Born out of the Portuguese revolution of 25 April 1974, SAAL―the Serviço Ambulatório de Apoio Local (Local Ambulatory Support Service)―was a pioneering architectural and political experiment designed to address extreme housing shortages and poor living conditions in Portuguese cities. With the support of the new temporary socialist government, SAAL established technical teams, known as brigades, that were led by architects in collaboration with local communities and aimed to develop housing solutions with the direct input of residents. The brigades reinvented the practice of architecture from start to finish, not only designing buildings but also surveying living conditions, supporting resident committees, and monitoring land use, resulting in projects designed with the residents and not just for them. In only twenty-six months, until October 1976, SAAL produced some 170 projects involving more than forty thousand families.

There was not only one SAAL: its initiatives and results varied widely depending on complex urban and social factors, from the “ilhas” (slums) of Porto and the periphery of Lisbon to the self-constructed homes in Algarve, in the far south. Nonetheless, the program’s overall scope and impact brought significant attention to the status of the needy and their “right to the city” throughout Portugal, and in turn, throughout Europe. Although most SAAL projects were never fully built, the debates it prompted generated a new model of participation that affected thinking about urban planning and participation and spurred architects to re-examine their own social and political role, issues that continue to resonate forty years later.

The exhibition brings together a selection of ten influential housing projects that reflect the diversity of SAAL procedures and approaches: the neighbourhoods of Leal (designed by Sérgio Fernandez), São Victor (Álvaro Siza Vieira), Antas (Pedro Ramalho), and Miragaia (Fernando Távora) in Porto; Quinta do Bacalhau (Manuel Vicente), Quinta das Fonsecas (Raúl Hestnes Ferriera), Curraleira (José António Paradela and Luís Gravata Filipe), and Quinta da Bela Flor (Artur Rosa) in Lisbon; Casal das Figueiras in Setubal (Gonçalo de Sousa Byrne); and Meia-Praia in Algarve (José Veloso). The objects it presents—including architectural plans and blueprints, surveys and materials developed by the SAAL brigades, and historical and contemporary photographs—testify to the full range of urban solutions that the program’s architects attempted to implement. From the historic city centre to the sprawling slums of the periphery, the SAAL process introduced new housing typologies and brought to view alternative ways to plan the city. Simultaneously utopian and pragmatic, SAAL demonstrates the challenges and opportunities of a process that was mandated from the top down while intended to be developed and addressed from the bottom up.