Visceral Construction

Portugal plays host to a gathering where architects and designers reflect on the spaces and systems in which we spend our daily existence.

Lisbon could well just be another biennale in the continuous loop of “iennials” worldwide: that endless cycle of timed events spaced out geographically as well as temporally. Fortunately, they have avoided becoming just that, through an inventive and engaged series of exhibitions, conferences and satellite events; this year’s edition of the Lisbon Triennale is the largest in its history. But it isn’t the size that matters; it’s the movement, the ripple-effects of these forums of exchange that counts, and at this Lisbon succeeds. This year’s theme, The Form of Form, aims to provoke debate and discussion around the ability of constructions to transform the social context within which they exist: a rich and heavy topic that is explored in a multitudinous range of ways.

Diogo Seixas Lopes, one half of the curatorial duo leading this year’s edition, sadly passed away just months before the opening. His recent publication Melancholy and Architecture: On Aldo Rossi (2015) presciently examined the life of Rossi through the lens of his landmark design for the Cemetery of San Cataldo in Modena. The text is fundamental not just for its focus on the cemetery – and on death – but equally for shedding light on the practitioner who reflected on the social typology of the past in order to represent emotion through building. In the context of this year’s Triennale, which focuses on form as it relates to society, we can see the clear parallels. Co-curator André Tavares says that the event “looks to the constructions that need to be reflected on, including how they are built. The Triennale is in place so that these practitioners can not only tell the world, but discuss how their work can be socially and ecologically or economically relevant; they need to know how to consider and to preserve that knowledge. They must, in extension, discuss between themselves, and with a wider audience, how they create; otherwise conversations solely focused on architecture as a developmental practice can become lost.”

Unlike the larger and more famous Venice Biennale (which took as this year’s theme Reporting from the Front) the Lisbon event focuses on curated exhibitions accompanied by a series of satellite programmes. Venice by contrast has a very strong national scope, which allows it to address many di erent issues, and on a much larger scale. In the words of its curator Alejandro Aravena, it encompasses: Segregation, inequalities, peripheries, access to sanitation, natural disasters, housing shortage, migration, informality, crime, traffic, waste, pollution and the participation of communities.” It is an impressive list, and one that Lisbon is not trying to compete with. Instead, Tavares and Lopes wanted to focus entirely on the theme of architectural form and the ways in which it is both transformed by and helping to change society – how modes of thought are physically embodied.

This is approached through a division into four main exhibitions: The Form of Form (which is curated by Diogo Seixas Lopes); Building Site (curated by André Tavares); The World in our Eyes (curated by FIG Projects); and Sines: Seaside Logistics (curated by Marta Labastida and Rui Mendes).

Speaking about the rst and title show on behalf of Seixas Lopes, Tavares argues that the intended artistic legacy of the event will be “the capacity to see how human behaviour, how we think (our ideas), the way we process our knowledge can become materialised through physical forms. It’s not just about simplicity, but is a vision of form encompassing the many values, anxieties and possibilities that we possess.”

From the outset, this has been the intention of the Triennale: the social element of our relationship with the spaces that surround us. The first edition, which took place in 2007, quickly established itself as the leading Portuguese event dedicated to this artistic focus, with its theme – Urban Voids – focusing on the processes of decay, and physical and social degradation in the city. Subsequent editions, including that of 2010, Let’s talk about Houses, and 2013’s, Close, Closer, explored sociology and culture as their main ethos. These considerations are rooted in historical ideas which date back to the 1400s, but also take account of a more contemporary term, as coined by British planner Maurice Broady: “architectural determinism” (the idea that buildings shape behaviour). This edition takes a more explicit look at the language of structures: how its repository of forms engages and creates a collective conversation. This necessarily brings to the forefront notions of authorship, a defining element of the postmodern condition, and one which the studios of Johnston Marklee, Nuno Brandao Costa, and Office KGDVS all play with in their pavilion design for the Triennale.

