The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence
Berkeley Prize 2024

[ID:1920] Largo do Senado (Senate Square) in Macau, China

United States

When people are asked about public space, they will normally think of a place where they can freely walk, talk and socialize; it could be a grand open plaza like Piazza Navona in Rome, or a relaxing park in their community. However, in my opinion, a public space could have more functions and characters than just be a place where people of all races, ages, genders and social statuses can interact. In Macau, there exists a versatile and exciting public space-Largo do Senado, the Senate Square. It is more than a public space. It is rich of history and social meanings; unique in its atmosphere; expressive of cultural significance in its spatial order; and it imprints a distinctive image in people's minds.

Macau first started off as a modest little village on the coast of South China Sea. Early Macau residents were mainly humble fishermen and farmers. Because of Macau's strategic location, Portuguese explorers arrived at Macau in the mid-16th century, and officially acquired the place from the Tsing Dynasty in 1887. Foreign traders from all around the world would trade with Chinese merchants in Macau, and Christian missionaries would come to covert the locals. Portuguese acquisition not only brought in new commercial opportunities, but also new world vision to the Chinese residents. Portuguese and Chinese people intermarried, so did their cultures and architectural styles. Macau had transformed from a village with primitive city planning to a modern city. Moreover, since the majority of Portuguese and Chinese coexisted in harmony, their territories mixed, creating a unique blend of cultures, functions and styles in a place like Largo do Senado (The Senate Square) in Macau. This square embodies local Chinese culture and reflects Macau's colonial past. Today's Largo do Senado is the most popular tourist spot in Macau; it is also a very versatile public space. Tracing back in history, it was the center of the Portuguese colonial administration and her Christian church. Historical buildings in the area, like the old Post Office, Holy House of Mercy, Leal Senado (the Loyal Senate), St. Dominic's Market, and St. Dominic Church (aka Sao Domingos Church), display the importance of Largo do Senado.

Named after Leal Senado, Largo do Senado starts at Leal Senado. Looking at old pictures and recalling how Largo do Senado looked when I was little, Largo do Senado was not a square at first; it was a big boulevard accessible by carriages and hand-carts, in old days, and vehicles and bicycles in about fifteen years ago. It was still a public place, but just more traffic-intended. People and vehicles just came and went, and would have no intention to walk, talk and socialize in this place. Although the market, the church and all the historical buildings were there as they are now, the place lacked an atmosphere that encouraged social interactions. The colonial Macau government, realizing they should leave some history and landmarks behind after the handover, initiated a big restoration program in about ten years ago. Largo do Senado was, as a result, remodeled into a pedestrian-friendly plaza.

Leal Senado, built in 1784, is the focal point in the square. It has been the symbol of civic power and authority since it was first built, marking the evolution of politics in Macau. It witnesses Macau's transformation from being a fishing village under the Tsing Empire to a more autonomous colony under Portuguese role. Although Leal Senado no longer serves its administrative role, it still imposes an authoritative presence in the square. Leal Senado expresses its importance in its central location. Its central position is the key in anchoring the coherence of all the buildings in the nearby area. European style buildings line the two sides; only Leal Senado is facing and looking straight along the axis of the square. To assert the importance of Leal Senado, the views from Leal Senado also got special treatment. There is one design trick that the city planners especially used to make Largo do Senado look bigger to the officials who overlooked it from the Senate. The square actually shapes like a trapezoid: the width of the square diminishes as it gets farther away from the Senate, creating an optical illusion that the square is longer and bigger. Besides its location, the building of a Portuguese style plaza in front of Leal Senado memorializes Portuguese rule in Macau, and carries on her effort of spreading cultures in post-colonial time.

Overlooking Largo do Senado from Leal Senado, the Holy House of Mercy is located on the right side of the sqauare, separated by a sloped one-way street from the Old Post Office building. The Holy House of Mercy was founded in 1569 by the first Bishop of Macau, Dom Belchior Carneiro. Since its earliest days, the Holy House of Mercy has devoted its work to the local community, providing charitable assistance in the spirit of Christian fraternity. It also used to have a lepers' hospital in Saint Lazarus District in Macau, which is recognized as the first Western hospital in Asia, showing Macau's pioneer role in introducing and spreading Western civilization in Asia.[i] The presence of the Holy House of Mercy reminds locals of the mercy and technology that the Western world brought to the city when the colonizers first came, contrasting with the imposing presence of Leal Senado.

