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Architecture_MPS; Liverpool University; Liverpool John Moores University

Liverpool: 08—09 April, 2015







Charles Jencks proclaimed the “Death of Modern Architecture”, metaphorically through the demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe housing estate (1972), more than 40 years ago, - precisely at a time when the private sector started to take over the welfare state almost everywhere. The contradiction between claiming an “architecture for the people” while an economic-driven market was being promulgated, obliterating the moral ambitions of architecture, is outlined in the case study of the present paper, the urban plan of Portela de Sacavém (1960-79), designed by architect Fernando Silva (1914-83).

The project is a mass-produced housing complex − one of the principles of Modern Architecture – developed by the private sector1, in the outskirts of Lisbon, for the upper middle class.2 Built over the 60’s and 70’s, the project is paradigmatic of a self-representing image that arrived in the capital from the ex-colonies and was “broadcasted” for and by the emergent middle class at the time – paradoxically linked with the provision of cheap houses for the working classes.

The idea of a modern lifestyle was welcome. It included the car, the garage, the lift, the motorway, and even the stereotyped anonymous character of architecture - as opposed to the ‘ideal’ of detached suburban houses with private gardens. But, despite the modern character of the urban plan, the dwellings enclose a bourgeois Victorian vision of how private life should be lived. Given its wide acceptance and the satisfaction of its inhabitants – many of them still living there – it became the model of the housing approach in the years to come. Thus, this paper will argue that “housing for the biggest number” in the periphery of cities is not necessarily synonymous of ‘miserabilism’, as is the case with countless examples elsewhere.

1 In this case it was the influent constructor and promotor Manuel da Mota.

2 The word Portela means precisely “door”, in this case a Lisbon “door” to Sacavém.



Architecture_MPS; Liverpool University; Liverpool John Moores University Liverpool: 08—09 April, 2015 The reasons for this attractiveness might be manifold and deserve a rigorous scrutiny. It also opens up a wider question about how the socialist ideals behind modernism could be so easily absorbed by liberalism and the private sector.


Many studies have been developed around the issue of mass housing projects during the 20th century, with a special focus on social housing. The middle class has indeed been ignored within this debate, with the general assumption that this model was only intended for housing or relocating lower classes.

And, generally speaking, collective housing and detached houses have been, as a laboratory of experimentation and discussion, very different, not only because of their scale and programme, but also because of the themes that congregate around them, more sociological, political and strategically in the first case, and more disciplinary centred in the second.

The “biggest number”, the masses, have always been related to public policies and social housing programmes, not only in Portugal but elsewhere.

While the reality in many European countries was shaped by the ruins of Word War II, and the need of mass production, from where modernism found its privileged way of emerging as a discourse, this was not the case in Portugal. On the one hand the fact that the country did not suffer spatial consequences of World War I, and did not participate in World War II resulted in a totally different reality in what concerns the urge to rehouse entire populations. On the other hand, the country was under a dictatorship that ruled for over than 40 years (1933), using housing as a way of promoting the regime.

In fact, in the capital, many neighbourhoods were built in peripheral areas of the city, somehow recreating the atmosphere of villages, most of them with semi-detached housing with private courtyards, cultivating the rural image with which most of the families were familiar, at the same time developing the idea of a “Portuguese house”: Encarnação (1940), Caramão da Ajuda (1938), Alto da Serafina (1940), Alvito (1937), Madre Deus (1942). This was, in a country economically behind its European peers, the Portuguese version of “The American Dream”.

In the mid 40’s, given the interventionist climate of the government at the time, an urban plan was developed for a neighbourhood, Alvalade, that would become paradigmatic of the Portuguese urbanism. The long period that its construction took accommodated many transformations to the original design of Faria da Costa (1906-1971). Designed for 45.000 people and organized according to 8 urban cells, in line with Clarence Perry’s Neighbourhood Unit, the housing schemes were more urban, organized in three storey blocks around big communal courtyards. Those hide the still nonurban character of so many people to whom owning a piece of land was very important, as well as

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Liverpool: 08—09 April, 2015 keeping coops poultry, vegetable gardens and small orchards, etc. The hierarchy of the street system was coincident with those of the apartments. They were divided in three series and each one, in turn, into three typologies. If the interior arrangement recalls some of the theories of the existenz minimum, reducing circulation areas to the minimum, providing separate bedrooms for parents and children, and for boys and girls, and turning the living room into the main distribution space. In series II there was already the inclusion of a study room and in series III, besides that also an ensuite bedroom, closer to the kitchen, for the servant. More often than not there were no servants and these rooms were sublet for an extra income. Nevertheless, they suggested to the low middle classes the possibility of a better life.

But the idealized collective housing described by Yorke in “The Modern House”, “grouped in large blocks and with a moral and ethical dimension that characterized the ideology of the International Style, could only be opened up for discussion with the First National Congress of Architecture in 19483, where Portuguese architects claimed the urban planning of cities and the application of the Athens Chart. The Congress addressed both “The Portuguese Problem of Housing” and “Architecture at a National Level”. In the same year, the first Master Plan was produced and approved. Another event of extreme importance was the Enquiry to Popular Architecture (1955-60) with the goal to prove the inexistence of a Portuguese style, – so much defended by the Regime – and wake the ethical and moral dimension of architecture. Those paved the way for the first modernist expressions in Portugal.


