“The Nation Room – Embassy of No Land” by Paulo Moreira and Kiluanji Kia Henda, part of "The Real and Other Fictions"-exhibition, awaits its ambassador and visitors. Photo © Catherina Botelho
Close, Closer - to what?
by Mi You
Sep 27, 2013

“Our team of curators presents architecture as the pedagogical act, as a biological idea, a political, social and civic stance. We demonstrate that architecture can be a force of occupation and transition, a speculator and a fantasist.”, states chief curator Beatrice Galilee. Indeed, what emerges out of the curation of central exhibitions – “Future Perfect”, “The Real and Other Fictions”, “The Institute Effect” and “New Publics”, as well as ten “Crisis Buster” grant projects and one hundred associated projects, is a critical engagement with contemporary spatial practices.

Searching For “Future Perfect”

As the largest exhibition in scale, “Future Perfect” curated by Liam Young presents a fictional future city, a brainchild of a think tank of scientists, technologists, futurists, illustrators and science fiction authors. The projects explore the territories of genetically engineered plants and life forms in natural environment (Cohen Van Balen), both remotely controlled and locally informed algorithm-based fabrication (MIT Media Lab), virtual space created by sculpturing light and directional soundscape (Marshmallow Laser Feast), digital artifact quality of the body created by wax crystallization around body plunged in water (Bart Hess), and a fantastical city where cultural and natural forms merge (Factory Fifteen).

The projects are by no means full-fledged future scenarios, they rather serve to provoke ideas on certain aspects of the future: how to exist with non-human agents, how to negotiate with computed environment, what to think of our bodies and so forth. As well intended as it is, the exhibition does feel entirely removed from the here and now of Lisbon. If we take what curator maintains seriously, that we need to see sci-fi as a critical way of engaging with the future, that is, our thinking of the future very much effects the present, thus co-shapes the future in the making, then one has ask, does the future contain universal claims only? How is Lisbon to make of this? Where are the future-makers of Lisbon?

Travel with(in) “The Real and Other Fictions”

The “Palácio Pombal”, a charming palace originating from the 17th century welcomes the audience in the next stop. “The Real and Other Fictions” curated by Mariana Pestana is a series of interventions and re-enactments of various former functions of the palace, which range from residence of Marquis of Pombal, embassy of Spain, to headquarters of the Portuguese Association of Landscape Architects. Now, still maintaining its original flavor yet in visible decay, the building is turned into non-profit art space “Carpe Diem Arte e Pesquisa”.

The journey starts with an embassy of a fictional country where an ambassador launches a hearty speech and urges the audience to vote on “Do you believe in democracy?” The next room houses the parliament where everyone is welcomed to join the discussion on “Universal Declaration of Urban Rights”. Carsten Höller’s table-sized memory game with images of amusement parks challenges the logic of the daily and presses the visitor to ponder why shouldn’t architecture embrace such moments of bewilderedness. Artist Alex Schweder’s “Slowly Ceiling” pushes the visitor further off his comfort zone. Two visitors lie down on what seems like two normal couches facing away from each other. Slowly and meticulously the floor inflates on both ends to squeeze both couches together and, at one point, flip them by ninety degree: suddenly the two still lying visitors face each other – close and closer – while the inflatable structure fills up the space above them, keeping them temporarily at hostage. In the dining room, “The Center for Genomic Gastronomy” extends an invitation for a superlative culinary experience, combining delicately designed food with meanderings on culture, ecology and technology. These are but just a few stops in the exquisite journey into the real and other fictions of Palácio Pombal.

The seven interventions, each diverse in its historical reference and means of artistic expression, unite in one synchronic flow that takes the palace as common starting point. Beyond the necessary archeological, archival work and field research, which enables tangential development of the interventions in relation to the original and historical, a potential of the space is released, one that its former users and designers may not be aware of.

Shaking up Institutions in “The Institute Effect”

Reflecting on cultural phenomenon of institutions being the moderator and, often times, generators of knowledge and discourse, “The Institute Effect” curated by Dani Admiss puts institutions at the center of the exhibition, and does so not in terms of content, but in terms of the very form of the exhibition. Twelve international institutions take consecutive turns to each occupy the space for one week and host internal workshops as well as public programs. In the opening week, “Fabrica” from Italy is working with local designers and architects to produce exhibition infrastructure for the following institutions ranging from visual identification design, stationary, to showcase structures. Further more, each institution is to design a rule for its successor. Some are designed for experience sharing such as “Learn from failures and re-appropriate the city.” by “Urban Think Tank” (Zürich) some intended for embodiment such as “Come closer, I can’t hear you.” by “Institut für Raumexperimente“ (Berlin), and there are more radical instances like “Write a full-on critique of SALT and publish it online” by “Salt” (Istanbul). Indeed an interesting experiment, it needs to be tested and to see how or if these rules configures inter-institutional practices - even just on small scale, or if this experiment ends up highlighting the individual mode of operation of each participating institution.

