AT THE AGE OF EIGHTY-TWO, the Portuguese architect Álvaro Siza is possibly the only modern master who, after having realized some four hundred works in a diverse range of scales and programs, remains as firmly committed as ever to the unfinished socialist project that galvanized the European avant-garde throughout the interwar era. Siza began as a housing architect, and while the first decade of his career was largely devoted to the design of private houses, he soon forayed into the quintessentially modernist typology of social housing during the intense optimism of the so-called Portuguese Spring of April 1974 and the total collapse of António Salazar’s forty-year-old totalitarian regime, the Estado Novo. Siza’s projects were built in Porto under the auspices of SAAL, the Serviço Ambulatório de Apoio Local (Local Ambulatory Support Service), an organization created in the immediate aftermath of the 1974 revolution with the support of the interim socialist government. Its goal was to improve living conditions in Portuguese cities and remedy the nation’s severe housing shortage through nothing less than a radical reimagining of architecture’s social role. Following SAAL’s experimental modelwhich the art historian Suzanne Cotter, who helped to organize an encyclopedic exhibition on the organization’s history at Porto’s Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Serralves in 2014, has described as “one of the most compelling processes in twentieth-century architecture”architects would design housing projects in dialogue with local communities. The buildings would be constructed with the participation of the users themselves, in a marked departure from the top-down, rigidly hierarchical processes that defined much of postwar urban design and architecture.
The first fruits of this participatory program were the São Victor and Bouça housing settlements, the remarkable low-rise residential structures designed by Siza and built between 1974 and 1977. However, designing by committee was by no means an easy process, as Siza would make clear when he remarked of the workers’ groups collaborating with the SAAL architects:
Their attitude was sometimes authoritarian, they denied all awareness of the architect’s problems, they imposed their way of seeing and conceiving things. The dialogue was very contentious. . . . To enter the real process of participation meant to accept the conflicts and not to hide them, but on the contrary to elaborate them. These exchanges then become very rich, although hard and often difficult.1
The São Victor terrace housing compound was a two-story settlement, built in the midst of derelict terrace housing that had been partially demolished. Siza seems to have imagined the development as if it were a reclamation of an ancient ruinestablishing his habitual approach of reading a site as a palimpsest, incorporating into his design not only the texture of the ground but its history and erstwhile culture.
The second SAAL development, the Bouça housing quarter, was built on a trapezoidal site that had been cleared of existing buildings. It is enclosed on its longest side by a four-story brick wall, which served as a necessary acoustic shield to mediate the noise of an adjacent railway. The scheme comprised four parallel four-story blocks made up of different combinations of duplex units. In some instances, the topmost duplex was connected to the ground by freestanding external stairs, rising dramatically out of the forecourt between the blocks. In others, the lower duplexes were accessed via a horizontal gallery that was cantilevered in front of the block. Within each apartment, internal stairs were organized so that residents could choose which spaces would be most convenient for living and which for sleeping; the alternatives arose out of the ongoing exchange between the architect and the future residents. The terraces were of varying length due to the shape of the site, and while at one end they conclude in the acoustic wall, at the other end each was to have terminated in a diminutive corner building, or bâtiment d’angle, dedicated to a communal facility such as a launderette, a library, or a convenience store. These proposed facilities testify to Siza’s commitment to the social scope of the project as a whole; the fact that they were never realized seems, in retrospect, indicative of the limits of the SAAL system. Indeed, after the right-wing coup of November 1975, the power of the SAAL organization was already diminished, and the whole participatory enterprise was effectively dissolved the following year.
ALTHOUGH SIZA’S NEXT HOUSING PROJECT proceeded without the support of SAAL, he continued to integrate certain aspects of the participatory process. Immediately after Bouça, Siza began work on a low-rise, high-density housing scheme for a district known as the Quinta da Malagueira, situated immediately outside the Alentejo city of Évora. Siza’s mandate was to design and build twelve hundred residential units within a domain already occupied by squatter settlements and midrise social housing dating from the 1960s. As in Bouça, he took the interwar social housing of the Weimar Republic as a distant model for the project’s massing and organization, although the individual unit he designed was very different. Here, he opted for a two-story dwelling, with an L-shaped plan flanking the contiguous sides of a square patio walled off from the street. Developed consistently by the architect over a twenty-year period under the patronage of the city government, the Malagueira housing complex was, in effect, a reworking of the white-washed low-rise homes that have long been the native form of Mediterranean cities. In fact, one may argue that the only thing that distinguishes Siza’s design from the vernacular fabric is the rhythmic placement and proportion of door and window openings throughout, a format that seems to have been taken from the absolute abstraction favored by Adolf Loos, which was perhaps most didactically articulated in his Alexander Moissi house, projected for the Venice Lido in 1923.
