From room to home, from street to city
A conversation with Paulo Moreira on "Critical Neighbourhoods, The Architecture of Contested Communities"

At a time when architectural and urban studies are seeking to accept and understand informal neighbourhoods, the need for experiments on the ground is becoming increasingly urgent. Rather than ignoring or eradicating them, a growing number of architects and urban designers have committed themselves to the idea that these settlements are here to stay and require selective intervention in order to achieve better living conditions. Critical Neighbourhoods (Park Books, 2022) contributes to the development of new architectural approaches to better understand human habitats that relate spatial issues to broader economic and political questions. In this interview, we talk with Paulo Moreira on the genesis of the project, the value of collaborative fieldwork and what unbuilt projects look like when talking about critical urban spaces.

KOOZ Critical Neighbourhoods stems from your PhD research and was born out of the will to expand the discourse on informal neighbourhoods beyond Angola and Africa to other communities and continents. Could you start by sharing what you define as a “critical neighbourhood” and what ultimately led you to engage with the work undertaken by practitioners such as Elisa Silva and Julia King?

PAULO MOREIRA In recent years, the term “critical” has emerged to refer to certain modes of action by “critical spatial practitioners”, who have begun to challenge the conventional role of architecture as a profession. The term is commonly associated with alternative approaches to the codes of conduct governing the discipline, encouraging the use of new tools and vocabularies, such as “critical cartography”. But what happens when neighbourhoods—rather than just architects and their knowledge production—struggle to adapt to the standards established by our modern states and economies? The book looks beyond the architect’s own agenda to present a broader overview of how specific places—their institutions and cultures—may be classified as “critical”. These neighbourhoods perform their own critiques of urbanisation processes and their constant adaptation and unanticipated ways of accommodating “critical” functions for living can provide inspiration for architects and urban planners.

What happens when neighbourhoods struggle to adapt to the standards established by our modern states and economies?

My PhD explored these subjects, with a focus on the case study of Chicala, a neighbourhood in Angola. After working in Angola and in Portugal for over a decade, I felt that the discussions raised by my work could have an impact beyond the specificity of Angola or the Portuguese-speaking world.

Involving Elisa Silva and Julia King in this process of reflection seemed quite natural. I have known Julia and been familiar with her work in India and the UK for a long time, as we were colleagues on the PhD programme led by Prof. Peter Carl at London Metropolitan University. I had never met Elisa in person when I contacted her during the first COVID-19 lockdown. I followed her work in Caracas and was—and still am—quite impressed and moved by it. Besides the obvious geographical differences, public disinvestment and neglect emerge as a common feature in the three neighbourhoods we were working on. By analysing their unique characteristics, we were able to engage in a rich professional and cultural exchange. We raised questions regarding the role of architectural practice and research in contemporary societies, promoting engagement with complex social and urban situations.

Public disinvestment and neglect emerge as a common feature in the three neighbourhoods we were working on.

Our initial cross-continental conversations felt particularly exciting at that time, as we started bringing references and recent experiences to the discussion. It soon became clear that we should add a conversation chapter to the book, although this was not part of the initial plan, and I invited Matthew Barac to moderate the conversation. I also invited AbdouMaliq Simone and Ines Weizman, external examiner and supervisor of my PhD, respectively, to contribute a foreword and afterword. A rich intellectual dialogue emerged through the discussions with these contributors.

KOOZ The publication presents a toolkit of seven methods ranging from collaborative fieldwork to institution building, archival research and dissident practice, unveiling the methodology employed in architectural projects in contested communities. What informed the creation of this toolkit? Borrowing from the fields of sociology, anthropology and geography, how does the methodology expand and challenge the conventional tools deployed by architects?

PM The toolkit of methods I present in the book is not a “science” in itself. Some of the methods and techniques used in the social sciences can be both feasible and effective for addressing the questions and concerns present in neighbourhoods considered “critical”. Nevertheless, those methods are a mere supplement to the more hybrid reach of architectural practice. Architectural studies require a distinctive approach, mobilising different methods to highlight temporal and spatial connections or to reveal the gradual assembling, vitality or dismantling of a neighbourhood.

