A while ago I visited Quinta da Malagueira in Èvora, Portugal. It is Alvaro Siza’s architecture classic, that often serves as a prototype for social housing architecture. And while many classics have lost quite a bit of their charm over the years, this one hasn’t. The everyday clutter that unavoidably takes over cities and that architects often accuse for ruining their masterpiece, has here managed to merge comfortably with the austerity of the original buildings.
Alvaro Siza started to design Quinta da Malagueira in 1977 and it took more than 20 years to be completed. Built outside the city walls of Èvora, the neighborhood of 1200 houses contrasts strongly with the city. The open spaces in Malagueira rather resemble a Scandinavian suburb than the picturesque density of old portuguese towns. The housing shortage after the 1974 revolution was the starting point for building and Siza was invited to work together with workers’ councils. Due to this 60% of the houses are co-operatives and the rest mostly rental houses. The involvement of the councils and future residents helped control speculation, prices and allowed residents to buy their own house little by little. This has been one of the reasons that the neighborhood has aged so well, despite of being built with very little money for low-income workers.
For the plan Siza carefully studied the landscape, existing buildings, pathways and even traces of older inhabitation and adjusted the built structure to these. The result has often been stated to combine modernist ideals (notably the German siedlung architecture of the early 20th century) with vernacular architecture, but it is not as simple as that. The influences are much more subtle and refined. There was no money for public architectural gestures, so Siza planned a grid of aqueducts (that was also the cheapest way to do technical installations) to bind together the houses and form gates over the narrow lanes. These technical aqueducts are dictated by an aesthetic of necessity, and at the same time bear traces of Roman and medieval architecture. They create a combining tissue that is recognisable on many levels.
The architecture of the yard houses is simultaneously ancient, modifiable and a nod to modernism – that in turn has borrowed from the mediterranean vernacular as well. Siza’s architecture is not about superficial citations, but about complexity beneath a perceived simplicity. This makes Malagueira’s architecture succeed and live on. It is not destroyed by changes, but manages comfortably with people adding, changing and painting the doors in the traditional Alentejo way.
Siza also had a house of his own in Malagueira where he stayed during the 20 years of design. It’s inner courtyard has almost a Pompeian feel to it. You can see more of it in the lovely documentary by Ellis Woodman for the Architectural Review.
The large green central spaces do resemble a modernist Scandinavian suburb: empty and slightly melancholy. Much criticism has been directed to the unfinished feeling of the public spaces – and this is true. There were several horses quietly grazing on a quiet sunday morning, knowing it is a pasture more than a park. But to me this was also a familiar space – the kind of open, almost controlled nature between buildings, that is part of modernist urbanism where I grew up. And as much as I love the order of built city squares with fountains and shops, there is a secret place in my heart for this as well: green, open and quietly happy.