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Revisiting Siza: An archaeology of the future

Álvaro Siza’s Quinta da Malagueira estate offers radical lessons in the relationship of architecture and time

On 25 April 1974, a bloodless military coup ended Portugal’s experience of five decades of virtual dictatorship and brought what would ultimately prove a short-lived Communist administration to power. The new government soon identified a commitment to addressing the country’s housing shortage as among its chief policy priorities. Migration from rural to urban communities and the influx of a substantial population from Portugal’s disintegrating empire had seen this problem escalate to the point of crisis over the previous decade. At the time of the so-called Carnation Revolution 150,000 people were living in tents in Lisbon and Porto alone.

The emergence of this political imperative transformed the nature of Álvaro Siza’s practice dramatically. Aged 41 in 1974 he had been building small, immaculately crafted projects in and around his native Porto − in the main part single family houses − for two decades. However, in the year preceding the revolution the architect had already begun to redirect his energies towards the problem of low-cost housing, accepting the commissions for the São Victor and Bouça projects, both of which occupied tight urban infill sites in Porto. In 1977, that experience proved instrumental in securing him a third and considerably larger estate, the Quinta da Malagueira. Comprising 1,200 homes designed for occupation by a housing co-operative, it stands on expropriated agricultural land outside Évora, a one-time Roman hill town that now serves as the capital of the Alentejo region in southern Portugal. Almost uniquely in the history of 20th-century housing, it is a project for which the architect retained sole design responsibility over more than two decades of construction.

Siza photographed on a site visit in 1977

Siza photographed on a site visit in 1977

When he first visited the site, work was already under way on a neighbouring multi-storey housing development and the city council’s expectation was that Quinta da Malagueira would be developed on a similar basis. But Siza was not convinced, citing concerns both about the effect that a project of significant height would have on the old city’s relationship to its encompassing landscape and about the suitability of an apartment-based development to the needs and aspirations of the poor rural workers who were set to live there.

Instead, he developed − in close consultation with the estate’s future residents − a plan that distributed the programme between two fields composed of low-rise terraced courtyard houses. The area of ground covered was greater than would have been the case with a high-rise development but the use of a high density back-to-back house type maintained around 50 per cent of the site as open land, creating a sense of equivalence between the scale of the housing fields and that of the intervening territory. The fields are structured on the basis of a grid derived from the 12 by 8 metre plot assigned to each house but do not follow a common orientation. Rather they adjust to the undulating topography ensuring that the narrow, cobbled streets along which the houses are distributed always follow the slope. Their placement is also governed by Siza’s desire to maintain and consolidate a number of the site’s existing features, principal among which were two communities built illegally in the 1940s, Santa Maria and Nossa Senhora da Glória. The southern range of Malagueira is grafted directly onto Santa Maria, its layout extending the earlier development’s pattern of streets. Meanwhile, the main road through the site represents a continuation of the one that ran from Évora (which lies a kilometre to the east) to Nossa Senhora da Glória − likewise binding the barrio into a more persuasive urban structure.


A café scene in Évora


Siza’s Malagueira sketchbooks mix architectural drawings and sketches of residents and collaborators


Sketch perspective showing the houses’ courtyard plan arrangement

Elsewhere, a pair of old windmills, the remains of an Arab bath and a 19th-century house with an adjacent orange grove are integrated as incidental landmarks. New roads follow the line of existing footpaths while the housing fields adjust in plan to accommodate a network of inherited drainage ditches. Cutting downslope, these combine and ultimately discharge into a lake that Siza formalises with a granite-faced dam at the entrance to the estate. The sense everywhere is of the architect’s determination to tread lightly − an impulse born not only from financial necessity but from a desire to maintain a reading of the site’s former condition. As Siza himself has said: ‘Architects don’t invent anything; they transform reality.’

‘The sense everywhere is of the architect’s determination to tread lightly − an impulse born not only from financial necessity but from a desire to maintain
a reading of the site’s former condition’

Further to its roads and ditches, Malagueira is also governed by a third layer of infrastructure: an elevated network of conduits that distributes water and electricity to each house much in the manner of a miniature aqueduct. Siza justified the use of this unusual device on the basis that it would prove cheaper than distributing the services below ground and the extreme economy of its construction in unadorned concrete block is unmistakable.


