Luis Tavares Pereira visits Lisbon Architecture Triennale to find an exhibition built from minimal budget and with minimal architecture
An invitation to architects ‘to consider life beyond buildings’ is the premise of the third Lisbon Architecture Triennale. After the first two triennales (curated first by committee and second by Delfim Sardo from the art world), the organisers launched an open competition for a chief curator with the aim of reaching out to an audience beyond architecture. Perhaps perversely, the jury appointed Beatrice Galilee, who had studied at the Bartlett and has been architecture editor of Icon magazine.
The event kicked off on top of a gigantic tilted wooden disc installed on the Praça da Figueira amid the usual city hustle. Designed by Frida Escobedo for the ‘New Publics’ programme (curated by José Esparza Chong Cuy), this ‘speakers corner’ platform hosted talks by young architects such as Noura al-Sayeh, and critics such as Victoria Bugge Øye. It also acted as a theatre stage, where the relationship between player and public was questioned − for instance in Andrés Jaque’s Superpowers of Ten, a deconstruction of the Eameses’ original 1977 Powers of Ten film for IBM.
Sometimes, however, events had to relocate from the disc to the shadow cast by the statue at the centre of the square to escape the blazing sun. This was a predictable consequence given the Portuguese context. However, the Triennale does pick up on local resonances by connecting to sites and narratives (and no one worries if the Venice Biennale is explicitly about Venice). It also acknowledges local practitioners who share a common architectural approach.
Many of those involved are recent graduates. Youth usually precludes the transformation of ideas into buildings, but today’s rising generation has been practically excluded from building by the current crisis (the Triennale had its budget slashed by half), and so is compelled to look for alternatives. Social engagement has become a new focus for many young Portuguese architects, who are adopting different strategies to confront the crisis. Networking in small experimental groups they seek new ways to practise architecture and bring design out of the studio.
But the Triennale does not identify actual locations for this expanded field of activity, seemingly more concerned with creating a more atmospheric strategy of making ways for things to happen. This despite Galilee’s opening statement: ‘We’re not mediating other people’s practice. This is what we do.’ And what ‘we’ do apparently has no walls, or buildings, with architecture approached as a cultural practice, rather than a building practice. Within this is an explicit intention of shifting away from the idea of an architecture exhibition as mere representation of architecture. There’s also an affirmation of new roles, as the architect-curator has become a profession in its own right − a new breed distinct from builders.
The Triennale introduces practices that are looking for alternative ways to reach clients, and perhaps even for architecture without clients. But if it’s not for people, what’s the purpose of architecture? The Institute Effect − a project co-curated by Galilee and Dani Admiss − proposes that architectural institutions such as the Triennale are the new clients. Each week, for the duration of the Triennale, 12 institutions will successively occupy one floor of the Museum of Design. Each will follow a programme that includes donating to the Institute library, creating a video and a public programme, and inventing a rule for the following institution. Fabrica, the creative research centre of Benetton, paved the way for others such as Storefront or Urban Think Tank. This expanded field serves as support for very different kinds of spatial practices. But however exciting the content, the architecture fails to materialise, as each of the projects was presented in another medium − print, web, or process.
In discussing the significance of the profession so openly, Galilee is ultimately exposing the formation of the architect. Like an architecture student, the visitor is submitted to a process of doubt and crisis. The exhibition − intended to close the gap between professionals and non-practitioners − is paradoxically turned inwards, rather than opened up to the outside. And it may very well have the reverse effect of engagement if people turn out not to be interested in discovering that architecture is anything but stable.