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Cross-section of the Portuguese scene

review

Sea, Stone and Space: Contemporary Portuguese Architecture At The Architecture Foundation/The Economist Plaza, London SW1 until 31 May

I can remember a time when nobody in Britain could think of much to say about Portugal - except that it was apparently 'Britain's oldest ally'. That was when the Algarve was the only bit of the country known to most Britons, who turned parts of it into a version of the Home Counties. Happily, those days are past and Portugal figures on the European scene - not least because of the Expo 98 opening in Lisbon later this month.

Knowledge of modern Portuguese architecture among architects and critics in this country is, however, confined largely to Alvaro Siza Vieira, Pritzker Prize-winner in 1992 and prominent in the post-earthquake reconstruction of central Lisbon. Architecturally, as in other matters, Portugal is overshadowed by the huge presence of Spain. So this exhibition is of interest in offering a cross-section through the current Portuguese scene.

Originally assembled for the Milan Triennale in 1996, and since toured to a number of centres around the world, the exhibition is certainly a handsome thing. It was clearly built to travel - the rotating steel stands on which the models are mounted have the durability of farm machinery. The models are (like most architectural models) enjoyable in themselves and many are beautiful works of craftsmanship in timber. They are supplemented by wall-mounted captions (rather sparse), photographs and drawings.

In Portugal, as in Spain, there has been a renaissance of architecture and design since the restoration of full democracy. For Portugal (as, it could be argued, for Ireland), architecture has an important role to play in establishing a new and positive image and identity. Recent Portuguese architecture has a character and a vitality which defers to nobody. The selection of ten projects - by ten architects, all male - shown in this exhibition, flowing over from the Architecture Foundation bunker to the cool spaces of The Economist lobby above, is, however, idiosyncratic.

Like the British, the Portuguese were great seafarers and, in a modest way, colonisers. Colonisation brings gain and loss, but it's hard to see how Manuel Vincente's masterplan for Praia Grande Bay in Macao is much more than yet another Far Eastern version of Canary Wharf, filled with bleak commercial slabs and towers. Antonio Barreiros Ferreira's Expo building in Lisbon is extremely large and could be good - you can't tell from the exhibition. Alvaro Siza's extension of his own 1960s open-air swimming pool complex near Oporto is, as might be imagined, in another league, gently 'subverting' (as we say these days) the existing structure. Unfortunately, it is not easy to work out, from the information given, precisely what is existing and what is new.

Working with and transforming existing buildings seems to be a particular strength of a number of present-day Portuguese practitioners. Eduardo Souto de Moura's approach, demonstrated in a conversion of a disused monastery at Minho into a hotel, combines expert restoration of historic fabric with radical new interventions in the manner of the best Italian masters. (Why is Britain so lagging in this art?) Paulo Gouveia's Wine Museum on the Azores island of Pico equally reflects a feeling for vernacular building alongside a quiet, practical Modernism.

I was particularly intrigued by Manuel Graca Dias' radical reconstruction of an 1850s Neo-Classical building as the headquarters of the Association of Portuguese Architects. A new auditorium block is to be built alongside. Why doesn't the riba do something as bold as this, escaping the Portland Place mausoleum?

'Sea, Stone and Space' could be seen as an easy option for the Architecture Foundation, a ready-made show running for six weeks. But new Portuguese architecture hasn't been showcased in Britain since the 1950s, says the foundation's chairman, Lord Rogers. It's good to see an organisation which has seemed, at times, obsessed by London issues looking further afield - particularly with the riba devoting space so largely to big promotional shows for 'stars' with money to burn. The foundation's remit must be to look beyond London and beyond Britain on occasions.

My regret is that this particular show did not focus on the issues we need to know more about and about which we could learn from Portugal - re-use and building in context, for example. As a survey of the current Portuguese scene, it looks rather thin and already a little dated.

Kenneth Powell is an architectural journalist

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