EPFL Doctoral Program Architecture and Sciences of the City (EDAR), 2021.
Advisors: Harry Gugger, Emily Eliza Scott.
Jury: Paola Viganò, Pier Vittorio Aureli, Godofredo Pereira, Dieter Dietz.
The environmental question in Western architecture peaked during the contextualism debates that emerged in the 1950s between Italy and the UK. For the British group, led by the Smithsons and the TEAM X, ‘context’ was synonymous with biological habitat and ecological urbanism, whose principles could be derived from studying spontaneous patterns of human association. For the Italian group, led by Rogers and later Rossi, context meant preesistenze ambientali and continuità, i.e., historical continuity. The British focused on space, while the Italians emphasized time. Ecology and history thus became polar opposites in the postwar critique of modernism.
By the 1970’s there was a shift from this sort of socio-biological determinism towards a more culturalist approach. Context became synonymous with ‘symbolic context’, and site-specificity was to be achieved less through a dialectical interplay with material reality than through a referential, typo-morphological approach. Gradually, a rift emerged: ecology became a matter of natural fact to be technologically calculated, and context became a matter of cultural identity to be narrated and deconstructed. From this point onwards—and in tandem with the rise of neoliberal commodification—Western architecture lost the ability to tackle the environmental question beyond the narrow scope of the individual architectural object.
Before this split, the modernist tradition had attempted to address the built environment, and housing projects in particular, as a socio-ecological totality. Backed by large-scale funding initiatives from social-democratic states, human and non-human life could be understood dialectically, with the neighbourhood scale mediating between the individual and the social. Álvaro Siza’s Bairro da Malagueira was one of the last projects of this generation. It emerged from the particular conditions of the 1974–75 Carnation Revolution and the state-sponsored housing program SAAL, a dual power structure made up of ‘technical brigades’ and neighbourhood committees. During this process, the SAAL-Norte produced a series of projects focused on reinventing the typology of the ilha, and Álvaro Siza wrote a text considering “the proletarian ‘island’ as a basic element of the urban tissue.” What was taken from these islands was less their stylistic or typological configuration than the system of environmental relations that they fostered, predicated on a series of thresholds and open interiorities.
From Bairro da Malagueira, this thesis proposes a method for mapping environmental relations in architecture. It does so by identifying three thresholds—the conduit, the patio, and the waste—that weave the architectural form of the neighbourhood with the environmental history of its site. The conduit unfolds in the arcade and the aqueduct, narrating a history of the territory. The patio unfolds in the quinta and the cloister, recounting a history of domesticity. The waste unfolds in the allotment and the camp, reflecting a history of wilderness. The result is an atlas of cartographic essays that deepen the relationship between architecture and landscape.
- Álvaro Siza Vieira. “The Proletarian ‘Island’ as a Basic Element of the Urban Tissue.” Lotus International 13 (1976): 80–93.