When my boyfriend and I visited Porto earlier this year we made sure to have a look at the Bouca Social Housing Complex by Álvaro Siza Vieira. Siza was born in 1933 and belongs to the most famous Portuguese architects. Shortly after the Portugese Revolution of 1974, an organization called Servicio de Apoio Ambulatorio Local (SAAL) was formed to seek state aid to alleviate poor housing conditions in Portugal. Poetically blending regional and modern references, the project demonstrates that a scarcity of resources can result in a resonant cultural and political architectural statement.
Back in the 1970s Bouca was a difficult site that backs up to an elevated railway embankment in an area just north of the commercial center of Porto. Siza saw the problem of building in this slum area as one of “forming a whole with ruins.” The idea was to create an exaggerated double wall along the tracks at the north edge of the site to protect the apartments from the sound of the trains and also to order the site. Four parallel but discontinuous rows of 3 & 4 story row houses were attached perpendicular to this wall forming 4 narrow courtyards. The southern end of each row was to contain community facilities, laundry, library and community meeting spaces, as part of a formal strategy to complete the ends of the rows, define entrance to the courtyards between rows, front the street to the south, and connect formally to the existing apartment buildings at the south-east corner of the site. Unfortunately, only part of the two eastern rows were built, none of the wall and community spaces, and the spaces between remain barren and completely undeveloped.
But, almost miraculously in 1999, the city decided to try to do something about the Bouca Social Housing. The site had been left in its unfinished state for about three decades. But during this time the city had changed and the site, close to the city center, was now served by a metro and was too valuable to be left in this condition. Siza’s reputation had grown as the result of major commissions like the Architecture Faculty and the School of Architecture, and the Serralves museum and many other important buildings for which he had received major awards like the Pritzker Prize in 1992. Along with the acceptance of Portugal into the European Union and Porto’s role as European Cultural Capital in 2001, this contributed to a heightened sense of national pride. This run-down site, in the center of the city, was seen as a source of national embarrassment and in 1999 it was decided to restore and rebuild Bouca. What had been an example of emergency housing for poor residents was now seen as a model for residential development for central Porto.
The new Bouca Social Housing was completed with very few changes from the original design. The original buildings were to be completely restored and the remaining elements built as designed to include about 130 dwellings. The original residents kept their apartments. The north wall now forms a gateway to a new metro station along the original tracks. The ingenious plans and sections of Siza’s maisonettes seem to have withstood the test of time and they survived almost intact aside from the restoration that was needed after over 30 years of very hard use. Designed as what was certainly considered to be extravagant housing for the original tenants, they ended up being ideal for use by a completely different demographic group of upwardly mobile young professionals, with needs for flexible space, room for young children, space for a home office and, the convenience and privacy of two level dwellings.