Investigations of the half-dome, ultimately unbuilt, but the current Communist mayor has expressed an ambition to see it and some of the other unbuilt civic elements finally realised


Investigations of the aqueduct

However, Malagueira’s method of servicing also carries a contextual association, as the vast Prata aqueduct, built in the 16th century as a means of supplying Évora with water from the interior, runs less than a kilometre from the estate. Once it breaches Évora’s city wall, the Prata’s arches have been colonised by shops and houses and Siza exploits his conduit in similar fashion: at some points allowing it to extend into the landscape in isolation, at others building hard against it. We repeatedly encounter it crossing the streets at high level and the resultant conjunction of architectural and infrastructural scales plays a valuable role in investing Malagueira with an urban character. Vitally, the conduit also provides each of the otherwise highly internalised housing fields with a colonnaded frontage to the landscape. Loaded with shops, these covered routes represent the principal means of pedestrian passage across the site.

The conduit’s journey is hardly systematic. Decisions about where to run the structure parallel with the slope, where to negotiate the ground in steps and where to hold level are the product of an architect’s imagination rather than that of an engineer. And while it presents itself as a measure of the site’s micro-geography, the structure also serves as an armature for improvisation. Siza constantly elaborates local episodes: an unusually shaped ‘window’ addressing a view down a street or a complex arrangement of arches celebrating a terminus or change of direction.


Sketch showing the new settlement with the skyline of Évora in the distance

Beyond its immediate association with the Prata aqueduct, the structure also inevitably brings to mind Roman prototypes, and that suggestion is compounded by the treatment of the buildings that it serves. Offering a highly economic ratio of external wall to floor area and an effective response to the region’s punishing climate, Siza’s houses strongly recall the densely packed buildings planned around atria that form the residential fabric of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Indeed, aerial photographs showing the estate under construction when all that had been built was the conduit and a series of low partition walls present a scene curiously redolent of an archaeological dig.

However, the houses are haunted by other memories too: of Alentejo’s white rendered vernacular architecture − in which courtyard plans often feature − and of the terrace of white row houses of similarly L-shaped plan that JJP Oud built in 1927 at the Weissenhof Estate at Stuttgart. The connecting tissue between these diverse influences might be said to be Siza’s then recently acquired interest in the work of Adolf Loos. Looking at Loos’s unbuilt 1923 design for the house of the actor Alexander Moissi on Venice’s Lido we would be hard pressed to disentangle the debts to Classical, vernacular and Modernist sources and Malagueira presents much the same kind of synthesis. For Siza, Loos offered a vital lesson in how formal reduction might extend the resonance of his work. Many of the projects that he had realised over the preceding 20 years had been characterised by highly inventive detailing and impressive craftsmanship, but the streets at Malagueira are bereft of detail, relying for their effect almost exclusively on Siza’s feeling for massing and the sparing placement of simple openings.


A series of perspective sketches of the half-dome showing its relationship to the aqueduct


An intersection of two stretches of the aqueduct

There are essentially only two house plans at Malagueira but each is deployed in varying levels of expansion − offering alternatives ranging between a two-bedroom house to one of four bedrooms with a larger living area but much reduced external space. Siza exploited these possible variations to tailor each unit to the differing requirements of Malagueira’s occupants but the plans’ expandable nature was also conceived as a way of allowing residents the freedom to adapt their homes to developing needs. Alterations were originally permitted only if they accorded with the dictates of a rule book but when the Communist local authority which had initiated Malagueira’s construction was replaced by a Socialist administration in the early 1990s, that monitoring process fell by the wayside. In consequence, changes occasionally prove more ad hoc than might be wished but most go unnoticed − a tribute to the pliancy of Siza’s original vision.

