, fake without character, it had to remain what it always was. This brought with it all sort of issues related to how we could bring the comfort of a 5-star hotel into something that was meant for simple agricultural use. It was very much a case by case, there is no beautiful formula. You work it out window by window.
Now, finally, we have more than 70 people working on the estate across farming and hospitality. There are 57 rooms in total, a restaurant and a spa with a really interesting partnership with Susanne Kauffmann, who has a skincare brand developed in the Austrian Alps using only organic products. All the food from our farm-to-table restaurant is organic and everything that we don’t produce we select for its origin; every tiny detail has its story, its reason for being there, nothing is unconsidered. For activities, you have hiking and horse-riding and access to the lake, which is one of the largest water reservoirs in Europe. We are under 2 hours from Lisbon and only 10km from the Spanish border.
How have you seen the area change during the project’s evolution?
One of the most interesting changes over the past 15 years has been the shift in agriculture from the mass-production of cereal fields, vineyards and olive groves into smaller, more equality driven permaculture estates where people are very mindful of their impact and where there is an emphasis on working for quality rather than quantity. There is a shift from commodities to self-branded produce, where everything is done on site, from bottling your own oil to producing your own wine. It’s a big shift: a lot of shops in Lisbon are taking a more environmentally conscious approach to their products and this is largely down to Catarina Portas, who opened the shop A Vida Portuguesa and was one of the first to instill international confidence in products of Portuguese origin.
For the first time in many, many years Portuguese culture is celebrating itself. And this is driven by people diversifying out of traditional job roles and wanting to connect again with the land and celebrate their heritage. It’s a pleasure to see people come and explore Portugal and appreciate it for what it is. Just don’t compare it to something else! The Alentejo is not the next Tuscany! Our job is to show what these places really are, to share what they really mean. It’s a super moment for us, because we are no longer afraid of letting people know what our traditions and stories. In our street, we are finally outnumbered. There are more foreigners than locals, but we love it, as they are people who are actively contributing to the community, like Elizabeth and Geoffrey Moreno who opened RedBridge School in Lisbon in 2017. Both our kids are joining and this kind of thing makes all the difference to international integration.
What impact has São Lourenço do Barrocal had on the local community and real estate in the area?
It has had an impact, and not just with the local people. It’s really interesting to see the type of foreigners who are drawn to live here; there’s an architect from Basel who has built his house and a graphic designer from NYC who has sold her place in the Meat-Packing district to move here. What to some many seem very remote, for us is becoming a very special and unique community. I haven’t seen any significant impact on house and land prices yet as you have in Lisbon. It’s also on the same latitude as the beach town of Comporta, which is gaining a lot of interest, but we need to make sure it survives the hype. The Alentejo is as big as Belgium with an incredible craft, food and architecture scene but it is still very unknown, so it’s a long-term plan to develop projects here. What is crucial is to make sure that in 50 years we are still proud of our land and that urbanism, mass tourism and ugly real estate has not engulfed it like in some parts of the Algarve. We are also developing a number of country houses, so that people can put down roots and build their own story at São Lourenço do Barrocal. Some of my most important friendships were developed over many long summers. A private family estate isn’t interesting anymore, we have to open it up and share it.
What serves as your inspiration?
Have you ever been to the Sea Ranch? It’s about 100 miles North of San Francisco and is a beautiful beach that was developed in the 1950s by some amazing architects from the Bay area called Charles Moore and Richard Whitaker. They laid the foundations for a place to evolve where nature and farming is still the priority and highly respected as such. It’s so rare to find a place like this: where people have settled but where the local craft and respect for nature hasn’t been tarnished as a consequence, so that’s an interesting example for us.
What is your view on the recent tourism boom sweeping through Lisbon?
What we shouldn’t be doing is having a cruise terminal in front of Alfama, one of the oldest and most beautiful hills in the city – ideas like that are ruinous for a city. That is the one thing that strikes me as being completely wrong right now. It seems the municipality aren’t seeing how over-populated the city is becoming with daily tourists that add very little. How to foster sustainable tourism? Tuk-tuks should be highly controlled with no access zones, and there should be many more pedestrianized streets and cycle lanes. It doesn’t make sense for tourists to have their own form of transport, they should integrate into the city’s transport system.
Regarding hotels, hostels and airbnbs, we need to limit the number like in Barcelona, while new projects in the countryside and along the beaches should be connected to a productive activity that adds value to the local community. If you are renovating a farm, then part of it still needs to be a farm, or if you open a beach hotel, you should take part in local life by cleaning the beaches or something similar. The impact of projects like Bali’s Green School can be enormous, but they need to be projects that have a real rooting in the needs and realities of the local society. It’s not about importing good ideas from abroad, but instead thinking about what really makes sense and answers the problems of the local community. Tuk-Tuks are great in India and Thailand but make no sense here. Every choice we make, from how we live to what we consume and where we spend our money makes a difference to the big picture of the world.
Would you say there is an art to preserving heritage?
I’m not sure it’s an art! It’s a constant battle against rules and silly regulations. Say you want to install electricity on a small road, the rules say you need to run a certain number of lux, as if you were lighting a Heathrow runaway. Problems come when people just say yes to rules without questioning them, such as the electricity pylons you know see all over Comporta. You need to fight for what you believe in. It takes more work and attention to detail to preserve things. You have to reject initial solutions and learn how to say no until it really makes sense.
We are a team of architects and urbanists, but we aren’t just service providers. In every project we take on, we have to be involved in some way, so we can have an influence on what we create and its impact. At São Lourenço do Barrocal, we hired 4 staff from the Four Seasons who came with very impressive procedures, but we needed to look at what makes sense locally. Even if we are expected as a 5 star hotel to have pain au chocolat for breakfast or pizzas for kids, we won’t as it doesn’t make sense – it’s much better to have homemade pumpkin jam and empadinha cakes. We don’t need to romanticize things and craft a story around our brand as places like Soho House do. We already have this amazing heritage and a treasure trove of things that tell our story. You feel that – it’s true, it’s real and you aren’t having to buying into a conceived reality.