living in the ground floor
Living in the ground floor, Porto, 2018
Cities are in constant and unpredictable change.
Everything that is built during a given time, by private desires or the wishes of a community, faces an unavoidable change of its original scope and use over years of occupancy. Then it begins a process of abandonment and decay, during which the original function of a space no longer serves a purpose. The reasons behind this process are manifold, because all citizens have a role in urban change i.e. a family that moves in or away; the mayor changes; a new business that arrives with a project; an old business that finally closes its doors.
New protagonists arrive into the scene, new ideas emerge, different economic interests arise suggesting other ways of living and interacting with the urban fabric. We take all these changes without thoroughly considering their impact in the day to day life of our neighbourhood. This is a slow and complex process, difficult to perceive due to the lack of time to understand the big picture.
One thing is certain: the potential of what is around us goes well beyond its initial scope. How many neighbourhoods with popular housing have become ill-reputable, then the ideal place for resident artists, and finally sought-after as hip locations for the well-to-do? This unlikely turn of events underlines a common trend: where most people can perceive only degradation and obsolescence, there’s often an underlying quality that others, those willing to deal with the transitory inconveniences, recognize. Behind these hypothetical trailblazers, others will come, as perceptions of a place change. In time, businesses and renewed economic interest will arrive too, often changing the social dynamics of a given place for good.
For this reason, we shouldn’t see ourselves as mere recipients of the political and economic diktats; we are able to transform the cityscape, able to perceive the problems in our neighbourhood and, hopefully, able to find the key of urban change right where most people walk by every morning while thinking of something else. Living in the ground floor could become one of the keys to truly transformative urban renewal proposals.
Living in the ground floor in Porto
We’re not worried about the historic centre. There, the issue of ground floor use is something else altogether. It works, whether we like that global brands and souvenir shops have overtaken the touristic streets of most European cities, or not. As soon as one moves away from the old Baixa, it’s impossible to remain indifferent to the vast succession of empty shop windows of closed businesses, walled and boarded up and for sale signs. Soon, one reaches the conclusion that this is not a local problem or due to poor location, street importance and building typology. The problem doesn’t seem to be any of those factors, but rather ourselves. We, as citizens and consumers, are the problem and the reason why ground floors everywhere remain empty, underused and waiting.
We value a lifestyle where the car takes a central role. The convenience of abundant parking under a periphery shopping mall and the habit of concentrating the week’s shopping in one single day have become part of our routines, in a seemingly perfect solution that manages to reconcile working hours and domestic life organization. Too bad if neighbourhood life is found wanting: the bakery below, the butcher in the corner, the zero Km fruit vendors, the car repair shops that are nowhere to be found… it doesn’t seem, unfortunately, credible to imagine that this sort of life will make its comeback any time soon. What to do, then, with all these closed ground floor spaces, where no one seems to be willing to bet their life savings?
oitoo elected a specific neighbourhood in Porto on which to develop this understanding and, by virtue of its academic ties with SUPSI Lugano (Switzerland), carried out an academic semester with a final workshop in Porto, with the theme of living in the ground floor:
In Porto (and other cities), there’s a shortage of houses for rent. Not short-term rental, but for medium to long term rentals. Houses for families (yes, there are still some…), students, elderly and people willing to live in a shared economy of spaces and experiences.
Five case studies were chosen within a single neighbourhood in northern Porto. All spaces were originally conceived as retail or warehouses, and all have a street front and a backyard. They have clearly defined internal spaces, with load bearing structure, façades, connected to the condominium’s utilities and the city’s infrastructure, albeit a bit rundown. We believe that, nevertheless, these spaces present unique features that would allow them to become generous, domestic spaces two steps away from the city’s downtown: relatively large areas, open spatial layouts, high ceilings, and a backyard asking to become something else. It may be far from obvious, but the “house with a garden” in the city’s centre could cease to be a luxury reserved to the few and could be recovered for the many.
Students were invited to reflect upon the important themes of interior design: mediating between the public and private realm, designing and organizing the internal domestic space; considering natural and artificial lighting needs in exceptionally deep plots; considering finishes and materiality; considering the opportunities that high ceilings present to define an internal “topography”; rethinking the use of the backyards, from logistic areas to effective expansions of the inside realm – an “outside room”, open towards the sky.
The endgame is to demonstrate the underlying qualities and opportunities of unused ground floors and remake the collective opinion of these spaces often tainted by a poor public perception as unsafe and unfit for inhabiting. If these spaces remain unoccupied, street life will continue to be absent. Walking on a sidewalk amidst neglected, empty stores is a harrowing experience, and emptiness breeds poor use of public space, resulting in disquieting, seedy streets.
We believe the students’ work can promote public debate, so citizens can see opportunities where they would formerly see problems, so a (still) dormant city can reactivate itself, in a sustainable way, densifying and building within the built.