Raiding each other’s back catalogues of work, they have produced a collaborative structure that challenges the idea of authorship. The white plasterboard walls and steel frame are cubic in form, the spaces punctured by rectangular openings which shed light onto the exhibited A4 images pasted to the inner walls. The images – copies of artworks and architecture – were taken from the archives of Mariabruna Fabrizi and Fosco Lucarelli of Socks Studio. “Everything which is here is a reproduction of something,” said Fabrizi at the opening of the Triennale: the value of the original is completely negated and this encourages a new collective vision of form in design. Socks Studio is perceived to be a “visual atlas”: an online magazine which provides a comprehensive visual reading of structures, designs and artworks. It is a bank of information that is succinctly packaged in brief blog-like posts: a recent visit brought up some photoengraved etchings by Argentinian artist Liliana Porter (Wrinkle, 1968); an unrealised design by Adolf Loos for The Grand Hotel Babylon (1923); and the drawings of Bernhard Leitner’s Soundcube (1969). This bank of knowledge serves as the perfect counterpoint to the more strict lines of the pavilion which houses them.

The word “vision” runs throughout the various curated events, none more unusually than in Tavares’ Building Site. The often volatile client-architect relationships are exacerbated by the reality of budgets, the cost of materials and labour, and strict site safety guidelines which can often extend completion dates by months if not years. These conditions are all formulated and explored in this exhibition, representing a seldom-mentioned discourse but one that brings audiences back to the fundamental pillars of construction: the bricks and mortar as opposed to the gilded decoration. Tavares comments: “We wanted to tackle the act of creating, to show how design a ects the organisation of the building site, the impact on labour conditions and the wider, physical realities of actually making architecture.”

Taking as his nexus the visionary Cedric Price’s McAlpine report of 1973-1975 (jokingly referred to as the McAppy report by Price), which focused on improving working conditions on sites, Tavares uses the document as the backdrop to lead to wider examples from other leading architects and designers. The report, which was commissioned by its namesake, Alistair McAlpine, was a response to the national construction workers’ strike of 1972, then the biggest walk-out that Britain had ever seen. Despite being almost comical in some of its recommendations – “how to make cranes more fun!” – the report was key in introducing systems of safety and organisation, and it revolutionised the way that labourers worked. This is epitomised in the introduction of compulsory hard helmet use; there were hard hats speci cally developed to fit over a dastar (a turban-like head covering worn by Sikhs), thereby adapting the operational processes to the cultural practices of the workers involved.

The show moves on from Price to look at the famed Casa da Música in Porto, which was designed by OMA; the building was a result of a hugely ambitious competition launched in 1999, with a completion date of 2001. Designed to coincide with Porto’s year as European Capital of Culture, the resulting concrete shell was a recycled design by OMA that was embellished through rich, extravagant interior decoration (a result of the subsequent luxury of time a orded by the completion of the exterior shell). The issue of time on-site is typically the driving force and critical factor behind any such ambitious landmark project, and the example of Casa da Música highlights the challenges that construction companies continue to face and how these can be addressed.

The programme of Lisbon’s monumental event is rounded out by The World in Our Eyes, which has been curated by the Montreal-based team of FIG Projects (founded by Fabrizio Gallanti and Francisca Insulza) and Sines: Seaside Logistics, curated by Marta Labastida and Rui Mendes. In the case of the former, the focus is on the narratives and descriptions which are used to engage practitioners and audiences and how they themselves can help to transform our fundamental understanding of spaces. Tavares considers that “instead of having plans to transform cities, if we are able to engage with strong descriptions, then we are able to reinvent the metropolis in which we live and also reinvent the way it can be transformed and developed in a year or in the longer-term.”

The latter is a more literal reading of the logistical problems that are faced by architects when dealing with large-scale industrial infrastructures and the landscapes in which they are sited. For the Triennale, a competition was initiated, using Sines (a large harbour which is built upon a former fishing village on the Iberian Peninsula) as its “problem”: more than 50 submissions were received, of which 20 are presented in the rooms of the event’s headquarters. The winning project, A Terceira Agua, by Flora Di Martino, Rita Martins and Saule Grybenaite, was chosen as the best proposal for the site.

Architectural knowledge is gathered most simplistically through buildings. To bring together this data and collective thought and to create a more ordered discussion of it can have a tremendous impact on an international circle of designers. Tavares says that the immediate response to this year’s edition of Lisbon has been phenomenal and the feeling was one of general optimism: “If architects can discuss and make public their practice and how they think and how they generate a larger collective awareness of what the role entails, they can create better conditions in which to transform the cities.” The resulting global conversation about the spaces and systems in which we live will be a lasting legacy both of the Triennale and its curators.

Words Niamh Coghlan

Lisbon Architecture Triennale: The Form of Form. Until 11 December.