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Bombarda Gardens: the new green space in Arroios that is a "utopia in the making"

After 12 years at Largo do Intendente and two years at Santa Bárbara Barracks, Largo Residências has found a new home... and the city has gained a new green and cultural space. The Bombarda Gardens emerge as a "utopia in the making" within an area of Lisbon's former psychiatric hospital, currently abandoned.

The Bombarda Gardens are a new cultural and community center in Lisbon (photo courtesy of Vitorino Coragem/Largo Residências)

The citizenship and culture work that began at Intendente and continued at the Santa Bárbara Barracks has now moved to a new space: the former Miguel Bombarda Hospital. "The only use of the Miguel Bombarda Hospital was for the garden area. We didn't have access to the built-up area, except for a small part here, which is where we have our offices and where we're going to have a restaurant-bar." José Luís Costa is one of the people in charge of the cooperative Largo Residences and takes us on a guided tour of the new cultural and community space that is being created in part of the former psychiatric hospital. It's called Bombarda Gardens - gardens because they didn't want to have the hospital legacy in their name -, and is presented to us as a "place under construction". Right at the entrance, a phrase sets the tone for what this space, once closed to people and the city, is to become from now on: "utopias, by definition, are always under construction".

"We took this philosophy of utopias under construction almost as our motto. And so we wanted to have this idea stamped right at the entrance, on the wall." explains José Luís Costa.  It's actually a high, sturdy orange wall that surrounds the building on the Rua Gomes Freire side, where the entrance to the now. "It's amazing how this wall hides a huge garden inside." The Bombarda Gardens start right at the wall, which now has some drawings of flowers and other elements, in an attempt to bring the green space inside to the outside. "Over time, we want to transform the whole wall into a kind of art gallery, inviting people who are passing by on the street to enter this space."

A pine forest, a plateau, a boulevard and a romantic garden

José Luís Costa, one of the managers of Largo Residências (LPP photo)

Anyone who enters these gardens soon becomes surprised by a pleasant and robust pine forestIt offers shade on a hot day and free play space for children. Something that is not always easy to find in the city center. There are tables and chairs scattered around that people can adjust to their taste and needs to create areas to lounge and relax. To enjoy the space, eating at the bar set up in a small refurbished building is not compulsory, but there is a menu with drinks and snacksat fair and affordable prices.

At the back, there is an auditorium made from wooden pallets, a semi-covered area where activities can be held for children and others, and an old artificial lake that has now been transformed into a space for socializing or debating, thanks to an installation made from beer crates and wooden planks. "We discovered that there was this tank even before the time of the hospital, from the time of Quinta Rilhafoles. Unfortunately, for safety reasons, we can't use the corner for water, but we decided to turn it into a space for debate, where people can chat inside the tank. And at the same time, if we want, we can have movie sessions here, projecting onto that white wall." In the building where the bar is, there are toilets, a workshop with an oven where cooking activities can be done, and two equipped rooms that serve as artistic residences for creatives who are developing a project in the city.

Map of the Bombarda Gardens (DR)

The Pine Forest is only part of the Bombarda Gardens. The space also has a Romantic Garden, where various flowerbeds, trees and shrubs give shape to spaces for conversation, play and also dating. It is also in this section that there is a community garden, which will be run by a series of neighbors and volunteers. But there are other small gardens scattered around the grounds. "We're involving artists in residence and collectives in the creation of the various spaces. There are some spaces that are already ready and others that are yet to be born, such as, for example, a spiritual space, which will be here, perhaps further down the road." - José points to a corner of the Pinhal, next to the building where Largo has its offices and where the restaurant-bar will operate.

A place under construction

As these gardens are still under construction, there are still unfinished parts. This is the case of the Planalto and the Alameda das Oliveiras, where around 40 modular wooden structures are being installed for permanent residents to occupy, and in the case of the Planalto also a stage to be used for concerts. At a less advanced stage is the transformation of an old shed, between the Alameda and the Pinhal, into a performance and rehearsal hall. The building will be Valentim de Barros Studio Room in addition to a space for concerts and other shows, it will also have a foyerIt has two rehearsal rooms and a rehearsal room. The room is named after the dancer Valentim de Barros, who spent most of his life in the Miguel Bombarda hospital.

The future Valentim de Barros Studio Room (LPP photo)

Largo Residências is taking on the restoration of the entire site in conjunction with friendly architects and artists, as is the case with the studios Working with the 99% e Black Polar Bear. But since Largo is a cultural cooperative, its financial capacity is limited. After a crowdfunding initial, where they raised around nine thousand euros, they had some public support, namely from the program Creative Europe and DGArtes, as well as the participation of social investors. "Our cooperative could have gone to the banks for a loan - I'm not saying that won't happen in the medium term - but at this early stage we wanted to open up to the community and find people who identified with the project and were willing to invest in it. We came up with a minimum and maximum ceiling of between 2,500 and 25,000 euros, with an interest rate of 3% per year, and then with some quid pro quos such as, for example, having the right to use one of these spaces for free once a year."José explains. The turnout was surprising, with investors coming forward who didn't know about it, including some neighbors who want to be part of building this space near their homes.

