Factories of the Future: Architecting Souls across Berlin Walls


‘People just called it Chinese’. The origins of the name were lost in time, but the elderly say the slum got its name from the concentration of wooden and tin can roof houses distributed along narrow alleys in the Chinese floating villages. It is possible that movies depicting those images were slowly making their way into Lisbon’s theatres in the 1950’s, under the close surveillance of the fascist censorship of the time. It is also possible that the explanation just lies elsewhere. In any case, the regime called those 6 hectares, the largest slum in Lisbon city, a “smelly, infect hovel”. The 10.000 inhabitants, who had migrated from the hinterland to work on the many factories in the Marvila area, just called it the Chinese Quarter. ‘We were poor – says a former resident, now reallocated to a social housing high-rise – but there was a great sense of community’. With her eyes slowly gazing the now vacant land, she recollects ambiguous childhood memories, where cold and hungry nights with rodents at her feet and child’s games dodging the open-air sewers went hand in hand with strong social ties, friendship, selflessness, sense of protection. ‘Now, look at this: we’re isolated’ – she says, pointing vaguely south towards the railway line, which separates her new neighbourhood from the area where the factories used to be, currently undergoing a violent process of gentrification. ‘A Disneyland for rich people, that’s what it is. We used to work there, now we can’t go there, we’re stuck in here, behind the railway. It’s like a wall. It’s like we have our own Berlin Wall’.

Chinese Quarter, 1971 © Eduardo Gageiro

0.1. Dystopia

A fractured neighborhood, suspended between the past and the present, between the countryside and the city, Marvila presents a complex urban fabric undergoing severe transformations in the last century. Although geographically very close to the historical city centre, this Eastern area is separated from Lisbon by a series of social, cultural, and symbolic frontiers. Moreover, a railway line that divides the slope in two, symbolically wounding space itself, lacerates the territory. Abandoned factory buildings illustrating a recent industrial past, linked to the port activities and an intense circulation of people and goods, punctuate an older lower area next to the river, also called Old Marvila. Since the end of the XIXth century, and particularly between 1940 and the crisis of 1973, the urban and industrial scale of Marvila reached considerable grandeur with industries such as wine, soap, rubber, matches, tobacco or war material. A popular description of the time called this area a ‘sea of chimneys and people’. Away from the river and beyond the railway, Upper Marvila, on the other hand, an aristocratic leisure area until the middle of the XIXth century, features remains of old farms, manors and royal households. Ruins of ancient nobility, misaligned from the recent urban structure of public housing projects, interrupt the scenery as spectra of other times in large open areas without any recreational or economic function, which emblematically represent the symbolic, cultural, and social separation that defines an area for decades associated with violence and crime, poverty and social exclusion.

During this industrial growth, Lisbon underwent a large housing shortage due to migratory flows from the interior of the country to the capital. Although some industrial owners built small working-class neighbourhoods by their own private initiative, the demographic pressure soon caused an exponential growth of precarious housing around industrial sites. In this period, Marvila population would increase tenfold. The most common working-class housing tipology were the pateos, precarious structures with a huge population density that were erected in courtyards of buildings and blocks, or reusing abandoned spaces. With poor construction materials and without proper sanitation, several families could inhabit a small division, separated by nothing but hanging clothes. To avoid fiscal inspections and to allow women to work from home, industrial owners sometimes provided loom machines, which cluttered the space even more. Coming from the countryside, many people maintained their habits and it was common to breed pigs and hens for feeding and the use of excrements in the same living area.

If industrialization was a sign of modernity, working-class housing was creating a ruralization of the urban space and a public health hazard. To the bourgeois mentality, these conditions were appalling and unnaceptable, which triggered a violent moral discourse about the unruly poor, their insalubrious housing, and the backward, defective traits of their behaviour. Furthermore, in a society that was gradually accepting the latest scientific theories of contagion, the context was providing evidence on how people themselves, due to their lack of hygienic habits, were uncivilized vessels of disease. A number of epidemic outbreaks in these areas were to accelerate the relation between medical power and the government of the social with an attack on the link between poverty and disease, a most visible side of medical engagement with moral philosophies of reform in order to transform the consequences of industrial life among the working poor in urban agglomerates. But not even a liberal and republican government (1910-1926), strongly influenced by the medical elite, would be able to make significant improvements, notwithstanding the development of the first state-led social housing projects, precisely 100 years ago, in 1918. It would prove clearly insufficient for a nation in a post-WWI crisis, which would later lead to a military coup and a fascist dictatorship.

