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Regionalism, Modernism and Vernacular Tradition in the Architecture of the Algarve, Portugal, 1925-1965

PhD Thesis in Architectural History and Theory, The Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London, February 2013, under the supervision of Prof. Adrian Forty (principal) and Dr. Jan Birksted (subsidiary)
Ricardo Agarez

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1The dissertation Regionalism, Modernism and Vernacular Tradition in the Architecture of the Algarve, Portugal, 1925-1965 examines the development of building practices framed by two prominent themes of contemporary architectural discourse –modernism and regionalism– in a specific region –the Algarve, south Portugal– in four key decades of the last century. In the everyday design of objects that have never before been studied, I look for the local echoes of issues that are more commonly discussed through central examples. Concurrently, I investigate the reverse effect, asking if, and how, local developments reverberated in central constructs. Since the 1980s, regionalism has been a persistent trope in global architectural culture, often applied in hindsight to an heterogeneous array of instances; yet what was its original relevance, both as a concept and as a design tool, in a truly regional setting –a peripheral region of a peripheral country?

2The project establishes what was built or designed in / for the Algarve, when it was built, by whom and for whom, and under what circumstances (political, social and economical; local, regional, national and international). Systematically drawing on a range of archival records –from local planning offices to government departments to private papers–, specialised and general media, oral history and field surveys, I discuss the building practices, discourses and debates, and architectural cultures at play in the Algarve.

3This research comes at a time when the long-lasting obsession of Portuguese architects with expressing sensitivity to folk building traditions is still very present. The country’s contemporary architectural calling cards, such as the works of Távora and Siza, are persistently seen as ‘deeply rooted in local contexts,’ at home and in international surveys (Curtis, Frampton, and recently Cohen), and celebrated as new forms of regionalist architecture. Furthermore, the work of those architects tends to be framed as a ‘good’ strand of regionalism, as opposed to the ‘bad’ (conservative, nationalist and fascist) 1930s and 1940s tendencies, a dichotomy that extends passionate debates of the 1950s and permeates architectural culture to this day, shunning important variations and nuances in the process. Critiquing the narrowing effects of conventional narratives, I look at how the presence of local traditions in building practice evolved before the time of the renowned “Portuguese masters,” and far from their metropolitan contexts. International surveys could not (and native scholarship has been reluctant to) include the myriad of other designers, objects and actors that form the background and precedent to such well-known instances: there is another, virtually unknown side to Portuguese 20th-century architecture.

4The Algarve is not only the southernmost region of Portugal or the one most exploited by tourism. Uniquely Mediterranean (North-African) in an Atlantic country, historically and culturally differentiated, its building traditions were essential in marking its specificity and attracting both picturesque-driven, conservative observers and the attention of modernists who, as in Capri and Ibiza, found examples of modernism avant la lettre in the Algarve. There, modernism played a central role in the construct of a contemporary building identity, making it an excellent subject for a study on regional identity and modernism.

5The research supporting this project followed two parallel lines: the collection of built evidence through fieldwork, and archival investigation aimed at gathering primary data on the examples surveyed. Through this dual process (archival/fieldwork) I identified and recorded c. 450 buildings and building ensembles across the Algarve, and read c. 750 files in the archives of architects, municipal planning offices and regional government bodies. Considering these and the national archives, national and specialized libraries and central government departments in Lisbon, the research was conducted in over thirty different locations. Forty years of planning applications, funding submission files, design and building processes, correspondence, central government and local council minutes and a range of other documents were scrutinised.

6The dissertation is divided into four large chapters, combined in two parts. Part I is dedicated to dissecting the ways in which the Algarve’s built environment was understood in metropolitan spheres, and its building traditions codified. Within it, Chapter 1 studies the creation of regional models for architecture outside of the discipline. In a region often identified with its built environment, it seemed likely that repeated depictions of certain features would contribute to the creation of stereotypes, which in turn could influence architectural production. Accounts produced in Literature, Ethnography, and Human Geography are examined; their connection with both existing vernacular buildings and contemporary formal architecture is discussed. References to the Algarve in pre-mass-tourism examples of Travelogue, and their role in the creation of an impression of the built environment, are also analysed.

7Chapter 2 investigates how “Algarve” regional types were formulated in Portuguese metropolitan architecture and the links between this and other, non-architectural discourses. Built and un-built designs conceived in Lisbon by some of the foremost architects of the time are discussed; important themes of early-20th century discourse are presented. The part played by the central government in the construction of a regional stereotype is examined, through works produced for key propaganda occasions and nationwide infrastructure programmes. The Algarve’s transition to large-scale tourism is subsequently analysed in a two-step study that considers the architecture produced in the 1930s for a state-sponsored roadside inn programme (the Pousadas) and, twenty years later, for private developers pioneering leisure structures on the coastline. The chapter concludes with an examination of the Algarve’s presence in the architect-promoted Inquérito à Arquitectura Regional Portuguesa (1955-61), a national survey of folk buildings.

