LA MAISON EST UN HABITAT A DEMECANISER
BY NUNO GRANDE
The sentence that provides the title for this article is engraved in the ceiling of Casa do Conto’s loft, a renewal project for “arts & residence”, urdertaken in Porto by the architecture atelier Pedra Líquida, to which I am associated. As it can be easily understood, the title comes from the well-know epithet by Le Corbusier – la maison est une machine a habiter –, and it tries to “deconstruct” it by antinomy. (Re)created by me, the title sentence encloses other mes- sages, from other authors, about the concept of “house” or about the story of “that” house in particular1, which are also engraved on different ceilings there. Curiously, the idea for my textual contribution arose far from Porto’s environment: it occurred to me in 2009, on a visit to Veit Stratmann’s house, located in the Parisian Beaubourg, near Centre Georges Pompi- dou. This artist lives in a modest loft apartment, in a residential quarter which offers combined spaces for housing and for atelier at reasonable prices and in a flexible way. The quarter was planned during the urban reconversion of Marais, from the mid-1970s on, in order to desacral- ize the architectonic and urbanistic principles inherited by modern functionalism (as in Centre Georges Pompidou’s project), and to repopulate – or “gentrify” – the Marais with new inhabit- ants associated with the world of cultural creation and consumption.
Thus, in the city where Le Corbusier wrote his well-known epithet, around the 1920s2, the pre- text for undergoing its conceptual “deconstruction” arose: it doesn’t make sense anymore to look at a house as a standardized and monofunctional life machine, like the Modern Move- ment instructed. On the contrary, a house, whatever its dimension may be, must be a place of multiple possibilities, interactions and sequences between different life circumstances. Veit Stratmann’s studio, in Paris, is exactly like this; Casa do Conto, in Porto, will hopefully be like this.
This personal account emerges from the current debate over the process of urban and archi- tectonic rehabilitation of Porto’s downtown, and over the public policies behind it or that should be behind it. In the last decade, and using the slowness and inefficacy of previous public inter- vention processes as a pretext, the political rhetoric has refocused on the idea that the private real estate market should be the one to regulate rehabilitation standards and to define who the target audience to win back for the city’s downtown will be.
In this way, Porto’s Municipality and the Society for Urban Rehabilitation, to which the former is associated (Porto Vivo, SA), have been encouraging generic construction companies – i.e., without a specific tendency to work in the rehabilitation field – to redirect their real estate investments from the new city neighborhoods to the traditional downtown. They do so by acting as a go-between for the purchase and expropriation of several urban proprieties and by promoting the swift approval of their intervention projects. Thus, in recent years, we have seen the transfer of the current real estate promotion logic, i.e. of construction from scratch to urban rehabilitation, through: the intensive demolition of inner blocks, with the scenographic preservation of the main façades; the extemporaneous association of lots; and the construc- tion of houses which are standardized by the market (apartments T1, T2+1, T3, T4...), including, most of the times, parking storeys in the complex interior of those blocks.
The outcome is starting to show: the replacement of the old diversified urban fabric – based on a vertical property laid out into lots – by the new homogenizing and impermeable urban fabric of the blocks, as well as by a new housing offer of horizontal standardized – or “mecha- nized” – property.