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Unique architecture of Porto – The “Ilhas”
Unique architecture of Oporto – The “Ilhas”
Unique architecture of Porto – The “Ilhas”

Unique architecture of Porto – The “Ilhas” | Filipa Roma Torres | 23 January 2014


“No one knows better than you, wise Kublai, that one should never confuse the city with the discourse that describes it. And yet there is a relationship between them. “Italo Calvino in” Invisible Cities”


Typical of Oporto, and an example of unique architectures of Porto – the “Ilhas” as they are known, are the main form of workers’ housing associated with industrialization in the second half of the century XIX. The physical and constructive solution of the “ilhas” is strongly linked to the city’s characteristics and are therefore very different from workers neighborhoods that have emerged in other European cities, and even in other Portuguese cities.


The city of Oporto grown for a long time just within the Gothic walls, growing in height, and thus creating a problem of health because of the narrow streets that were characteristic. In the second half of the century XVIII, estimating the continued population growth of the city, appeared plans of Almadas (João Almada e Melo and Francisco Almada and Mendonça) for the extension of the city  for outside the walls, creating wider streets, larger lots, large squares. But the city did not have the expected growth in the first decades of the XIX century, noticing even a certain population decline because of political factors such as the French invasion (1807-1813) and the Civil War (1832-1834). It is only during the second half of the century XIX, with the growth of the industry and with the decline of agriculture in the northern fields of Portugal, that you start to see a substantial increase in population. Between 1864 and 1900 the population of Oporto doubled, and although there are studies that reveal the presence of some “ilhas” already in the XVIII century. The mass occurred at that time, emphasizing the social differentiation of spaces and thus the transformation of the urban space.

Unique architecture of Porto – the “Ilhas”

With some influence of the British, who already have working-class neighborhoods whose homes had only one front, the so-called back to back houses, the builders did unique architectures of Porto – the “Ilhas” and knew how to take advantage of the business opportunity by combining the strong demand for Cheap accommodation by the workers with the spatial characteristics of the city coming from the “beautification plan” of Almadas.

The typical Porto building, outside the walls, is approximately 5.5 m wide by 30,0m long. The owners of these lots, which were often also the owners of factories, opened a gateway to the ground floor level of their homes for the street that divided into several houses, sometimes on one side and the other, all served by this same street Pedestrian, too narrow.


Each house would have 15m2 and consist of a small room, a tiny room and kitchen. Sanitary facilities were usually common to all homes and were located on the street background. The houses had a door and a window open to the living room, the other spaces were unhealthy and without natural ventilation. In these houses lived whole families without minimal conditions of habitability, but this phenomenon escaped to the supervision and to the look of the most favored population.

Arquitecturas únicas de Oporto

This semi-private area of ​​”Ilhas” generates a climate of mutual care among its inhabitants. In fact the “Ilhas” always functioned as a place of urban integration for newcomers who lived near there with the older residents. The fact that the housing have such small areas makes them use semi-public space as an extension of the private space, since the constructions are of very poor quality make them lacking of isolation and the intimacy. Also the fact that the toilets are outside and common to the various houses reinforce this lack of intimacy of families.

Arquitecturas únicas de Oporto - Foto de "Ilhas"

On the time of disease outbreaks and threats of epidemics (cholera and bubonic plague) appear the concerns of the rulers with the health danger, beyond the social danger that these “ilhas” raised. Frequently appeared revolutionary ideas and a strong mobilization for the strike and the protest. In the late nineteenth century and the beginning of the XX century, in part to solve the health and social problems of the “ilhas” and with the intention of moving the most disadvantaged populations to most peripheral areas of the city, leaving the valuable city center for the bourgeoisie, began inquiries to the “ilhas”. The idea would be to build social housing on the periphery and thus replace the exterior-interior relationship (bourgeois-workers) by the center-periphery relationship. However these surveys had no great consequence and this “hidden city” that lurks inside the blocks has persisted until today, especially in the Bonfim parishes and Campanhã, where the industrialization process was more intense and where, even today , lies part of the poorest population of Porto. Nowadays the Municipality begins to reveal interest in a systematic recovery of this unique architectures of Oporto – the “Ilhas”, valuing them as identity heritage of the city of Oporto.


– “O papel do sector do turismo na reabilitação urbana da baixa do Porto” Dissertation de Master de Francisco Abreu Santos Diogo Moniz Azevedo. (FEUP)
– “As ilhas no percurso das famílias trabalhadoras do Porto em finais do século XIX» de Gaspar Martins Pereira.
– “As ilhas do Porto – estudo socioeconómico” de Manuel Pimenta et José António Ferreira


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