The Future Is Tangible in Lisbon

Susanna Koeberle
25. d’octubre 2022
The installation by Spanish artist Lara Almarcegui in the Cycles exhibition consists of pieces of cork that will be later reused. (Photo © Sara Constanca)

Terra, the title of the sixth Lisbon Architecture Triennale, already says it all: the event is not (only) about lofty thought constructs, but in the truest sense of the word about what is down-to-earth, namely our earth. The word already fans out a whole range of meanings. In many Romance languages, "terra" denotes the planet earth, an ideal space such as our homeland, the element earth, and the material itself, as well as the mainland as opposed to the sea. The Triennale's two senior curators, Cristina Veríssimo and Diogo Burnay, have spent three years researching and inviting practitioners from around the world to Lisbon to present their projects. These are presented in four exhibitions at various institutions and museums. In addition, several independent projects selected from among the submissions to an open call are exhibited at the central venue at Palácio Sinel de Cordes. Lectures and workshops are also hosted at this location. At the end of October, the Talk, Talk, Talk format brings together specialists from all over the world. Among them are not only architects but also representatives from other fields such as the Indian activist and globalization critic Vandana Shiva.

The senior curators of the Triennale: Cristina Veríssimo and Diogo Burnay. (Photo © Eliza Borkowska) 

Cristina Veríssimo and Diogo Burnay focus less on buildings in the narrower sense; rather, they are interested in the conditions of architecture, i.e. the material resources, and in the people, i.e. the users of architectural infrastructures. The latter also include non-professional communities that shape the built environment — primarily urban space — just as much. Paradoxically, globalization shows that solutions to current crises and catastrophes (in the plural) can only be found locally. Veríssimo and Burnay understand cities not as machines but as organisms in which different disciplines and forms of knowledge can interact. It is only these forms of networking that can change existing structures.

During their research, they were struck by the fact that many interesting approaches originated in South America, Cristina Veríssimo says in an interview. There, it was easier to experiment and make mistakes. This was probably also due to the lack of regulation, which she sees as a positive side effect of many metropolises. Two curatorial teams come from South America: Loreta Castro Reguera and José Pablo Ambrosi from Mexico City, who curated Retroactive, and Pamela Prado and Pedro Ignacio Alonso from Chile, who are responsible for Cycles. These two exhibitions have in common an interdisciplinary approach and the diligence applied to their scenographic implementation. The lesson that messages are only understood if they are communicated vividly is one that now resonates in contemporary architectural exhibitions as well. In the Triennale contributions, both artistic approaches and design strategies are juxtaposed with architectural projects on an equal footing.

Pamela Prado and Pedro Ignacio Alonso get to the bottom of materials in the Cycles exhibition. Pictured here is Bellastock’s installation made from found building materials and components. (Photo © Sara Constanca)

This is also demonstrated by the Cycles exhibition on display at Garagem Sul (Centro Cultural de Belém). The subtitle, which sums up the basic idea of the curatorial concept, comes from a text by artist Ilya Kabakov, who was born in 1933: "The Man Who Never Threw Anything Away" (1977) becomes "The Architect Who Never Threw Anything Away." Prado and Alonso interpret this touching story as an appeal to their own profession. Architects should act in the same way as the man in the text who cannot — and does not want to — distinguish between important and unimportant waste, and therefore keeps every piece of matter as an equal part of his existence.

The curators even challenge the concept of waste as such: for as soon as something is reused, i.e. recycled, in the construction process, one can no longer speak of waste materials as a resource. In architecture, this terminology is often accompanied by a trivialization or a false aestheticization of the concept of sustainability. The term waste also suggests that something is disappearing, which is not the case. Matter remains on this planet, so architecture is, so to speak, only an intermediate stage in a transformation cycle. It is all about cycles. Prado and Alonso trace matter as such, and with the exhibited projects they want to show how these transformations take place. At times, they also do this by using the medium of art.

The temporary walk-in installation The Red Greenhouse by Chilean artist Patrick Hamilton. (Photo: Susanna Koeberle) 

Right in the courtyard of the museum, visitors come across The Red Greenhouse by Chilean artist Patrick Hamilton. The temporary walk-in installation works with simple means, namely the alienation of our perception and the well-known metaphor of the "greenhouse." The color red suggests heat and danger. From within the structure we can virtually see what state our planet is in.

