COVA DO VAPOR - by stefano carnelli


Entirely self-built by its residents on a conflictive and marginal territory threatened by exploitative industrial projects, subject to heavy coastal erosion and deprived of any institutional recognition, Cova do Vapor arises as a paradigmatic example of an “un-planned” city struggling against the effects of Globalisation. This unique urban context reflects an incredibly vulnerable social environment whose only defence seems to be the strong sense of community and the equally strong sense of identity of its residents.


Cova do Vapor  is an informal settlement located on the southern side of the estuary of the river Tagus, edging the limits of the Lisbon metropolitan area. It was founded in the 1940’s as a fishing community and, still today, is mainly inhabited by fishermen and their families. Yet, as picturesque as its location may sound, wedged between the estuary of the Tagus, the Atlantic Ocean and a dense pine forest, the village - mostly settled on sand dunes - has always suffered from a significant erosion of its shoreline and from a severe, generalized geo-morphological instability, with the consequence that its residents had to move, literally, their wooden houses inland several times since the village’s inception.  And still, from the very beginning, Cova do Vapor’s privileged position and its proximity to Lisbon have attracted a good number of semi-permanent residents who came to build their summerhouses here, in an additional process that, helped by a complete lack of planning regulations, contributed in filling the physical gaps between the initial, detached fisherman wooden huts, giving the settlement the labyrinthine look that it still retains today.

 Since the beginning, Cova do Vapor has been characterised by a complex legal status. Part of the village is located within Lisbon’s public maritime domain, while the rest is built on private land, and, in its entirety, it’s never been through a proper process of legalisation. Because of this irregular condition and the consequent lack of institutional recognition, the residents of the village have always had to solve the settlement’s problems by their own means, in a process that, even today, underpins the community’s solidarity and cohesion. Cova’s residents, besides building their own houses, have in fact spontaneously organized to pave the main road and supply the settlement with electricity, water and a proper sewage system, for example, to the point of even organizing a functional street cleaning service.The local Residents’ Association, founded in 1974, has a fundamental role in solving the problems affecting the community and giving social support to residents.

Because of both its beautiful location and its industrial development potential, the village has been menaced, in the recent past, by two projects of very different nature and scale: one master-plan proposed, a few years ago, the conversion of this part of the coast into a containers’ logistic port, while another plan proposed instead the touristic exploitation of the area, suggesting the realisation of a gigantic resort and a golf club. The current heavy economic recession has locked the two conflictive projects in a limbo, but, as soon as the economic situation improves, allowing their final authorisation and implementation, the demolition of Cova do Vaporand the eviction of its inhabitants will become a very likely possibility.

 The complexity of this unique urban environment motivated me in realising an ethnographic study during the summer 2014. Aimed by the will to understand the internal relationships of this community, its role within the mutable context that surrounds it and decode the anomalies that - against all odds - manage to keep this place alive, I got gradually involved in the social dynamics that rule the community of Cova do Vapor. Wandering in its maze of alleyways and speaking with the residents, it became clear that the apparent immutability was nothing but another anomaly in a community built on anomalies, a village that shouldn’t exist, shouldn’t be there, and that maybe, according to many, is not really there.

 The self-build typology that characterises the totality of the houses in Cova do Vapor reflects a degree of attention and care to the details unexpected in a normal context of informal architecture. The impression is that the owners tried to contrast the lack of public space available and the high urban density, by expressing their personality through a rich and creative customisation of the façades. Shells from the local beach, re-used tiles of various shapes and materials, a variety of decorative statues and bright colours are employed - often all together, with astonishing results - to distinguish each dwelling to the others, reflecting the taste of the owner. The unconventional and often ironic names chosen for alleys and squares – 5ft Avenue, Millionaires Avenue, Happiness Square, etc. – similarly define an atypical and personal appropriation of the urban space by the residents of the village.     

 “Cova was built by people, not by architects”.

This statement, expressed by one of the residents, reflected the common sense of pride shared by the locals, the pride of belonging to a settlement where the self-build constructive process was considered a guarantee of architecture quality and a freedom of personal expression.

The study of the village’s particular past, conflict-laden present and uncertain future frames concepts of identity, community and sense of home, contextualising them in an environment of urban alienation and exclusion, direct expressions of the pressure of Globalisation. The relationship between the apparent antagonistic concepts of local and global, has always been the focus of an active academic debate that has commonly associated the local to concepts of community and authenticity, and the global to ideas of un-belongingness and marginality. This dichotomy, though, appears not to be easily adaptable to a context such as the one of Cova do Vapor, where Globalisation represents at the same time a menace and a survival tool. Here, in fact, if on the one hand Globalisation incarnates a threat to the preservation of the local community, with its global strategies of homogenisation, standardisation and territorial segregation and exploitation, on the other hand, paradoxically, the possibilities provided by trans-national globalised communication have conveyed an unprecedented media visibility to the village helping the residents in their fight to protect their homes. The simplistic contraposition between local and global fades then in a complex dialectic in which the cause of the problem can turn into a solution of the same.

Doomed from its very inception by all sorts of natural and human menaces, this illegal settlement seems today to be only just dodging the effects of Globalisation, and many of the older residents show a sour, fatalistic resignation towards the destiny of their village. But it’s also true that the younger generations of Cova do Vapor are finally learning to use the tools of Globalisation and not just passively suffer from its effects, giving hope for a possible, if not yet certain, change.


- Stefano Carnelli