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“Ilhas” and “Condomínios” in Porto: anthropological urban structure and the social cohesion problem

Paulo Castro Seixas


Porto, unlike most other cities, contains three different urban developments which reflect, in spatial terms, the stages of a cosmogony. There is an ancient Porto with medieval roots, a confined area of energy. There is a modern Porto which knocked down the old city walls in the thirteenth century and spread out beyond them in a kind of sunburst. And there is Greater Metropolitan Porto from the end of the 20th century. The city then becomes a region, a network of cities caught up in mesh of points like a solar system. This urban cosmogony also implies a different construction of citizenship through a succession of fractures or apartheids. In fact, Porto is characterized by three forms of urbanism and each one of them is related to a specific anthropological structure, an inter-relational structure. When the ecological basis is weakened, the ecological relationships of inside/outside, upper and lower town, city and suburbs in the three urban developments are substituted by Dantesque or paradisical visions. The late 19th century ‘hygienist’ movement transformed the ‘Ilhas’ into spaces of atonement, in the same way that in the late 20th century so-called ‘quality of life’ has made the ‘Condomínios’ spaces of redemption. Understanding these urban apartheids helps to overcome them, to make a more multicultural city with a truly anthropological urbanism, of multicultural buildings, streets and neighborhoods, an urbanism which is an absolute necessity in order to construct a better city.

Three urban developments: the anthropological structure
The old walled city of the Sé, the Ribeira and the Barredo is now classified as World Heritage. But the old city also included the environs of Olival and Miragaia. In this swarming space the houses seem to be piled higgledy-piggledy and alleys, steps, patios and tiny squares are sketched into the remaining spaces. It is a medieval development in which the street is an extension of the house. Even in the houses the eye is drawn outwards through the window or from verandahs to the bustle of the street. The street is where the domestic chores extend, it is a place to trade, talk or simply to stroll around and be. This traditional city, defined by its city wall and its environs crumbled to dust in the flux of people at the end of the 18th century. The city wall was knocked down and with it the clear distinction between the inside and the outside, between the city and the country.

The urban revolution of Almadas, however, drew straight lines as far as the horizon. It is the modern city which is designed for progress and infinity. And this inside-outside relationship is renewed in the new city: the Upper City in contrast to the Lower City. In this way, modern Porto is sketched out. The Praça Nova replaces the Praça da Ribeira as the bourgeois center of the city. The Rua das Flores links the two worlds and from the Praça Nova, Batalha, Olival, the roads of this new city burst out like an exploding star. By 1813, Porto was already transformed: It was the RosĚrio street, Cedofeita street, Almada street, Santa Catarina and Direita de Santo Ildefonso streets ... . This is the city which was constructed in praise of the flight from the lower, riparian city, which had fallen into ruin and disfavor under the sheer weight of people. The flight of the bourgeoisie, though, did not last very long. In the second half of the 19th century the upper, bourgeois, city was already infected by those who had fled the countryside, drawn by their dreams of the city and its industry. This superposition of two distinct populations in the same space was creating, meanwhile, a confusion of social and spatial distinctions on account of the abolition of the difference between the inside and the outside, a difference which had been visible in the relationship of the upper and the lower cities. It was this confusion which gave rise to the idea of Hygiene as a new means of distinguishing between them in the city.

Almost a century after it was begun, the modern development of Porto reached its limits; in 1895 the circular road (circunvalação) marked the clear limits of the city. The city was clearly marked out and the region began to appear in outline. The circular road was thus the symbolic line which renewed the inside/outside difference by establishing the relationship between the city and the suburbs. Roads and railways, as well as bridges, continued to reinforce the difference between the city and suburbs throughout the twentieth century. Trains and trams at the beginning of the century, motorbikes and cars in the second half, contributed to the regionalization of the city, with Porto always at the hub of things. Porto grew into a metropolis: Matosinhos, Gaia, Maia and Gondomar grew along with the city of Porto. However, beginning in the sixties, these adjoining municipalities were already growing faster than the city itself. Those whom the city had banished to the suburbs were piled on top of those who had chosen freely to live in the suburbs in search of a better life. In the 80’s and 90’s expressways and motorways, large areas with shopping centers and other buildings devoted to education or providing jobs, stamped the metropolitan area with the unmistakable evidence of the regionalization of everyday life. With this recent regionalization, the possibility arises once again of the blurring of socio-spatial differences with the crumbling of the distinction between the city and the suburbs. It is in this blurring that the crucial idea of the quality of life emerges and, with it, the idea of a new kind of differentiation in the city.

