Post world's end architecture: Portugal

Once the apex of contemporary excellence, Portugal's architecture has paralleled the Eurozone crisis with a fall from grace. But there may be hope: a new wave of architects is uniting with the community to create provocative new projects with the potential to reclaim the civic domain


When the Pritzker Prize winner was named in March 2011, Portugal's architects were overjoyed. The Porto-based Eduardo Souto de Moura was the second Portuguese architect to be distinguished with the award, after Álvaro Siza's triumph in 1992. The accolade officially helped set in stone -- both inside and outside of Portugal's borders -- a national architectural aesthetic. But two months later, in May 2011, a €78bn IMF/EU financial bailout was approved and with it the collapse of the country's economic system was made official. Young architects fled the country to greener shores in Brazil, Angola and the UAE, where large-scale projects abound.

And yet the crisis may well have been the best thing to happen to Portuguese architecture since the 1974 Carnation Revolution, which freed the nation from half a century of fascist dictatorship. The country that has produced two Pritzker-Prize winners has also created a powerful, crystallised professional architecture elite, nurtured by the years of economic boom that followed the 1986 entry of Portugal into the EU -- when European funds allowed large-scale public works and a national infrastructure overhaul. Such a professional group actively engages in the aesthetics and processes of the masters -- consolidating what could be deemed a Portuguese style.

In a counter-move fuelled by the crisis, the past two years have seen a rise in the formation of small, experimental studios that seek alternative ways to practice architecture. Their founders are young, motivated, well-educated; many have lived, studied and worked abroad. Driven by a strong idea of what architecture should be, many have been disillusioned by their first, more traditional work experience. Idealistic on the whole, some are downright subversive, while others rely on humour and formal puns. Their work is fundamentally small-scale -- from performance to self-build housing -- but their methods offer glimpses of what could be a systemic change, offering living proof that even a crisis can precipitate opportunities for civic engagement and the profession.

In the context of their surroundings, these architects work in multidisciplinary teams, collaborating with artists, designers, social scientists and engineers. Their scale allows them to focus on basic, fundamental issues of architecture, such as housing and the domestic space.

The results and ambitions are wide in scope and range. Lisbon-based studio ateliermob, for example, was honoured at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale for Working with the 99%, a self-built neighbourhood mapping project, while Arrebita! Porto uses specific architectural interventions to revitalise the historic centre of Porto, where roughly half the dwellings are empty.

If the country's economic woes have opened the door for rehabilitation projects, many of these practices are taking the opportunity to test methods and create change, rather than conducting plain aesthetic operations. In Lisbon, this can be seen in projects by architect José Adrião; multidisciplinary self-build practice Polígono, and Artéria, which is creating a map for the rehabilitation of the city's historic centre.

Simultaneously, new opportunities for financing these kinds of projects suddenly abound, such as the Lisbon Municipality's BIP#ZIP grants for interventions in critical areas of the city, or private funds, such as the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation's FAZ competition, which awards large sums to projects involving social intervention. Both have been awarded to several architecture and urban intervention projects.

Similarly, large cultural initiatives in the realms of art, architecture and urban intervention -- such as the recent 2012 European Capital of Culture in the northern city of Guimarães -- open doors to explorations of public space, temporary installations and performative acts of architecture, from Like Architects' large-scale formal puns that force passers-by to reconnect with their surroundings, to Pedrita and Ricardo Jacinto's Unidade, a 'loud, clunky, bright yellow contraption' that brings industrial production processes -- creating concrete seating -- to a public square.

For these young practices, public space can become a stage for research or combat. Aurora Arquitectos' catalogues document and celebrate typologies in Lisbon -- including rain pipes, vents and bricked-up windows. O Espelho (The Mirror) is a broadsheet periodical and political manifesto pasted on walls around the capital, provoking the public rather than rarified theorists. And while editorial projects and their way into public space, even the traditionally rigid and closed-o& academic world is starting to engage with the real one, through the work of individuals such as Pedro Bandeira and Paulo Moreira.