In this book, which is concerned with comprehending urban fragments where architecture plays a central role, we seek a hermeneutics of practice. “Practice” itself becomes a form of understanding.

In this book, we seek to orient our research towards context rather than individual subjectivity. We view practical knowledge as the primary vehicle for understanding how different methods contribute to a design topic. This methodology draws on the notion of hermeneutics, which may be described as the capacity to explain or interpret, or simply the “art of understanding”, as Gadamer would put it. In this book, which is concerned with comprehending urban fragments where architecture plays a central role, we seek a hermeneutics of practice. “Practice” itself becomes a form of understanding.

The outcome of this theoretical and philosophical approach is that we find a way of navigating from very local experiences of a city’s spatiality and materiality to more sophisticated, specialised discourses (from economics, politics, etc.) without absorbing architecture into a mere “concept”. This results in a far lesser degree of certainty than the methods used in the natural sciences. In other words, the methodological approach employed in these architectural experiences emerges amid the uncertainties of sociability and human interchange. On this premise, a combination of methods are used to enable continuous learning and collaborative action.

The methodological approach employed in these architectural experiences emerges amid the uncertainties of sociability and human interchange.

The evolution of the practical methods used in a project over time plays a key role in shaping its outcomes and our primary methodological concern relates to the manner in which different approaches and results interact with one another. The methodology used in our projects is the product of constant negotiation between the neighbourhood and external institutions. Against this backdrop, a “promiscuity” of methods is preferable if we are to capture the diversity and complexity of the phenomena at work. Exploring the hybrid conditions of a “critical neighbourhood” calls for a hybrid, interdisciplinary methodology. In my introduction to the book, I attempt to identify seven methods that can inform an engaged architecture in “critical” urban situations.


KOOZ Specifically, through ‘interpretative modes of representation’, the toolkit brings to the forefront the role of the architect as both the collector and organiser of data and knowledge to later provide new insights for the subject in question. What is for you the value and power of architectural drawing as a means of knowledge processing, but also as a common language for communicating with a wider audience? How effective is this when working within critical neighbourhoods?

PM One of the driving forces behind practice and research in critical neighbourhoods is the desire to portray urban conflicts in a visual form. Gathering different types of information, knowledge and data can be a powerful act and using them to develop a visual understanding of a given subject. How can drawings capture a site’s true qualities? How can they cast light on alternative ways of representing the city? When architects start interpreting a place and representing it with architectural tools, new insights begin to emerge. Visuals and texts can become reciprocal elements, offering different yet complementary pathways towards an improved understanding of the subject. One of the most common methods for expressing the “larger forces” that shape any architectural study is mapping: for instance, maps bring a degree of visibility to urban conflicts that is difficult to grasp from text alone, offer additional ways of probing beneath the surface of these disputes and, at their best, indicate where borders can be bridged and plurality restored.

A nuanced reading of archival material and editing of historical records can make an important contribution to urban studies in critical neighbourhoods.

As historical maps tend to underrepresent contested communities and territories, a nuanced reading of archival material and editing of historical records can make an important contribution to urban studies in critical neighbourhoods, as well as to the architecture discipline and spatial practices more broadly. Whereas an historian might comment on an incomplete map or seek to reconstruct a misplaced past, a critically practising architect is able to intervene by producing spatial evidence or mapping real places to reveal once-obscured relations. This type of intervention may come to represent a regenerative form of practice, bringing different kinds of social, theoretical and political struggle to the fore and allowing present and future forms of urban conflict to be interrogated. Interpretative modes of visual representation open up new possibilities for knowledge generation.