0.2. Utopia

When in 1889 Englishman Ebenezer Howard published the book “Tomorrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform” (reissued in 1902 under the title “Garden Cities of Tomorrow”), he branded the creation of a new urban model of social, economic and territorial organization. The Garden City model – which aimed to create autonomous cities, surrounded by green corridors, where residential, industrial and agricultural areas coexist in a balanced way – emerged interwoven with the development of industry and the rural exodus in the English context of the late nineteenth century, as a criticism of unhealthy concentration in urban centers and the development of disqualified suburbs. This model, seeking to reconcile the positive aspects of rural and urban life, envisaged the expansion of the city to new urban satellite centers, connected by roads and railways, without compromising the green continuity that surrounded the agglomerates.

In Marvila, the 1938 Madre Deus neighborhood, one of the several “economic districts” built by the regime to address the growing housing issue, reproduces this model of garden-city, seeking to reproduce a village-like environment. Based on the rural past the working families had in their origin context (Beira Alta, prevalently), the neighborhood displays a series of semi-detached or townhouses with a garden at the front and a small yard or garden in the back, in a symmetrical urban network of streets that converge to a vanishing point, a large green park. The same vanishing point, in a similar butterfly-shaped 1946 neighborhood located nearby – Encarnação – would be, in this case, the church.

Madre Deus Quarter Encarnação Quarter

The advertising on yet another similar development leaves no doubt on the assumptions and intentions of the regime, stating that ‘white, hygienic, and happy little houses’ are replacement for ‘filthy ditches’, where the Social Service, Church and School will ‘put an end to parents’ vice and children’s abandonment’. This construction intended to provide each family with both privacy and autonomy, deviating from the concept of colectivism, which the regime tried to avoid at all cost. ‘The intimacy of family life calls for shelter, seeks isolation, demands independent housing’, claimed the Portuguese Prime-Minister Salazar. Architecture was, thus, to reflect the assumed psycho-national traits of the simple, traditional, and humble Portuguese family. ‘Alas, the colossal working-class constructions, with their attached restaurants and communal tables, are of no interest for us. All those things serve only the causal encounters of life, the already semi-nomadic populations of today’s Higher Civilization’.

But if the narrative seems to indicate that housing was simply a shelter for the soul, the underlying pedagogical programme these families were subject to quickly shows the ways in which architecture was in fact thought of as a factory of souls themselves. Families were to follow strict rules regarding the house and the neighbourhood in a process of moral and sanitary education, and their evolution would be assessed in order to show a ‘betterment of social, economic, technical, and moral conditions as a defense instrument of the family institution and the maintenance of social order, as the primary element of profound and beneficial transformation for the future’.

The perception of society as a body that could and should be cured by state educators used architecture as one of the privileged instruments of action upon the social fabric. In this sense, an urban projection is not only an act of intervention in space, but also of symbolic reconfiguration and production of new social subjectivities. By changing the housing conditions it was believed that intervention programs against exclusion and poverty would also discipline the lives of those targeted, that is, a factory of new citizens.

0.3. Heterotopia

Notwithstanding the considerable success of these developments, the miserable conditions in the interior of the country and the industrial boom in Lisbon in the 1950’s paved the way for a demographic clock-bomb in the city, as studies from the Municipality estimated that over 150.000 families lived in poor housing conditions. The low-density social housing model was neither socially nor economically viable, and the ideological fear of collective housing was gradually cast aside in the search for rational solutions for an impending crisis, at a time when the regime was under international criticism for its reluctance towards globalization and democratization forces both in its metropolitan and its colonial territories.

The solution could lie in an extensive non-urbanized land located north of Marvila where the city could grow to, known as Olivais, due to the repeated presence of olive trees in the area. In 1959, the establishment of an Affordable Rent Housing programme, along with the creation of a Housing Technical Office, would delineate an ambitious urbanization plan covering a total of 710 hectares, approximately 1/10 of the whole Lisbon area. Composed by a young multidisciplinary team of architects, engineers, historians, economists, and sociologists, the Housing Technical Office would turn this urbanization plan a colossal experimental laboratory of modern architectonic culture. The team explored different solutions and created hybrid versions of social housing inspired by English and Scandinavian New Towns, but also with an eye on Latin American developments and ideas. The planification and execution were constantly met with thorough sociological analysis and assessment, which provided material to rethink and repurpose the definition of both domestic and public space, the way people used, appropriated, and transformed each functional living unit according to their cultural habits, reservations and aspirations. This allowed not only the insertion of a human and social dimension into architectural design, but also the criticism of vital tenets of the authoritarian regime, such as the family house as the central nucleus of social existence – it was asserted, instead, a more cosmopolitan view of the whole city as an ecological system – or the traditional conception of a homogeneous national character of the Portuguese ‘house’, with its corresponding style, taste, vision, domestic economy and attribution of gender roles.

