Driven by the social life of a table

From my balcony I amuse myself, in the daily life, observing the social life of a table. The table is part of the Parque Urbano das Camélias’ furniture, a recently inaugurated green space in the city of Braga, Portugal, which was presented by the municipality as a fundamental piece for the idea of a central park or network connection of different urban green spaces (Parque da Ponte, Parque das Camélias and Monte Picoto) in the city of Braga.

Installed in one of the rectangular open spaces that flank the new staircase that cuts the vertical hill of Pinheiro da Gregoria, the said table called for me from the beginning of its presence in that corner. For someone who was brought up in a Catholic environment like me, the table evokes the image of the “last supper” — in this case, with Jesus Christ and the Apostles looking down on Braga and “his flock of God”. But the table, made of a brownish metallic fiber that blends in with wood — blending in perfectly with the surrounding green area dotted with cork oaks and pine trees — is flanked by benches on both sides. Through this configuration, to the image of the table as an altar I add that of the family table, as an expression and form of meeting and communion. Given that the table is in an urban park, a space designed as a public one, intended for meeting, interaction, and coexistence, it seems to make sense that this was the planned end for such a table.

But one thing is the planned or designed city and another is the practiced or lived city. From this point of view, “(…) this city is no less real than that of urban planners or administrators. It is another (Agier, 2015)”.

Since I have the table as a companion in my urban landscape, I wonder about its fate. Will it ever become a “place”, that is, a welcoming location to gaze, sit, talk, display, or to be and enjoy? “It is a place an area of space where being makes sense”, wrote Prado Coelho in the article Espaços em volta, published on October 28, 2000, in the newspaper Público.

For those who live next to her and with her daily, this doubt makes perfect sense. More than a space for use, in which we actively participate, Parque das Camélias is above all a landscape space, in the sense of a space to be seen or an object for visual contemplation. The uses that the few inhabitants of the area make of the park are part of the routine activities of walking the dog or passing through the central zones of the city. And the number of citizens from other areas of the city or tourists walking through the park is also negligible, much less those who enjoy the leisure and socializing areas, despite the spatial contiguity with the very popular Pedestrian Way of the Rio Este (Este River).

A table of this size, in an open space, next to stairs and paths that are rarely walked on is, to say the least, a challenge to the imagination. Maybe that’s why it attracts me, when I see it from above, from the balcony of my building, and pay attention to its occasional social uses, at different times of the day and night. The size of the table, as well as its location in an open space, even if it is well sheltered, seems to frighten both the lone runners or cyclists, as well as the small groups or couples who sit at it. The edges of the table are the spaces of election. Whether to talk, or, in the case of those who are lonely, to lie down on the bench and rest, exercise and even take advantage of the moment to sunbathe. Very recently, I saw a couple who sat, side by side, in the middle of the bench, with their backs to the center of the city. But the couple quickly turn the table top into a seat, the hill into the background and the city center the scene to be seen and enjoyed.

It seems that the grandiosity of the table is yet to come, just like the destiny, yet to be fulfilled, of the park as a public space — used until now essentially as transitional space, where one hardly ever stays or lives.

One of these days I left home to feel the ambiance of the table up close. Along the way, I saw an elderly man enjoying a break, while his eyes feasted on the panoramic view that being seated on a public bench on the top floor of this natural amphitheater provides. An exceptional situation: despite the park being dotted with public seats (Jolé, 2003), with a design that still invites you to take a break, it was the first time that, on my usual walks around this site, I came across this type of sociability, that of pause and contemplation.

One of these days I left home to feel the ambiance of the table up close. Along the way, I saw an elderly man enjoying a break, while his eyes feasted on the panoramic view that being seated on a public bench on the top floor of this natural amphitheater provides. An exceptional situation: despite the park being dotted with public seats (Jolé, 2003), with a design that still invites you to take a break, it was the first time that, on my usual walks around this site, I came across this type of sociability, that of pause and contemplation.

Walking on the stairs that flank the table is to decipher, little by little, and through movement, a palimpsest, a territory where fragments of local history are arranged, in layers, with different temporalities — those of the recent past, condensed, for example, in the presence of an open iron gate, which creates the idea of what was once private and closed and what is now public and open, a mark that preserves the community memory of the farm (Quinta das Camélias) that the site once was; and that of the present time, with shades of the past, manifested in the presence of the Vitrais installation by the brothers Blas and Pablo Montoya, a triptych structure of porticoes with stained glass in different colors produced from scrap metal sheets and leftovers of colored acrylic from companies.

