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Lisbon, Portugal – Report from the Lisbon Triennale

The Triennale’s sanitising of difficult issues is a failure of curation or nerve

Portugal has more architects per capita than any other country in Europe, and yet despite this numerical popularity its discourse has often been rarefied, lofty and distant. The formal minimalism of Alvaro Siza and Souto de Moura dominates the country’s architectural self-image, with voices of innovative young practices often marginalized.

As a corrective to this, the second Triennale of Architecture in Lisbon aims to ‘bring architecture down to the street’. Chief curator Delfim Sardo, a renowned art critic, has taken a lateral approach. The seemingly narrow theme of Let’s Talk About Houses becomes an excuse to talk about everything - intimacy vs community, local vs global, north vs south. It’s an expansive stance that reflects the approach of the non-architect, readier to launch debates on areas in which the more circumspect scene of professionals wouldn’t.

Combining the utopian collective spirit of architecture and planning with a notion that the profession should have a political axe to grind, the main exhibition Between North and South sets a tone replete with socio-political promise. Among the first examples is a film by Catarina Alves Costa about a crucial social movement spawned immediately after the revolution in 1974: SAAL (literally ‘the local mobile support service’) was established by the government to assist people housed in precarious conditions but became an agitprop movement. Taking to the streets, it involved local residents, elevated engaged architects to local heroes, and became a focal point for demonstrations by the urban poor with slogans like ‘Houses yes, Shacks no!’

This emotive and subjective portrait of the movement is rich in its implications for architects today and cries out for deeper research. And, indeed, the feeling of wanting more information is one that occurs throughout. Another section, curated by Ana Vaz Milheiro and Manuel Graca Dias, tackles a broad sweep of Portugal’s post-colonial history and focusing on three key cities - Recife, Luanda and Maputo - but the investigation cannot do justice to the density of architectural biographies and little-known achievements. Milheiro’s excitement at unearthing a rich modernist heritage by Portuguese architects such as Simões de Carvalho (born in Angola and yet decisive protagonist of the European modernist movement), is palpable, yet the exhibition shows only a few tangible fragments.

Often material is far clearer in the catalogue than in the exhibition itself. For example, the Seminário Regional do Nordeste by Delfim Fernandes Amorim - a ruin in Recife that was never completed - is depicted in a grainy film; only on the printed page can you get a fuller sense of how the concrete megastructure has been appropriated to house a school of dentistry and living quarters for poorer communities.

It seems all too easy to fall back into exhibiting architecture for purists - polite models and perfect plans. Against this trend is Luis Santiago Baptista and Pedro Pacheco’s section on contemporary Portuguese housing. The buildings - from Souto de Moura’s large-scale residential projects to public space in existing social housing by Menos é Mais - are explored through 30 hours of interviews with the architects and the residents. These reveal inspirations and shortcomings, conversations and reflections that begin where the building ends.

One of the Triennale competitions focuses on the Cova de Moura, an unmapped ‘barrio’ populated by Cap Verde and Angolan immigrants on the edge of Lisbon and recently marked out for a top-down government planning initiative. Over 22 architecture faculties embarked upon ‘reading’ this informal, unplanned community with its complex and layered history. However what manifests itself in the Museu d’Electricidad’s chic white galleries are numerous generic solutions for the favela. It is left up to an artist to fully express the real confrontations of informal housing: Nuno Cera’s year-long journey into megacities, Futureland, uses photography and fly-over videos to graphically reproduce on a spectacular scale endless sprawl, from New Mexico to Istanbul and Cairo.

Although the Triennale mostly hints at such a possibility, the territories it investigates reveal the strength of a discourse that could unfold in Portugal, at the threshold between Europe and Africa. The show’s sometimes sanitised view perhaps reflects a lingering ambivalence towards the realities that darken Lisbon’s doorstep.

It is both tantalising and frustrating that the context of the barrio and the ‘back story’ of cultural confrontation is avidly talked about but never actually visualised.

Beyond the anodyne grip of modernist aesthetics, this Triennale offers a tentative thesis on the country’s often overlooked architectural terrain, yet for the moment it remains mostly descriptive rather than propositional. In three years’ time this nation of architects should make a greater claim on these thematic problems, and define what architecture can specifically do to ameliorate them.

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