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Historic Centre of Guimarães and Couros Zone (extension)

Date of Submission: 31/01/2017
Criteria: (iii)(iv)(v)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Permanent Delegation of Portugal to UNESCO
State, Province or Region:
Minho, Braga, Municipality of Guimarães
Coordinates: 41.440000 -8.293000
Ref.: 6207

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Property names are listed in the language in which they have been submitted by the State Party


The Couros (Leather) Zone is an urban area where tannery was manufactured over several centuries. It is known that this production operation was developed in the 10th century and, in this regard, its history will be intrinsically linked to the dawn of Portugal’s nationhood. In fact, understanding the development of the Historic Centre of Guimarães cannot be separated from this area and from these operations implemented on the lower part of the town, near the Couros River. They are part of the same system, comprising the fertile fields downriver and the water sources from the surrounding hills. Tannery manufacturing areas had a particular impact (and, from a landscape standpoint, still do), as they were gradually decommissioned as of the mid-20th century, until they finally became extinct. Unlike what happened throughout most of the world Guimarães has preserved a great deal of material evidence of this ancestral activity, uncommon proof of a scale of production that strongly impacts the way the historical urban landscape is read and interpreted.

Tannery manufacturing and trade (most notably trade with Africa and South America) generated urban planning, along with types of industrial, business and residential architecture comprising unique characteristics. Some buildings have been recovered and reconverted (mostly by City Council) to meet current needs, namely becoming cultural and social facilities. This process has involved private individuals, as well as local residents, institutions and associations, to ensure a reconversion that is in keeping with the area’s historical and environmental features.

The proposed classification pertains to an area of around 25 hectares, comprising over fifteen industrial facilities (some for household use) and an extension of tanning tanks exceeding 4000 m2 which, per se, constitute a set of monuments. However, also being considered is the importance of the set and of the relations between the parties – between the upper part (castle and intramural area) and the lower part of the town (mendicant convents, vegetable plots and tannery manufacturing facilities). The Couros Zone shows broader relations with the surrounding territory – from the countless water lines it relied on to irrigate its basins and mills, to the bark from surrounding oak trees – and so.

In view of the current concepts of heritage conservation, it is important to have an equally broad vision where the integrated management of the historical urban landscape is indispensable. In this sense, the proposal to expand the buffer area covering the springs at Penha mountain, to alluvial soils at the foot of the historic city, will foster the protection/revitalization of a system where the metabolism of a pre-industrial cluster is still clear.

In short, we point out the elements deemed to be the core of the value of the property: the basins, the water system, the natural landscape, the history of work.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

The extension of the World Heritage property “Historic Centre of Guimaraes” to the area known as the Couros (leather) Zone, complements and deepens the significance, the outstanding value of the property on the World Heritage List. In Couros Zone we can observe strata from over eight centuries of history – from the dawn of Portugal’s nationhood to the present, and the reading and preservation of the historic city is much enhanced by the protection of the areas linked to work, manufacturing facilities, and industrial, forest and farming & cattle-raising production. This extension will also make the Guimarães Historic Centre more legible, since it will become an example of a pre-industrial medieval town: a castle in the upper part, the convent halfway up, and the industry in the lower part (with the corresponding adjacent town). This is currently an uncommon scenario on the Iberian Peninsula and throughout Europe.

In general, the new area proposed for classification, covering the current buffer zone, has been waiting for classification as an area of archeological and industrial interest since 1977 (a set of former tannery factories – IPA.00001938). This process was undertaken by the local community, which was interested in safeguarding this cluster Still, the proposed area is more extensive, as it includes more factories as well as the urban area surrounding the factories, which comprises residences for workers, residences for tannery owners and merchants, the public spaces connecting them, among other aspects that are inseparable from these urban elements.

As this is a central urban area, many transformations have occurred over the last few years, and such fact is regarded as the main threat to the property. On the other hand, we consider the need to update the protection areas, namely the buffer area and how it is managed, as a way to ensure safeguarding a set of vital elements for reading the historic urban landscape. In this regard, we highlight the urgency of urban management integrated with that of the Historic Centre, by acting with criteria and methods that are coherent with the process begun in the Historic Centre in 1983.

Using innovative means compared to the current classified area, a vast amount of work has been performed involving the collection and processing of documents aimed at introducing visitors to the Couros Zone. Its implementation is now possible, which was postponed because of the ongoing studies, as part of this application, thereby enabling the expansion of existing information/interpretation.

Criterion (iii): The property might constitute a unique and exceptional testimony of a cultural tradition no longer in existence, namely through granite basins, the water system and the history of that work.

Criterion (iv): It represents an exceptional example of an architectural cluster and of a landscape that integrates urban and natural elements illustrating one (or more) significant periods in human history.

Criterion (v): It is an exceptional example of the land area’s traditional use, while representing a culture (or cultures), along with human interaction with the environment. The traditional use of the land area’s natural resources, namely water resources, takes on exceptional importance, especially considering that it has become vulnerable under the impact of irreversible changes (or which are difficult to reverse).

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

There is a set of attributes deemed unquestionable and attesting to the property’s authenticity and integrity, namely through the following items:

1 – The existing intact sets of granite basins, even though tannery manufacturing is now extinct. They are intact in terms of their shape, design, materials and location. These sets provide a dimension of the property’s scale and representativeness. They constitute assertive marks kept alive in the city’s memory.

2 – Constructions related to factories and to sets of basins, namely water channels and mills; that is, the entire integrated and complex water system.

3 – The surrounding residential clusters, where edifications have remained in place for years/centuries, using traditional techniques and materials (local techniques and materials found in popular tradition).

4 – At least since the year 959 (the will left by Mumadona Dias), documentation attesting to the ancient nature of this productive activity (tannery processing) on this site.

5 – Existing documentation, expanding our ability to grasp and interpret the socioeconomic and cultural dynamics of various periods throughout history.

Comparison with other similar properties

After examining over 160 cases worldwide, we can confirm that there isn’t a single case similar to the one presented herein. In this regard, we believe that the uniqueness and importance of the proposed case is unquestionable.

We have grouped the examined cases into five categories: (1) areas classified by UNESCO, (2) museum clusters/units, (3) reconverted clusters/units, (4) clusters/units that are decommissioned or in ruins, and (5) clusters/units in operation. The medinas of Fez (1980), Marrakech (1985) and Tétouan (1997) are the three UNESCO-classified cases showing the greatest similarities to the Couros Zone, in Guimarães, comprising tannery-manufacturing areas integrated within urban contexts. The case of Fez is closest especially given its similarity with Guimarães in terms of the surface of the tanning basins. However, beyond the obvious differences (in Morocco, some tannery facilities are still in operation), there are also clear-cut differences, namely of the formal and material variety.

Indeed, the Couros Zone does not fall into any of the five categories, despite the similarity with most cases. It is noted for comprising an industrial cluster (with 17 factories identified to date) included within an urban core (town/village/city). In architectural and urban terms, it is also noted for having set the testimony of the extinction of an activity, a technology and tradition that were decisive factors in developing an urban population over the course of ten centuries.