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European Housing: Learning From Siza’s La Quinta’

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Interview between Research Manger Mike Althorpe and Senior Architect Edward Simpson

MA: What is the Quinta de la Malagueira?
ES: It is a very large public housing project on the outskirts of the Portuguese city of Evora designed by architect Álvaro Siza and begun in 1977 with 1200 dwellings organised in groups of low-rise, high-density terraces.

MA: What are the origins of the project?
ES: In 1970s Portugal there was a severe housing shortage that came out of years of inaction, rapid economic change and major movements of the population into cities. The Quinta de la Malagueira was created in response to this situation and was part of an ambitious new programme for housing led by government.

MA: Why is this project interesting?
ES: The project is fascinating because of its scale and location; its relationship between housing and landscape and the development of the courtyard typology or patio house. It was created on a very tight budget and poses a challenge – how to combine something cheap, with something rigorous in terms of form and identity?

MA: Is this typical of architect Siza’s approach to housing?
ES: His housing is interesting because it is usually quite lean and repetitive, yet still manages to have a strong sculptural quality, which lots of contemporary housing fails to have. In his early projects in his home-town of Porto, he developed a language that draws upon Portuguese traditions, but is very modern in its use of material and detailing. There is something fundamental about his architecture, which gives it a timelessness. His are buildings that do not fade with age and can even be rough around the edges.

MA: How does the project ‘Include Everything’? What does this mean?
ES: This was one of Siza’s project quotes and it is all about ensuring a contextual response. Siza believed that the ‘tabula rasa’ was an unhelpful concept and that designers ought to have something to react to. The project’s layout is informed by the area’s topography, by existing elements in the landscape such as water courses, mature trees and found structures. There are also a number of prompts from traditional Portuguese housing typologies such as terraces with simple repeating elements and a network of overhead structures that carry power and services.

Siza claims these were born simply out of budget constraints and topography, but they are incredibly powerful and go beyond the purely practical. I think they evolved out of a conscious interest in townscape and referencing the aqueduct monuments of the historic city nearby. When we talk of contextual architecture, it is a recognition that elements of tradition can be reinterpreted to give projects a sense of place and that you can allow the underlying landscape to come through, rather than impose upon it.

MA: How was the project received by critics and residents?
ES: For its time it was very radical and I understand there was resistance to the scale of the scheme. He fought hard to avoid something predictable on the site like rows of linear slab and tower blocks of the kind being built in cities all over Europe at the time.

MA: What is your favourite aspect of the project? What is in your view its most successful?
ES: I really enjoy the smaller spaces of the neighbourhood. The courtyard house types are fundamentally very simple, yet when put together in large numbers they gain complexity, variety and beauty. The distinct rhythm of the streets is created through alternating step backs and openings in the plans and elevations of dwellings and these moments have been amplified over time through age and adaptation. It was all built at the same time and possesses a clear order, yet it looks wild and organic, that for me is what makes it a success.

MA: What elements of it are less successful?
ES: Some of the landscape breaks in the housing groups accidentally leave behind a few dead spaces. The project does not worry about principles of active building frontages, overlook and addressing space in the same way we do today. Occasionally this can feel a little brutal. Elsewhere, while there are a few cafes the lack of other use types can make the neighbourhood feel dormant and unpopulated.

MA: What lessons does the project hold for practitioners working in housing today?
ES: I think the main lesson from Siza and the Quinta de la Malagueira is about keeping things simple for as long as possible, because buildings and places will inevitably become complicated over time and through use. The project is also a great challenge to both; those who think we must always build tall to achieve any kind of density; and those developing at urban fringes to consider alternative landscape-led approaches with other housing types and forms.