Another simple but not banal installation is placed inside the exhibition. Especially for Cycles, Spanish artist Lara Almarcegui conceived the work Falca, which consists of a huge pile of cork pieces. Such piles are a recurring motif in the artist's practice. Through her work, she also contradicts the notion of many architects that "their" architecture consists of the air between the walls, of the ominous "space." Almarcegui, on the other hand, draws our attention to the sheer materiality of built structures, as well as to the fact that we usually think of heaps as something inferior and shapeless. By translating these terrains vagues into art, she makes the invisible visible. Cork was her choice for this work because the organic material, traditionally harvested in Portugal, is used for insulation and in cement, among other things. Once the exhibition is over, the cork pieces will be fed into a production cycle.

The extraction of materials is also the subject of the research entitled Material World by architect Charlotte Malterre-Barthes. In four films made on the occasion of a seminar at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, the supply chains of frequently used building materials are traced: wood, earth, steel and concrete. The study also demonstrates how much human labor is involved in the extraction and processing of materials. Uncovering the interplay of political and historical contexts raises awareness of the multiple implications of our material world. Do we actually know what our houses are made of? Or where the materials for them come from? We rarely do. There is still a lot of academic work to be done in this regard, also among architects. The simple scenography created by greatly contributes to the success of the exhibition. The audience does not encounter the works as abstract artifacts, but they can immerse themselves in the matter on various levels. This immediacy is part of the learning effect that this exhibition can have.

In the first part of Retroactive, visitors are introduced to the topic through films. (Photo © Sara Constanca) 

Loreta Castro Reguera and José Pablo Ambrosi also understand their exhibition, hosted at the MAAT (Museu Arte Arquitetura e Tecnologia), which was opened in 2016, as a call to action. Retroactive emerged from a research project on different strategies of deprived communities in cities. More than half of humanity lives in urban spaces, one third of them in so-called informal settlements. These overpopulated and marginalized territories often lack the most necessary infrastructure. Most of the time, buildings in such areas do not originate from design but are created without the intervention of professionals. The two active architects consider these places as "broken cities." They believe that the attention of their professional colleagues should be directed precisely there, where a large part of the world's population lives. Here, too, it is not about constructing new buildings but about small interventions in existing ones to improve the quality of life. The curators call such projects "retroactive infrastructures." They also illustrate the transformative potential of design (not architecture, mind you!), says Castro Reguera.

They identified nine central themes, which they also refer to as hashtags, including migration, water, land ownership, hygiene and violence. They invited ten offices to present their projects and, at the same time, use the exhibition to show seven initiatives by NGOs and communities, along with several projects by students that emerged from an open competition. With the pavilion made of recycled tires and plants in front of the museum, they also want to demonstrate how easy it is to transform public spaces. A typical example of the transdisciplinary approach they foreground in the exhibition is the practical work of the architectural office Pico Colectivo from Caracas. By transforming and repurposing existing structures and buildings, the office team adds value to communities, changing the cultural and social ecosystem. Its members see themselves as rebels rather than architects in the proper sense. For example, they removed the top layer of the facade of a disused casino and supplemented it with "parasitic" metal structures. In this way, they transformed the building into a cultural center. Some of the featured offices, such as Ooze from the Netherlands, work in "broken cities" outside their home country. Castro Reguera emphasizes that this phenomenon is, however, by no means limited to the Global South.

The pavilion in front of the MAAT (Museu Arte Arquitetura e Tecnologia) illustrates the curators' thesis. (Photo © Sara Constanca)

The projects of the Lisbon Architecture Triennale illustrate the change in the understanding of architecture. This also happens in the awareness that we (currently) only have this one planet. The exhibitions, which are manageable in size, provide vivid and inspiring examples and also allow for a special spatial experience. Of course, the atmosphere of the city of Lisbon also plays a significant role. The sentiment on the opening days underscored the importance of networking and community. The multi-week program will hopefully strengthen this even further.

The installation Lodgers. Between Building and Unbuilding at Palácio Sinel de Cordes. (Photo © Sara Constanca)
Terra, the sixth Lisbon Architecture Triennale, runs from September 29 to December 5, 2022 at key cultural venues in Lisbon, such as MNAC, MAAT, Garagem Sul – CCB and Culturgest museums, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, and the Triennale home venue Palácio Sinel de Cordes.
This article originally appeared as "In Lissabon wird Zukunft greifbar" on Swiss-Architects. Translation by Bianca Murphy.

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