We don’t always need to build

Polígono at work. Photo by Francisco Bahia Nogueira

The July/August 2013 issue of Domus features a story which I was thrilled to research and write, on small-scale interventions by emerging Portuguese architecture practices. For me, it was a bit like coming home – and simultaneously, it was one of the biggest challenges I’ve had in the year. It was a pleasure to speak to the people behind ateliermob, Polígono, Arrebita!Porto, Artéria, Casa do Vapor and LIKEArchitects, and understand what drives and moves them.

This issue of Domus is a special one, too. It is the last under editor-in-chief Joseph Grima, and brilliantly combines all the themes that marked his period in the magazine – a period that suceeded to truly capture the contemporary. The volume marks his departure from the magazine – and mine –, and heralds the beginning of new projects and adventures.

The full piece can be read after the jump.

We don’t always need to build.

“I was the subprime,” states André Albuquerque over dinner in a dimly lit late-night restaurant in Lisbon, Portugal, whose decor is a little too reminiscent of the 1970s. The 33-year-old architect is referring to the economic crisis in neighbouring Spain, and particularly the residential real-estate bubble that saw prices in the country rise 200 per cent from 1996 to 2007. For a good part of the early 2000s, Albuquerque worked in Madrid as part of a large-scale architecture studio, designing condos that would never be inhabited, vast expanses of concrete built upon fertileland in suburbs that would remain empty. By the time the crisis hit in 2008, the architect had become frustrated and disillusioned with the discipline, and was looking for alternatives. In 2012 he returned to Lisbon, his hometown, and co-founded Polígono (Polygon), an architecture firm that operates with a multifaceted, small-scale, self-build, politicised approach.
Albuquerque is not alone. In the last two years, the country has seen a rise in the number of small studios seeking alternatives to Portugal’s prevalent and crystallised outlook on architecture. The economic growth of the ’80s, mainly fuelled by European funds that poured into the country following Portugal’s entry into the EU in 1986, was the engine behind a massive building boom throughout the country, giving architects a chanceto enter the spotlight. When the ’90s brought international recognition to architects such as Álvaro Siza and Eduardo Souto de Moura, a vast array of practitioners began to engage aesthetics and processes that emulated those of the masters, creating a codified, powerful and self-referential professional elite that, to this day, holds the keys to most architectural production and teaching.
“We were educated to believe we would design a radiant future,” state architects Ana Jara and Lucinda Correia, co-founders of the recently formed Artéria (Artery) studio, which is principally focused on small-scale, multidisciplinary rehabilitation projects in Lisbon’s central, dilapidated historic neighbourhoods. “Instead, we find ourselves fighting against the extreme individualism we’ve arrived to as architects. The context we findourselves in isn’t a war like World War II, but it is nonetheless a war, because all of our expectations have been betrayed.” Both in their early thirties, Jara and Correia are seeking to change the architect’s role, embracing a transversal function of mediator and defying short-term memory in a country that, in the ’80s, preferred to tear down and build from scratch rather than recognise the value in previous architectural achievements.Following external market pressure, Portugal officially requested a bailout in April 2011, and by early May a 78-billion euro IMF-EU rescue package had been agreed. The year closed with a 13.8 per cent unemployment rate, 20 per cent of which were aged under 25, and the government acknowledgedthe existence of a new migratory wave directed towards Switzerland, France, Angola and Brazil. The architectural class proclaimed there was “no work”, and even the upper echelons of government encouraged Portuguese youths to leave the country in search of brighter opportunities.
“Even school is made that way,” says Tiago Mota Saraiva, co-founder of architecture studio ateliermob, pointing out how Portuguesearchitects are consistently encouraged to abandon the country. “Before the crisis, not going out of the country to work was considered a failure, and now it seems the opposite is true.” From 2005 to 2008, Mota Saraiva was running ateliermob like any other architecture studio—entering standard competitions mostly abroad, winning some and losing some. “In 2008, with the crisis, we had to drastically change the way we worked,” he states. “We started working much more in Portugal.” The 37-year-old architect believes there is plenty of work to be done by architects in the country, and lack of funding doesn’t mean lack of opportunity. “The architect’s role in this moment is essential, and to let go of it is to deface the meaning of ourprofession. We don’t always need to build.” Mota Saraiva’s ateliermob is seen by many young emerging studios as a point of reference. Reinventing itself, the Lisbon-based practice adapted to the country’s current crisis context, engaging in small-scale urban intervention projects thatconnect different agents in the urban and political fabric. Their Working with the 99% project, which maps and rehabilitates two self-built neighbourhoods in the Lisbon periphery in a joint effort with the inhabitants, was distinguished at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale with the Future Cities Award. The markedly politicised and vocal Mota Saraiva, who also pens a weekly newspaper column, makes a point of getting involvedin as many projects as possible, serving as living proof that the crisis is filled with opportunities.