This may be one of the main contributions of architectural research: depicting underrepresented parts of a city using practical methods. These visual materials can be useful to raise awareness of particular places in contexts where they may be typically unknown or unrecognised, such as academic, cultural and specialist arenas. They serve as vehicles to connect these sites to the outside world and vice versa. Events and discussions can offer valuable benefits and inputs, especially when it comes to providing feedback and establishing connections. Architectural drawings can be complemented by a variety of practices, installations, prototypes, exhibitions, videos and performances, which bring the project to life, facilitate learning and create the ideal conditions for others to understand the issues at hand.

KOOZ The publication draws on the motif of micro-processes as a viable way of practising architecture in neighbourhoods that are silenced, excluded or facing demolition. What are the advantages of working at such a scale? By working closely with the local communities, how do these interventions help to create a city that empowers and includes its people?

PM My projects include permanent and temporary interventions addressing partially or totally demolished peripheral neighbourhoods and public realm initiatives intended to demonstrate the added value that small‑scale projects can bring to more “hidden”, neglected urban spaces in our cities. Small-scale projects can allow for experimentation and exploration of the virtue, or meaning, of a neighbourhood’s relationship with its context. As an outsider, my aim is to engage with a place and understand its capacity for welcoming and integrating rather than excluding (or being excluded).

This can only be achieved through collaborative processes that allow us to understand the social relationships between the people involved in the project and learn from their skills and design practices. I am convinced that these collaborations are not solely relevant to us as practitioners and that all stakeholders involved can benefit from a “practised” exchange—professionally, culturally, etc.

Small-scale projects can allow for experimentation and exploration.

These projects do not revolve around the top-down provision of a facility, invoking the standard protocols established in building codes and regulations (although there are valuable lessons to be learned from them). Instead, this exchange emerges at the intersection between local labour and more sophisticated technical solutions, paying special attention to materiality, from supply to fabrication… Ultimately, this interaction between local and outsider conditions is allowed to influence and shape the project.

The central idea to explore is the notion of “reciprocity”. This concept has proven to be relevant in any situation of urban conflict. Many fluid arrangements exist between architecture, finance, management and politics, beyond the top-down versus bottom-up categorisation. There are certainly spatial qualities that emerge directly from these layers of complexity, which are part of broader conditions found in the local context. I’m interested in finding these qualities and enabling them to emerge.

This requires an understanding of different levels of exchange. Only by bringing together different perspectives and interpreting “all sides”, we are able to challenge the short-sightedness that often characterises “critical” places. That is why reciprocity becomes an operative term for working within a complex urban, social and political system. In order to analyse and interrogate these systems and urban conditions, expansive architectural methods and tools are required. As mentioned, I drew upon several disciplines. The reciprocity between these different areas of knowledge echoes the very nature of the city, as well as the wider research field.

Both built and unbuilt projects are intended to make an impact on the ground.

KOOZ Your work within these critical neighbourhoods spans both unbuilt projects—the critical mapping of Chicala—and built projects like the Kapalanga school and the Luanda Waterpoints. Where would you say your agency as an architect has been most significant/impactful and why?

PM Both built and unbuilt projects are intended to make an impact on the ground. A research project can have an impact in the sense that it reinforces networks and alliances between insider and outsider institutions. In Chicala, we produced visual and spatial evidence of the way in which urban informality establishes reciprocal links with other parts of Luanda, making the case that the neighbourhood has more in common with the city than it might appear. The creative dimension of this form of reciprocity points to an alternative form of order, rooted in constant adjustments and exchanges.

Working in critical neighbourhoods allows us to touch on the scale of architecture, as well as the urban realm and even large-scale infrastructure: from the room to the home, from the street to the city. It sounds so obvious, but these scales are often kept separate during our professional education. In Kapalanga, an informal neighbourhood on the outskirts of Luanda, we designed a school following a prolonged period of community work involving local teachers, residents and an NGO. The project consists of rehabilitating an existing school and building new classrooms, toilets and a perimeter fence. It also includes new electricity, water and sanitation systems.