Pushing the limits and boundaries of the practice, these initiatives are creating more than a fertile terrain for exploration -- they are effectively building the foundations for large-scale change. Surprisingly, this impulse is slowly finding its way to the mainstream. Headed by André Tavares and Diogo Seixas Lopes, the new editorial board of the Jornal Arquitectos, the Portuguese Architect's Association official publication, is tackling experimental issues and themes. Significantly, Portugal's biggest architecture event, the 2013 Lisbon Architecture Triennale, promises to be experimental in a way the country has never seen. Its title this year is Close, Closer; myriad events are programmed to highlight these small-scale practices and their engagement with local citizens and stakeholders, bringing the discourse of architecture back to the streets.


While challenging Portuguese architects to redefine their role, the country's economic woes have created success stories, including Lisbon-based studio ateliermob. Founded in 2005, the practice focused on a traditional competition model, but was forced to reinvent itself in 2008, engaging in a series of urban intervention projects that connect different agents and stakeholders. Fully assuming the role of architect as mediator, ateliermob acts across variety of scales and contexts. Its Working with the 99 per cent self-built neighbourhood mapping and rehabilitation project in the northern periphery of Lisbon is funded by one of the Lisbon Municipality's BIP/ZIP grants. Its open-air theatre in Rio de Moinhos is a striking, multifunctional concrete structure that serves as a community meeting place. Through complex long-term projects, the studio's founders actively engage in the country's political and educational spheres and are seen as an inspiration.


Ateliermob's Open-Air Theatre in Rio de Moinhos; photo: Zoraima de Figueiredo

At a smaller scale, the temporary public space Casa do Vapor (Vapour House) acts as a hub, connecting artists, architects and students from a number of countries to community agents of the self-built South Lisbon neighbourhood of Cova do Vapor. Kick-started by the international collective EXYZT, this repurposed wooden construction was built collectively; it is now a neighbourhood meeting point, home to educational and leisure activities. It received a Lisbon Architecture Triennale 'Crisis Buster' grant.


Casa do Vapor by EXZYST and ConstructLab (2013); photo: Alex Roemer

While international architects and a fertile terrain to work in Portugal, a few others are sticking with the role of mediators even as they establish international collaborations. For example, studio blaanc borderless architecture has developed projects that extend as far as Brazil and Mexico. In Oaxaca, it is building sustainable housing in collaboration with the local community, as the pilot project for the NGO Adobe for Women.


Adobe fror Women by Studio Blaanc Borderless


A number of young Portuguese architects engage in explorations at the domestic level: architecture's most basic unit. José Adrião, for example, has made a name for himself with a series of detailed, carefully curated house renovation projects, and the recently founded practice Polígono uses domestic space to test out a multifaceted, small-scale, self-build approach to architecture. From the renovation of its own office space or a room in a traditional family house, to the self-built construction and rental of the São Miguel 13 apartment, the studio advocates a multiplicity of roles for the architect, from consultancy to financing and construction. Each project serves as a petri dish not only for materials and techniques but also for alternative economic models. Polígono aims for sustainability in its projects and attempts to break the cycle of over-inflated construction budgets by taking matters into its own hands -- literally.


Casa da Severa by JAA


Casa da Severa by JAA


Lisbon-based studio Artéria's reflections on the goals and limits of rehabilitation led to systematic approach that materialised in its 2012 Edifício Manifesto (Manifesto Building), renovated in the heart of Mouraria, a dilapidated neighbourhood at the centre of the city. The development of the Edifício Manifesto took place in partnership with the neighbourhood association, as part of a holistic process that not only allowed the studio to develop and reinforce its own beliefs, but also to question assumptions and preconceived notions on rehabilitation itself and how to make it sustainable. The studio has continued to reflect on a model for urban rehabilitation that encompasses social, cultural and economical interventions, in a range of projects including a map of old buildings to buy and renovate in Lisbon.


