In 1755 a terrible earthquake and tidal wave wrecked Lisbon, forcing the city fathers to rebuild the graceful Atlantic port. Now something just as momentous is changing the face of Portugal's capital: Expo '98, the last world's fair of the 20th century.
Organizers say what makes this exposition unique is that it is dedicated to a single issue: "our blue planet." They hope the event will not only benefit Lisbon but also encourage people around the world to reflect on the future of the oceans that cover two-thirds of the earth's surface.
The oceans make an apt theme for a city that derives deep pride from its maritime history and which, in 1998, will celebrate the 500th anniversary of the voyage around Africa to India of Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama.
Expo '98 is also timed to coincide with the 1998 International Year of the Oceans declared by the United Nations General Assembly. The UN also named former Portuguese President Mario Soares as head of a world commission on the oceans.
"In the next century, the wars will not be about oil but about water. It is a vital resource, yet our knowledge about the ocean has not increased much since 500 years ago," says Joao Paulo Velez, spokesman for Expo '98.
The main attraction of the Lisbon event will be Europe's biggest oceanarium. Designed by architect Peter Chermayeff of Cambridge, Mass., the Oceans Pavilion will become a permanent attraction in Lisbon, housing 25,000 sea animals from 300 species and duplicating the environments of the Indian, Pacific, Atlantic, and Antarctic Oceans.
Project to regenerate the waterfront
Other highlights will include a re-creation of Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan's office, boats from around the world, and a multimedia Utopia Pavilion featuring myths of the sea.
Expo '98 is intended not just to draw record crowds for its 130-day run. Planners also aim to use the site afterward to relieve the old city of congestion and develop wasteland to provide housing and jobs for this city of 2 million people.
"The expo serves as a motive to regenerate the urban waterfront. It lies at the heart of renewing Lisbon's landscape," Mr. Velez says. "It will give new life to urban improvement."
The three miles of waterfront to be converted into 815 acres of prime real estate is already a hub of construction activity as cranes and bulldozers clear the area of an old oil refinery, an arms depot, and factories. After Expo '98 the site will boast a sports arena, a huge park with 30,000 trees, housing for 25,000 people, a hospital, hotels, and commercial buildings. City planners expect 18,000 new jobs to be created.
Part of a huge urban renewal plan
Lisbon's medieval city center and cobbled streets have been ill-equipped to handle the influx of cars and people since Portugal joined the European Union 10 years ago. The Expo '98 site will draw activity to a sparsely populated northeastern district where a new rail station and a nine-mile bridge across the Tagus estuary are also under construction.
A project of this magnitude - $1.5 billion, half of it for Expo '98 alone - has aroused surprisingly little public debate, with the major political parties solidly behind it. In part, this is due to the fact that Portugal will not foot the bill: Financing is coming from the European Union and banks.
The Expo '98 site is a part of an urban renewal over recent years that has included up cleaning up historic buildings and monuments, repainting the central Praca do Comercio square, upgrading public transit, and the opening a major modern art museum in nearby Sintra.
So far, 104 countries have officially confirmed they will participate in Expo '98. The Paris-based International Expositions Bureau expects enough more to sign up to break the record of 111 countries registered at the 1994 exposition in Taejon, South Korea. The bureau anticipates 10 million people will visit Expo '98, which will run from May 22 to Sept. 30, 1998.
Lisbon officials say the 1998 event is only the beginning. "We are looking to 1999 and beyond," Velez says. "We are as determined to save the oceans as our forefathers were to reach India."