8The Inquérito echoed in Portugal the worldwide mid-century reassessment of vernacular references for modern architecture. It signalled a turning point in Portuguese architecture’s understanding of folk customs, which proved instrumental in supporting the discipline’s development from the late 1950s on, and particularly in the 1960s. Today, enquiries into the roots of what became recognised as quintessential in the early, masterly works of Távora, Siza and other acknowledged Portuguese architects –a special focus on tectonics, a sensitive approach to site and context, and vernacular suggestions– start invariably with the Inquérito and its influence, or conclude with it. Similarly, most discussions on the relationship between Portuguese modern architecture and vernacular buildings, which do not go beyond the customary central references, revolve around it. However, this survey’s position in my project is different. I discuss it as the final instance of a metropolitan-led building identity construct for the Algarve, hence its place at the end of this chapter. This was a clear example of a central project, where Lisbon and Porto architects’ agendas were paramount, and my interest was in how such a project approached the Algarve’s specificities, what it used and overlooked, and how this related to previous approaches. Rather than starting with the architects’ survey, and consistent with my intent to privilege the peripheral standpoint and resist perpetuating the dominant, central one, I aimed at understanding the Inquérito and its portrait of the Algarve within the survey’s own chronology. This initiative was, I believe, the materialisation of a complex set of concerns and influences; yet it did not exhaust the subject of the presence of the vernacular in formal architecture, nor did it tell us much about how such a subject was elaborated on locally. Many architects (and non-architects) who did not participate in the survey shared its intentions, and their understanding deserves as much attention as the much-discussed Inquérito. Moreover, its effects on concrete designs were more strongly felt from the mid-1960s on, when it achieved widespread dissemination, and that period remained beyond the timeframe of this thesis.

9Part II comprises the case studies selected to investigate the interaction of regionalism and modernism locally, seen through forty years of building activity in two Algarve towns. Chapter 3 studies the case of Olhão, unique in the Algarve for its particular “Cubist” profile and potential as a source for modernist proposals. This was elaborated in a string of state-supported housing schemes, whose influence in the town’s modern image is considered. Olhão provides, furthermore, the opportunity for a reflection on the persistence of vernacular models in formal, non-architect designs, and on its importance as bases for professional architects’ work. Lastly, Faro, the provincial capital, political and administrative centre, is the subject of Chapter 4. In it, the starting point is the mid-century narrative of a dispute between the conservative and modernist stances towards tradition –the so-called “Battle of Modern Architecture”– and its appropriation by contemporary history. Sixty-year-old developments and today’s accounts are examined through empirical evidence and concrete examples of projects, buildings, clients and designers. Some of Faro’s streets are walk-in compendiums of mature modernism, yet modernism’s penetration there is still portrayed as heroic. How did this transformation occur? Unfolding over-simplified narratives through detailed accounts opens the ground to new questions: the role of architects and non-architects, the agency and power of builders and patrons, and the relevance of their networking on regional, national and international scales.

10My findings suggest that the history of modern architecture in Portugal needs to be re-written: the metropolitan construct of a groundbreaking mid-century relationship between informal traditions and formal practice has been adjusted to suit contemporary architectural agendas. A closer-to-the-ground approach exposed its extra-architectural and pre-modernist antecedents; it was a less contrasted, more negotiated and plural process. Similarly, the prevailing narrative of modernism as a victim of conservatism, only succeeding in 1950s Portugal thanks to perseverant architects, hides the true extent of modernism’s hegemony and the cast of other players (clients, officials, engineers and builders) who were instrumental in establishing modern architecture in the Algarve.

11The Algarve also showed the ambivalence of what we generally call “vernacular” building traditions. While evoking deprivation to many locals (to be replaced by clearly ‘modern’ forms), they nevertheless seduced metropolitan architects who, eager to assert their own social relevance in local spheres, often mistook modern-day bureaucratised practices by old informal custom. The turn to the regional in mid-century Portugal was more a lifeline for modern architecture than its critique. It created a middle ground where an understanding with official policies and extant customs could be sought. Its pragmatism, material and technological, was what made modernism popular and, eventually, part of the establishment.

12My case study of a specific region and critique of the dominant Portuguese architectural culture has methodological and historiographical relevance beyond these contexts. It demonstrates how processes that have been appropriated by the narrative canon of architectural history –such as the presence of folk traditions and regional variation in 20th-century learned architecture– can gain in depth, meaning and significance, when observed in local everyday practices. The ‘blind spots’ of architectural history come to light if we broaden its scope to include the contributions of non-architect actors, the work of ‘minor’ designers and builders, and the input of social history investigations. The grand narratives, and the petites histoires, of architectural culture can be enriched, questioned, revised and confirmed by an unprejudiced return to its facts and sources –the buildings, the documents, the discourses, the agents, the archives.

13This work suggests the value of revealing the complexity of events and processes –the polyhedric quality of history– rather than telling one convincing story by identifying dominant narratives and simplifying accounts. It demonstrates the benefits of an alternative methodological approach to re-equate our understanding of architecture’s storylines: suspending established theoretical frames, displacing the site of research to where objects were created, investing in thorough groundwork and archival research, widening the field to include practices stemming from the blurred boundaries of architecture –will allow us to foster a more diverse, less self-centred understanding of our built environment.

14The outcome of my research, which was awarded a four-year doctoral grant from FCT (Portugal), won the Royal Institute of British Architects President’s Award for Outstanding PhD Thesis 2013. Having been partly disseminated through papers given at international conferences, peer-reviewed reference journal articles and book chapters, this research is the starting point for my forthcoming book, Algarve Building: Modernism, Regionalism and Architecture in the South of Portugal, 1925-1965, to be published by Ashgate.

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Ricardo Agarez, « Regionalism, Modernism and Vernacular Tradition in the Architecture of the Algarve, Portugal, 1925-1965 »ABE Journal [En ligne], 6 | 2014, mis en ligne le 30 janvier 2015, consulté le 28 mai 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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