Anne Le Coz
A major exhibition in the Portuguese capital of Lisbon is presenting radical solutions to one of the world’s most pressing architectural conundrums: genuinely low-cost housing in the developing world.
The target? The musseques, or slums of Luanda, the densely populated districts of corrugated iron shacks surrounding the capital of Portugal’s former colony, Angola.
Architects from around the world were invited to enter a contest to design low-cost housing for the slums. Thirty of the best designs are being displayed until Jan. 16 at the Lisbon Architectural Triennale, billed as one of the top architectural events in western Europe, before being taken on to the southwest African state.
“Luanda is a challenge for any architect,” said Jose Mateus, the director of the Triennale. “It was built for 500,000 people, but today the population is six million.”
The rules of the competition were simple: architects had to design a 100-square-meter house on a 250-square-meter lot for a family of up to nine people that could be built for a maximum of 25,000 euros ($34,000).
The contest, entitled “A House in Luanda: Patio and Pavilion,” drew some 599 entries from 44 countries as far afield as Colombia, Germany and Japan, far exceeding expectations, Mateus said.
The array of different designs reflected the diverse origins of the architects themselves. They varied in shape — some were circular or triangular, rather than merely square — and also in how the architects view the needs of people in Luanda’s musseques.
Some plans featured open courtyards to allow a space for animals or gardens, while others built in shops or lofts for commerce. Others came as “auto-assembly” kits, meaning they could be built quickly and cheaply.
“The main difficulty was grasping the reality of Angolan life,” said Angela Mingas, an Angolan architect and jury member who examined all entries.
“Several of the plans were extremely interesting from an architectural point of view, but totally unsuited to our climate, our understanding of the family and above all the needs of people in the musseques,” she said.
A key criterion was to design a home that would capture the more positive aspects of life in the slums and its unique character, despite the lack of basic necessities like water and reliable electricity, said Joao Luis Carrilho da Graca, the Triennale’s curator.
“There is life, youth, openness and movement. There is an urban tissue with its own qualities, which is inspiring,” he said.
A team of five Portuguese architects, led by Pedro Sousa, won with a house using a local mud brick that can be built by the inhabitants themselves, a simple design with six patios for different functions connected by a central exterior corridor allowing for both privacy and family life.
Organizers called the show a “contest of ideas” with no commitment on the part of Angola, though people from Luanda took part in defining the criteria.
From Lisbon, where the Triennale was held for the second time, the 30 designs will be exhibited in Luanda where organizers hope they interest both the government and private developers.
“Politically and economically, the timing is favorable,” Mingas said.
Lisbon has maintained close ties with its former colony, which was wracked by 27 years of civil war after independence in 1975 and remains scarred by the conflict, which displaced tens of thousands of residents.
Reconstruction plans were drawn up in 2008, six years after the conflict ended, but the task remains daunting.
“The Angolan government has promised to build one million homes by 2012, including 120,000 low cost homes,” Mingas said.
“We hope the presentation of the exhibition in Luanda will lead to concrete projects,” Mateus said.