The two sides of the plaza have different characteristics. Since the Sao Domigos market and busy side streets are on the left side, it has more vigorous, or chaotic, activities happening there. On the right side, things are tranquil and more Portuguese. The Holy House of Mercy, the Old Post Office building, the oldest pharmacy all situate on the right. The left side of the plaza is all about accessibility and activities, where the two cultures mix the most. The characters of different cultures are reflected in the streets. The Portuguese street/plaza is organized but does not promote activities; in comparison, narrow streets where Chinese roadside hawkers and locals occupy are filled with bargaining voices and actions. The side streets, though narrow and confined, allow both vehicular traffic and commercial activities. Pedestrians and vehicles have to fight for space, creating a vibrant disorder. The heart and the focal point of the area are the Senate square, but it is the veins, the side streets, that pump energy into this area. When contrasted with the orderly plaza, true and vigorous Macanese city life happens in the side streets. The plaza is more expressive of Macau's history, while the side streets reflect true local life more, as described below:

"At the center of the city, in the Sao Domingos market beside the Leal Senado& the changless activity of the business of living goes on with the kind of random intensity of life and decay on a steamy, tropical forest floor. Cars, motorcycles, trucks, bicycles, handcarts, and pedestrians move in every direction, some slowly and seemingly confused, others purposefully on business errandsdelivering goods, moving things, repairing utilities, renovating buildings, or tearing them and starting new ones. In the market is an endless daily turnover of meat, fish, fruit, and vegetables; stalls and peddlers in the surrounding streets offering every kind of cheap clothes, toys and trinkets; boutiques, stationery shops, pharmacies, and hardware stores selling household goods overflowing onto the sidewalks; and bakeries and cafes tempting the crowds with the mornings pastries. Whole dried fish, their heads covered with white paper hoods, hang by the tail in dry-food stores above canisters of tea and herbs; tiny goldfish swim in clear plastic bags of water hanging on walls; chickens crouch in wire cages; dark orange eggs yolks dry in the sun on bamboo trays. There are blind fortune tellers..." [ii]

This passage is written by Jonathan Porter in his book, "Macau, The Imaginary City: Culture and Society, 1557 to the Present", that was published in 1996. What Porter describes is very authentic. Though the book was written in 1996, from what I observed when I went back to Macau in December 2004, things had not changed much. The blind fortune teller was still there, setting up his table in one of the arcaded walkways; I still went to shop for live chicken and fish with my grandma at the Sao Domingos market, and happened to bump into her old neighborhood friends, as usual. Cultures mix in one place; time and space seem to stop in one place; human activities condense in one place.

Though the uniform European facades line the two sides, what happens in the side streets is quite different. Similarly, do not let the appearance of the plaza fool you. Although the exterior of a building is Portuguese, what happens under that skin can be totally Chinese. Under the European skin, there could be a Chinese noodle shop or a Chinese bakery. On the skin, buildings are usually not higher than three stories and a continuous role of arcaded shops line the sides. In the old days when Largo do Senado was a boulevard, the arcades functioned as passageways; as the whole square becomes a wide passageway now, the arcades are still preferable to those who do not want to be in the sun. The arcades also provide a good sense of enclosure, contrasting with the open plaza. However, when looked at a whole, Largo do Senado is quite enclosed too. The wall-like Portuguese-style facades that frame people's view and the side streets that do not cross the plaza improve the sense of enclosure. Therefore, although the plaza is not roofed, it feels and looks enclosed. The right balance of openness and enclosure makes the plaza a comfortable open space.

