Sintra, Portugal


Historically, Sintra has been a retreat for the rich. Just a short trip south of Lisbon, the small mountain town situated in cooling valleys and woods, was an obvious choice to reatreat from the sweltering heat of the city. It’s gorgeous. Long before that, around the 8th century, it also was an important strategic military site, of which the Castle of the Moors ruins still tell impressive tales.

Castle of the Moors, Sintra
Sintra: Castle of the Moors

Its main claim to fame—for me personally, that is—is that this made it also the architectural playground for a delightfully deranged billionaire if you will. There are plenty of Romantic architectural master pieces there, which is why the whole place is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (Sintra’s article on Wikipedia has the details).

One of these estates is just too good to be true, though. Quinta da Regaleira has it all (Wikipedia):

The property consists of a romantic palace and chapel, and a luxurious park that features lakes, grottoes, wells, benches, fountains, and a vast array of exquisite constructions. The palace is also known as “The Palace of Monteiro the Millionaire”, which is based on the nickname of its best known former owner, António Augusto Carvalho Monteiro.

Wells, benches, fountains? Right. That only tells you the individual building blocks, though. It’s the way it’s all tied together that makes it well and truly hilarious (again, straight from Wikipedia):

Monteiro was eager to build a bewildering place where he could collect symbols that reflected his interests and ideologies. With the assistance of the Italian architect Luigi Manini, he recreated the 4-hectare estate. In addition to other new features, he added enigmatic buildings that allegedly held symbols related to alchemy, Masonry, the Knights Templar, and the Rosicrucians. The architecture Manini designed evoked Roman, Gothic, Renaissance, and Manueline styles. The construction of the current estate commenced in 1904 and much of it was completed by 1910.

Quinta de Regaleira, Sintra
Sintra: Floor tiles at Quinta de Regaleira

There are two things here. First of all, this whole thing looks and feels like a giant prank, or maybe just some sort of outdoor man cave-slash-insider joke. Second, this was in 1904! This isn’t that long ago. I grew up in a house built in 1903, and at that time it was well and truly not unsual to build houses that didn’t have hidden tunnels for rites of passage and the like. That’s right, the whole park is built to reflect—or allow for, or initiate—a rite of passage:

The Initiation Wells (AKA initiatic wells or inverted towers) are two wells on the property that better resemble underground towers lined with stairs. These wells never served as water sources. Instead, they were used for ceremonial purposes that included Tarot initiation rites. The tunnels described above connect these wells to one another, in addition to various caves and other monuments located around the park.

Quinta de Regaleira, Sintra
Sintra: Initiation Well at Quinta de Regaleira

So the place is jam-packed with pentagrams, hidden tunnels, underground features, Knights Templar and Masonry references, gargoyles, you name it. It’s a kind of giant exercise in mysticism, but at a time when I would have expected that kind of thing to be long gone.

Sintra: Quinta de Regaleira

It’s so much fun to poke around there. In one of the caves I saw a dead end, fired up my phone’s flashlight and found a geo cache—of course, it’s the perfect kind of place for geo caching.

Quinta de Regaleira, Sintra
Sintra: Quinta de Regaleira. This is where the initiate emerges.

Announcing the Cognitive Cities Conference


Taken with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II.

Update: New date for Cognitive Cities Conference is 26/27 February 2011 (details).

A few friends and I are planning a conference this fall. Please allow me to cross-post from the Cognitive Cities blog:

Our future will be played out in cities. The projections tell us that our planet will resemble some very familiar fictional fantasies: 75% of the global population will be living by 2050 in cities or mega cities. Between slums and mass poverty on one hand and eco-sustainable living on the other hand, there will be both tough problems to solve and exciting visions to realize. We are at a point in time where the paths are set for the future of cities. The Cognitive Cities Conference wants to pick up the vibrant global conversation about the future of cities and bring it to Germany. By bringing bright minds with different perspectives together, it is our ambition to enable not only an in-depth exchange about the current state of affairs, but also to foster new projects. We believe that collaboration and diversity lead to the best results. We see the Cognitive Cities Conference as a platform for exchange and mutual inspiration and invite urban planners, designers, technology geeks, environmental experts, public officials, urban gardening enthusiasts and cultural influencers to be part of the conversation. We can only make our cities more liveable if we work together to improve them. The format of the conference will be a combination of lightning talks and workshop style sessions. Participants will share ideas, thoughts and challenges based on their diverse backgrounds, thus presenting different perspectives and approaches to the challenges we share. We are planning a one track only event, with the option for break-out sessions at any time. Where and when? Cognitive Cities Conference 02./03. October 2010 Coworking Cologne Who is Cognitive Cities for? We believe that diversity is essential for mutual inspiration. Cognitive Cities is aimed at designers, architects, futurists, urban planners, web geeks, activists, urban dwellers, you name it. If you are interested in the future of your city, you are most welcome. Who is behind Cognitive Cities Conference? Axel Quack, Igor Schwarzmann, Johannes Kleske, Markus Reuter, Martin Spindler, Peter Bihr, Welf Kirschner. Powered by CognitiveCities.com. Cognitive Cities is organized on a non-profit basis. We will provide more details and a dedicated link soon.

Until we have a site up, please refer to the original post.

For us, the idea behind Cognitive Cities isn’t just focused on urban planning.

That’s very important, as I’d like to stress that we hope to touch on other fields that are just as relevant to living in a city: think smart homes, smart grids, smart meters. Think augmented reality, Spime, sensors, cell phones, geo-tagging. Think open data. Think transportation, car sharing, intelligent trip planning. (Jetpacks, anyone?) Think reclaiming your city bottom-up. Think street art and locative art. Think green living and rooftop gardens and urban gardening. All of these, and many more, will influence our lives in the city. And all of them should be represented at our conference.

Also, I’d like to briefly put this in context: I know this all is, so far, pretty vague. We’ll get more concrete soon. Until then, we’ll be getting in touch with a first batch of potential speakers and sponsors to cover basic costs and, hopefully, some travel grants for speakers or guests who couldn’t come otherwise. We got to this event via atoms&bits, so there’s a connection here too. Props and thanks to Martin Spindler for getting the ball rolling and getting me on board! Also, thanks to Axel for enabling us to use Coworking Cologne as our conference location. As always, having a location for an event always is a huge load off of our shoulders.

So while we’re setting up the basic infrastructure to organize an event, please feel free to get in touch. For the time being, the best way is to either leave a comment on the original post or here, or to drop any of us organizers a line directly. We’re all pretty easy to reach. (In my case, the contact form or Twitter.) Update: Email us at info@cognitivecities.com.

Thanks for the patience, and for spreading the word. We’re all really looking forward to this.

Update: Official hashtag is #cocities.

Image: Taken with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II., a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from yakobusan’s photostream