BY Tobi Maier in Reviews | 16 MAR 15
Featured in
Issue 170

The SAAL Process: Architecture and Participation in Portugal, 1974–1976

BY Tobi Maier in Reviews | 16 MAR 15

‘The SAAL Process: Architecture and Participation in Portugal, 1974–1976’, exhibition view

More than 40 years after the overthrow of the Portuguese dictatorship, the social housing movement, Serviço Ambulatório de Apoio Local (Local Ambulatory Support Service, SAAL), which ran from 1974–76, was revisited in this large-scale exhibition, which was curated by Delfim Sardo and will travel to the Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montréal, in May. SAAL was a unique collaboration between architects and city-dwellers in need of decent, affordable housing in the wake of the so-called ‘Carnation Revolution’ of 1974. Launched by government decree in several urban centres, SAAL was a response to a mass squatting movement in the immediate aftermath of the uprising. It involved architects, engineers, lawyers, students and the inhabitants of impoverished neighbourhoods, who organized themselves into committees (also called brigades) in an effort to define and enact new rights and conditions for urban life. At a moment in time when construction was slow in Portugal, the initiative allowed a group of architects to get involved in a bottom-up approach to construction. Many of them volunteered, including Gonçalo Byrne, Luís Gravata Felipe, Sérgio Fernandez, Raúl Hestnes Ferreira, José António Pradela, Artur Rosa, Pedro Ramalho and Álvaro Siza Vieira. These collaborations resulted in a heterogeneous set of designs for one-to-three storey apartment buildings, a process that not only improved living conditions for thousands of people, but also raised awareness of urban planning in the country. The buildings reflect geographical specificities and available materials, as well as the individual style of the architects involved.

Organized around a number of extant SAAL-designed social housing developments, the exhibition was divided into groups of displays featuring models and architectural blueprints from the Oporto neighbourhood projects in São Victor, Leal, Antas and Miragaia, as well as Lisbon’s Quinta do Bacalhau, Monte Coxo, Fonsecas, Calçada, Curaleira, Embrechados, Bela Flor and Lagos’s Meia Praia. Texts accompanying the various presentations explained SAAL’s history and were projected onto the walls, highlighting the didactic character of the exhibition. Apartment layouts were reproduced on a 1:1 scale on the gallery floors, accompanied by architectural elements such as staircase sculptures that evoked a sense of the size of these crowded urban habitats.

A number of Portuguese artists were commissioned to make work for the exhibition. In the museum lobby, visitors were greeted by an installation created by Angela Ferreira. SAAL Brigades (2014) features a series of preparatory drawings as well as a wooden structure that recalls the emblematic Álvaro Siza-designed Bouça housing project, which was not included in the exhibition as it was created by the Housing Development Fund, which pre-dated SAAL. During the show’s opening, Ferreira’s SAAL Brigades served as a backdrop for a performance featuring readings from a manifesto signed by the São Victor brigade and published in Lotus Internacional in 1976. Other original historical documents, letter exchanges, pamphlets and agit-prop publications were displayed in vitrines alongside material from SAAL manifestations including banners, posters and a slide projection documenting the street protests demanding better housing conditions. New photographic commissions by André Cepeda, José Pedro Cortes and Daniel Malhão depict the current state of the façades of some of the housing complexes still in existence, yet omit interior views. Another shortcoming was the failure to include João Dias’s film, As Operações SAAL (SAAL Operations, 2007), which won the MIDAS prize at DocLisboa the year it was released. António Cunha Telles’s documentary, Still Living or The Indians of Meia Praia (1975), which documents SAAL’s work in Lagos, was ill-advisedly reduced to a loop of one of its more emblematic scenes, which depicts locals carrying the shell of a house across the beach. Paradoxically, for all SAAL’s participatory approach to architecture and the social emancipation it triggered, the voices of the architects and locals who participated in the building processes, and who continue to maintain their communities, were muted. Yet, the exhibition and its compelling catalogue are valuable reminders of this shortlived moment in Portuguese architectural history and, at a time when participation is in vogue not only in architecture but also in art, it will hopefully resonate beyond the parameters it has set up.

Tobi Maier is a critic and curator based in São Paulo.