Edificio Manifesto (manifesto building) by Arteria; photo Rui Pinheiro; and below: how it looked before


Similarly, in the city of Porto, the Arrebita! Porto (Smarten up! Porto) project has been developing a sustainable renovation pilot project. By creating a network of diverse agents -- from contractors and material suppliers to newly graduated architects and engineers, -- the association is now working on renovating a building from scratch, in an effort that they hope can be replicated to a city-wide scale and become a catalyst for social transformation in the city. Addressing a social need through architecture, Arrebita! Porto was one of the winners of the 2011 edition of FAZ, a competition that funds social intervention ideas. The 2013 edition of FAZ honoured the Rés do Chão (Ground Floor) urban intervention project. Developed by a team of four young architects, the project seeks to rehabilitate the ground floors of buildings in Porto's historic centre -- many of which were previously occupied by retail spaces that were forced to close their doors -- creating a system that links building owners, municipalities and communities.


While many young architects undertake explorations in the domestic sphere, a series of public cultural events in recent years has opened the way for explorations of public space. Most notably, the 2012 European Capital of Culture (ECC) featured the Performance Architecture cycle which proposed five diverse temporary occupations of public space in the city of Guimarães, curated by Pedro Gadanho -- the Portuguese curator of architecture at New York's MoMA. Among these, Pedrita and Ricardo Jacinto's Unidade brought the noisy reality of industrial production to a square, creating a furniture assembly line powered by passers-by.


Fountains by LIKE Architects

Similarly, Porto-based LIKE architects occupied a series of fountains throughout the city with a limited set of ready-made props, transforming them into 'public pools' and promoting an unexpected use for pieces of urban fabric. The studio specialises in curious replications of industrially produced products -- from fruit crates to IKEA lamps -- to create spatial solutions that seek to question and re evaluate our relationship with public space. Its markedly formalist approach distinguishes it, and finds success in subtle interventions such as the 2011 Christmas illumination project for the Lisbon square of Rossio.


Kitchain by MOOV; photo: António Louro Benedetta Maxia

In the same vein, MOOV's Kitchain project proposes a modular table that since 2009 has been the site of impromptu dinner parties which subvert traditional usage of public space. The table was originally designed as the central meeting space for Feibourg's Belluard Bollwerk International Festival, and has since been redesigned for subsequent editions of the festival, integrating new modifications and possibilities of use with each iteration.


Beyond temporary interventions, public space in Portugal is being used as the stage for numerous demonstrations and political protests. An old political slogan proclaims 'The street is ours!' and the semi-permanent state of protest maintained by many young architects has overflown into outlets such as O Espelho (The Mirror). This editorial initiative was kick-started in the summer of 2012 by a collective of architects, artists and journalists: it consists of a public newspaper "posted on city walls and distributed around town. Since its inception, topics addressed have ranged from architecture and public space to political themes of the moment, and the paper's clearly politicised initiative has won a 2013 Lisbon Architecture Triennale 'Crisis Buster' grant.


O Espelho (The Mirror)

In contrast, for Lisbon-based practice Aurora Arquitectos public space becomes a source of inspiration in a genuinely formal dimension. The studio has been documenting a series of typological variations throughout the capital city, in a series it calls Catalogues. From typical rainpipes to the evidence of the a cyclical dialogue between graffiti and clean-up markings, Aurora's collections of images form a curious encyclopaedia of absurdities commonly found in Lisbon's built environment.


Catalogues by Aurora Arquitectos


Although architectural academia is prone to isolation in Portugal, a few researchers have been connecting academic investigation with real-world problem solving, becoming active cultural agents in significant contexts, or acting as provocateurs by way of speculative proposals. Paulo Moreira, who commutes between London, Porto and Luanda, has conducted extensive research on the spatial and social nature of informal urban development in the former Portuguese colony of Angola, developing a series of mapping workshops with local students and the community called Mapeamento Colectivo da Chicala (Collective Mapping of Chicala). Porto-based architect and scholar Pedro Bandeira launches constant provocations using a multidisciplinary approach. Specific Projects for a Generic Client is a series of humorous intellectual explorations that take a specific moment in the history of architecture as a starting point. Bandeira's references to history and scholarship are constant, as well as his subtle mockery and questioning of the present. His most recent project -- under the name of Pierrot Le Fou -- will lead to a performance at the forthcoming Lisbon Triennale called The Future is the Beginning.


Paulo Moreira's mapping workshop in Chicala; photo: Willian Fernandes 2011


The Chicala Observatory Archive; photo Paulino Damiao 2013

Words Gonzalo Herrero Delicado and Vera Sacchetti

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