For those who walk down the stairs, the interaction with the piece of public art (Becker, 2004) instigates memories and spiritual feelings of a religious nature, but it is its nature of passage, between one side and the other, that stands out in the walking experience. It is undeniable that the luminous coloring of the stained-glass windows gives a warm feeling, of protection and comfort to those who pass through them—perhaps only on sunny days like the one I am sharing with you now—although the effect that the succession of porticoes has on the look is what stands out the most. The layout of the porticoes in a row and on different levels of the staircase narrows the panoramic view of those who go down it and directs the gaze in only one direction — towards the city center. For a moment, for those descending, such immensity seems more palpable, as if dominated by the gaze. Is there, ironically, the sacred meaning of this experience? “Closer to heaven”, does it mean closer to the city and therefore further away from there? It is a fact. This is not a place “whose personality makes us want to stop, speak more softly and walk more slowly”, to use the words of Berleant (1992, p. 76) when he describes the nature of engagement elicited by spaces in the city that particularly appeal to us. For someone who goes down the long staircase, the encounter with the work works to reinforce the image of the park as a gateway to the city, precisely the opposite of the established idea about urban natural parks – that of serving as forms of escape from it.

Such experiences are consonant with the recent history of this area of the city and of the Parque das Camélias, until recently a “space-in-between”, terrain vague (Solá Morales, 1995) or limit (Lynch, 1960), between the center and the rest of the city. The interesting thing about the area lies precisely in the hybridity of its personality and in the multiple temporalities that coexist and juxtapose it. On my daily walks, I like precisely to enjoy this mixture of times and ambiences.

The encounter with the porticoes of the brothers Blas and Pablo Montoya, “planted” in the park by city council decision, made me leave the park and return to the strangeness that provoked in me the confrontation with a work that someone baptized as a chapel, located a few meters below, in an area not yet intervened along the Este River. In this area-neighborhood, one walks along alleys, lanes, and alleys in an almost labyrinthine shape and on very irregular ground, full of stone staircases, which contrast with the perfectly outlined pedestrian paths that we typically find in urban parks. This work is made up of two oratories, embedded side by side in the stone wall that flanks the Alleyway of Couteiro (Travessa do Couceiro) with tile, cement, and some marble.

One of the families residing on the site, owner of three of a small set of simple dwellings that make up the street had the oratories built. In the voice of those who live there, the chapels, as they are called, one of popular devotion to Saint Anthony and the other to Saint Joseph, worked in ancient times to unite the community of that neighborhood area – especially in moments of celebration of the saints – and consecrate the autonomy and personality of the place. Even today, this landmark continues to motivate curious people to visit Travessa do Couteiro.

Moved by the social life of a table installed in a public park in Braga – perhaps the O’Neill’s “Table of dreams” —, I started another one of my daily wanderings around the area of the city where I live. I stumbled upon, on my way through the park, a piece of public art — public but not common. Perhaps this absence made me return to Travessa do Couteiro — despite being an alleyway, it continues to take care of those it loves.


“Who doesn’t know that at the foot of each large, public, ostentatious flag, there are often several other modestly private flags, which hoist and float in the shadow of that one, and not infrequently survive it? Barely comparing, it’s like the small fry, which took shelter in the shadow of the feudal castle; this one fell and the stingray stayed.”


Quem não sabe que ao pé de cada bandeira grande, pública, ostensiva, há muitas vezes várias outras bandeiras modestamente particulares, que se hasteiam e flutuam à sombra daquela, e não poucas vezes lhe sobrevivem? Mal comparando, é como a arraia-miúda, que se acolhia à sombra do castelo feudal; caiu este e a arraia ficou.” (Machado de Assis, 2011/1881)

Text and photos: Zara Pinto-Coelho

Published on: 24-02-2023


Agier, M. (2015). Do direito à cidade ao fazer-cidade. O antropólogo, a margem eo centro. Mana 21(3).

Assis, M. de (2011/1881). Ideia fixa. Machado de Assis, Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas. Edição eletrónica.

Becker, J. (2004). Public art: an essential component of crating communities. Monograph, 1-16.

Berleant, A. (1992). The aesthetics of environment. Temple University Press.

Jolé, M. (2003). Quand la ville invite à s´asseoir. Le banc public parisien et la tentation de la dépose. Les Annales de la Recherche Urbaine, 94, 107-115

Lynch, K. (1960). The image of the city, Cambridge, MIT Press.

Sola-Morales, I. R. (1995).  Terrain vague. In Ignasi de Solà-Morales Rubió, Anyplace (pp. 118-123).



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