The Lisbon Architecture Triennial
The art and architecture biennial is an invention of the pre-Internet era. Borrowing the format of the 19th-century Expositions Universelles, its goal was to showcase a selection of the best works produced by architects and artists during the years preceding the exhibition at a regional, national, or international level. If the Modern Olympic Games, begun in Athens in 1896, hoped to bring the newly established nation-states into competition through sport instead of warfare, the Prima Mostra Internazionale d’arte della città di Venezia of 1895 (now known as the Venice Biennale and the grandfather of every art and architecture biennial organized ever since), aimed to celebrate competition among nations in the arena of artistic ideas and concepts.
Much has happened since then. Information and communication technologies have rendered obsolete the need for a physical event to present the latest achievements in the realms of art and architecture. However, the competition imperatives among cities to attract investment and talent has made art, architecture, and design mega-events part of the branding processes of municipal governments. Besides, architecture festivals can be employed to re-activate marginalized neighborhoods or disused monumental buildings, serving as a catalyst for gentrification and land revaluation processes cherished by city authorities and real estate developers alike.
In the meantime, the architect’s profession has evolved. Traditionally, architects’ main activity consisted of producing buildings, while hoping these would eventually be part of a significant exhibition through drawings, images, and models. Lately, economic priorities are jostling those architects engaged in the profession as a cultural discipline — and not merely as service providers — to find outlets for their expression outside the built environment. Architecture mega-events have transitioned from being mediums to display existing architectural objects to becoming architectural objects themselves. Drawings, models, and photography have increasingly been abandoned in favor of temporary large-scale architectural installations, like those of the Serpentine Pavilion in London or the Young Architects Program at MoMA PS1.
On the other hand, throughout history, buildings have frequently played a role as a means of communication, from the pyramids of Egypt to the skyscrapers of Manhattan. Built work was for a long time the only publicity allowed to architects in most European countries, until liberalizing policies changed the rules in the 1990s. Again, economic priorities — but this time those of the design agencies — have obliged architecture to find different ways to express itself, outside its disciplinary boundaries. It is in this context that the explosion of architecture festivals, exhibitions, museums, publications, and digital platforms is to be understood.
The Lisbon Architecture Triennial (Trienal de Lisboa) is probably one of the recurring architectural celebrations that better represents the format evolution. Founded in 2007 by the professional association of Portuguese architects (the Ordem dos Arquitectos), its first edition, entitled “Urban Voids” (Vazios Urbanos), addressed the local demands of Portuguese cities. Its second edition, “Let’s Talk About Houses” (Falemos de Casas), curated by Delfim Sardo, revolved around the topic of the vernacular house in Portugal and its former colonies (Brazil, Uganda, Mozambique), as well as in countries like Switzerland that had an important presence of Portuguese immigrants. Organized at the peak of the economic crisis, there’s little doubt about the diplomatic vocation of this edition, which aimed to reestablish commercial links with countries enjoying better growth perspectives than those of the old metropolis.
The 2013 edition attempted to distinguish itself from the Venice Biennale, which so far has been curated only by senior architecture critics or star architects. The curator was chosen after an international competition, with the idea of recruiting emerging talent and bringing forward groundbreaking ideas. Young British curator Beatrice Galilee lived up to the Triennial’s expectations, exploding the limits of what is to be understood as architecture. Celebrating “speeches, conversations, plays, stories, campaigns, competitions, dinners, debates, parliaments, publications, interfaces, atmospheres, experiments, inventions, and civic actions” in several corners around the city, the Triennial attracted the attention of the international media, though not without generating some resentment from a local architecture scene that felt it had been left behind.
As a reaction, the edition by Portuguese curators André Tavares and Diogo Seixas Lopes three years later was to be understood as a rappel à l’ordre, bringing the building aspect of architecture back to the center of the scene. From a detailed display of the construction process of Rem Koolhaas’ Casa da Musica to a 1:1 model of a collage merging fragments of houses by Johnston Marklee, Nuno Brandão Costa, and Office KGDVS, the 2016 edition, “The Form of Form,” anticipated many of the topics that would later be developed at the 2017 Chicago Biennial, “Make New History” — mainly the call to return architecture to its disciplinary autonomy.
Building upon the previous edition, the 2019 Triennial, “The Poetics of Reason,” is curated by a team of architects, all professors at the Marne-la-Vallée School of Architecture near Disneyland in the eastern outskirts of Paris. The Doric column, both a pole bearing loads as well as a sculpture, is employed as a metaphor for architecture in addition to being the pervasive logo for this Triennial edition. It is in this integration of the rational and the poetic that the specificities of architecture are supposed to lie.
The opening press conference, presented in broken, French-accented English (the pride with which the French deprecate the language of the perfidious Albion is well known), left no doubts about the curators’ position: Architecture is historically a shared way of knowledge — knowledge that is legible and transmittable by all, including non-architects. Architecture should not be breathtaking; contrarily, it should provide the image of stability that brings your breath back. Architecture is, per sé, conservative: It can only evolve in continuity with its own past.
The Triennial is distributed among five exhibitions around the burgeoning city of Lisbon, each concentrating on a singular aspect of architectural history. “Economy of Means,” by emerging architect Éric Lapierre, reflects on the fundamental necessity for shelter as the shared basis on which architecture builds itself. Employing a series of metaphors, such as “Architecture is to building what gastronomy is to cooking,” or “Small buildings are like poems,” the French architect attacks those who rely too optimistically on technological advancements. In his words, “We cannot find solutions to contemporary challenges, such as climate change, by using those same technologies that created those challenges,” an argument he uses mostly against the superficial formal experimentation enabled by digital technologies. (He seems to forget that reinforced concrete — one of his favorite building materials, which can be seen in many of the buildings designed by his office — is precisely one of the modern technologies that plays an essential role in the production of global CO2 emissions.) The exhibition is a collection of drawings familiar to those accustomed to the Western canon of architectural history, reaching the 21st century through photographer Eric Tabuchi’s work on the French suburban landscapes and a selection of architectural models of buildings produced by designers operating mostly from France, Switzerland, and Belgium. Architecture here speaks French.