The Portuguese order at the plaza is apparent, echoing with Portugal's rule in past; while the narrow side streets represent the modest, yet vibrant Chinese natives that inhabit this land. When one walks from the plaza to a side street, the bustling Chinese markets start to overtake the very Portuguese atmosphere experienced earlier. The transition between these two seemingly different places is, surprisingly, very smooth. One would not feel awkward or displaced, when walking into busy side streets occupied by loud Chinese hawkers, from a formal European plaza. In the side streets, the tents/temporary stores that the Chinese hawkers set up serve the same function as the arcaded shops on the plaza. The tents provide a sense of enclosure as good as the arcaded shops, although they are more skimpy looking. With the hawkers' tents, the role of upscale shops continues in the side streets. The sharing of functions and similar looks between the hawkers' tents and arcaded shops contribute to the smooth transition, which is indicative of the harmony of two cultures that has existed ever since the Portuguese first landed on Macau.

Though dressed and advertised as a tourist spot, Largo do Senado is not removed from the general public; instead, it is a gathering place to old Macanese, a leisure spot for all ages, a square to hold festivals and public functions at, and a node where cultures blend. The square reminds locals of their history. People are not just passersby, instead, they, whether locals or tourists, participate in the historic environment, making history alive. They are not only able to connect Macau's identity with the plaza's appearance, but also to engage actively to the place. In its vicinity, restaurants of international tastes, Buddhist temple and Catholic churches coexist in harmony. Tourists are free to choose from various experiences and cultures they want to explore; and the locals can easily do one-stop shopping in the area. Therefore, it is not only an exciting for tourists, for the local people, it is a locus of interaction, social and commercial activities. The blend of different experiences enhances the sense of place to tourists and the sense of belonging to the locals. The two well-assimilated cultures stand out, as well as the activities that they promote. Largo do Senado is an integral part of city life. Life revolves around it. Since Macau is small with a high population density, it is easy to find a space crowded with people; but a place where cultures mix is rare. Moreover, not only cultures mix in Largo do Senado, but religions also. There are a Chinese temple in a side street and Sao Domingos Church in the same area. They do not encroach each other; contrarily, they exhibit religious inclusion and tolerance, displaying respect for local culture and stimulating multiculturalism.

Historical preservation is important in Largo Senado and Macau at large, because Macau's characters root from her special past. Even the past is gone, the buildings that are still standing can tell the history of her glory. Besides maintaining the buildings' physical structures and appearances, historical preservation also preserves the place's identity and history. Imagine if Largo do Senado were without Leal Senado, the Old Post Office and Sao Domingos Church, would Largo do Senado still be as impressive? Largo do Senado is a great example of how historical preservation enhances a place's historical, social and sightseeing values, and residents' civic pride. The well-preserved historical buildings demonstrate the new government's effort to keep up Macau's unique history. After the handover, the new Special Administrative Region government does not lessen their effort in preserving Macau's colonial past. Instead, the government proposed to be included in UNESCO's World Cultural Heritage list, showing that historic preservation and promotion are government's priority. The campaign is running this year; Leal Senado and Holy House of Mercy are two of the twelve historical monuments that belong to a group. In preserving historic landmarks, the Macau government succeeds in educating the public and the world about the unique history of Macau.

Largo do Senado, as a whole, fosters many qualities: the quality of life, respect for other cultures, social harmony, and diversity. Over 400 years, residents and tourists, who have been to this place, have nourished its characters by keeping a piece of Macau in their minds and experiencing the place itself. In a smaller scale, Largo do Senado and the nearby side streets, as public spaces, are important structures and identities in the mental maps of both tourists and residents; street life and culture were important ingredients in the imageability of a city. [iii] Imageability, as Kevin Lynch puts it, is the quality in a physical object which gives it a high probability of evoking a strong image in any given observer. [iv] While strolling along the plaza, vivid images, like the scenes of historical architecture and the bustling side streets, leave a distinct impression to visitors and a clear identity to the local people. When you are in Largo do Senado, you can read the past and the present; experience the order and the chaos; and explore the city and the world all at one time.



[ii] Jonathan Porter, Macau, The Imaginary City: Cutlure and Society, 1557 to Present, 1996, Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado

[iii] Chua Beng-Haut, Norman Edwards, Public Space: Design, Use and Management, 1992, Singapore University Press, Singapore

[iv] Kevin Lynch, The Image of a City, 1972, Cambridge [Mass.] Technology Press

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