Periphery, Between Nowhere

Álvaro Siza Vieira

In the nineties, city limits were described as places of freedom for architects, where they could come up with original solutions linked to broader territorial ideas instead of the mass construction of independent buildings. Yet peripheries seem to have entailed the destruction of existing landscape in exchange for nothing; understanding the periphery today as a transitional place between the agricultural and the urban, and designing it with objectives that are specifically related to landscape are certainly difficult tasks. We could say that the basic problem is the imbalance between territorial identity and the way cities grow.

Europe, Mediterranean Sea, 23 December 2012. Suomi NPP Salellite, NASA

At certain times something crops up that takes priority over everything else, and this is also true in the case of architecture. In architectural terms, the years that followed World War II were devoted to the rebuilding of cities; in the seventies and eighties, architectural debate focused on urban growth and the conservation of historic quarters; while the nineties were characterised by concern for landscape, a concern that has led to the current interest in environmental issues. These debates, however, do not apparently always succeed in establishing solid grounds in the areas where they are generated. If the destruction caused by the war had prevented the elaboration of serious discourses on the conservation of city centres, and in fact it had even prompted the adoption of solutions that proved more destructive than the war itself, the attention paid to landscape and to the environment seem to be following the same path.

Over the rubble of war-battered Berlin, a father is carrying home a food package that will relieve his family’s needs while they wait for better times, Augost 1945

Propaganda director Heinz Grunewald, Dresden mayor Walter Weidauer and town architect Dr C. Herbert checking re-building planes, March 1947

Environmental concerns have always been raised by town planners, although not all countries are equally environment-friendly. In Spain and Portugal, for instance, such issues have only recently begun to be considered and haven’t yet been fully examined. Despite being the object of much discussion, they don’t seem to have generated genuine commitment so far. On the contrary, they appear in political discourses more than they do in everyday architectural practice, and more often than not they conceal opportunism and preconceived ideas. We therefore need to stress these concerns, that transcend architectural action.

We could say that the underlying problem is the disparity between territorial identity and urban growth. In the nineties, the limits of cities were considered places of freedom where architects could come up with original urban solutions linked to broader territorial notions that rose above the mass construction of independent buildings. Unfortunately, however, the peripheries of cities have witnessed the destruction of existing landscape to no apparent benefit. Today’s peripheries can scarcely be considered transitional areas between rural, industrial and urban spaces. Save in a few exceptional cases, planning peripheral areas bearing in mind issues specifically related to landscape proves extremely difficult, and such plans will only be successful if they are able to embrace territorial and demographic concerns.

Porto, Portugal

Porto, Portugal

Moreover, there are too many administrative obstacles that have encouraged massive occupation of peripheries without dealing with territorial specificities. Suffice it to think of the paradoxical case of Porto, a nearby example and one which I know well: while the historic quarter is gradually losing its population and whole streets have abandoned high-quality buildings that could be given new uses, construction in the outskirts is growing disproportionately. There is simply no interest in recovering the old quarters in the city centre because developers consider it too much of a risk, whereas working on the periphery is easier and more convenient. Why is this the case? To a great extent, the situation is caused by local governing bodies that encourage the rezoning of land in outlying districts in order to generate new taxes: the larger the building erected, the greater the taxes collected. Despite the dramatic consequences for the future, this state of affairs doesn’t seem to be easy to regulate. Urban outskirts have become a means of survival for city councils when in point of fact they should receive the same treatment as historic centres.

The problem is that land speculation has grown parallel to the abandonment of farming on the borders of cities. The destruction of landscape is linked to the decadence of agriculture. We could say that as the farming activity generates landscape, the problem derives from the gradual abandonment of the activity, hence the difficulty in naturally preserving landscape. Aware of this situation, the Swiss government, to mention but one example, has financed farming in order to guarantee environmental quality. The all too frequent scenes of forest fires in Spain, Greece and Portugal are obvious signs of the abandonment of the natural environment and of the loss of man’s natural relationship to the earth, which is what ultimately shapes landscape.


Adega Mayor vineyards at Campo Maior. Winery building oeuvre by Álvaro Siza Vieira. Alentejo, Portugal

I have often reflected on these issues, especially when flying over different countries by plane. Spain’s territorial organisation, for instance, has well-defined condensed centres beside extensive agricultural landscapes, while Portugal is characterised by a scattering of built developments and a fragmented use of land, which leads to a greater destruction of landscape. It certainly seems necessary to come up with projects that will encourage territorial rebalance in the light of what is taking place in historic city centres and their expectations as regards exterior growth, in the best interests of the future of the city and its landscape which are, in the end, one and the same.