“Taking the Country’s Side,” by Sébastien Marot, landscape professor and philosopher, makes a different statement. He presents the following paradox: Planetary urbanization is both inevitable and impossible. Leaving architecture aside for a moment, the exhibition explores what he claims to be a “sister” discipline, agriculture, which, together with architecture, has taken a long time to become industrialized and still provides much of our food as well as fibers and building materials. Through anecdotal evidence, he proves the links between both fields, presenting the Greek temple as the sublimation of the granary, the Piazza del Campo of Siena as a miniature of its rural surroundings, or New York’s Central Park as the image of the world. It is in this other disciplinary history that we can find moments of historical urban collapse and a consequential return to the fields, and therefore the seeds for designing a future habitat that is more considerate of the environment.
In the exhibition “Natural Beauty,” young architects Laurent Esmilaire and Tristan Chadney argue that inherent architectural quality lies in its construction rationality. The basic assumptions are that architecture can only be imagined through brick and mortar, that gravity forces have not changed throughout history, and that a rationale that doesn’t include the latest developments in structural computation, material science, or 3-D printing is the way to go. The central piece of the exhibition is a stereo-funicular scale model by Gaudi dating back to 1898-1914 that shows how the Catalan architect’s shapes are derived from a structural logic.
The late postmodern building of the Caixa Geral de Depósitos hosts the exhibition “What is Ornament?” curated by Ambra Fabi and Giovanni Piovene and designed by Richard Venlet, that questions whether ornament ever abandoned architecture. While early modernist architects such as Adolf Loos equated ornament with crime, Mies’ use of precious stones and the current reappearance of adornment facilitated through digitalization processes in the design and production of architecture speak to a debate that is far from settled.
The last core exhibition of the Triennial deals with “Inner Space,” or the construction of the architectural imagination. A beautiful display, curated by architecture scholars Mariabruna Fabrizi and Fosco Lucarelli and designed as a Wunderkammer, identifies how the architectural imagination is capable of nourishing other disciplines, including art, video games, virtual reality, comic books, and even forensic investigation. The exhibition, however, relies too heavily on the use of reproductions rather than original objects, something that is at odds with the spirit of the hosting venue, the National Museum of Contemporary Art (Museu Nacional de Arte Contemporânea). Nonetheless, at this stage of our visit, it’s very much appreciated that at last someone thought about leaving the door open to breathe a little bit of fresh air. An architecture too obsessed with its own autonomy is doomed to become a caricature of itself.
Is this edition of the Triennial reactionary? Yes, definitely. In the words of former Triennial curator André Tavares, a whole generation of architects is increasingly getting engaged with stratospheric discussions while dismissing aspects of effective architectural practice. The latest Chicago Biennial, to mention an example that is also reviewed in this issue of Texas Architect (pg. 28), does a great job of presenting all the social, economic, and environmental issues we face as a society, but almost forgets the role architecture can play in finding solutions. On the other hand, this Lisbon Triennial reminds us that architecture has always been a social practice, an arena for negotiation that is used, suffered, and enjoyed by all. An architecture of continuity, deeply rooted in its own tradition, is, in Eric Lapierre’s words, the opposite of spectacular architecture, and the opposite of architecture that is superficial and shallow. In another of his eloquent metaphors, an architecture only obsessed with its apparent image is the architectural translation of political populism: fake architecture.
Nevertheless, by limiting the scope of architectural references to the Western canon of architectural history, the curators, probably unconsciously, perpetuate the idea of Western supremacy that is at the very origin of much of the extremist populist views they criticize. With the exception of the installation by Sam Jacob and Priya Khanchandani, which explores post-colonial and contemporary responses to Owen Jones’ 1856 book, “The Grammar of Ornament,” the narrative of the whole show considers architecture basically as a Western discipline. Any professor in the U.S. would provoke the outrage of their cosmopolitan students should they convey such a narrow understanding of the discipline. And I’m sure it is no different in Marne-la-Vallée.
Outside the main exhibitions, it is worth mentioning a couple of satellite installations. “A Certain Kind of Life,” the only participation from the U.S., by a plurinational team of professors from the University of Illinois at Chicago, presents a 1:1 scale model of a cell inside an abandoned Carthusian monastery, accompanied by a series of scale models representing different compositional methods. The word “cell” is emphasized over the word “room,” as it involves an existence among other cells, and therefore embodies within it the idea of a collective. A series of talks exploring how the individual becomes part of the collective not by merely sharing space but by sharing a set of rules is to be celebrated inside the cell. Here, architectural history is not only explained through archival drawings, text, and interpretations, but is also put to work in the form of a project — a project in dialogue with its site.
In addition, “Double Exposure: the photography and the photographer,” an exhibition dedicated to the internationally known Portuguese architecture photographer Fernando Guerra, curated by Andreia Garcia and designed by Diogo Aguiar, does a better job than the main exhibits of reminding us that architecture and its current challenges are global. Seducing the viewer through the collection of objects, stories, and images by the cosmopolitan photographer, this exhibition contributes to generating the kind of empathy we need for avoiding global conflict and achieving worldly understanding and global connectivity instead.
Ibai Rigby is a trained architect and editor at urbanNext.net. He lives in Austin.