constructlab Casa do Vapor, Portugal, Credit: ­EXYZT Collective, 2013

Participatory Aesthetics and Makeshift Urbanism: Cases of Guimarães, Cova do Vapor, and Terras da Costa

By Joana Braga

Driven by desire, participatory design is a “collective bricolage” in which individuals are able to interrogate the heterogeneity of the situation, to acknowledge their own position and then go beyond it, to open it up to new meanings, new possibilities, to “collage their own collage onto other collages”, in order to discover a common project. The process is somehow more important than the result, the assemblage more important than the object, the deterritorialization more important than the construction of territories (Petrescu 2005, 45).

Doina Petrescu refers to participatory design as a process of collective construction that emphasizes intersubjective relations among a multiplicity of individuals who, acknowledge the contingency of their particular position; recognize the relational constitution of the situation; and are willing to negotiate their positions (and therefore open them up to new possibilities) in order to discover a common project. As an assemblage of “desires,” in Petrescu’s words, processes of transversal participation create a place of encounter, conviviality and debate for the diverse subjectivities involved, with their different daily gestures, activities and social positions, (e.g. neighbourhood associations, informal teams, experimental institutions, other self-managed organizations, planning and cultural institutions), and encourage the development of relational networks, aimed at the experimental and inescapably polemical construction of a democratic common ground.

In this article I discuss three connected socio-spatial experiments that took place in Portugal between 2012-2014: “Building Together” a public workshop and residency at the Curators' Lab in Guimarães; Casa do Vapor, a makeshift wooden house that encouraged experimental artistic and social practice in the informal settlement of Cova do Vapor; and the Terras da Costa Community Kitchen. My position is that of a scholar and practitioner of participatory design processes. I posit that these projects led to the construction of temporary communities built around the projects themselves; they embodied the collective construction, necessarily negotiated, of common spaces and their subsequent cohabitation. Proposing alternative modes of social engagement they expanded spaces of possibilities and created new “configurations of the sensible”[1] for all those involved. Moreover, I consider Casa do Vapor and Terras da Costa Community Kitchen as processes of ‘urban commoning’, through which the created spaces emerged as ‘urban commons’ (Stavidres 2014, 83). My conclusion addresses the limitations of these projects and discusses the paradoxical place these practices hold within the current political-economic situation in Portugal.

Three Projects: An Introduction

I. “Building Together”

In 2012, the city of Guimarães in northern Portugal was designated a European Capital of Culture (ECC).[2] That year, one of the most significant interventions in art and architecture programming was the Curators' Lab. The Lab, set up in Guimarães’ disused ASA Factory, was a year-long exploration consisting of several spatial interventions, exhibitions, workshops, residencies, performances, conferences, talks and debates, with the aim of reflecting on the practice of curating. “Building Together,” one of the Lab’s spatial interventions, was a three-week long public workshop directed towards the participatory construction of a makeshift wooden auditorium. The construction of this wooden structure entailed relational processes and was a means of connecting the expectations of local residents concerning the ASA factory’s new role as a cultural space with its reintegration into the social fabric of the city. Exyzt, a transdisciplinary collective that develops research through relational experimental urban practices, coordinated the workshop (figure1).[3]

Figure 1. [Curator's Lab] makeshift wooden auditorium constructed within Building Together,

II. Casa do Vapor (Steam House)

After the participatory experience of “Building Together,” a decision was made to embark on a second collective venture. A large quantity of wood had been acquired in the construction of the auditorium in Guimarães, which could be used again. The project that transpired—facilitated by Exyzt, the participants of “Building Together,” and the Ensaios e Diálogos Association[4]—entailed the construction of a makeshift wooden house, Casa do Vapor [5], which, from April to October 2013, aimed to stimulate experimental artistic practice and research in Cova do Vapor, an informal neighborhood in a disputed territory south of Lisbon (figure2). The project incorporated a participatory process that built on collective dynamics already in place at Cova do Vapor, which in turn, reverberated in surrounding neighborhoods such as Terras da Costa.

Figure 2. Casa do Vapor,

III. Community Kitchen in Terras da Costa

After the makeshift house was taken down in Cova do Vapor the wood was re-used a third time. This iteration involved the construction of a community kitchen at Terras da Costa, a precarious informal neighborhood near Cova do Vapor, as well as the provision of running water to the site. The project was developed by ateliermob, an architectural office concerned with urban interventions that connect different agents within urban and political spheres[6], and Projecto Warehouse, an experimental architecture collective engaged in processes of participatory construction[7] (figure 3).

Figure 3. Terras da Costa Community Kitchen © Inês Veiga

It wasn’t only raw material that travelled between the three projects; the Ensaios e Diálogos Association, the Exyzt collective, and other participants in Casa do Vapor such as Projecto Warehouse, became active stakeholders in the Community Kitchen at Terras da Costa. The processes set into motion by the projects led to the strengthening of a network of cultural and design practitioners—strongly interlaced with local communities—that was concerned with the urban and social dimensions of this territory south of Lisbon. This network also had established connections with the local administrative authority, the Almada Municipal Council (figure 4).

Figure 4. Cartography showing Cova do Vapor and Terras da Costa

Nevertheless, the movement of wood between the three projects was also significant, not only because it provided a valuable resource which enabled the construction, at minimal cost, of both the makeshift structure of Casa do Vapor and the Community Kitchen at Terras da Costa, but also because it served a symbolic function. It connected practices of ‘being in common’ performed at three sites, and gave material form to the negotiations that such explorations entail.

