Lisbon’s seven-day miracle in an old machine-gun plant

Derelict factory turned into an illegal culture center by philosophy lecturer

An abandoned car among other works by street artist Vhils in one of Braço de Prata's courtyards.
An abandoned car among other works by street artist Vhils in one of Braço de Prata's courtyards.Francisco Seco

This is the strange story of a lecturer in pure philosophy who is a devout fan of Nietzsche and who professes old-school Trotskism. Through odd twists of fate, not to mention the oddities of Lisbon itself, this university scholar has found himself at the helm of the most alternative cultural space in the entire Portuguese capital.

Yet this man who is more familiar with the works of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze than with the operating instructions of a hand drill only took seven days, like God (to use his own words), to transform the massive administrative facilities of an old abandoned machine gun factory into a cultural center that currently hosts music concerts, Maori dance lessons, Buddhist meditation workshops, odd and not-so-odd film screenings, and exhibitions of fetishist Barbie dolls, among other things. The building also has a jazz room with a piano that delivers the purest sounds in all of Lisbon, according to the lucky musicians who have played it. There is also a vast library within its walls.

And he has done all this quite illegally, taking advantage of a temporary municipal license for a street stand whose bearer is only permitted to serve sardines and beer during the weeklong fiestas of Santo António, the city's patron saint.

The scholar's name is Nuno Nabais and the old factory is called Braço de Prata. It is located in a semi-abandoned part of the city filled with other derelict industrial buildings and deserted waterfront streets that open out into the wildest stretch of the Tagus river, in between the modern relics of the 1998 World Expo and the old train station of Santa Apolónia. It is a decadent redoubt within the already decadent city of Lisbon. Replace the word "decadent" with "colorful" and it works as well.

Using a licence to serve sardines and beer, the venue hosts music and art shows

The place owes its name, Braço de Prata (Silver Arm), to a military man who owned this land sometime during the 18th century and who had a prosthetic right arm made of silver after losing the real thing on the battlefield. The two-story factory has checkered floors, a central staircase dating back to other times, and a courtyard the size of a Wisconsin shopping mall parking lot. This spot recently housed a circus top that lasted all of two years before falling to pieces from exposure to the elements.

Arms production began in the early 20th century. The factory buildings around the administrative headquarters at one point held nearly 12,000 employees, who sometimes worked under a veritable reign of terror. Nabais knows this because old factory workers still drop by sometimes and tell him that under the sinister regime of Salazar (1932-1968), employees who were openly critical would disappear, never to be seen again. In 1990 all the buildings were closed down definitively. Meanwhile, the city was growing eastward on the back of a real estate boom triggered by the 1998 Expo. Property sharks were quick to smell the money.

The developer Obriverca dreamed up an exclusive residential estate on the old factory grounds that would be designed by the prestigious Italian architect Renzo Piano. The numbers were enough to make one's head swim: 20,000 apartments going for nearly one million euros over the remains of the old factory buildings. The administrative building, which was partially protected because of its architectural design, as well as the courtyard, would remain in the city's hands. But the economic crisis paralyzed the project in 2007, and it remains that way.

So the dream estate is now an enormous water-filled hole right next to a giant skeleton of beams and cement that serves as the perfect metaphor for the reality of contemporary Portugal under the financial rule of the Troika. This melancholic lagoon can be seen from the windows of the exhibition hall, and the frog calls can clearly be heard in summer.

Nabais claims that this enormous effort is a philosophical gesture on his part

It was in 2007, during the property bust, that Nabais - who was somewhat weary of his teaching job, who had experience running successful alternative bookshops, and who was ready to bring some cultural dynamism to the city - came to a surprising agreement with the debt-ridden developer: the professor would take care of the building's maintenance in exchange for being able to use it free of charge. He also left it in writing that he would walk out within a month if construction work on the apartments ever resumed.

After that, he called up around 50 of his former students and asked his architect friends to lend a hand. In those seven frantic days that he compares with the Book of Genesis, this group of people returned the old factory to life. The sardine license and Nabais's somewhat suicidal belief that if you do a good thing, even if it is illegal, things will work out in the end, did the rest. Braço de Prata, located in a dormant corner of a sleepy capital, became a focal point of contemporary tendencies.

Five years have elapsed since then. There have been over 400 exhibitions and hundreds of concerts at Braço de Prata. In the meantime, the developer went bankrupt and the land reverted to the bank, which occasionally sends over potential buyers from China, Angola and the US; these prospective customers eye the place, take some measurements, and leave again, while Nuno Nabais sizes them up out of the corner of his eye from his spot in the cool courtyard. Occasionally he also gets a visit from health inspectors who hand out sanctions for serving drinks without the necessary license. Nabais pays the fines with the fatalistic resignation of a philosophy freshman. "The drawbacks of being illegal," he explains.

Nabais, who has since stopped publishing books, remarried a young woman, had a daughter who is 10 years younger than his granddaughter, and claims that taking charge of this enormous building is simply a philosophical gesture on his part. There were glorious nights in which Braço de Prata drew nearly 800 people. Musicians scrupulously share the box office takings (five euros a ticket), following Nabais's ironclad rules. The good thing is they pay no VAT. "The advantages of being illegal," he explains. He began by running everything himself, and now there are 12 employees. Nabais claims that the mayor of Lisbon, the Socialist António Costa, is encouraging him to resist despite all the irregularities, the inspectors and veiled threats from prospective buyers. It may be, of course, that he also enjoys the protection of Santo António himself.