The experimentalism was about to take another step further in 1969, when the Housing Technical Office invited the recently created Catholic-based PRODAC (Proactivity in Self-Help) to act on the Chinese Quarter with the goal of completely erradicating the entire slum according to their model of participatory design and self- help construction. For several months, the social workers and urban experts conducted surveys, information sessions, and worked with the population in the search for optimal solutions, especially in what involved maintaining existing proximity and family bonds in the rehousing process. The Chinese Quarter would eventually be completely dismantled and all families allocated to PRODAC and other developments. All but one. In the midst of the emptiness of the vacant lots, a run- down shack stands the test of time. Facing what was once a busy main street, Pateo 88 has a small informal restaurant run by Mrs. L., who leans against the front door, talking to us: ‘I’m not leaving, this is my home’. From afar we can see her husband out in the fields, pasturing his 80 goats, which sleep in the backyard. ‘Things were much better the way they were. What am I going to do in the new neighbourhood? The ties we had here are now gone. Here I can plant my vegetables, and he can pasture his goats. Who says people over there have a better life than we do?’

0.4. Retrotopia

© Henrik Makarewicz, 1965 ©Eduardo Gageiro, 1972

A quick stroll around Old Marvila show us the ruins of all this past, but it also gives us a glimpse of the future that is bound to happen. In the middle of the recent hard- hitting economic crisis, the Lisbon Municipality adopted the master narrative of the creative industries as a major catalyst and engine of regeneration of post-industrial areas. Sure enough, Marvila’s abandoned factories and warehouses have recently been transformed into creative hubs, co-working spaces, start up incubators, and fab labs – alongside the odd hipster-crowd-pleasers, such as craft beer breweries and ethnic restaurants. Marvila is, thus, rapidly becoming an experimental territory of all the contemporary slogans of urban regeneration, being idealized as a sustainable, green, smart, creative, and resilient city, envisioning that these processes of environmental, social, cultural and economic development will be able to strenghten local identities, empower communities and foster social cohesion.

Ironic as it may seem, the contradictions between processes of rural intransience amidst urban development, which were for so long seen as a health and moral hazard, are now being reassessed and revalued: urban community gardens have been regulated and are to be further developed, an organic vineyard was planted to celebrate the glorious period of the wine industry, and massive green belts are being designed having Marvila at its core. In the same mindset, the very narrative of creative industries is trying to recreate a romanticized image of the lively and dynamic life of the neighbourhood during the industrial zenith. After a century of failed utopias, could the future of this area be a retrotopia, a plan to thrive embracing its own past?

Evocative of the old factory context, this new imagery brings with it new economies, new visitors, inhabitants, protagonists, entrepreneurs and professionals, new imaginaries and new spaces of work, housing, and leisure. It is not by chance that the Italian architect, Pritzker Award winner Renzo Piano decided to propose the construction of a new neighborhood in Marvila, the Silver Arm, with the intention of honouring the industrial past – an ensemble of 12 buildings that, from above, resemble a huge factory. The inspiration was the Braço de Prata Factory, built in 1904 for the production of weaponry and war material. Piano’s project, worth 450 million euros, is to create a micro-cosmos with dwellings, restaurants, leisure spaces, gardens, schools, inspired by the life of a real space, without luxuries, as it was once in the past, to be a neighborhood where ‘normal people can live’. Prices range from 400,000 to 2.7 million euros. Incidentally, the actual Braço de Prata Factory next door is home to a 10 year-old famous, but illegal cultural organization which hosts 60 concerts per month and 7 exhibitions at a time, as well as a renowned philosophy bookshop. Just because utopias and heterotopias tend to live side by side.

Not that it matters much to most of the old residents around here – those who can still afford to live this side of the Berlin Wall. This kind of cultural offer is not appealing for this population, who frown upon the opening of fancy restaurants and alternative stores. Many of them long for the ancient tascas, bars, pharmacies, butchers, and post offices that disappeared with the demise of the industrial vivacity. Marvila’s future, for them, will only be good to the ‘landlords, who can raise their rents’ and to the ‘insane willing to pay half a million euros for a studio”. Their future will be far from there. They know all too well what happened recently to other gentrified neighbourhoods, everyday they hear the stories about those who had to leave apartments they could no longer afford. Some dream to go back to their origins, where, with any luck, they still have a piece of land and a small house made of stone. Others don’t really know what will happen. They are just sure this new Marvila is not for them anymore.