These projects, developed through open-ended processes, aimed to create relational spaces and foster exchange between the project initiators, specific sites and their inhabitants. Following Massey (2008), I consider space as always being a product of interrelations necessarily embedded in material practices. Relational space refers to the material and discursive spaces opened up by these projects, which enhanced the intersubjective relations between those involved—local community members, artists, architects, researchers, students, and other participants with different affiliations, as well as the institutions that supported them.

My approach to the notion of ‘common ground’ is informed by radical democracy theoreticians Laclau and Mouffe (1985), and Lefort (1988), who posit that the social field, the realm of our ‘being in common’, is relationally constituted and that within this negotiation of relations between a multiplicity of entities, themselves relationally constructed, the social dimension is uncertain and open to debate. Rancière suggests that a ‘common world’ is never simply an ethos, a shared abode that results from the sedimentation of a certain number of intertwined acts, but rather that “it is always a polemical distribution of modes of being and ‘occupations’ in a space of possibilities” (2004, 42). A ‘common world’ may thus be perceived as the outcome—always provisional—of the negotiation of heterogeneous, sometimes agonistic processes rooted in social differences (see also Laclau and Mouffe). The limits of this ‘space of possibilities’ referred to by Rancière are reconfigured and actualized by practices that question dominant classifications of modes of social existence—‘modes of being and occupations’.

A Landscape of Austerity

As a result of years of economic hardship, which ultimately turned into a sovereign debt crisis, Portugal officially requested a bailout in April 2011 and received a €78 billion rescue package funded by the International Monetary Fund and European Union for three years, until May 2014. The rescue package entailed a set of structural austerity measures that deepened the manifestations of ‘embedded neoliberalism’ in this peripheral European country (Van Apeldoorn’s 2002). These included the intensification of privatization of public goods and services; the deregulation and flexibilization of the labor market; the elimination of protections for tenants (resulting in the displacement of poorer residents and small local commerce from city centers); considerable tax hikes; and welfare retrenchments, namely substantial cuts in social support and decreases in pension funds. Record levels of unemployment were also seen in this time. Austerity cuts in Portugal have affected not only the already disadvantaged, but increasingly, also the youth and more segments of the middle class.

Within this bleak landscape, public funding for the arts dropped substantially. Designated as one of the European Capitals of Culture (ECC) of 2012 by the EU’s Council of Ministers of Culture in May 2009, the 2012 Guimarães ECC was an exception to this rule. The event was seen as an opportunity for creativity-led economic and urban development of Guimarães, in compliance with the current neoliberal urban technique of city marketization. Nonetheless, the initiative opened a space of experimentation and encounter for young national and local artists, and adopted a diversified cultural approach intended to value and stimulate the local population’s engagement. Programming around this initiative included procedural, open-ended and situated artistic and architectonic forays, such as the Curators’ Lab (described in more detail below).

Private foundations, municipalities and cultural entities also showed an interest in socio-cultural urban projects in various sites across the country. These parties considered that such “art of action, interfacing with reality” (Bishop 2013, 11-14) might serve to stimulate social inclusion, compensate for the decrease in public social services, and assuage potentially disruptive groups and sites of conflict. Local authorities and real estate capital, especially in Lisbon and Oporto, have also been mobilizing dynamic local ‘culture scenes’ as locational assets in creative city branding efforts within entrepreneurial interurban competition.[8] According to urban scholar Margit Meyer, such unconventional creativity does not encompass the radical dimension it used to, as when deployed within the Keynesian welfare state. Today's neoliberal urbanism has appropriated unconventional creativity's features as vital pieces of local regeneration programs, which are designed to spur activation of urban space and “self-responsabilization rather than political empowerment” (2013, 12).

My focus here, on the interlaced working of a set of supporting institutions and these collective projects—two of which were realized without official commission—relates to recognizing that any practice is always sustained by interdependencies, sometimes paradoxically, within social systems. I use the term ‘paradoxically’ to emphasize ambiguous interdependencies. For instance, the Terras da Costa Community Kitchen project would not have been possible without support from the Municipal Council. Nevertheless, the Council (due to financial shortcomings) was reliant upon architects, anthropologists, artists and researchers to perform its social role. Further, several socio-urban practices oppositional to financial speculation on urban space, are only possible with funding from private corporations related to real estate, who expect that these initiatives will raise land value. Following Jackson’s (2011) Social Works, in my approach to relationality, I understand the term to be a visible dimension of this situated nexus of forces.

“Building Together” at Curators’ Lab: materializing a relational space

Guimarães is located in Vale do Ave in northern Portugal, a region where the process of deindustrialization left its mark on the social fabric. Vale do Ave had an industrial tradition whose productive specialization was in the low-value-added sectors of the textile and clothing industry. Here, most entities were micro and small enterprises—92 per cent of which had less than 10 employees (Castro 2012, 19). These industries have been on the decline since the early 1990s, as a result of the strong appreciation of currency in that decade, heightened by Portugal’s adhesion to the Euro, and also strong competition from the opening up of European markets to products from Asia.

The disused ASA Factory, located in Covas, two kilometers from the Guimarães city center, became one of the main spaces for hosting different ECC projects. Formerly one of the most successful textile firms in Vale do Ave, with over 1,000 employees, the factory gradually ceased manufacturing during the early 2000s until it closed down for good in 2006.

