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19 July 2019

The Terras da Costa Community Kitchen or the Processual Dimension of Public Space

Rodrigo Coelho

2018 Edition Finalist

The community kitchen of Terras da Costa, a joint project of Atelier Mob and the Warehouse Collective, lies between the cliffs and the sea of Costa de Caparica, in Almada, on the southern side of the Tagus River. This is a small intervention carried out in Terras da Costa, a neighbourhood of illegal genesis consisting of some five hundred people, mainly of Roma or Cape Verde origins. From its beginnings in the 1970s, the neighbourhood had to deal with a situation of isolation and its population was living in extremely precarious conditions without access to the most basic sanitation, running water or electricity (which was only connected very recently). These conditions meant that, for cooking, it was a common practice to light fires in or near homes, and that residents had to go almost a kilometre away to get water from a public fountain.

In a zone that was invisible to the city that kept growing around it, the community kitchen of Terras da Costa is a notable example of how a modest intervention (of just a little more than 200 square metres) oriented by a participative process, can be a factor for improving the standard of living, and acknowledging and reinforcing a community spirit. If it is essential to draw attention to the end result and the working methodology adopted (discussed below), it is equally important to return to the genealogy of these kinds of project in order to better understand their premises and the real scope they could have today, especially in the case of Portugal.

 

Background: the 1960s and 1970s in the shaping of political and social responsibility in Portuguese architecture

“Because he is a man and because his action is not determined by fate, he must try to create forms that can offer the best service to society, or whatever resembles society and, with this aim, more than the drama of the choice, his action will entail a sense, a goal, and the permanent wish to serve.”[1]

Without a doubt, the Terras da Costa community kitchen constitutes a notable example of a participative architectural project, heir to a tradition which, since the 1960s, has been at the centre of the concerns of the best Portuguese architecture and architects. Hence, Fernando Távora, Nuno Portas and Álvaro Siza, in both their theoretical discourse and in their professional practice, highlight the political and social responsibility of architecture with ideas and praxis that have consolidated and have left a deep impression in architectural culture, especially as a result of the SAAL Programme.[2]

Without wishing to deny the importance of architects like Giancarlo De Carlo and Bernard Rudofsky in promoting participative processes in architecture, it must be said that the Portuguese scene is, in fact, profoundly influenced by the SAAL programme which, after the Carnation Revolution of 25 April 1975 (in a situation of an effective, generalised lack of housing), made it possible to put into practice the active participation of citizens in the processes of conceiving and constructing their own houses.

This idea of “democratising architecture”, on which the SAAL programme was founded, was basically concerned with the quest for an “alternative model of society”. It enabled (especially taking into account the brief period in which it was operative) the achievement of dozens of interventions all over the country, thus making it possible to shape a different way—circumstantial and local—of thinking about and doing architecture (in particular the housing programme) to the extent that it gave priority to an approach in which populations were challenged to make decisions about their own collective organisation.

It is precisely in this line of projects that the community kitchen of Terras da Costa can and should be understood. It is a project (like others of the teams involved) that interprets with great rigour and pragmatism, as well as sensibility and close attention, the place and the people who live there, and one that is, above all, able to read the conditions of the times, the processes, and the actors that shape them.

It might be said that this is an unmistakable example of a project and work which, from “start” to “finish” takes on the true nature of what should be or what can be a participative process in architecture. In other words, as Jeremy Till says, participation is a process that “… is not … an excuse for mediocrity; it is not a distraction from supposedly higher values. Participation is the space in which hope is negotiated. What is clear is that this hope refers not just to a better future for the users of the built environment, but also to a better future for architectural practice.” [3]

Accordingly, processes like that of the kitchen of Terras da Costa are again opening up debate about the idea of participation in architecture, the objectives and values that this working methodology incorporates, and the important role architects can have in the construction of a more just and egalitarian society by refusing to leave the most underprivileged groups in the shadows or in a situation of invisibility.

In this regard, it is necessary to emphasise not only the effects brought about by the work in itself—in terms of direct benefits in the form of the physical infrastructure that has been created and the advantages deriving from it regarding the creation of a space with a true collective dimension and a common use—but, also and especially, it should be noted that it is crucial to understand the potential effects implied by the process in relation to the social and cultural development of the community in question.

It is also essential to draw attention to the fact that the process that guided the construction of the Terras da Costa community kitchen, besides reinforcing a feeling of community and accentuating the value the individual and collective self-esteem of the residents in the neighbourhood, also promoted working models that implicitly encompass the idea of sharing skills and knowledge among the users, as has happened with many of the SAAL experiences.

As a result, the process that led to the construction of the Terras da Costa kitchen was guided in such a way that, to paraphrase Giancarlo de Carlo, all the barriers between constructors and users were abolished because construction and use came to be two different parts of the same planning process.[4]

The idea of participative construction and production of the space becomes, in this case, as De Carlo understood, a space for reflection about and inquiry into the needs and aspirations the members of a community might have in common, so that, as a second phase, it is the architect’s job to programme and lead a participative method, while also organising information, the form in which participants intervene, and the order in which the activities are carried out. 

 

Architecture as a participative process: from circumstance to design

Accordingly, we should see the Terras da Costa community kitchen not so much as a “finished object” but as the corollary of a medium-term process that began with a workshop (which took place in 2012 in the Department of Architecture at the Autonomous University) where Ateliermob, after being invited to participate and having very quickly identified the precariousness of the living conditions constricting the existence of this community, took on the role of intermediary and responsibility for negotiations with private and public entities which, five years later, led to the effective construction of the kitchen.

The Terras da Costa kitchen is thus the result of a process that began in June 2012 (at a time when the country was in deep crisis as a result of the intervention of the Troika  [5] and during which Ateliermob became involved in looking for solutions and funding that could improve the community’s living conditions) and ended in 2017 with the completion of the work.