The building is made using local materials and manual labour. Building techniques are simple and modest, consisting of concrete frame structures and cement blocks for the walls, and steel structures and corrugated metal sheets for the roofs. These solutions were the most appropriate for local climate conditions, economic constraints and cultural values. The walls are finished with a type of plaster made from cement mixed with reddish earth from the ground. Their materiality gives the school a textured appearance and creates a strong link between the various buildings, the ground and the surrounding area.


The Luanda waterpoints project improved and adapted three water access points on the outskirts of the city, in the neighbourhoods of Gika, Wako and Kilunda. The first task was to identify sites for intervention based on analysis of a photographic survey provided by a partner NGO. The next step was to travel to Luanda and launch an experimental laboratory around the water access points identified, with participation from local residents and professionals. The process was followed by a second fieldwork trip, during which further improvements were made on the ground, prioritising local labour and reused materials.


These research and design projects allow for broader reflections that point to an inclusive way of practising architecture and thinking about the city. The projects demonstrate a willingness to build “bridges” between architecture and civil society and convey the intention to blur boundaries between professional institutions and marginalised areas of the city.

Our education fails to perceive the potential of informal aspects of urban life.

KOOZ The Venice Biennale of Architecture 2023, titled The Laboratory of the Future and curated by Lesley Lokko, is focused on Africa as a laboratory of the future where all our questions of equity, race, hope and fear converge and coalesce. What are your expectations for this Biennale?

PM I feel very closely aligned with the theme. Lesley’s curatorial text talks about how Europe stagnated for decades due to a false sense of stability but is now confronting a series of questions that other continents have always faced. Africa as the Laboratory of the Future is an idea that I truly believe in. I had a similar feeling when, 15 years ago, following my initial study and work at top-tier institutions in Europe, my ideals began to diverge from Western references of what might be termed “conventional” architectural practice. I became increasingly and acutely aware of the deeply rooted issues afflicting our cities and societies and I started to tackle these issues through some of the collaborative projects I mention in this book. For me, it was like learning a new language. Our education as architects, designers and urban planners fails to perceive—let alone analyse or capitalise upon—the potential of informal aspects of urban life because there is no professional vocabulary to describe them.

I hope that this edition of La Biennale will contribute to wider recognition of these languages and promote plural approaches in the architectural field. On my own modest scale, I have attempted to do precisely that in this book. Significant efforts have been made to promote the book in Africa, with my recent three-week book tour to Angola, Namibia and South Africa.


I’m interested in sharing this work with audiences who are interested in the topic and deal with it in their daily lives. I’m also convinced that these topics would benefit from greater dissemination among academic, professional and cultural institutions to enable them to find their rightful place in contemporary architectural debate. I believe that Lesley Lokko’s Biennale will do this and that it might well represent a turning point for many of the key participants, if not for our discipline.


Paulo Moreira is a Porto-based architect and researcher. He graduated from FAUP (Portugal) having studied also at Accademia di Architettura di Mendrisio. He completed a PhD at London Metropolitan University, and was a postdoctoral fellow in the University of Lisbon. He is the founder and artistic director of INSTITUTO, and the director of Arquiteturas Film Festival. With his work on informal communities in Angola, he was a finalist in the RIBA President’s Award for Research 2019 and a recipient of the 2021 Grant to Individuals awarded by the Graham Foundation. Moreira is the editor of Critical Neighbourhoods – The Architecture of Contested Communities (Park Books, 2022).

Federica Zambeletti is the founder and managing director of KoozArch. She is an architect, researcher and digital curator whose interests lie at the intersection between art, architecture and regenerative practices. In 2015 Federica founded KoozArch with the ambition of creating a space where to research, explore and discuss architecture beyond the limits of its built form. Parallel to her work at KoozArch, Federica is Architect at the architecture studio UNA and researcher at the non-profit agency for change UNLESS where she is project manager of the research "Antarctic Resolution". Federica is an Architectural Association School of Architecture in London alumni.

05 Jun 2023
Reading time
20 minutes
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