‘Almost uniquely in the history of 20th-century housing, it is a project for which the architect retained sole design responsibility over more than two decades’

However, the change of political climate impacted on Malagueira in more damaging ways. In a televised interview, the Socialist prime minister, Mário Soares, damned the project as overly lavish, maintaining that it was ‘not social housing’. Plans for a series of public buildings, many of which Siza had designed to an advanced level of detail, were duly scrapped. Including a parish centre, restaurant, motel and medical centre these promised to ensure that Malagueira functioned as a genuine expansion of Évora rather than as a mere dormitory. Many of their sites remain notably unresolved, with reinforcement bars still sticking out of theadjacent conduit in anticipation of further construction. The romance of the ruin exerted a strong pull on Siza’s conception of Malagueira but in these locations an all too factual sense of abandonment has taken hold.


Type A house plan variations with ground floor plans ranged along the upper band and corresponding first floor plans below
Click to expand


Type B house plan variations with ground floor plans ranged along the upper band and corresponding first floor plans below
Click to expand

The failure to realise two projects is particularly regrettable. The first was a shopping street, extending along the principal means of access to the northerly of the two housing fields. Dubbed Broadway − somewhat ironically in light of its less than metropolitan dimensions − it would have been lined with cafés and retail units accessed off a raised walkway extending down either side.

The gently snaking road was laid out but the land designated for the shops remains unoccupied save for some informally established allotments. The conduit cuts across the street repeatedly, with each crossing’s impressive height and span lending it something of the character of a triumphal arch. But their grandeur only exacerbates the sense of melancholy. The crossing at the entrance to the street even incorporates a pair of symmetrically disposed steps ascending to the yet-to-be-built walkway. The retail provision at Malagueira remains frustratingly limited, requiring most residents to shop at a supermarket located on the road leading back to the old town.

The still greater disappointment is the absence of the structure that Siza conceived as the focus of the whole development. Looking out to the broad green space that extends through the middle of the estate is a public square of triangular plan, its rear elevation formed by the conduit which here doubles as a colonnade. In its present form it is a distinctly lifeless space but one that remains far from Siza’s design. What is missing is the structure he planned to stand within it: an open-sided half-dome which, save for a cork tree and fountain, would be left empty, serving as a shaded public space with the capacity to host events. It is tempting to speculate on whether memories of the fragmented brick vaults of Hadrian’s Villa might not have played a part in its conception but Siza envisaged the structure in concrete, painted white. It is a project begging to be seen across the landscape in the hard light of a Portuguese summer, an ogee-curve of shadow cast against its inner face.

 Model of the half-dome

Model of the half-dome

site plan

Site plan showing how the urban pattern emerges from the former settlement
Click to expand

Siza’s work at Malagueira invites a reading less as a fixed artefact and rather as one episode in the site’s ongoing transformation. An understanding of the territory’s former occupation is preserved and a framework established within which residents can enact transformations of their own. To talk of such a temporally attuned architecture as ‘unfinished’ may therefore seem paradoxical but the omission of the civic buildings that would have consolidated its aspirations towards urbanity rankles nonetheless. Siza’s Bouça estate in Porto lay part-realised for close to a quarter of a century before a comprehensive restoration, including the completion of the estate’s community buildings, was undertaken between 2001 and 2006. Could some of the original plans for Malagueira also be resuscitated? In a country that was among the hardest hit by the European financial crisis, funding remains in short supply. However, the recent return to power of a Communist administration in Évora has held out the hope that Malagueira might yet be better cherished. The regulations determining the scope for residents’ alterations are already being more stringently applied while the new mayor has expressed an ambition to see some of the civic buildings, including the half-dome, realised at last.

‘Siza’s work at Malagueira invites a reading less as a fixed artefact and rather as one episode in the site’s ongoing transformation’

Any development proposal will necessarily have to contend with the fact that contemporary Malagueira is the subject of different social and economic circumstances than those which guided its formation. There may be less public money available but its current population is, for better or worse, richer than that for which it was built, as a result of a subsequent relaxation in rules − introduced by the Socialists − governing owner occupation. Despite the desultory condition of some of the sites of the unrealised buildings, the houses are well maintained, a good restaurant is well patronised and the number of cars parked on the narrow streets has increased significantly. The recognition that the community’s needs now differ from those which Siza was able to anticipate nearly 40 years ago, has prompted an invitation to studios in architecture schools from across Europe to address the question of the estate’s development − an initiative which will culminate in a conference and publication this summer. That we can think optimistically about changes to Malagueira is testament to the fact that the estate is no monument. To an extent true of precious few urban expansions realised in the last century, it convinces as a piece of city rich both in memory and potential.


