Houses in the San Matías Neighbourhood (Granada), by Juan Domingo Santos

In order to materialise architecture on the basis of operating by agreements, “an exhaustive knowledge about the life and belongings of the neighbour - to link with his private world -, is necessary.”

The work initiated in 1989 but has no fixed completion date. It started with the City Council showing interest in renovating a deteriorated neighbourhood in the centre of Granada known for prostitution, which led to Juan Domingo Santos receiving a commission to renovate one of the old brothels. Observing basic principles of community life, the architect sought to generate the project from the neighbours’ interests. By negotiating about parts of their dwellings, a game was established which allowed all members to enjoy spaces that they had been longing for.

Living in a community
The houses in the neighbourhood San Matías are known by its names or nicknames drawn from particular features or physical defects of the prostitutes who owned them (La Remedios, La Pepinica, La Cabezona). Domingo Santos was commissioned to work on a small patio house owned by the Cripple, located in the narrow street Calle Álvarez de Castro just 1, 15 metre wide, and next to houses owned by la Remedios, Carmela of the Dead and a tailor.
If one is able to ask the neighbours for a cup of sugar or pinch of salt, to water the plants or collect one’s mail while on vacation, Domingo Santos asked himself why not to go one step further and ask, in the same natural manner, if one could borrow part of their living room or some other spaces they were not using but which one felt really necessary for one’s needs.
Historically, against the common thought that dwellings are closed and isolated entities, the medieval city offered its houses the possibility to grow and adjust to the needs of the inhabitants. Asking permission to enter one’s house through a neighbour’s patio or share the laundry line became the rules for a game of exchange proposed by the architect and which received a great enthusiasm from the neighbours. They collaborated with a list of things they would like and what they had to offer in exchange. Legally supervised by lawyers and the architect, the base for this negotiation lay in the exchange of spaces and architectural elements without financial compensation being permitted. The result became an agreed construction that encouraged a communal feeling and traditional way of extending one’s house. As Domingo Santos stated, “it was allowed to build up or down, to the right or left. Any movement was possible if only there was an agreement.”

Establishing agreements for the houses.
In a letter written to us, Juan Domingo Santos meticulously described the intrinsic process for the exchange: The Cripple’s house, which was the catalyst for the whole procedure, had a small shed that was next to a patio. Adjacent to her, la Remedios lived in a house with a beautiful 19th century patio, with stone columns and wooden beams. To make her dream come true of owning this type of patio, the Cripple proposed to la Remedios to incorporate the patio to her house so she could use it as a walkway or a right of way. As an exchange, the Cripple would create in her new house a passageway next to the patio to benefit the house of la Remedios. It would be arranged in such a way that by uniting, they were connected to two streets at the edge of the block of houses, merely by crossing this passageway-patio space.
The solution was interesting for both parties, now that it made an elastic zone, which had up to then been very tight and difficult to access. Another agreement they came to, was to join the first two floors of each dwelling (very small) and to gain a larger floor space which could be rented out and thus, they could obtain an income that separately would have proved impossible. The benefits of this co-ownership were shared, depending on the degree of participation. Later, Carmela of the Dead, decided to participate in the exchange, after seeing the economic success and reward that these connections suggested for the houses (which enlarged substantially their surface through their patio). She offered her patio to form part of the passage which, in this case, connected to a square to which it faced. The result was very intriguing because the city, besides the movement through its streets, also possessed internal movements across its patios of different owners and, although being private, having the doors always open, any passer-by could make use of them.
To add to this exchange, the Cripple left part of her roof to become a sightseeing spot over the cathedral, which would benefit Carmela of the Dead, and she in turn freed a room with views towards the square for the Cripple. The result of all these changes permitted the Cripple, who originally had owned a small house, between neighbours and with a small patio without interests but with magnificent views over the cathedral, to finally share a traditional patio from 19th century Granada and one room with a view towards a square, with windows over other patios. La Remedios, in all this affair, also had a favourable result, the access to her patio had been improved, which up to then had been disconnected, and she had managed a change of ownership with Carmela of the Dead in a neighbouring house but closer to the centre, which she had been looking for.
“This game of exchanges and cessions has been left fractured partly because Granada’s town hall has bought the house of Carmela of the Dead to accommodate a few offices temporarily. As this occupation will be temporary, the Cripple, Carmela of the Dead, la Remedios and I are waiting for its removal to reinitiate this story. Disgracefully, Carmela of the Dead, paradoxes of life, was murdered by a client and let’s just see who is going to be the next owner whom we will approach to incorporate into the game,” said Domingo Santos.
This is an extraordinary project, which has emerged from the citizens’ conditions. Without a doubt, negotiation, as a concept, is already an architectural element. With it, new architecture is created which shows a special consideration towards its habitants, and refuses arrogant postures that have broadened the gap between society and architecture. In fact, as Juan Domingo Santos has confirmed to us, the expectations of San Matías neighbourhood have meant that many brothels have been bought and a change in profile in terms of inhabitants has begun to be felt in the recent years.

a. Juan Domingo Santos (b. 1961) architect.
b. The project for these neighbouring houses accepted the present and its contradictions as a point of departure.
c. The elements, which have been interchanging during the last 15 years, include patios, a room with windows facing the square, views from a terrace towards the cathedral and the opening of windows over private patios.
d. The house of the Cripple was materialised bearing in mind the interests of the neighbours and the interpretation of the traditional patio house in this neighbourhood. For this reason, light is very important and creates changes in the space during the passing of sun- and moonlight.
e. The spaces were resolved without internal divisions in order to continue producing occupations or invasions of the neighbouring houses.
f. All the plans are open, with the staircase in one of the corners, as in the traditional patio houses of the neighbourhood.