Curators’ Lab, an initiative of the art and architecture program of Guimarães ECC, was installed in the ASA Factory’s central hall. Artist and curator Gabriela Vaz Pinheiro conceptualized the Lab with Lígia Afonso as co-curator and program coordinator. Curators’ Lab was a year-long exploration, consisting of various residencies, workshops, spatial interventions, performances, exhibitions, conferences and debates, aiming to reflect on the practice of curating. The Lab involved a continuous process of research on cultural production and its relation to context—in this case, with particular attention to the process of deindustrialization to which the municipality of Guimarães had been subjected, including the positioning of the ASA Factory within that process. The Lab assumed the status of a meeting platform, a space for continuous creation and an experimental workshop. In the words of Lígia Afonso (2013, 13) the Curators’ Lab re-opened the factory with a proposal for “another kind of habitability, testing relations between the interlacing of memories and expectations between those who had worked there, the instant curiosity of a public as yet unknown, and the subjectivity of its coming occupants.”[9] Curators’ Lab had a tripartite structure both conceptually and temporally. Each temporal phase or moment presupposed a dialogic intertwining of three dimensions: spatial design, a collective residency and an editorial project.[10]

The transdisciplinary collective Exyzt was invited to design and implement the spatial situation of the first ‘moment’ of the Curators’ Lab. Exyzt’s work is characterized by the design and construction of temporary structures which are used to experiment with new modes of collectively inhabiting and enhancing common spaces and functions. The work commissioned was “the construction of a [wooden] auditorium which would facilitate the process of encounter” (Afonso 2013, 15). Exyzt’s proposal, “Building Together,” was a collective residency that took place over three weeks and included a public workshop attended by about thirty architecture and art students, as well as other participants. Coordinated by Alex Roemer, members of the Exyzt collective moved into the factory and, together with the workshop participants, began constructing the first component of the residency: a shelter, with a kitchen and sleeping alcoves, which served as a meeting, working, living and social space, and which provided the basic infrastructure for completing the commissioned work (figure 5).

Figure 5. Building Together's shelter

The work that emerged—the auditorium—was an ‘interim’ structure that expressed the relational and constructive processes taking place within the factory. It consisted of a makeshift body of architecture, changing fluidly in response to the practices and processes associated with its habitation. While some participants built the auditorium, others mapped out the surrounding neighborhood; interviewing residents (some of them former factory workers), tracing their life stories and inviting them to visit and take part in the dynamics of the factory’s new life (figure 6). Participants and residents, together with the Lab editorial project, edited and published a fanzine, Construir Junto, documenting those weeks.

Figure 6. Hosting residents at ASA Factory

In constructing and inhabiting the auditorium space together, a dynamic synergy was generated between the members of Exyzt and the group of participants. The outcome was the desire to work on a future collaborative project reusing the wood from the makeshift auditorium of “Building Together.”

h4 II. Casa do Vapor: unfolding an alternate model of social engagement

Cova do Vapor is an informal settlement on the southern shore of the river Tejo, where it meets the ocean. Located within the Lisbon Metropolitan Area, its local authority is the Almada Municipal Council. Bound to the north by the river, the west by the ocean, the south-east by an expanse of forest and the north-east by various military installations, Cova do Vapor’s urban density is the product of an informal urban development within a confined territory (figure7). Strongly influenced by its proximity to Lisbon, its mostly working-class residents, the lack of land to build on and the systematic reuse of all kinds of available materials, Cova do Vapor became a unique social and urban environment, shaped by various desires and processes of self-organization. The neighborhood is inhabited by around 200 permanent residents, a number that increases five-fold in the summer due to the popularity of the local beaches. The main livelihood of the local community is fishing.[11]

Figure 7. Cova do Vapor © Duarte Pinto

Cova do Vapor is not legally recognized. The land is privately owned by Urprasol, a real-estate enterprise that proposed an urban project in the early 2000s promising to “to ‘re-naturalize’ Cova do Vapor, put an end to the illegal constructions, give the area back to tourism” (Queiroz 2012, 238). This project, which overlooked the community’s actual social fabric, was blocked towards the end of the 2000s, as public entities declared the site a high-risk area due to its proximity to zones affected by encroaching tides.

The diversity of entities responsible for the territory has made the situation of the local community more complex. Although privately owned, Cova do Vapor is under public protection; integrated in the National Ecological Reserve and under the legal jurisdiction of the Portuguese Environment Agency, its northern area is also under the jurisdiction of the Institute for Ports and Maritime Transport and the Lisbon Port Authority. This complex legal framework prevented the settlement’s conversion into a formal urban area by the municipality, therefore the construction of new houses is not permitted and residents may be subject to eviction at any time. Nevertheless, many own a construction license and pay municipal and public service taxes (figure8).

Figure 8. [Cova do Vapor] view from the seaside,

The Informal School of Architecture (TISA) is a pedagogical architecture project based on the idea of schooling as a practice of exchange. TISA creates participatory ‘plug-in’ courses in which students work in specific socio-urban situations. TISA’s pilot project, which took place in Cova do Vapor between May and July 2011, documented, with the participation of residents, the informal and organic architecture that is found there. The presence of the school in Cova, the debates they generated and the knowledge they produced, as well as the space created by them to facilitate communication between local residents and committed outsiders, all played an important role in deciding to locate Casa do Vapor at this site.

Casa do Vapor was produced and sustained under conditions of uncertainty and scarcity, with minimum financial support. The initial project proposal, with a necessarily rough outline due to its open and contextualized character, was presented to the Almada Municipal Council in December 2012. The Municipal Council guaranteed its endorsement after the Portuguese Environment Agency authorized a permit (justified by the interim character of the occupation) but refrained from supporting it financially. Exyzt and the Ensaios e Diálogos Association made efforts to acquire funding from private foundations and cultural events. In view of the collective cultural and social dynamics generated by the presence of Casa do Vapor in the neighborhood, the Municipal Council became more committed and eventually provided a small grant.