Meanwhile, other stages were decisive for the consolidation of the building project, for example the decision taken by the community that the priority action for improving the conditions of the neighbourhood’s habitability should be constructing the community kitchen, or the joint decision about the place where the kitchen would be constructed (which was taken in the setting of an extended working group, consisting inter alia of members of Ateliermob and a group of community representatives).

Another key moment in the orientation of the project was in August 2013 when the possibility arose of recycling wood that had previously been used in the construction of the Casa do Vapor (a temporary building constructed at Trafaria under the guidance of the French collective EXYZT). The collective made the wood available to the community kitchen project and, thereafter, became involved in it.

Finally, and no less important in the process that led to the development of the project—and this should be highlighted—was the moment when the Almada Council agreed to bring running water to the neighbourhood (which eventually happened in the early months of 2014) and, finally, the point when funding for the work was approved by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (through the Programme for Human Development ). [6]

 

The aim

As Álvaro Siza said about the Malagueira Neighbourhood project in Évora, “the difficulty resides not in building houses, but communities”.[7] The same principle applies to analysing and evaluating the Terras da Costa kitchen as an architectural object.

Hence, consideration of the building, taking into account its spatial, formal qualities and its materiality, is not as relevant as seeing “the building as a specific physical entity that accommodates the process” (as the authors of the project describe in one of the explanatory panels presented as part of the project’s candidature for the 2018 European Prize for Urban Public Space). Or, to take the idea still further, more important than the fact that the kitchen can be used as a space of coexistence where community meals take place, is the outcome in which constructed architecture has allowed this community to gain access to running water.

However, it would be unjust not to highlight the fair-mindedness and intelligence of the final architectural form. The appropriate scale of the kitchen and the U-shaped building (which clearly accommodates a programme of simple uses) reveal the precision and wisdom of archetypical models which become a coherent support for accepting and promoting the other reative activities and languages of its users, and then end up determining the ways in which the building and its adjacent spaces are used and valued.

Nevertheless, paradoxically, to some extent this is an unstable, ambiguous space (located at some point on the boundary between the collective and the domestic planes) which, lacking a distinctive identity can be redefined and moulded by the transitory and diverse activities it houses. Freed from an order imposed by the constructed form, the kitchen at Terras da Costa belongs to the category of what Margaret Crawford calls “thirdspace”: “apparently empty of meaning, they acquire constantly changing meanings—social, aesthetic, political, economic—as users reorganize and reinterpret them. […A] space activated by social action and the social imagination” .[8]

The authors of the project very coherently state that their work, the role of the kitchen, and the raison d’être of the whole project will only acquire sense “(…) when the kitchen can be dismantled and when its taps cease to be necessary as the water supply for this population. This work will only be successful when the people who live in Terras da Costa are accommodated in decent housing, as the Constitution of the Republic stipulates, and with water, drains, light, and everything to which they have a right. ” [9]

Until this goal is achieved the kitchen will certainly continue to be an example of a work that, besides having made it possible to create a true public space—as a “setting avid for events, so that things can intersect and come together”  [10]—also has had the merit of reopening the debate about the importance of recognising architectural practice as a discipline that is both relevant and able to accept and foster active participation in the discussion and resolution of problems in the public sphere.

 

REFERENCES

[1] TÁVORA, Fernando. Da organização do espaço. Faculdade de Arquitectura da Universidade do Porto, Porto, 1996, p. 74.

[2] The SAAL (“Serviço de Apoio Ambulatório Local” – Local Ambulatory Support Service) programme, which took place between 1974 and 1976, went into action immediately after the Revolution of 25 April 1974 (also known as the Carnation Revolution) with aim of responding to a generalised and effective lack of housing, which had been ignored during the years of the dictatorship in Portugal.

[3] TILL, Jeremy. Architecture and Participation, eds. Peter Blunder Jones, Doina Petrescu, and Jeremy Till. Spon Press, London, 2005, p. 40.

[4] De Carlo added to this insight the comment that “the intrinsic aggressiveness of architecture and the forced passivity of the user must dissolve in a condition of creative and decisional equivalence where each—with a different specific impact—is the architect, and every architectural event— regardless of who conceives it and carries it out—is considered architecture. See Giancarlo De Carlo in Architecture and Participation, ed. Peter Blunder Jones, Doina Petrescu, Jeremy Till. Spon Press, London, 2005, p. 11.

[5] Between 2010 and 2014, as a result of the global financial crisis of 2007-2008, the Portuguese government asked for external aid and was, during this period subject to the demands of the Troika (consisting of the European Central Bank, The International Monetary Fund, and the European Commission) which imposed exacting austerity measures that had a major social and economic impact.

[6] Hence, in the summer of 2014, the conditions were finally ripe for the project to go ahead, and especially when, in September 2014, Terras da Costa had running water thanks to a public fountain that was later integrated into the new kitchen.The work began with the support of the local community and volunteers from all over Europe when the priority aim of the first phase of the project was building the main structure, the interior of the kitchen, and the outside facilities, as well as the zone where the fountain would be connected to the water supply. The second phase continued with the electrical installation, the drainage system, the outside paving, and treating the wood. Particularly noteworthy is the importance of the workshops throughout the process, from the stages preceding the construction work through to the building phases.

[7] FLECK, Brigitte. “Évora” in Álvaro Siza. Lisboa, Relógio d’Água, 1992, p. 79.

[8] CRAWFORD, Margaret. Every Day Urbanism. Ed. John Chase, Margaret Crawford, John Kalisky, Monacelli Press, New York, 1999, p. 28.

[10] Manuel Delgado in an interview published in the daily El País (5 September 2006)

 

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