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Architecture or revolution: Portuguese participatory process for housing

In the 70s the SAAL formed an ideological programme that reimagined the task of providing housing for the population as a collective and participatory proces. The resulting housing schemes are exhibited in Porto

In response to large-scale public demonstrations in the wake of the Portuguese ‘Carnation Revolution’ of 25 April 1974, SAAL, the Servico Amulatorio de Apoio Local, was established by the Ministry of Housing, Social Affairs and the Environment. Aimed at addressing the urgent need for new housing in the underprivileged communities of urban Portugal, the Service was modelled around a series of technical teams, known as Brigades, who were to support residents’ committees, facilitating housing projects that were, critically, conceived with the local communities rather than for them. Led by architects, the Brigades consisted of professionals from a range of fields including sociologists, engineers and lawyers, who surveyed the current conditions, gave legal support in land ownership issues, and acted as listeners, negotiators and facilitators. Ultimately they were also there to produce buildings.

The programme eventually involved 170 projects across the country, including Álvaro Siza’s key early housing schemes for the neighbourhoods of San Victor and Bouça in Porto that were to become significant precursors to his much larger scheme for Quinta da Malagueira, Évora. The geographical scope of the programme was matched by both the breadth of approaches the participatory process took and the multiplicity of relationships that developed between the existing political structures and the emerging residents’ movement. Despite representing a radical departure, the constructed schemes also owed much to the pre-Revolution world; though they sought alternative forms of housing, they were in many ways predicated on existing architectural models. As Siza noted in an interview in 1978, ‘It was not us that changed, but the conditions of our work.’

The SAAL scheme was active for just 26 months, ending in October 1976 amid a tense climate of political change. Yet during this short time it formed an ideological programme that reimagined the task of providing housing for the population as a collective and participatory process. Remarkably, it was a brief moment when the State legitimised a radical idea of direct democracy that provided an alternative to top-down developmental strategies. Currently exhibiting at the Fundação de Serralves in Porto, the exhibition positions itself in relation to the question, ‘What role for architecture in a revolution?’ Following an introductory room that establishes the movements’ political context, the exhibition describes eight of the schemes formed within the SAAL framework: seven built, together with an unrealised project by Fernando Távora.

Housed in the sizeable Siza-designed Fundação rooms, the display is largely structured using the traditional tools of architectural models and drawings to describe the schemes. The exhibition is commendably ambitious in scale − this is after all a contemporary art gallery staging a major show about the political context of housing provision. However, the focus of the exhibition feels overly oriented towards a formal and spatial account of the housing projects, relying on the accompanying catalogue to describe the critical balance at the heart of the SAAL between the architectural autonomy of the schemes and the singular social processes in which they were created.

The SAAL Process − Architecture and Participation 1974-76

Where: Fundação de Serralves, Porto
When: 31 October 2014 − 1 February 2015

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