Casa do Vapor—collectively built within the framework of a public construction workshop with a flexible, multidisciplinary and international team—opened its doors between April and October 2013. A wide range of cultural events related to the social and urban environment were held there (figure 9) and the space embodied an alternative curatorial practice that was extended to all of the participating artists, researchers and residents. During those months, the house became a meeting point where those involved could exchange experiences and affect one another.

Figure 9. An evening at Casa do Vapor

The building workshop, beyond just constructing a house, was also a collaborative practice aimed at enhancing a space of encounter for participants of the workshop and the residents that joined; “permanent inhabitants, temporary inhabitants, permanent visitors, temporary visitors”, performing an alternative model of social engagement. Sofia Costa Pinto, an artist involved in the project, used these terms to describe possible modes of inhabiting the neighborhood. I consider them very appropriate for a critical reading of the notion of ‘local community’, which in my view consists always of a provisional, evolving and open entity, including different forms of relating to and inhabiting a place.

The Casa do Vapor kitchen functioned as an aggregating node within the process, allowing a great number of meetings around a plentiful table. A library project, created within the wooden structure, became a meeting point for local children. The library acquired a considerable collection during the six months of the project. More than 800 books, journals and audiovisual materials were collected through generous donations from individuals and institutions. A bicycle workshop, skateboard half-pipe, and daily artistic and pedagogical activities exploring the spatial and cultural dimensions of the site ensured continuous usage of the house.

This socio-cultural space unfolded continually, opened both to unexpected external contingencies and to discovered possibilities. The design of the house itself, constituting the spatial dimension of the project, materially reflected the permeability, openness, informality and negotiation that embodied the conditions of ‘emergence’ of the entire process (figure 10).

Figure 10. Casa do Vapor

The house was taken down in October 2013, but resonances of the project persisted in the area. The Vapor Library relocated to the Neighborhood Association and a local community board was formed. The collection was also inscribed in the Municipal Libraries Network. For an informal neighborhood such as Cova do Vapor, the inscription of the library within the municipal network was a political gesture with considerable symbolic meaning. The Ensaios e Diálogos Association was invited to set up another library in Trafaria, a village near Cova do Vapor, which was inaugurated in October 2014.

The wood from Guimarães used to build Casa do Vapor was further recycled for use in various social projects in the municipality of Almada. Part of it was used to create furniture for the two new libraries. A significant quantity of the wood was used in the construction of the community kitchen at Terras da Costa (see below).

Casa do Vapor was a temporary project that was able to endure, creating dynamics now embedded in Cova do Vapor and intensifying the interlacing of diverse urban and social practices in this region. It was well received by local communities and established connections with regional authorities, setting up trans-local spatial networks.

III. Terras da Costa Community Kitchen: an Urban Commons

Terras da Costa is an informal neighborhood located about 3.5 kilometers south of Cova do Vapor, between the densely built-up seafront area of Costa da Caparica and the Fossil Cliff Protected Landscape (figure11). Over the years, residents have constructed their own makeshift homes here, in the middle of agricultural fields, using metal sheets, pieces of wood, bricks, cement and whatever else was available. The neighborhood is a so-called ‘shantytown.’[12]

Figure 11. Terras da Costa © Warehouse

With the independence of African countries formerly colonized by Portugal, in 1974 and 1975 a great number of Portuguese colonial settlers returned to Portugal alongside people indigenous to those former ‘Portuguese overseas provinces’[13]. In the late 1970s Portugal saw its population grow by as much as half a million. The process led to huge population increases in the Lisbon Metropolitan Area, and simultaneously gave rise to a large number of informal settlements. The Almada district was not an exception, informal neighborhoods were settled throughout the district, including in the area around the current neighborhood of Terras da Costa. Later on, in the 1990s, the Almada Municipal Council conducted operations to evict the residents there[14]. However, in the 2000s new waves of immigration from former Portuguese African colonies such as Cabo Verde and Angola led to the settling of a new population in Terras da Costa. Members of the Roma community[15] also settled in the neighborhood, which eventually became home to a multicultural community of about 500 people. The male population has generally been employed in construction, but at the time of writing was largely unemployed. The main occupation for women is domestic work. A considerable section of the community is undocumented, with no guaranteed right of legal residence in Portugal.[16] Limited access to citizenship and the consequent restrictions on entering the labor market constitute invisible expressions of post-colonial structural violence towards low-income immigrants that also prevents them from developing their potential capabilities within the current Portuguese political, institutional and economic framework.

Terras da Costa falls under the purview of the Local Development Plan for the Eastern Urban and Rural Edge of Costa da Caparica, which is caught up in a legal dispute over a proposed road layout[17] (figure 12).

Figure 12. Terras da Costa © Inês Veiga

There is no running water in the neighborhood and therefore also no sewage system. Surrounding farms do nevertheless have irrigation systems. Residents obtain water from a public fountain in Costa da Caparica, about one kilometer away from the neighborhood, carrying it in containers above their heads. As the streets are not paved, this path becomes treacherous during rainy periods. There is no legal access to electricity, only improvised illicit schemes. Interestingly, cable TV, a private service, can be legally subscribed to and paid for. This community is mostly invisible to the middle-class residents of Costa da Caparica, or, when visible, is largely faced with dissatisfaction and mistrust, stemming from racial prejudice, and perceived dangers of the proximity of such a “precarious” neighborhood to the more middle-class areas. This biased image of the neighborhood is an expression of the invisible cultural violence rooted in the endurance of colonial forms of organizing social relations and modes of representing cultural, racial, and ethnic difference[18].

