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Ateliermob and Colectivo Warehouse: ‘the best technique is one that involves the future users of the space’

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Ateliermob and Colectivo Warehouse take a participative approach in their design of a community kitchen in Costa da Caparica, Portugal

South of Lisbon, on a strip of land between a highway and the ocean, is an informal settlement of some 500 inhabitants. Isolated and invisible from the surrounding suburbs, the Terras da Costa community is both geographically marginal and systemically marginalised; it has long been neglected in the provision of access to fresh water and sanitation, and is attended to only in frequent and severe police intervention.

In 2012, a workshop held by the architecture department at the Autonomous University of Lisbon launched a collaboration between Ateliermob and Colectivo Warehouse to develop a project to improve living conditions in Terras da Costa. In a series of workshops that involved the residents in the future of their community, the two collectives developed a rigorously participative practice. Through meetings, local advocacy, mediation with local authorities, cooking and construction, over three years they devised a project that brought water to Terras da Costa, and provided a space where the community could come together to cook and to eat: the Cozinha Comunitária. 

‘the kitchen was really an excuse to bring water to the neighbourhood – kitchens need water’

Both undervalued and underexposed, participation is an egalitarian architectural methodology that has its foundation in a reaction to a Modernist ambition to design for an imagined, universal human. The problem with modular men is that the standardisation of the human user by definition contains the elision of even the potential for difference; marginalisation begins long before sensitivity has a chance to grab hold. In working with a vulnerable community such as that in Terras da Costa, the architect-client relationship – to use an especially industrial set of terms – is significantly imbalanced: participation becomes even more crucial. 

In 1969, Giancarlo De Carlo gave a lecture called Architecture’s Public. He asserted that while architecture is always political, the processes of its production are not inherently progressive. While architects have access to a nexus of economic, bureaucratic and technological power, such a structurally powerful position remains vulnerable to the normative influences inherent in institutional power. To be truly revolutionary, then, to be of service to the public, went beyond the fundamental distinction between designing with and designing for – participation required a redesign of the whole architectural handbook. 

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Source: FG + SG

Residents of Terras da Costa share a meal in one of the adaptable spaces alongisde the kitchen

De Carlo’s ideas echo in the description that Ateliermob and Colectivo Warehouse give of their practice. Not solely asking a building’s future users what they think, it involves the design of mechanisms for the participative process in itself – mechanisms that maintain a flexible and sensitive relationship to the community. For Cozinha Comunitária, the workshops ranged from mapping the neighbourhood to serigraphy, sewing, soap-making: many in the community didn’t initially understand why the collectives were there, so early interaction meant establishing a means of communication for the collectives to determine community needs. 

Among these was a clear priority of providing running water to the area, the process of which exhibits the flip-side of participative practice: the need to remain resiliently advocative in inevitably prolonged, bureaucratic mediation with local authorities. The collectives spoke of the decision to make the kitchen programmatically central as therefore also a tactical one: ‘the kitchen was really an excuse to bring water to the neighbourhood – kitchens need water’. While the provision of water was largely a municipal issue, they also explained that the lack of public space in Terras da Costa posed a structural problem. The community would often cook and eat together, but the absence of public space meant that cooking was in hazardous close proximity to residents’ homes. Without access to water, and with the residential fabric of the settlement so tightly knit, fire could quickly devastate. 

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Source: FG + SG

Before the installation of this municipal water supply, residents had to walk a kilometre to the nearest public fountain

Now the simple, timber-framed structure loops around a site selected and cleared by the local community, and alongside its cooking facilities, the communal kitchen houses a water point, laundry space, adaptable covered areas and enclosed yard. Beyond the functional operation of the building as a means for residents to cook in a safe and structured environment, the provision of fresh water, of broad, running shelter – of a framework for inhabitation – make this a truly multifunctional public space. The tradition of communal cooking, among the dense set of connections that form a community, was already at play in the settlement well before intervention from architectural forces. What the new-build provides is a space where the residents of Terras da Costa can play out in comfort the practices that form their community. 

Fifty years on from Architecture’s Public, participation in architecture remains undervalued: perhaps the decentralisation of the heroic image of the architect is unappealing to a culture so dependent on reputation to sustain itself. The shining hope rests in collectives such as Ateliermob and Colectivo Warehouse; in their commitment to an architecture that puts at its heart the people most at the mercy of the built environment, and in their ability to break bread. 

This piece is featured in the AR October issue on Food – click here to purchase your copy today