The SAAL Process: Housing in Portugal 1974-1976 10.06.15

  • View of Casal das Figueiras neighbourhood, Setúbal, Portugal 2014

  • General meeting of local residents in the Sports Pavilion, Porto, Portugal 5 April 1975

  • Views of construction of Antas neighbourhood, Porto, Portugal, c. 1975

  • View of the São Victor neighbourhood, Porto, Portugal 2014

  • View of Antas neighbourhood, Porto, Portugal 2014

An exhibition at Montreal’s Canadian Centre for Architecture explores people powered architecture movement in 1970s Portugal that overthrew a despotic regime

A series of hand-painted banners made by the citizens of Portugal’s Porto and Lisbon slums of 1974-76 lead visitors into the complex, riveting drama of the SAAL movement, in a show recently opened at the CCA in Montreal. The SAAL Process: Housing in Portugal 1974-1976 presents ten projects from that era of the influential intervention by the Serviço Ambulatório de Apoio Local (SAAL) – the Local Ambulance Support Service. Conceived by architect and secretary of state for housing and urbanism Nuno Portas as a people-powered architecture and community movement, SAAL spontaneously emerged in the wake of the Carnation Revolution that overthrew the despotic Estado Novo regime in 1974.

Born in a time of productive unrest, the SAAL process fostered a visionary group of architects to engage with the struggling working classes of Portugal’s two largest cities, with a dynamic new form of social activism. At a time when a large percentage of the population was living in poverty, 25% were illiterate, and all were rebelling against the capitalist regime, architecture stepped in to offer revolutionary bottom-up solutions. “It is a great opportunity for the CCA to host this exhibition that documents a specific moment in Portuguese history which is a little known and yet pivotal chapter in the history of architecture,” Eszter Steierhoffer, CCA’s curator of contemporary architecture, says of the many rooms depicting the maps, maquettes, films, photographs and sculptures that document this transformative moment in political-architectural history.

Wandering these rooms, we see the rigorous application of social ethics that were used; in the way individuals in the most disfavoured areas of these cities were questioned by architects about their personal lives and needs, and consulted to both co-design and physically build their homes according to these needs (original questionnaires are housed in glass cases and one film shows a group of fishermen moving an old fishing shack by hand). In another act of innovation, neighbourhood “branding” was identified by the architects and depicted in the banners and posters that we see on display – DIY graphic design projects that incited pride and power.

This chapter of Portuguese politics is little known. Fearing a national swing to communism, NATO squashed its movement after a passionately brief two years. Many of the SAAL studies were destroyed, their manifestations put to an end, and the majority of the work was left unfinished and un-made. Now a legacy of intellectual intelligence, the investigations into this period’s social role of architecture, on view for the first time outside Portugal, can be re-appropriated to raise questions for today’s architectural thinking.

Participation may be a fashionably over-used term in contemporary culture but SAAL presents exciting ways to think about citizen engagement. “The issue of housing acquired a symbolic importance in Portugal at that time,” Steierhoffer says. “The architectural renewal of the city became synonymous with the democratic transformation of Portuguese society. SAAL was an experimental participatory process, developed with local residents, who took the active role in the planning of their own neighbourhood.”

SAAL’s ideas about participation, where architects became quasi-sociologists and houses became synonymous with democracy, “is more relevant today than ever”, concludes Steierhoffer. “Revisiting the model of the SAAL process raises important questions about the role of the architect, the participatory models of architecture, and the political and social implications of housing on the scale of the neighbourhood and urban communities at times when housing is largely privatised and commercialised globally.”

The SAAL Process: Housing in Portugal 1974-1976 is on display at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal until 4 October 2015

 

Words

Caia Hagel

 

Images: André Cepeda, Daniel Malhão, Alexandre Alves Costa

quotes story

It is a great opportunity for the CCA to host this exhibition that documents a specific moment in Portuguese history which is a little known and yet pivotal chapter in the history of architecture

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