One of the housing fields during construction


The new aqueduct under construction

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The historic Prata aqueduct, which dates from the 16th-century, stands a kilometre from Malagueira


Siza was inspired by the colonisation of the Prata’s arches where it extends into Évora


Siza’s photograph showing the skyline of Évora visible over one of the aqueducts


Construction photograph showing the distribution of the houses against the slope


Evocative photographs from the 1980s show streets minimally populated by cars


Contemporary photograph showing street life and the increased number of vehicles


The houses’ courtyard plans limit the visibility of residents’ changes on the streets


Contemporary photograph showing the estate’s relationship to the lake that Siza formed at the entrance to the site

Reflections on six decades of Siza

Tony Fretton

Siza’s buildings are full of generous non-rhetorical lessons for architectural practice. The first-year studio at Porto School of Architecture shows how conventional building form and its relationship to surroundings can say extraordinary, experiential things. In the kindergarten at Penafiel the exterior moves with all the power and ingenuity of a Henry Moore sculpture and its interior forms and sequences are uncannily sensitive to a child’s way of being. A new piece of city is made in Quinta da Malagueira in Évora with exceptional skill and conviction from just the form and imagery of infrastructure and row housing and their subtle relations to the surrounding terrain. Before these came the public swimming pool on the beach at Leça da Palmeira (below). The pool is formed between the rocks next to the sea and its buildings are sketched out in concrete in a way that links them to a similarly made shipping dock seen across the bay. The state of mind that brings you to the pool is changed by descending below the road, through dark changing rooms to emerge more naked before entering the pool, where you co-exist with the creatures on the other side of the rocks in the polluted sea. Through simple pleasures a massive holistic statement is made about architecture’s capacity to reconcile human folly and the need to live optimistically.

Pier Vittorio Aureli

Quinta da Malagueira is perhaps the last great ‘social housing project’. That is, it is the last great architectural contribution to the city in which architecture plays a fundamental role. In the last 40 years there has been a split between architecture as ‘form’ and its political role. Not that architecture is no longer political: today it is more political than ever but rarely in an explicit or intentional way.
What is unique about Quinta da Malagueira is that formal principles and political intentions seem to come together as one project. Conceived with exceptional momentum, it was built after the ‘74 revolution, when workers’ councils addressed the condition of housing in Portugal as their main political priority. And just as the housing blocks built by the Social Democratic municipality in Vienna from 1919 to 1934 − the so-called ‘Red Vienna’ − found their archetypical form in the architecture of the courtyard block (the hof), the political agenda of the SAAL brigades found its pertinent architectural resolution in Siza’s architettura povera. In Quinta da Malagueira the memory of ancient Roman architecture and the spartan logic of Modernist housing had their first and sadly last felicitous meeting. Indeed its most striking (and contradictory) formal qualities are its ritualistic spaces and abstract image. Think of the typological reference to the atrium and courtyard on the one hand, and the relentless simplicity of the settlement principle on the other.
The marriage of abstraction and figuration emerges in its most emblematic feature: the raised aqueducts. Like in ancient times, infrastructure’s matter-of-factness becomes the opportunity to create a form that is stubbornly monumental yet anonymous. It is this combination of monumentality and anonymity that celebrates without rhetoric the class consciousness for which this project was designed. Here Siza has given form to a political ethos of community and solidarity without any ideological representation.

Leça de Palmeira swimming pool

Leça de Palmeira swimming pool

Peter St John

It’s difficult to describe the importance of Alvaro Siza’s architecture in a few words because his work is so subtle and witty, and his interpretations have many layers of meaning. While his buildings always communicate with their context, they are so commanding of these matters as to achieve something else, abstract and deeply moving. Ultimately it is about form, abstract and figurative, and in this he is masterful.
I never tire of his work, despite the number of books and the scale of production. Unlike other famous architects, he’s always doing things that are useful to society, showing how to do the most ordinary of buildings as well as the grand ones. His work has a sincerity that is hopeful, open-ended in its view of the world, capable of forming relationships with the most episodic or dissonant situations. I’m talking about the interruptions, mistakes and banality in the city that we all ignore, but that in his hands can become the catalyst for a delicate web.
In our first substantial building for the New Art Gallery Walsall we were thinking about this. We wanted to make a building with an image that was both grand and unsteady, that stood among the melancholic remains of the town’s former industrial estate, talking to these disparate things and reflecting some of their dignity. This idea is in all our work I like to think, and in this we were influenced by Álvaro Siza’s example.

