Row house
Sào Victor
Siza, Álvaro | Porto, Portugal | 1974-77
Image of Sào Victor
Partial street facade

ProjectSào Victor
ArchitectSiza, Álvaro
AddressRua de Sao Victor/Rua de Palmela
Building TypeRow house
Number of Dwellings12
Date Built1974-77
Dwelling Types3 BR row house
No. Floors2
Section Typeinternal stair
Exterior Finish
concrete/stucco, wood windows
Construction Typemasonry
Ancillary ServicesNA

The row houses on Rua de Sào Victor are the second in a group of three subsidized housing projects that Siza designed in the 1970’s following the collapse of the Salazar government in Portugal on April 25, 1974. The first two projects, Bouça, and Sào Victor were built for the SAAL group on two very difficult infill sites in Porto, between 1974 and 1977. The third project, Quinta da Malagueira, was a much larger complex, built in the context of an existing barrio community on the outskirts of the old Roman city of Èvora after 1977. All three projects demonstrate Siza’s attitude about the need to build in ameliorative fashion within existing communities, taking cues from existing buildings and urban structure using a pallet of exceeding simple building forms and details in a repetitive, geometric system of row houses, terraced slabs, and courtyard dwellings.

Like Bouça, Sao Victor resulted from the program of the short-lived revolutionary movement in Portugal after Salazar to provide low-income housing. Built on a difficult, densely populated district in the center of the city, Sào Victor was part of a larger scheme to renovate a district of old buildings that encircle the center and connected to the city pedestrian passageways. The site was a mixture of miscellaneous existing buildings, dilapidated structures, and vacant spaces. Part of the site was scheduled to become a parking lot but neighbors protested and it was subsequently designated as a SAAL housing project.

The original site area was a very fragmented, chaotic district several blocks in area. Siza’s proposal included about a dozen different buildings that varied in size but drew from the formal language of existing buildings and elements and sought to stitch together the existing “ruins”. This infill proposal for a larger area was reduced to a row of twenty dwellings and finally to the single row of 12 houses that was actually built. Siza’s axonometric drawing of the row of 20, shown in the context of the surrounding area, captures the fragmented formal language of the existing cluster of urban elements and shows how the “archaeological traces” of a pre-existing culture were incorporated into the design of the new buildings.

A new narrow 2-story building was to be built incrementally forming a narrow semi-public passageway. The row of houses was broken into several segments that step slightly in height over the length of the group. Only twelve houses were actually built in a single group that steps at mid-point. The houses are two stories high with a low-walled patio and recessed porch and single bedroom window above on the front on the south façade. The rear façade opens to another small, walled patio area that is partially covered by a terrace off the rear bedroom above. The rear of the building was to have been completely glazed looking to a small patio. Most residents, however, enclosed this area treating it as an extension of the living area of the house.

The typical dwelling is a small, narrow, 3-bedroom unit with kitchen, living, and bedroom on the ground floor and 2 bedrooms and a bath upstairs accessed from a central, longitudinal stair. Following Siza’s urban strategy with Bouça, the formal qualities of the group of houses are a response to the fragmented “mapping” of the site and the buildings are extremely elementary but formally sophisticated.

Comparisons will inevitably be made to Dutch and German siedlung the 1920’s and ‘30’s, and other models of “existence minimum” housing: small repetitive, white, 2-story, party-wall boxes with minimum architectural detail. But, J.J.P. Oud's row houses at Hoek, for example, seem almost luxurious when compared with those at Sào Victor, where an even more elemental kit of parts is used resulting in a certain formal purity that reflects upon regional traditions about windows, wall surfaces, and enclosure. Siedlung were usually built on open cleared sites, the application of functionalist zeilenbau strategies. Siza’s row houses, by contrast are detailed to fit into a pre existing condition of buildings, streets, and spaces and they step, transform at the ends, and define layers of space in a way that is quite different from typical 20's prototypes. The difference in attitude between the mechanical repetition of free-standing zeilenbau elements as opposed to the adaptation of standard elements to a particular situation is what separates Siza from these 1930’s predecessors.

The use of the most basic building materials and details--hollow concrete block walls, plaster, wood windows, and only limited window types--is the result of the extremely impoverished condition of the building industry that existed in Portugal following the 1974 revolution. The single tall narrow wood casement windows used at São Victor are similar to the, paired French doors that are used for windows in Bouça. In each case, the window defines a small opening in the otherwise blank wall of the 2nd floor and marks the center axis of the dwelling. The proportions of the upper window are repeated in the divisions of the front door and the glazed wood panel of the ground floor bedroom facing the street and the glazed wall in the rear wall of the living that opens to the small patio at the rear of the house. A small raised area in the front of the house defines a small threshold space as part of the entrance porch. Using this very limited set of elements, the architect was able to develop a rich composition and a layered depth to the façades.

A problem with piecemeal rebuilding is how to get enough of an “existential foothold” to sustain change. By the late-1980’s, within 10 years of its construction, São Victor was already badly worn. The failure to build the other dwellings and services that were part of the original district plan left the row houses in an exposed condition. The obvious lack of security resulting from ground floor street frontage and accessible windows and doors inevitably resulted in the application of roll down metal blinds, security doors and glass. The wood windows apparently were not maintained and when coupled with the other security problems were replaced with flush metal units and a resulting loss of detail quality. The lack of enclosure along the street left this as an unkempt zone, neither public nor private. The rear patio that provided a small outdoor space off the living area and upper bedrooms was enclosed for security reasons leaving a second enclosed room to the rear of the living area and a different spatial relationship with the rear patio.

Bouça had the benefit of a better “existential foothold” and, while its condition was certainly fragile in the late-1980’s when the 4 terraced blocks were standing alone in a very deleterious situation, a definite sense of community somehow survived. With the recent completion of the services, landscaping, shops, and community facilities at Bouça, it is possible to see how the strategy of incremental intervention could be an effective renewal concept.

Frampton, Kenneth, Nuño Portas, Alexander Alves Costa, Pierluigi Nicolin Alvaro Siza, Poetic Professon, Electa/Rizzoli, N.Y. 1986. pp. 87-90.

Dos Santos, Josè Paulo (ed), Alvaro Siza, Works & Projects, 1954-1992, Gustavo Gili, Barcelona. 1993, pp. 108-111.

List all by: Project Name | Architect | Building Type | City | Country

©2002 Roger Sherwood. All Rights Reserved