Perusing the clearance table at a University of Arkansas bookstore five years ago, Mikhelle Taylor stumbled upon a coffee table book titled My House, My Paradise, which contained pictures of unique houses from around the world. Included in it was a section about an unusual Portuguese mansion constructed in the decades that bookended the turn of last century: Quinta da Regaleira. António Augusto de Carvalho Monteiro, a well-to-do Brazilian capitalist whose family was from Portugal, constructed the estate in the Sintra region of Portugal as a summer residence for close friends and family. The rich ornamentation, labyrinthine passages, and otherworldly appearance of the site piqued Ms. Taylor’s interest, but it wouldn’t be until years later that this serendipitous discovery would yield a fascinating project of study.
During her initial investigation of the site, Ms. Taylor began learning about Portugal’s nationalistic epic, Os Lusíadas. Some researchers suspected that Monteiro may have, in fact, constructed the Regaleira as a physical, artistic depiction of the 16th century poem. The Lusiads was written by Luis Vas de Camões as a cultural epic capturing the mythological identity of Portugal, much the same way the Iliad and the Odyssey had for ancient Greece. Ms. Taylor believed this site embodied many of the same intentions found in this epic: an attempt to define both the past and the promised future of the Portuguese people as well as to provide a “prophetic understanding of their place in the world.”
Taylor’s interests in architecture and the impact of the built environment on both individual and collective human experience were informed by her prior studies in social work, classical studies, architectural philosophy, and the traditional arts. The blending of these experiences prepared her for the challenge of researching Quinta da Regaleira as a cultural representation of Portugal’s identity. Specifically, Taylor wanted to delve into Carvalho Monteiro’s intentions behind the architecture and gardens of this site.
Monteiro’s house spoke to an area of particular academic interest to Taylor: phenomenological architectural theory. This theory deals with how man-made spaces evoke meaning and communicate ideas to those who encounter and inhabit them. A building and its surroundings are a performance space, where the occupants serve as both “actor” and “audience.” Just as a dramatic set designer evokes mood and meaning through lighting, backdrops, and the form and placement of set pieces, an architect can achieve similar ends with a building. Using design and site, the architect can create spaces to guide the observer’s experience while simultaneously defining the symbolic role the observer plays in the building’s “plot.”
Quinta da Regaleira looked like the perfect subject for research in this theory. For Taylor, two classes—one with Dr. Max Stephenson’s “Nonprofit Leadership and Governance” and the other, Dr. Matthew Gabriele’s “Warriors and Saints” proved to be the catalyst for her project. As a part of his course on leadership in nonprofit organizations and NGO’s, Dr. Stephenson presented some of his work on the collective myths and stories of a society—that is, cultural imaginaries. He discussed the power of cultural stories to motivate leadership and public participation. Dr. Gabriele’s class similarly focused on how cultural memory is created, particularly by tales of heroic figures and their mythic quests. These quests, often referred to as city-founding, frequently result in the creation of a culture or nation and are deeply rooted in a society’s consciousness—Aeneas and Rome, Abraham and Israel, George Washington and America. For Ms. Taylor, these classes illustrated connections between Monteiro’s Quinta da Regaleira and the mythical power of the Lusiads in Portuguese society. She spoke to Dr. Gabriele about becoming her research advisor for her idea, and the project began to take shape.
Dr. Gabriele encouraged Ms. Taylor’s initial interest in the topic by providing the necessary guidance to help her discover available resources. His expertise in multidisciplinary research also helped craft the project into something different than most highly focused projects. Ms. Taylor’s research instead combines a number of different elements, all of which relate to each other in a sophisticated, highly engaging manner. Dr. Gabriele was able to hone the project’s focus by limiting its ambitious scope, while expanding Ms. Taylor’s knowledge on the subject.
The lack of research done in English on Quinta da Regaleira necessitated personal experience to supplement the project. In order to do this, Taylor would need to travel to Portugal to view the house firsthand. To help finance the trip, Dr. Gabriele encouraged her to apply for an ACC research scholarship and assisted her in developing a detailed proposal to submit.