Jonathan Woolf

An introduction to Siza’s work came unexpectedly when as a 19-year-old visiting Évora, I happened upon his patio mat housing, still under construction. Seeing this vast white orthogonal field extending out into the barren landscape and only partly inhabited, I was not sure what to make of it, save be overwhelmed that something so vast could still be amenable. Returning last year with my own students that feeling came flooding back.
Siza’s capacity to work meaningfully within a wide range of settings and building types is neither adolescent nor predictable. His gift for observation regarding the nature of a place, to absorb what may at first appear insignificant things here or there, and recast them into an emotionally resonant proposal of authenticity, this is part of his significant contribution to architecture today and one that still influences me. It is an approach that embraces doubt and remains radical.
In 2004 in London he came to see my Brick Leaf House (below). I was struck by his energy and enthusiasm and asked how he moved between building private houses for the wealthy to making social housing: ‘By making houses for people for whom money is of no great consequence one is more able to make decisions on behalf of people who do not have such a say in what they can have.’ 

brick leaf house

Álvaro Siza and Jonathan Woolf in the Brick Leaf House

John Tuomey

Siza is a master and, considering myself an attentive apprentice, I’d admit to admiring at least three aspects of his esoteric fluency:
● Site geomancy: evidence of Siza’s mastery emerged early with a pair of coastline projects, sited close together just outside Porto, the Boa Nova tea house and the swimming pool at Leça. It’s impossible to discuss these works without describing their sites; the architecture is inextricable from its situation. His poetic understanding of the site conditions only reveals itself through our spatial experience of the built reality.
● Line drawing: Siza thinks his projects out through drawing. Each drawing is a step in the thought process, a stage in the discovery of architectural form. Line drawings are his distinctive handwriting, swift and continuous, inclusive of passing thoughts and cumulative in their focused concentration. He turns a building over in his mind’s eye, and examines little details from different perspectives. Drawing seems to help him see around corners.
● Supple volume: I’ve seen the church at Marco de Canaveses a couple of times, I’ve not yet been to Brazil or Korea, but I’d guess these three quite different works share something of the same surprising feeling of integration between internal volume and external form; the elbow-bend circulation galleries in and out of the Camargo Foundation in Brazil, the billowing wall and long-cut window inside Marco de Canaveses, the tightly sweeping cat-like courtyard curves of the Mimesis Museum in Korea. Siza’s buildings invite us to move more alertly through space, keeping our eyes wide open all around.

William Mann

Álvaro Siza’s buildings have an economy of means, a nimble opportunism and a quiet generosity. What is remarkable is that he has sustained a quality of reflection and enquiry over six decades. His work is grounded in an understanding of the complex relation between people and buildings − the small gestures that invite occupation, the slow shifts of architectural culture. In such a rich and engaging body of work, the social housing projects are easy to overlook − but rewarding to look into.
It doesn’t photograph particularly well, but I was captivated by the Schilderswijk housing in the Hague (below). It’s crafted, clever, economical and fantastically perceptive about living in the city, at a moment of profound change. Évora is a very sophisticated bit of urbanism, in its relation to the topography, to the existing informal settlements, and the structuring role of the services ‘aqueduct’.
He was commissioned separately for the houses and for the urban plan, and you can feel his command of both scales. Realising a plan entirely composed of individual houses in the context of a heavily Marxist political environment, in conditions of material scarcity, was an act of gentle radicalism, a product of both his suppleness and steel.


Schilderswijk housing in the Hague


Shot on location in Portugal, Ellis Woodman explores Siza’s Quinta da Malagueira housing estate. This short documentary continues the AR’s new series of filmed building critiques.




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