Born out of necessity or disillusionment with the architectural reality at home or abroad, the studios emerging from the crisis benefit from a renewed interest in these kinds of micro-interventions by state entities, private foundations and cultural events. In 2010, the Lisbon City Council launched the BIP-ZIP programme, a yearly series of grants totalling 1 million euros for projects seeking to improve 67 neighbourhoods and priorityareas for intervention in the city, which have been attributed, on different occasions, to both Artéria and ateliermob. In 2012, the private foundation Calouste Gulbenkian launched the FAZ competition, which encourages Portuguese living abroad to propose ideas to improve living and social conditions in their home country, with subsidies amounting to 50,000 euros. One of the winners of the first edition was architect José Paixão’sArrebita!Porto (Smarten-up! Porto), an initiative proposing to revive the vacant and depressed historic centre of the country’s second largest city. Paixão, then living in Vienna, was catapulted back to his hometown, and now leads a multidisciplinary effort that is currently working on a pilot project involving local contractors, engineers, construction experts and a small army of recent international architecture and engineering graduates, who, in exchange for board and lodging, work for three months on the project. “Our goal is no longer architectural design,” Paixãoexplains, “but to combat a social issue using architecture.”
Social issues are also at the forefront of the upcoming Lisbon Architecture Triennale (12 September to 15 December), the country’s most significant architecture event. Led by an international chief curator, Beatrice Galilee, the 2013 Triennale will be markedly different from previous editions, giving space to small-scale interventions through a series of grants and seeking to bridge the gap between architects and city residents in a time of crisis. “This is the first Triennale that isn’t organising a monographic exhibition on a Portuguese architect,” notes Tiago Mota Saraiva. “And that alone is completely revolutionary.”
Other initiatives, such as last year’s European Capital of Culture in the northern Portuguese town of Guimarães, encouraged other kinds of architectural forays, from temporary occupations of public space, to humorous interventions that subverted theuse of public infrastructure. A series of curious “public pools” were installed in several city fountains by Porto-based studio LIKEarchitects, in their characteristic ready-made, subversive style. A young studio that has gained notoriety in the past two years, LIKE work mainly with pre-existing objects—from ikea lamps to plastic fruit crates—which they treat as modules, repeating them in intricate concoctions that become instant visual hits. Their formalist appeal has turned them into one of the few studios that succeed in working simultaneously with clients as diverse as an art biennial and a major telecommunications company.
However, emerging work on the national territory is not confined to Portuguese architects. International collective EXYZT recently kick-started—with the help of local agents and associations—the surprising Casa do Vapor (Vapor House) project, building a temporary public space in Cova do Vapor,a self-built neighbourhood in a disputed territory just south of Lisbon. The small wooden structure was built by a flexible, multidisciplinary, international team that is now living and working with the Cova do Vapor community, in order to envision diverse uses for the space. Starting from an analysis of community needs, the group is currently working with residents in a bike workshop and a community kitchen—a project that was awarded one of the Triennale grants. Sofia Costa Pinto, a Brazilian artist who is part of the Casa do Vapor team, describes the group’s adaptable structure and pro-bono engagement. “Living in the Cova also allows us to know more about past projects that took place there—from a master’s thesis to anarchitectural mapping of the territory—and we can learn from those and apply them to our project.” But how does she find such significance in this foreign place? “I think everyone involved might have a different answer,” says Costa Pinto, “but this place reminds me of where I’m from in Brazil. I feel like I belong here.”
All of these different initiatives showcase a plurality of architectural outcomes that is welcome and needed in a country undergoing a period of exception. In 1948, in the deep days of the Portuguese fascist dictatorship, the Architect’s Congress sought to impose a national style, an initiative that ultimately failed after several young architects immediately opposed it, defending vernacular variations and a myriadstylistic nuances that could be observed throughout the country. Similarly, the work of emerging studios today offers the possibility to widen the scope and reach of architecture and architectural knowledge. “Any good architecture operation has a transformative nature,” Tiago Mota Saraiva says, sitting in his Lisbon studio. “But we depend upon one another.”
Mota Saraiva is right. In order to survive and become stronger, emerging Portuguese architecture practices must communicate and collaborate with one another, creating an ever-expansive network that will be able to leverage and shift the public discourse and perception of the discipline, both within and outside national confines. “I don’t think funding for these kinds of small-scale projects will cease to exist anytime soon, because we are intervening upon situations of social tension, which is of clear interest to the powers that be,” Mota Saraiva pragmatically states, defending a clear separation from those same powers. “I am convinced that the future will have to be about process, sharing, confronting and resisting.”