The informal settlement is therefore a controversial space and the public entities involved have divergent attitudes towards it. The Ward Council of Costa da Caparica does not recognize the legitimacy of communities in unauthorized neighborhoods and has fiercely criticized the actions of the Almada Municipal Council.[19] In the words of the former Ward Councilor “take two or three machines there and demolish it! End of story.” (Costa, Moreira 2013). The Almada Municipal Council agrees that the neighborhood should be demolished (and that the local community rehabilitated elsewhere) based on the legal framework that prohibits any construction on a site included in the National Agricultural and Ecological Reserves. However, acknowledging the impossibility of implementing this process swiftly, due to financial shortcomings and the legal impasse in which the local development plan finds itself, the Municipal Council recognizes the legitimacy of the community living there for the time being. Without legal residence rights in Portugal the community at Terras da Costa have no way of being formally heard. A priority for the community is to have their rights recognized and to improve their living conditions.

Another entity involved in the debates around this site is the Urban Boundaries Research Project—a critical ethnographic movement concerned with emancipatory education politics—that worked with the community from 2010 to 2013 aiming to present alternatives for its social and urban consolidation and improve adult literacy. One of the outcomes of their presence was the constitution of the Neighborhood Association in May 2013. Within the framework of the Autonomous University of Lisbon’s participation in the Urban Boundaries Project, a situated architectural laboratory took place in the neighborhood in June 2012. This laboratory, in which professional architects advised groups of students, allowed for the formulation of proposals concerning future alternatives for Terras da Costa. One of the groups, mentored by ateliermob, proposed a mediation process for engaging with all stakeholders by building a table around which everyone could sit. At the end of the laboratory the inhabitants asked ateliermob to continue the collaboration in order to solve their primary problem: lack of running water. In the words of a local resident: “The main issue here is water! We don’t have water in our homes, we have to go there (pointing to Costa da Caparica). And this has to be told to the public so everyone sees how our neighbourhood is. We are immigrants but we need to have conditions in our neighbourhood” (ateliermob 2013).

Architects began work immediately, participating in local community assemblies in order to draw up a plan of action. The idea for a community kitchen was put forward by residents, accustomed to cooking and eating together. Cooking inside makeshift dwellings is dangerous—a fire can easily break out when cooking on an open flame indoors. The construction of a community kitchen represented not only a justification for installing running water in the neighborhood; it was also a way of ensuring safety from fires and built on a community custom of eating communally. The idea developed into a program comprising other common facilities proposed by residents: a laundry area, a barbecue, and a space to host Neighborhood Association meetings.

Ateliermob continued the mediation process of engaging key stakeholders, including local political power. The Almada Municipal Council, concerned with the improvement of community living conditions in the short term while acknowledging the impossibility of swiftly enacting a rehousing process, became committed to the community kitchen project. Its political will and support were substantial to developing a paralegal mode for enabling the project as well as to ensure the construction of the infrastructure necessary to get running water into the neighborhood. Nevertheless, it was necessary to acquire funding. Ateliermob’s strategy was two-directional; gaining media visibility for the project while applying for competitions as well as grants from private foundations and cultural events. The Gulbenkian Foundation[20] established contact with ateliermob in the spring of 2013. In May 2014, after a long period of negotiation, the Foundation finally committed to financial support, which it provided two months later.

Meanwhile, Casa do Vapor had been set up nearby, and had invigorated participatory social and cultural dynamics beyond Cova do Vapor. Part of the wood from the disassembly of the house travelled to Terras da Costa along with a group of practitioners, including Projecto Warehouse, who then became co-producer of the Terras da Costa Community Kitchen. The new common space would be a self-made makeshift wooden construction designed with a modular structure enabling phased construction in pace with the securing of funds. The construction of the first unit, the kitchen, took place in March 2014.

A meeting between key stakeholders took place in the makeshift kitchen in May 2014, involving the municipality’s Vice-Mayor, two councilors, and representatives of the Neighborhood Association and proved to be a decisive moment (figure 13). The Vice-Mayor guaranteed the construction of the infrastructure to bring running water into the neighborhood, an act supported by the Council's collective political decision–making. Raul Marques, a member of the Roma community and a representative of the Neighborhood Association, appreciated this guarantee: “Imagine this site in the winter, it’s all mud. [Imagine] going [to fetch water] with two cans of 20 liters, that’s 40 liters on your head. What you are giving to this community is life, it is a win” (Moutinho 2014).

Figure 13. Meeting at Terras da Costa Community Kitchen © ateliermob

With this guarantee, and Gulbenkian funding in hand, ateliermob and Projecto Warehouse began to plan the next construction phase, which occurred in August 2014 when water infrastructure was already in place. It was an intensive month-long process made possible with the generous and effective collaboration of an international group of hundreds of volunteers[21] and the active participation of residents. The presence of this heterogeneous team within the neighborhood altered its relational dynamics, not only by opening up a space of communication between residents and the multiplicity of committed European outsiders, but also by shifting the middle-class residents of Costa da Caparica’s biased perceptions of the place. This transformation might be explained by enduring modes of identity representation specific to the contingent history of Portuguese colonialism. According to Boaventura de Sousa Santos (1993), “Portuguese colonialism, featuring a semi-peripheral country, was also semi-peripheral itself. It was, in other words, a subaltern colonialism.” Whereas Anglophone colonial discourse was based on the polarity between the colonizer (Prospero) and the colonized (Caliban), Portuguese colonialism involved a more complex identity relationship—the Portuguese Prospero was not only a Calibanized Prospero; he was simply Caliban from the viewpoint of the North and Central European super-Prosperos. “The identity of the Portuguese colonizer is thus doubly double. It is constituted by the conjunction of two others: the colonized other, and the colonizer as himself a colonized other”[22] (Santos 1993). Thus, the alteration of Costa da Caparica inhabitants' tendentious representation of Terras da Costa community in face of the presence of these European outsiders in the neighbourhood might be explained by the subliminal persistence of these complex and uneven colonial games of identity representation that posit the Portuguese both as ʻcolonizerʼ and ʻcolonized otherʼ.

