Covilhã, Factory City

Edition 36 — 15.11.2021 • 21.11.2021

Wool is the leitmotif of this week's edition and Covilhã, recently included in the UNESCO Creative Cities Network, is the epicentre of this wool universe. Covilhã is a quite original example of a “factory city”, a geographical and historical profile that would remain unaltered until the 80’s with the downfall of the wool industry. Wool has inspired the most amazing street art creations that can be seen throughout the city, colourful statements of a city heading to the future. There are also former wool factories that were brought to life again, producing the most innovative sustainable items. Or empowering projects such as "Queijeiras" (women cheese-makers) that will help more than 40 women of 9 different counties improving their education. Past and future woven together.

Covilhã, Factory City
The mountain is the main attribute of the city, located at the heart of Serra da Estrela up to the mountain between the river streams of Carpinteira and Goldra, which were so important to the wool industry. The University, restructured on the contemporary era, and the wool industry have shaped its social and historical profile, creating a strong imaginary. These are the cornerstones of the city. Covilhã has always been a quite singular city: in the Middle Ages, whereas the outskirts developed, the indoor area of the wall remained uninhabited. The Royalty had to issue decrees, so as to force the population to inhabit this area. It was only in the 15th century that the population on the wall zone began to increase. Houses were built across narrow streets and staircases, fitting the existing topography that can still be seen nowadays. From then on the economy of Covilhã was based on the natural resources of the mountain.

The origin of wool production in Covilhã may have begun among the Jewish community, very numerous during the Middle Ages. Covilhã turns into the main wool production centre in the country thanks to the river streams Carpinteira and Goldra that supplied water for wool treatment, keeping the shepherd tradition alive. In 1681, D. Pedro II, Count of Ericeira, opens the Factory-School over Carpinteira river stream, the ancient Fábrica d’el Rei D. Sebastião, later called “Fábrica Velha”.

Under the reform carried out by Marquis de Pombal on the 18th century, the factory Real Fábrica de Panos da Covilhã was founded upon the stones of demolished medieval wall near Goldra river stream.

The first weaving machines Jeacquard were placed in 1683 in Covilhã; in 1884 the Campos Melo Industrial School is founded and in 1891 the arrival of the railway is celebrated, improving the wool industry and the tourism demand for tuberculosis treatments and mountain sports. In 1941 the Group of Education and Leisure of Campos Melo Industrial School was founded. It was a privileged meeting point for factory workers, but also a place of solidarity and sense of community.

The wool industry was the main activity of the local economy and the landscape became “industrialised”. Consequently, the city began to grow both inside and outside and many houses were rebuilt, turning Covilhã into a unique city in terms of urban evolution, like no other Portuguese city, preserving this identity until the 70’s of the 20th century.

The layout of the central area of the city changes radically from 1944 to 1958 due to the opening of a new Civic Centre according to the rules of the regime. This was a unique case of a radical change of a small city’s main square. Apart from the City Hall building and the redefinition of the square, new representative elements appeared such as the headquarters of the national bank Caixa Geral de Depósitos and Teatro-Cine.

The conversion of Instituto Politécnico (1973) in University Institute (1977) and finally University (1986) led to economical and social growth, reducing the impact of the deep crisis caused by the downfall of the wool industry. As the University opened its doors in Covilhã, the university structures were placed inside the city, divided in sections, reusing most part of the former industrial facilities that were abandoned and in ruins. Old factory facilities were renewed next to Goldra river stream (Oólo I) and to Carpinteira river stream (Pólo IV), Convento de St. António (Pólo II) and Pólo III develops already in the 21st century with the Health Sciences Faculty in a new area of the city.

In the 21st century there is the need for a new look over the city, by recovering the architectural industrial heritage of the city and connecting Goldra and Carpinteira river streams through pedestrian bridges.

The extraordinary work of the architect João Luís Carrilho da Graça and the engineers António Adão da Fonseca and Carlos Quinaz – pedestrian Carpinteira Bridge – was born out of this vision. This work was awarded in the 7th Iberian-American Biennale for Architecture and Urbanism as one of the best architectural works of Latin America, Portugal and Spain. It was also awarded by AIT Global Awards (2011) and it was considered a “World’s Coolest Design Destination” by American magazine Travel&Leisure. Carpinteira Bridge was also nominated for Mies van der Rohe Awards.

The Bridge over Carpinteira river stream is one of the highest bridges in Portugal: 52m high (like a 17-storey building), 220m long and 4,40m wide. This bridge, used for walking and cycling, was built upon Carpinteira valley and the granite hills of the river stream, where the façades of the empty factories and the granite walls of wool drying structures are still to be seen.

Its apparent delicateness and frailty are essential to its beauty and singularity.

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