From the transition of the 1950’s onwards, the architects started to criticise more openly the current architecture and Alvalade, in Lisbon, was the perfect laboratory for many experiences, so much so that the neighbourhood itself became a kind of catalogue of housing experiences right in the dictatorial regime.

On the one hand, those were not replicas of previous models explored worldwide but rather informed and critical, on the other hand they were hybrids of modern urban images dressing almost Victorian interiors, such as the nationally famous complex “Vá-Vá” (1952-57). Recalling Le Corbusier’s Unité, even with the intermediate “street” (that in this case remain in the facade design but was never built), and despite the “modern outfit”, it accommodates flats with separate circulations and entrances for servants with their own bedrooms next to the kitchen, laundry and pantry, living room, dining room, study room, tea room, etc.

3 Exactly between the first post-war meeting of the CIAM in Bridgewater and the CIAM 7 in Bergamo, that though representing the start of a shift from the focus on the functional city and the questioning of the designation International Style, was unable to live behind the pre-war promise of a mass architecture.



Architecture_MPS; Liverpool University; Liverpool John Moores University

Liverpool: 08—09 April, 2015

In 1960, Fernando Silva and Ruy D’Athouguia were commissioned for the intersection between two of the main streets of the plan – Avenida da Igreja and Avenida de Roma. They adopted a strong critical position towards the existing housing schemes assuming monumentality that from an urban point of view emphasized the importance of that node: four massive housing blocks, two with a “Y” shape and the other two with an “L” shape, each with 18 and 10 storeys respectively. The “Y” buildings, despite their shape, remind Ludwig Hilbersmeir’s drawings for a “Skyscrapers´ City” and Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation. The buildings were designed on pilotis but over a common squared basement/plinth, clearly separating the circulation between pedestrians and traffic, and at the same time modelling the square according to the traditional traffic road system. It was as if the architects had taken the best out of three worlds.

In addition, despite the monotonous facades, with no hierarchies or variations, emphasized by the disposition of the openings, their almost


character accommodated luxurious flats that not only th th followed the 18 century Victorian floor plans but also benefited of all 20 century facilities: the modern kitchen, the lift, the garage, the storage room. It was an upgrade of the existing housing schemes of the neighbourhood, both in terms of areas and technology but what is more, in the understanding of a contemporary urban inhabitant. One was the caricature of the other. Whether this was possible thanks to private enterprises might be true, but that does not change the fact that the project reveals Fernando Silva’s wide reflection on urbanism, and a critical position turned into a proposition. Only one year after (1961) Jane Jacobs would publish “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”, and it is curious to note how Fernando Silva and Ruy D’Athouguia combined both the ideal of modern housing with the recovery of some of the traditional urbanism principles, where buildings design streets and the other way around. Some controversial subjects such as separating or not different activities, what is a proper mix and so forth were also addressed. The two housing complexes incorporated commerce and services in the lower floors, while the other two buildings, primarily were devoted to offices with a shopping centre on the ground floor, something that was rare at the time. And although it was a requirement of Faria da Costa’s plan to enhance the street intersection, the design of the complex not only achieved it, but marked definitely the centre of the neighbourhood. During the previous and the following years other examples could be pointed out, but none combining the traditional urbanism with modern architecture.


From the mid 1950's, with the founding of the MPLA (“Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola”), instability began to be felt on the Portuguese territory. By Portuguese territory we mean mainland as well as the colonies, territories that since the abolition of the Colonial Act in 1951 – which was an adaptation of the UN Charter – were then called overseas provinces, namely officially 4


Architecture_MPS; Liverpool University; Liverpool John Moores University

Liverpool: 08—09 April, 2015

members of Portugal. In the early 1960s with the creation of FRAIN (“African Revolutionary Front for the Independence of Angola”), supported by the anticolonial positions of the ONU General Assembly, the political climate culminated in the beginning of the colonial war in 1961. Like all revolutions, this was a slow process and for which contributed in a decisive way the “25 th of April” or “Carnation Revolution” as it was also called the political event that put an end to the dictatorship government in

1974. Moreover, it paved the way to the subsequent decolonization that occurred between "April 25th" and “November 11th“of the next year (1975), when it was proclaimed the independence, the cessation of Portuguese sovereignty and the immediate liberation of the colonies. It is important to note that the decolonization of British and French Empires had happened much before, between 1946 and 1960, partially due to urban strategies that are not within the scope of this paper.

The political climate proper of a dictatorial government, the civil war in the so-called overseas provinces; the subsequent decolonization; the poor conditions in which people lived in4; the return of many families from the ex-colonies to a country that for most of the second generation was unknown, had a strong impact in the territory from the point of view of housing and urbanism.

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