The former Miguel Bombarda psychiatric hospital (LPP photo)
Inauguration of the Bombarda Gardens (DR)

For Largo, the Bombarda Gardens are inevitably a phased project. "In a very general sense, the entire requalification of this project is no less than 300,000 euros." The first phase consisted of opening up the main public areas of the new space, in particular the Pinhal and the Romantic Garden. "Then there will be a second phase, when the Planalto part is opened. And a third phase, perhaps not until 2025, when we open the Valentim de Barros Studio Room." In the future, Largo is not hiding other forms of funding, especially for the completion of the Sala Estúdio. "We're going to try patronage and sponsorship. We're going to try to insist on that and see how we can do it." The first opening took place last weekend, June 15 and 16, and attracted many people and families with children, who were curious to see a part of the city that until then had been closed to them and which has a dark and heavy past.

Preserving the past, looking to the future

In this new life, the past is not forgotten. The memories of the old psychiatric hospital are still alive among some of the neighbors and are remembered by José: "We had a few meetings with neighbors before we opened to the public, and many told us very harsh and violent stories of hearing screams, seeing patients throw themselves out of windows or hang themselves from trees. This space has a very strong past." Some of these stories have also been collected in a book published in 2020 by Tinta da China, Crazy Things: What They Left in the Madhousewritten by journalist Catarina Gomes.

The name that Largo decided to give to the future Sala Estúdio - Valentim de Barros - evokes part of this memory. "Valentim de Barros was the first Portuguese dancer to go international in the 1930s in Germany. Then he fled the Second World War, persecuted by Nazism, and in Portugal he was persecuted by fascism. In fact, when he arrived here, he ended up being admitted to this hospital because of his homosexuality. He was subjected to lobotomy, electric shocks... Mental health at that time was seen in a different light, in a very violent way."he says. Largo Residências now wants to give Valentim de Barros the recognition he never had. "As well as dancing, Valentim was also someone with an enormous talent for the visual and plastic arts. He was a genius, but never recognized as such. We decided to honor him with this room."

The preservation of the old hospital's memory can also be seen in Largo Residências' efforts to maintain part of the original layout of the space, which is now gaining a new social and cultural dynamic. Over the last few months, Largo has worked to clean up the entire area of the now Bombarda Gardens, removing the weeds and garbage that had accumulated, painting walls, plugging holes and preparing the new paths and functions. For example, in the buildings where the bar, toilets and artist's residence now stand, the windows were changed and the interiors redone. "We just tried to keep more or less the color they had here, keep the roof the same, the rest inside is all renovated"José explains. "We wanted to keep these places more or less the way they looked when we got here."

From Intendente to Bombarda

The Miguel Bombarda Hospital is one of the many vacant state properties in the middle of the city. As was the Santa Bárbara Barracks, the former home of the Largo. To José, "it's practically criminal" there are abandoned or empty public assets in the middle of cities, but the "third sector can play a role" when activating these spaces. "The fact that they are temporary uses is not the biggest problem for us. Of course it's challenging and we'd like to have something with more stability. If there's the possibility of using the spaces for temporary occupation, it's preferable to leaving them empty"says. "Even without a closed and definitive project, the period of abandonment is very long. We can see that in the barracks, how quickly this heritage is deteriorating."

It was in the Santa Bárbara Barracks, a former GNR complex in the Estefânia area, that Largo Residências created, in October 2022, a place of citizenship and culture, with more than 900 events, 80 partners and 40,000 visitors over the course of a year. It was also at the Barracks that Largo gained another notoriety, but the social and cultural work, which also involves an effort at social inclusion by trying to employ people in fragile and difficult situations, began at Largo do Intendente in 2011. "It all started at number 19. We had a building with several floors. The top floor was a room just for artists in residence. That's how Largo was born, in this relationship with artist residencies. Then we had the social business, which was a café downstairs and open to the public, with prices that were always very affordable. It was with the café that we began to create a relationship with the neighbors and the community"he recalls. "And then we had the other accommodation rooms with more affordable prices, which was also one of the ways we always financed ourselves." Throughout these 10 years in Intendente, Largo has had various projects linked to culture and art, such as the festival Neighborhood celebrations.

But in 2022, real estate speculation pushed the Largo out of Intendente and into the Barracks. An opportunity that the project was able to take advantage of to grow. "At Intendente we had a small rehearsal room, which could only accommodate one artist a month, two at most. At the Quartel, we now have more than 50 projects, more than 100 artists and cultural professionals passing through. It's created a much stronger community." José explains that they had hoped to stay in the barracks for longer, but "it was one of the spaces that ended up being part of the PRR's affordable housing projects, so we had to move out early". "With all the movement that had been created there, with the huge ecosystem we already had, we tried to look for an alternative space that could also host these projects, also on a temporary basis, but a bit medium-term. And that's when we arrived at the former Miguel Bombarda psychiatric hospital."

The Bombarda Gardens utopia has only just begun to be built. The space will always be open from Tuesday to Sunday, between 10am and midnight. Programming will mainly take place on Thursdays, Fridays and weekends. In July, there will be a partnership with the D. Maria II National Theatre, with a show in the Gardens. "We're also thinking of some film cycles, also linked to the place of mental health, to bring some debate, conversation and thought to this place as well." But even if there's nothing going on in the Bombarda Gardens, the doors will still be open. "You can come here for a beer, a bite to eat or just a book to read."

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