One of the more unusual devices Siza employed in his scheme is an elevated service duct, raised on concrete piers and rendered in unplastered concrete block, which produced a pseudo-viaduct that meanders through Malagueira’s episodic housing terraces like a relic from another time. Justified on the grounds of increasing the accessibility of gas, electricity, and other utilities for the purposes of maintenance and repair, this collective form, which links the disparate units both literally and compositionally, may be seen as a surreal compensation for the unfortunate absence of communal amenities. Here, too, Siza envisioned community buildings that were never completed, a failure he attributed to the tension between the Communist municipal administration of Évora and the reactionary conservative government in Lisbon: “From the outset, there was conflict. It was a latent conflict between central and local governments. . . . The funding was only and exclusively granted for the construction of the dwellings, but never for the collective facility. Still today, there are hardly any community facilities in the neighborhood.”2 Despite all these limitations, Malagueira has stood the test of timeparticularly with regard to its capacity to absorb street parking, a provision that was not considered necessary at the outset of the projectsuggesting that the design of explicitly designated communal spaces is not the only means of producing a collective architecture.
SIZA’S WORK with the SAAL brigades brought him to the attention of Berlin public officials, who invited him to participate in two successive competitions, first for the Görlitzer Bad swimming pool in 1979 and then, in 1980, for the so-called Block 121 in the then-dilapidated Kreuzberg district. (Extensive documentation for the latter project, along with Siza’s 1980s housing design for The Hague, is currently on view in the exhibition “Corner, Block, Neighbourhood, Cities” at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal.) Siza’s basic impulse with regard to the latter project was to reconstruct the urban fabric, restoring the destroyed corner of the original block with a seven-story batiment d’angle. Once again he handled this infill block as a kind of Loosian degree zero; that is to say, as a simple building mass, stripped of decoration and pierced at regular intervals by rectangular window openings. Aside from the swelling wave of the block’s form in plan and section, there is little that draws attention to this building other than the anonymous graffiti that famously appeared overnight on its facade during construction: the ironic legend BONJOUR TRISTESSE (hello sadness). Embraced by Siza, who declined to have it removed, the sobriquet has since become the project’s indelible name. While the living units themselves, determined by the ruthless rubrics of speculative development, are, Siza’s efforts notwithstanding, bereft of distinction and cramped to the point of being substandard, the structure retains a strong typological connection to the city at the level of its overall mass, painted in the classic yellow ocher of Berlin. Given Siza’s endemic susceptibility to urban and vernacular forms in general, his return to the perimeter block in Berlin was hardly surprising, since this was, and in many ways still is, the lingua franca of the city.
A generic block typology would also be his point of departure when the councillor of The Hague, Adri Duivesteijn, asked him, in 1984, to turn his attention to reconstructing the city’s Schilderswijk Ward. Apart from the block form, what Schilderswijk had in common with Kreuzberg was the presence of a large migrant population, although those in Schilderswijk were mostly North African Muslims. In this instance, therefore, religion had a crucial impact on the architecture, inasmuch as the faith of the inhabitants demanded that the domestic realm be subdivided into a public male domain and a private female space. Siza’s ingenious solution was to use a sliding wall to separate the former from the latter without necessarily compromising future use of the units by non-Muslim occupants. Like the adaptable layouts of the Bouça apartments, these movable partitions represent a concrete embodiment of architectural design understood as a social process, and show the skill with which Siza balanced the deep connection to site and context provided by vernacular specificity with the flexibility gained from the deployment of more abstract building types.
Indeed, Siza was able to implement this malleable solution while at the same time conceiving of the block as a variation on the Dutch residential tradition. To that end, this one-off piece of urban renewal consists of two four-story partial perimeter blocks, faced largely in red brickwork with square, wood-framed windows, fed by staircases that open directly onto the streeta trope deriving from a long-standing Dutch convention dating back to Hendrik Petrus Berlage’s Amsterdam South development of 1901. Accessing the apartments in pairs, either directly from the street or from staircase landings at the second floor, one gains entry to an internal corridor serving the kitchen and main living space. Two single-width lateral stairs, along with two straight flights, were ingeniously devised to serve the additional apartments on the third and fourth floors above.
The meticulously detailed, syntactic treatment of the surface of these perimeter blocks is sensitively contextual, particularly in the use of dark-red and light-red bricks to differentiate between the ground-floor street front, most exposed to wear and tear, and the upper three floors. Off-white bricks, too, are deployed for a two-story-high revetment where the perimeter blocks converge at an angled intersection between two streets and where another block turns over a wide front as the sidewalk sweeps through a generous arcas if to compensate, however paradoxically, for the connections that would have been provided by the corner buildings Siza initially proposed to house communal facilities. This white-brick cladding is also used to encase the freestanding dwelling units provided for the gardener and the garage attendant, and on the main building, volume is also continued into the dark-red-brick “rustication” by a single brick course, just as a single red-brick course penetrates the field of white bricks.
I HAVE CHARACTERIZED Siza as the last modern housing architect, inasmuch as housing itself would progressively disappear from the welfare-state agenda of European governments from the mid-’80s onward. Siza would go on to propose extensive medium-rise urban residential developments for Milan and Naples in 1986, but by then the politics of neoliberalism were gaining traction all over the world; the grand postwar experiment in democratic socialism was over. Recently, however, the worldwide refugee crisis and the astonishingly rapid urbanization of developing nations has, once again, rendered the shortfall of affordable housing a crisis of unmanageable proportions. And the urgent need for solutionsboth social and architecturalhas made Siza’s pioneering experiments in collective design more relevant than ever.
Kenneth Frampton is the Ware Professor of architecture at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation at Columbia University.
1. France Vanlaethem, “Pour une architecture épurée et rigoureuse,” ARQ: Architecture/Québec, no. 14 (August 1983), 18.