The ACC Undergraduate Scholars program recognizes unique undergraduate research projects in the twelve institutions of the Atlantic Coast Conference and awards $2000 grants to fund winning projects for materials—in Ms. Taylor’s case, travel. The grant allowed her to explore Quinta da Regaleira and add a level of depth and personal interaction not possible for many projects.
Her trip allowed her to better understand local perspectives and attitudes towards the mysterious house. Quinta da Regaleira was built during a time fraught with political upheaval and a loss of national identity. It is vital, then, to accurately understand the placement of this architectural epic in its cultural context.
By exploring the mansion personally, Taylor was able to experience the fascinating statues, the winding staircases, and the eerie and mysterious aura of a house steeped in cultural mythology. Part of her exploration included simply seeing parts of the house not pictured in books.
In an interview Dr. Gabriele mentioned the importance of visually and spatially understanding the estate and how it painted a clearer picture of its possible uses. He gave a parallel example from his own field of study: the daily tasks of medieval monks become much clearer when one has seen their living quarters, the church in which they worshipped, and the garden in which they grew their food, all in relation to each other.
Carvalho Monteiro’s partnership with the scenographer Luigi Manini brought together a vision— the theme of the initiatory journey expressed in the Lusiads. He also brought a means to achieve that vision—Manini’s expertise in visual creation and knowledge of how dramatic scenery can enhance a story. Monteiro’s vision was multidisciplinary by its very nature; understanding the Regaleira, then, requires an interdisciplinary approach. Ms. Taylor’s background in IDST allowed her to approach the subject from a number of different angles and from those angles to see the broader significance of the mansion in its totality. History, literature, anthropology, architecture, visual storytelling, the stickier sub-disciplines of cultural memory and mythology, not to mention Portuguese language were all essential to her study of this Cultural Heritage site itself.
Dr. Gabriele emphasized the importance of interdisciplinary problem solving when faced with any question. In Ms. Taylor’s case, the question dealt primarily with the estate’s Masonic and Templar iconography—iconography that frequently overshadowed its connection with Portuguese literature and culture in the public’s mind. From there, her research branched out to disciplines such as a biographical investigation of Carvalho Monteiro, a cultural analysis of 19th century Portugal, the Lusiads from the perspective of literary theory, even 19th century interpretations of medieval culture—Dr. Gabriele’s specialty.
As Dr. Gabriele put it, “topics aren’t disciplinary.” Rather, they provide methods, which themselves provide ways to think of a problem. In this, Ms. Taylor was forced to be flexible in her approach to her initial problem, not relying solely on any one method, be it literary, cultural, or historical. The true beauty of interdisciplinary research, however, lies in its synthesis of various perspectives. The conclusions drawn from examining a number of different approaches are greater than the sum of their parts.
In addition, Ms. Taylor had to allow her expectations and conclusions to shift with new findings. She began with an image of Carvalho Monteiro as wealthy eccentric, whose esoteric obsessions were far removed from mundane concerns or worldly affairs. Further research, however, revealed him to be instead a deep nationalist and respected leader in the public sphere, focused above all else on preserving Portugal and its national and cultural identity. His nationalism was expressed through the Portuguese cultural and political landscape, which was torn between the stable but ineffective monarchism and the volatile popular republicanism. Quinta da Regaleira reflected this as an architectural interpretation of his Portuguese identity. Thus, an accurate image of Monteiro’s role in society is needed to fully understand his intentions with the site.
In short, Ms. Taylor’s research on Quinta da Regaleira combined not only academic disciplines, but a broad range of interests and experiences, including learning more about the professional research process and how to translate “I wonder…” into an academic thesis. Ms. Taylor’s project soars: it is in its variegated components and the unique blending of those elements that she truly captures the essence of the undergraduate experience. Rather than specializing, Ms. Taylor used curiosity to examine a fascinating cultural piece of Portuguese history.