Conduit, Patio, Waste: Mapping Environmental Relations in Architecture

Bárbara Maçães Costa

The ongoing ecological crisis is reframing the common binary opposition between architecture and nature and provoking us to ask what kinds of buildings we collectively want to create for the ecosystems that we inhabit. The environment is not a neutral background, a natural scenery, or a container of pre-social resources; and architecture is not a collection of objects floating in a vacuum. Buildings and landscapes constitute each other dialectically.

The environmental question in Western architecture had a peak moment during the context- ualism debates of the 1950’s and 60’s, in the UK and Italy. They equated ‘context’ with ideas such as ecological urbanism and habitat, or preesistenze ambientali and continuità. But by the 1970’s there was a shift from a sort of socio-biological determinism towards a more culturalist approach. Context became synonymous with ‘historical context’, and site-specificity was to be achieved less through a dialectical interplay with material reality than through a referential, typo-morphological approach. Gradually, a rift emerged: ecology became a matter of natural fact to be technologically calculated, and context became a matter of cultural identity to be narrated and deconstructed. From this point onwards — and in tandem with the rise of neoliberal commodification and its correlate ideology of postmodernism — Western architecture lost the ability to tackle the environmental question beyond the narrow scope of the individual architectural object.

Before this split, the modernist tradition had attempted to address the built environment, and housing projects in particular, as a socio-ecological totality. Backed by large-scale funding initiatives from social-democratic states, human and non-human life could be understood dialectically, with the neighbourhood scale functioning as a mediating unit between the individual and the social. Álvaro Siza’s Bairro da Malagueira was one of the last projects of this generation. It emerged from the very particular conditions of the 1974–75 Carnation Revolution and the state-sponsored housing program SAAL, a dual power structure made up of construction ‘technical brigades’ and neighbourhood committees. During this process, the SAAL-Norte produced a series of projects focused on reinventing the typology of the ilha, and Álvaro Siza wrote a text considering the hypothesis of “the proletarian island as basic element of the urban tissue.” What was taken from these islands was less their stylistic or typological configuration than the system of environmental relations that they fostered, predicated on a series of threshold spaces and open interiorities.

From Bairro da Malagueira, this thesis proposes a method for mapping environmental rela- tions in architecture. It does so by identifying a series of thresholds — the conduit, the patio, and the waste — understood as structures that convert space into bounded associations, mediating between inside and outside, foreground and background, architecture and nature. Each threshold acts as a time-space frame with a specific magnitude of approximation, and each internalizes sets of social relations, such as class, gender and race, with corresponding modes of environmental production, namely the hidden backgrounds of territory, domesticity, and wilderness. Bairro da Malagueira hence becomes a template through which this thesis explores a dialectical understanding of architecture as an agent of environmental production, i.e., as the process of weaving fragments and contradictions into a totality that strives for a historical synthesis between built form and the reproduction of human and non-human life.

Harry Gugger
Pier Vittorio Aureli, Dieter Dietz, Paola Viganò
2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021
Architecture, Environment, Housing, Landscape, Representation, Theory, Territory
CC BY Licence