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Revisiting Portugal's People-Powered Design Movement, SAAL

Coming at a time when questions about urban design and architecture's ability to shape communities are at the forefront, a new exhibition chronicling a revolutionary architecture movement from the '70s offers insights into the power of collaborative design. On display at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal through October 4, The SAAL Process: Housing in Portugal 1974-1976 showcases 10 projects from the short, influential existence of the Serviço Ambulatório de Apoio Local (SAAL), or Local Ambulatory Support Service, a people-powered architectural and community development organization that rose when the Carnation Revolution deposed the authoritarian Estado Novo regime in 1974. Brigades of architects worked with as opposed to for residents of Portugal's "ilhas" (slums), collaborating with community groups to complete 170 projects in 26 months and house 40,000 families.

"These buildings started with community groups asking for help and assistance," says Delfim Sardo, curator of the exhibition and professor at the University of Coimbra in Portugal. "SAAL projects are integrated into the cities and people who live there enjoy their neighborhoods. What's amazing is how well they're integrated; they helped people rethink the idea of social architecture in Europe. Giving people the right to proper housing was a massive driver for social mobility."

According to Sardo, Portugal had a terrible housing shortage before the revolution due to rapid urban growth in cities such as Porto and Lisbon. Amid the fervor and excitement of the revolution—a virtually non-violent overthrow of a dictatorship —architect and Secretary of State for Housing and Urbanism Nuno Portas organized SAAL, tapping into the desire of a group of architects to engage in bottom-up, hands-on socially engaged design. Portas took advantage of the coup, a rapid political change and rare historical moment, to create a new way to look at social architecture.

It's important to remember what SAAL wasn't as much as what it was; architects worked with limited budgets, and like much of the public housing across the globe, the projects completed via the SAAL process weren't necessarily higher quality. But many of the buildings, such as the unfinished Evora housing project in Porto by Álvaro Siza, helped shape social housing design across Europe, according to Sardo. SAAL projects made the covers of magazines such as Domus and were very influential in countries such as Italy and the Netherlands.

"The approach of SAAL should be looked at in a different way," says Sardo. "It considered the residents of poor areas to be architecture clients, a viewpoint that's not present in many projects. These places didn't become more fashionable or fancy, but they became much more like communities."

The SAAL Process: Housing in Portugal 1974-1976 is at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal through October 4.

·More Portugal posts [Curbed]