Terras da Costa Community Kitchen was a tactical makeshift urban project designed to meet the local community’s primary demand—running water for the precariously situated, informal neighborhood. In a context in which the Almada Municipal Council—because of the local development plan legal impasse and financial shortcomings—was incapable of addressing the socio-urban issues faced by the community, this makeshift urban project managed to concretely improve its living conditions in the immediate future, even if imperfectly. Although, its realization was not possible without the political will and support of the Municipal Council (figure 14). Durval Carvalho, from Cabo Verde and a member of the Neighborhood Association, hopefully said: “To see if we can get there [having access to urban infrastructure], through the communal kitchen, with the support of those who are around us now, because now we are no longer invisible” (Moutinho 2014).

Figure 14. Terras da Costa Community Kitchen © Inês Veiga

The project reinforced community self-organization and action. Through ateliermob’s mediation strategy a space for communication between the neighborhood community and regional authorities was opened. By way of collective construction processes the neighborhood’s relational dynamics were enhanced and transformed, blurring boundaries and decreasing social stigma. The visibility that the neighborhood gained is instrumental to its survival—any action that might prejudice the community will now be scrutinized in the public sphere.[23]


The “Building Together” participatory experience opened a relational space connecting artistic processes within the ASA Factory—stimulated by the Guimarães ECC—to memories and expectations of city dwellers concerning the factory’s new life. Casa do Vaporcreated a space of exchange between practitioners, participants and local residents grounded in shared vocabularies of self-organization and self-construction, enabling new encounters and conviviality. Terras da Costa Community Kitchen was a tactical makeshift urban project in which the construction of a community kitchen led to fulfilling the main demand of a community—bringing running water into the informal neighborhood. Wood and committed practitioners travelled between all three sites, remaking socio-urban space.

These collaborative practices were effective in interlacing the possibilities and contingencies presented by specific places and temporalities, assembling different singularities and desires, generating relationships and discovering provisional common grounds. Nevertheless, each project encountered limitations. “Building Together” did not reach the point of critically assessing the reintegration of the ASA Factory as a cultural and business space within the city of Guimarães. Even though the social and cultural dynamics that emerged with the project at Cova do Vapor contributed to altering the public image of the neighborhood and to invigorating intersubjective exchange in the community, it didn’t address the ambiguous legal situation of the site. Finally, after the construction of the Community Kitchen at Terras da Costa, internal conflicts among the local residents became visible, often concerning the common management of the space. A common space entails the negotiation of differences, and such a process was hampered by the range of problems faced by this particular community, problems that would need to be tackled over a longer period of time and with a clear focus on addressing planning, social and labor issues, compounded by the racial prejudice this community faces.[24] This prejudice develops into structural and symbolic violence as a concrete expression of the persistence of colonial modes of thinking; forms of violence that are almost unnoticed in the public sphere (they became naturalized) due to the perpetuation of the myth of racial tolerance among the Portuguese.[25]

Moreover, the position of these practices within the current Portuguese political economy is ambiguous. On the one hand, they perform critical engagement with socio-spatial issues, inventing alternative modes of social relationality around the collective construction of common spaces and their subsequent co-habitation. On the other, they are complicit with the current neoliberal framework that has integrated principles of insurgent creativity (for example, ‘self-management’ and ‘DIY’), as well as aspirational goals such as sociability and liveability, into market-based creative concepts, stripping them of their political ethos.

“Building Togetherˮ at Curator's Lab was part of 2012 Guimarães ECC, a mega-event used as a strategy to enhance the city's brand and improve its global image. Casa do Vapor was managed under conditions of scarcity, only made possible through voluntary work. Terras da Costa Community Kitchen compensated for the limited social role of public institutions, namely the Municipal Council confronted with budget constraints, an effect of austerity measures associated with the current political economic crisis.

The aim of the present discussion, however, has been to look at socio-spatial practices that worked both under and counter to the neoliberal framework, to explore the modalities of ‘being in common’ produced within conditions of scarcity and tight budgets. These practices triggered both a perceptual and social alteration of each place’s social and political potency, when opened up to collective use—even if imperfectly—as well as fueling collective imagination and agency over space.

[1] The ‘sensible’, according to Rancière, refers to what is capable of being apprehended by the senses. As the author argues in Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics (2010), the ‘distribution of the sensible’ consists of a “generally implicit law that defines the forms of partaking by first defining the modes of perception in which they are inscribed; it is always a certain sense of the sensible; the dividing-up of the world (du monde) and of people (du peuple)” that reveals “who can have a share in what is common to the community based on what they do and on the time and space in which this activity is performed” (36). To Rancière, ‘dissensus’ designates a political process that creates a fissure in the sensible order by confronting the established framework of perception, thought and action with the ‘inadmissible’, working thus to introduce new subjects and heterogeneous objects into the field of perception.

