Banco Nacional Ultramarino (Caixa Geral de Depósitos)

Banco Nacional Ultramarino (Caixa Geral de Depósitos)

Díli, Díli, Timor

Equipment and Infrastructures

Founded in 1864, it was only at the beginning of the 20th century that the Banco Nacional Ultramarino (BNU) opened branches in Portugal’s Far Eastern colonies, first in Macau (1901) and then in Timor (1912). Fulfilling a promise to open a branch in Dili that it had assumed with the State ten years earlier, the BNU took on the task of providing the territory with the financial services indispensable for the progress of the local economy, as well as standardising the monetary system by introducing the pataca in paper and coin, which had been issued in Macau since 1906, with a view to progressively replacing the then dominant Mexican reals (known in Timor as “Mexican patacas”) and Dutch crowns. The BNU itself became one of the most important investors in the territory, holding, for example, a relevant portfolio in the Sociedade Agrícola Patria e Trabalho, the largest Timorese enterprise, which was founded by the Governor Celestino da Silva (1894- 1908). In fact, the bank was housed in the firm’s head office until it was destroyed by Japanese troops. The BNU was resettled in a building rented from the diocese of Dili and only at the end of the 1960’s did it move into its own premises. A modernist building was erected between 1966 and 1968, which was unusual in Timor. Its only contemporary is the headquarters of the Timor Commercial, Agricultural and Industrial Association (ACAIT), but it does not have the same urban presence, as it stands in the main shopping street and not on the square that represents the colonial administrative power. The two buildings were projected and constructed simultaneously, as the ACAIT building dates from January 1960. It is quite possible that both buildings were designed by the architect António Sousa Mendes, but we have no documentary proof of this. The BNU building stands on pillars. If it were not for its general architectural grammar, it could be said that it was inspired by traditional Timorese architecture. It has a flat terrace roof, while the main façade is a grid in reinforced concrete that gives it an abstract character. An awning is placed over the main entrance so that it can be easily identified, even from a distance, and two flagpoles above the entrance serve the same purpose. A building of offices stands behind the grid of the façade, the latter having large horizontal openings that are similar to those that can be found, as a sign of modern times, in post-war buildings all over Europe. The undertaking also envisaged housing for two dozen employees. As a result of the turbulent process of decolonisation begun in 1974, which culminated in the Indonesian invasion in 1975, the BNU brought its activities in Timor to a close and a regional bank – the Daerah Bank, founded on the initiative of the then vice-governor of Timor Timur appointed by Indonesia, Francisco Lopes da Cruz – occupied its premises. The BNU resumed it activities in Timor after the referendum that determined Timor’s independence, occupying the premises of ACAIT, since its own had been destroyed by the Indonesian militias. It soon decided to rebuild and the work was carried out in 2000-2001. The choice to reconstruct its former offices instead of building new ones had to do with their architectural and symbolic value within the context of Timor’s built heritage.

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