‘Ilhas’ e ‘Condomínios’: atonement and redemption
Thus, there are three Porto urban developments... . And, connected with each one, there is an anthropological structure, a structure of difference. In ancient Porto, the city walls established the difference between the outer and the inner city and this spatial difference was, at the same time, a social and a moral difference. The growth of the urban area wiped out this difference at the same time as it toppled the walls of the ancient city. In modern Porto, the spatial relation between upper and lower city took the place of the old idea of inside and outside the walls, only to dissolve it almost immediately. It had then to conjure up in the hygienic imagination the spectre of squalor, so as to recreate the distinction. In metropolitan Porto, the spatial division was that between the city and the suburbs. But, as soon as the city became a region, it was the notion, derived from the world of advertising, of the quality of life which was invoked to justify the difference. It is by means of these imaginary images of Hygiene and Quality that the process of urbanization distinguished from the process of metropolitanization. In urbanization it is the disadvantage ‘Other’ which is sullied by an imagination which set up the "ilhas" – islands – (a kind of blind back houses) as a kind of spatial scapegoat with which everything negative about the city is associated. In metropolitanization, on the other hand, it is the hegemonically ‘I’ which is invoked in an imaginary scheme in which the private or restricted condomínios (self-enclosed exclusive housing developments) are spaces devoted to everything which is positive about the city.

The ‘Ilhas’, whose origins probably reach back to mediaeval alleyways, are small passages or patios surrounded by poor, mud houses. When the traditional city walls fell, the ‘Ilhas’ embraced those who previously had remained on the outside. There are round about seven hundred in the city in the last decade of the twentieth century and they continue to be, as they always have been, hidden, disguised places. Seeming garden gates, doors which apparently belong to bourgeois houses or their gardens, the entrance to some present-day middle class building, garage doors... . In the end, a whole code of dissimulation and hypocrisy which makes exclusion possible at the same time as it hides from view. But, as if it were not enough that the city permits, yet hides the misery of the Other, it has also created a shameful imaginary idea of hygiene, which proclaimed and sometimes still does, the ‘Ilhas’ as a hellish places, poverty-stricken, unhealthy, too, ridden with disease, criminality and immorality. The ‘Ilhas’ have thus become the spaces par excellence of the modern city, places with an invisible wall around them inside the city, places which constitute a non city or non-space.

But when the modern city changes into a metropolitan region, the notion of scapegoat ceases to mean anything, since the unity of the city is dissolved as the city spreads out in space and its limits are lost to view. By now, confining the degradation of the Other to a certain location can no longer save the city; now it is the city itself which has to be safeguarded. The housing development clubs step forward: they call themselves closed, private, exclusive condominiums, as well as developments, gardens or residential parks. They are minimal cities of deliverance which have sprung up in the face of the amorphous extension of the non-city which surrounds us on all sides. They offer us a paradise. They are Palaces and Mansions, they are Estates and Gardens or even ‘Places’ or ‘Villages’ (in English in the advertising). In the metropolitan sprawl, but always close to a motorway, or even in the urban center, they let us believe that we can be, in our own town, tourists enjoying an endless weekend, or foreigner on holiday. Locked away in safety we live our lives freely in the open air. And everybody there will be young, play sport and live happily ever after!... . sometimes, they are merely buildings like any other. In other cases, video cameras, foyers and various electronic devices proclaim exclusion and exclusiveness. At other times, they are truly urban fortresses: the old ditches replaced by roads while private viaducts take the place of the ancient drawbridges. Some are in the middle of the city, while others are situated out of it, in an old suburb, in a greenfield site or by the sea... . Through them, we promise ourselves the spectacle of a dream life of our own. And, in a new city whose walls are dreams, our eyes are closed to the huge, amorphous mass of the city which sprawls beyond our dream.

A critique for a better city
When the space becomes too crowded to support the cultural differences existing within it, cities turn to images more or less of hell or more or less of a garden of delights to restore hierarchy and social order. In a way or another, in the name of quality of life, some – in certain cases, whole parts of the city – are excluded by others. Only when urban planning learns the lessons of multiculturalism will we be able to have a better city; a city which is a system in which cultures truly can live side by side. The city of shame or the fortified city, sustained by strategies of difference, whether of heaven or hell, is condemned to its own destruction. True quality of life can only be found in an urbanism of multicultural buildings, in multicultural streets, in multicultural neighborhoods. This anthropological urbanism, in its daily sharing, is the only way we can ensure our future as urban beings.

Paulo Castro Seixas (pseixas@mail.telepac.pt)
Univ. Fernando Pessoa, Porto
Research Fellow (Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia)

Copyright © Paulo Castro Seixas 2000. RUT thanks Paulo Castro Seixas for permission to publish this article.

Synthetic References
Davis, Mike (1992a) City of Quartz. Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. London: Verso

Foucault, Michel (1975) Surveiller et Punir. Naissance de la Prison. Paris: Gallimard

Engels, Fiedrich (1975) A Situação da Classe Trabalhadora em Inglaterra. Porto: Afrontamento

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