[2] Over the past three decades, the European Capitals of Culture initiative has grown into one of the most ambitious cultural projects in Europe. The initiative aims to internationally promote and brand selected cities, improve cultural institutions, mobilize local artistic communities and open up the cultural field to more diverse audiences. In recent years, the ECC initiative has encouraged participating cities to promote activities that resonate not only in the cultural field, but also in the social, educational, urban-planning and economic spheres. This direction — concerning a tighter integration of culture and long-term development — allowed the cities to articulate their participation in the project with the development of urban planning processes, e.g. the regeneration of derelict urban spaces, the creation of new infrastructure (ECC European Commission Directorate-General for Education and Culture 2015 and Castro 2012, 21-24). Nevertheless, this economic concern established in the logics that determined the programs of ECC's has threatened to overlap the cultural objectives that gave birth to it. The ECC designation has been seen as a powerful tool for promoting the tourism industry and the development of creative industries in the host cities, integrating neoliberal policies centered on the marketization of cities.

[3] In 2003, five architects based in Paris with a shared desire for building and living together founded Exyzt, an architecture collective that has slowly grown into an international transdisciplinary network. Exyzt not only design their projects but also build them, erecting temporary structures and mobile units that have a DIY aesthetic and are cheap and easy to construct. The collective usually works on empty urban sites or buildings, acquiring them temporarily with the permission of the owner. Their objective is to create social spaces programed in consultation with local inhabitants and specific user groups. Their working method and production of temporary reversible architecture is informed by theater and performance. The temporary nature of their projects ensures that no space is completely appropriated by one dominant user group. See;

[4] The Ensaios e Diálogos Association (Essays and Dialogues Association) was formed as part of the Casa do Vapor project. It consisted of a group of persons living at Cova do Vapor for the duration of six months and assuming responsibility to provide everyday support to the project. This cultural association is now engaged in a new situated artistic project in this territory south of Lisbon.

[5] See

[6] ateliermob's partners, Andreia Salavessa and Tiago Mota Saraiva, argue that the current economic situation induced by the financial crisis does not necessarily mean the decrease of architectural needs. The problem is not the lack of work but the means by which to pay for the work of a qualified professional. A big part of ateliermob's work is now based on an approach that redefines the architect’s role. They believe that architecture professionals should become organizers and managers of financial and funding processes, creating an essential link between public administrators, the financial systems and communities. According to Mota Saraiva, if construction processes had formerly been seen as a relationship between three parties—owner, designer(s), and builder—today, there emerges a fourth party, the funder. See


[8] The expression ‘entrepreneurial interurban competition’ refers to the audacious ways in which cities brand and market themselves, competing for global investors, affluent residents and flows of tourists. For instance, Lisbon’s central areas are currently being subjected to a significant process of gentrification connected to the tourism industry and foreign capital investment.

[9] The factory’s ‘coming occupants’ are the artists, curators, researchers and other participants in the Curators’ Lab. The transformation of the ASA Factory was an investment initiative promoted by private capital, with the aim of transforming the site into a key cultural space during the Guimarães ECC as well as beyond, when it would become a hybrid space for both cultural and business activities. However, at the end of the event the space wasn’t able to maintain its cultural component and became a platform for small-businesses.

[10] The spatial design that configured the Lab in each of the moments was generated from, and in conjunction with, the ideas of the artists engaged in the main collective residency; the editorial project was designed in each of the moments to test visual and textual essays derived from the experience of the Lab; and all of them were interconnected to the larger critical issues being discussed (Pinheiro 2013, 2-3).

[11] Cova do Vapor emerged in the 1920s as a fishing neighborhood composed of small wooden houses built on stilts. Vacation homes were constructed here in the 1930s. The area was severely affected by the encroaching tide during the 1940s, forcing the small settlement to retreat into the expanse of forest that bounds it in the South-east. In the second half of the 1970s, the first stones were placed for the piers that helped tame the waves and allowed for the community to grow. In those years, the neighborhood experienced a period of expansion; new houses were built while former wooden houses were strengthened with masonry. The inhabitants also formed a Neighborhood Association and took to the task of creating infrastructure, such as sewage and rainwater drainage, an electrical grid, pavements, etc.; only water distribution had already been provided by the municipality at the beginning of the 1970s.The current problematic situation of traditional modes of fishing due to National and European regulations, together with the difficult access to labor market at Cova do Vapor, led new generations to leave this settlement. According to the 2011 census, Cova do Vapor, consisted of 225 buildings, most of them single-family houses with one or two floors. Nowadays this space is inhabited by only around 200 permanent residents.

[12] The alternative designation would be “slum”, but, like Cachado (2008), I consider the term inaccurate here as it typically refers to deprived areas in cities (overcrowded and with a lack of infrastructure) and not to self-building in unauthorized areas, in the manner of shantytowns. The correspondent French term bidonville, is perhaps closer to the Portuguese situation and name—bairro de barracas.

