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Close, but not close enough

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This year’s Lisbon Architecture Triennale wants the public to visit, but with exhibits so far off the mainstream, the beautiful installations are bizarre and difficult to grasp, writes James Pallister

By all accounts, aggressive budget cuts mean it’s a triumph that the Lisbon Architecture Triennale happened at all. This year’s show Close, Closer, curated by Beatrice Galilee, is billed as an ‘intense and multiple debate network on “what architecture can be”’. As curator Liam Young says, ‘you normally go to architecture biennales and there are lots of drawings and lots of architects. I couldn’t give a shit about what architects think about the show. We want the public to come.’

The Institute Effect is one of three main exhibitions. It invites a series of architecture institutions – Storefront, the Centre for Urban Pedagogy and Strelka – to host workshops and lectures. The most spectacular show is Liam Young’s Future Perfect. He creates a fictional future city, in which six installations are meant to be visited alongside reading texts by science fiction authors, including Bruce Sterling. Contemporary dancers weave between lasers representing a supercomputer, a projection screen shows a wolf sniffing round fronds of genetically modified plants, a lady is dipped into a bath of hot wax, a particularly delightful and thoughtful film imagines how slum children play with augmented realties in the near future. This is ‘speculative fiction as critical tool’; entertaining, provocative-ish and light on action points. It’s very hard to unpack the significance of it all: one could do with a post-exhibition debrief.

This is ‘speculative fiction as critical tool’; entertaining, provocative-ish and light on action points

With talk like: ‘There should be more architecture politicians, more architect entrepreneurs, they should be closer to the power rather than solely be client-based service providers,’ Young is a great critical commentator, to whom I could listen to all night. But there’s too much of a leap between the work and the talk.

Does the triennale meet its aim to bring the public with it? The problem with the self-conscious ducking of the mainstream is that in the eagerness not to be part of an establishment, another clique emerges, with its own esoterica, and ever-more inaccessible shared ways of speaking. Within Mariana Pestana’s show in an old palazzo was a mini-parliament where people could sit, discuss and pontificate, making up rules for a new republic. Hosting an unstructured discussion, for all its lack of expense and demotic appeal, is not intrinsically democratic. For useful deployment of design skills, look to the Centre for Urban Pedagogy’s work that uses design skills to improve lives. Its no-nonsense, attractive infographics on housing rights will reach people where other work in the triennale fails.

Both Young and Pestana’s exhibitions have beautiful, fantastical and intriguing elements, which many will enjoy. With a generous spirit their work can be placed within a field of practice in the broad church of architecture. But to many their presence and relevance to an architecture triennale may seem bizarre, or difficult to grasp. Remind me: why do we need architects?

Q+A with Joana Bastos, Lisbon architect

Can you talk a little about how the financial crisis has affected Portuguese architecture?
What I usually say to people is that there has been a crisis since I was born, and now I’m in my 30s. For a long time we have had too many architects. We have a population which doesn’t require buildings designed by architects. This has been the case for years. So when the economic crisis happened this exacerbated the situation.

What other problems exist aside from oversupply?
We are changing the quality of what can be built, which is good. But a larger problem is that, in general, society doesn’t recognise what an architect is needed for. They are seen as a luxury – ‘who can pay for a house designed by an architect?’ People don’t recognise the quality that is added to a building designed by an architect; it’s seen as a purely aesthetic discipline. We should be aligning ourselves more closely with society’s problems. We need to be seen as useful and as providing something valuable to everyone’s everyday lives.

What would be the best possible legacy the triennale could leave for architects in Lisbon?
The main thing it could do is something toward bridging the gap between society and architects. And to help architects know what they should be doing now, help them work out what their role is and how they are relevant to the general public. I think architects have to be more realistic. We have to focus on what the actual needs are; not what we would like to do, but what needs to be done. I think this applies to most architects across Europe.

What advice do you have for qualifying architects?
We should encourage people to go where they are needed. Rather than going to work in the Netherlands or the UK for high-profile architects where they will work for free for months, they should perhaps be encouraged to go where they are needed and where there is a lot of building – South America, China, and so on. But I worked in Amsterdam and Copenhagen, so I can’t say I did anything different myself! I think changing the cultural outlook is desirable, though it will take time.

  • Joana Bastos is a PhD candidate at the University of Coimbra and MIT

Architecture Triennale

Close, Closer, Lisbon, Portugal, until 15 December



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