[13] After 1945, Estado Novo (the right wing Portuguese dictatorship), confronted with international pressure that favored self-determination in colonial territories, attempted to legitimate the maintenance of the status quo in the Portuguese colonies. This legitimization demanded a doctrinal reformulation, initiated with the constitutional reform of 1951 that embedded, as sub-text, a simplified and nationalistic version of the thesis of lusotropicalism from the Brazilian Gilberto Freyre. Lusotropicalism, in the words of Castelo (2015), “proposes that the Portuguese have a special ability to adapt to the tropics, not by political or economic interests but due to an innate and creative empathy. The aptitude of the Portuguese to form relationships with tropical lands and peoples, and their intrinsic plasticity were supposedly the result of their own hybrid ethnic origin, their ‘bi-continentality’ and their extensive contact with the moors and the Jews in the Iberian Peninsula during the first centuries of nationhood, which was manifested primarily through miscegenation and cultural interpenetration”. This doctrinal reformulation, which became the official discourse of Estado Novo to be used in propaganda and foreign politics, performatively converted a history of five centuries of colonization into five centuries of relationships between people from different ethnic origins and cultures; a colonial society into a multi-racial one; an imperial nation into a multi-continental one; the colonies into overseas provinces. Nevertheless, colonial practices persisted despite the doctrinal reformulation. With the beginning of the wars for liberation of Angola, Guinea and Mozambique, the colonial governments needed to develop a set of socio-political initiatives to gain the support of the colonized populations and reduce the impetus for independence movements. Among these measures was the assignation of Portuguese citizenship to all inhabitants in Guinea, Angola and Mozambique. With the end of the dictatorship and the independence of the former colonies, these men and women lost Portuguese nationality. The ones that had already come to Portugal were now undocumented immigrants. See Cláudia Castelo (2015 and 1999).

[14] In 1993 the Special Relocation Programme (PER) was set up to rehouse people living in precarious conditions; it focused on the municipalities of the metropolitan areas of Oporto and Lisbon. Guided by words such as eradication and full extinction PER followed a national programme to fight poverty started in 1991. Its aim was to act socially in order to integrate excluded communities ‘devoted to criminality, prostitution and drug addiction’. This programme was based on a prejudgment of shantytown dwellers as a ‘social scourge’. At the same time, it was intended as a manifesto for progress (after the Portuguese entry to the European Union in 1986 enormous areas of shantytowns at the city entrance could no longer be tolerated). See Cachado, 2008.

[15] See Maria Manuela Mendes and Olga Magano (eds.), Sociologia, Thematic Volume 2014 Ciganos na Península Ibérica e Brasil: estudos e políticas sociais, Oporto: Faculdade de Letras da Universidade do Porto, 2014

[16] See Pedro Campos Costa and Paulo Moreira. “On Another Coast”, translated by Natalia Laczko. In Jornal dos Arquitectos 247, 88–99. 2013. Lisbon: Ordem dos Arquitectos; and Filipa Ramalhete and Sérgio Silva. “Intervenções Arquitetónicas em Espaços Informais: Três Exemplos no Concelho de Almada”. In Estudo Prévio 5. 2014.

[17] This Plan—framed by the Polis Costa da Caparica Project and joint-funded by the Portuguese Government (60%) and the AMC (40%)—ceased to be in effect in 2014. Nevertheless the Almada Municipal Council maintains the negotiations around the aforementioned PP4 aimed at its future implementation.

[18] After the Estado Novo attempt to instill in the Portuguese the idea of the benignity of Portuguese colonization (in the 1950s and specially with the beginning of the war in Angola in 1961) a simplified version of lusotropicalism took over the national imagination contributing to consolidate the self-image in which the Portuguese see themselves as a tolerant, brotherly, pliable people with an ecumenical vocation (see footnote 13). This self-imagination of a lusotropical community survived its author as well as the demise of the Portuguese empire, often being employed as a rhetorical device from an acritical and fixed perspective; in the past to legitimate Portuguese colonialism; today to perpetuate the myth of racial tolerance among the Portuguese. This might explain the small number of debates and discussions concerning racial inequality taking place in the public sphere; the issue is discursively silenced.

[19] These two public entities maintain a tense relationship due to the divergent political positions they take in their approaches towards informal settlements such as Terras da Costa.

[20] Established in 1956, the Gulbenkian aims to mobilize critical reflection in the fields of: the arts, science, education, health and human development, and global affairs.

[21] In recent years there has emerged around Europe a movement among students and young architects towards direct engagement in collective construction processes related to makeshift architecture within the framework of relational and socio-spatial practices. Given the visibility that the project gained in networks connected to these practices, an international group of volunteers subsequently came to the site and joined the building process.

[22] Nevertheless, the fact that the colonizer was colonized in turn does not mean that he was better or more closely identified with those he colonized. See Boaventura de Sousa Santos. “Between Prospero and Caliban: Colonialism, Postcolonialism, and Inter-identity”. In Luso-Brazilian Review 39:2, 9-43. 2002. doi: 10.3368/lbr.39.2.9

[23] An excellent photo essay on the project by Portuguese architectural photographers Fernando Guerra and Sérgio Guerra is available at

[24] At the time of writing this article, ateliermob's collaboration with the Terras da Costa Community continues and is focused on improved housing.

[25] See footnote 18.


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Author Bio

Joana Braga is an architect and researcher. She is currently a Phd candidate in Architecture at ISCTE-IUL with the Thesis Geographies of the Possible: imagining and reinterpreting urban space in European cities (2000-2014). She is a member of: DINAMIA (Centre of Studies on the Territory and Socio-economical Change–ISCTE-IUL), i2ads (Investigation Institute of Art andDesignand Society, FBAUP) and Moving Image Research Laboratory (Mcgill University, Montreal, Quebec). Braga graduated in Architecture at Faculdade de Arquitectura da Universidade de Lisboa – FA-UL (2005) and she holds a Post-graduate degree in Bioclimatic Architecture from the same University. Braga is a member of baldio and – performance studies experimental platform and she has curated a set of events called Meeting: of meetings asperformative practices | of performative practices as meetings at Maria Matos Teatro Municipal (Lisbon, March 2014).

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