Still, this carefully designed form of the exhibition allows for a cross section examination and potentially a meta-level reconstitution of contemporary institutional practices. On top of the institutional question, it also raises high expectation of how these institutions answer to larger Triennale themes, especially in relation to urban issues of Lisbon.

What is New and Who are the Publics in “New Publics”

“New Publics” curated by José Esparza Chong Cuy is a series of public programs taking place at and around “Praça da Figueira”, a square in the city center. During the Triennale, the central architectural element, a stage designed by Mexican architect Frida Escobedo, is supposed to tilt and raise according to public reception of the speakers, which unfortunately stands still at the moment due to technical reasons.

Public programs at “New Publics” include body acts workshops with sign language tutorial and a do-it-yourself golf course, city acts program such as public crowd-funding attempt to buy a private property and repurposing an empty storefront to experiment with day-to-day problem solution, public theater and much more. While the programs are inviting and full of pleasant surprises, the public staging of them does not always go as planned. In burning hot September afternoons, the events have to move away from the unshielded stage to an area behind a statue. In the evenings, in contrast, the square is popular among tourists and locals alike – showing how temperament of space usage is conditioned by simple factors like the weather.

Drawing reference to recent mass civic demonstrations around the world and acknowledging with respect local incarnations of mass gatherings in Portugal, the curation of “New Publics” highlights the implication and performance of such public acts. Here “act” is double fold, it could suggest both concrete action and performative acting. In the opening days, the stage saw Lisbon mayoral candidates introducing their political vision (the election is in a couple of weeks), performative speeches on public speaking, public assemblies, urban development, and the stage will continue to operate and welcome the citizens to use. The curator envisions that “New Publics” provides an ideal setting to enact a discourse that can create more diverse, inclusive and vibrant civic space” and that it is “not an exhibition, but a theatrical civic demonstration.” This seems to perfectly demarcate the programing of Triennale from political engagement in reality. Just like socially engaged art practices always face the question "is this art or is this politics" (while accepting that art can necessarily be political but doing art and doing politics entail different tools and processes), so too does “New Publics” have to decide its stance against politics in the reality of a public square.

As much as do-good architecture connects, enables, provokes and empowers, it has to find out a way to deal with interpassivity not infrequent in political happenings. That is, rather overshadowed by the politically and ethically correct interactivity, a feeling of profound satisfaction by being part of such acts while in reality remaining only passively participating in it. By precisely enacting a public space in a public space, “New Publics” affords the chance to raise self-critical questions of the notion of public space and the public(s).

Fantastic Agents of “Crisis Buster”

A very fresh and exciting part of the Triennale are the “Crisis Buster” projects. Ten projects are chosen to be showcased that fight the crisis through long-term, locally situated, and often multi-disciplinary practices. To mention a few: “Agulha num Palheiro facilitates” potential end users to reuse empty buildings in Lisbon; “Casa do Vapor” constructs and runs a sustainable public kitchen to address social disintegration, food sources and waste issues; “Genius Loci” helps local eateries endangered to close attract new visitors by hosting intervention events.

The emergence of some Crisis Buster projects coincides with a larger context in Lisbon – the on-going crisis has pushed for boundary crossing thinking and called for direct actions. The past few years have seen community assemblies, artist-run community spaces growing despite harsh conditions. The Triennale rightfully addresses, frames, connects and highlights such practices, and through this, gestures that the only way to rise up to the challenge of a crisis-ridden time is to create projects and act on different scales – these may be political, ecological, communal, artistic and architectural projects, they may or may not leave traces. What we have at least learnt from past crises is that simply predicting how the future will look like does not suffice. It is even hard to predict what will become of these projects, yet the hope lies in each project’s generative power that may lead to exciting future paths.

Over all, the Lisbon Architecture Triennale answers to the crisis with its resolute move away from architecture as object to architecture as subject, - this is by no means to disregard the rich tradition of architecture, but more to allow architecture and its role to be negotiated at different times and under different political, social, economical conditions. And from there, with more dialogues and debates along the way, we could perhaps finally get close, closer – to an architecture that gets a life.

Lisbon Architecture Triennale
September 12 – December 15


Lisbon's small polished stones: they are named "Azulejos" and glint from the facades
(24 August 2012)

Remixing Lisbon: a half-timbered house dating from the 18th century, now modernized by Portuguese architect José Adrião
(14 April 2011)

When occupied by two visitors, “Slowly Ceiling” by Alex Schweder forms an enclosed, tight space over a stretched period of time. Photo © Luke Hayes
On advertisement board throughout the city are slogans generated by internet users. Photo © Miguel de Guzmán
Public speeches as part of “New Publics” program attract Triennale visitors and passers-by alike. Photo © Miguel de Guzmán
Behind-the-scene of public theater “Superpowers of Ten”, it features larger-than-life props that experiment with perception and address the complexity of the world. Photo © Jorge López Conde
The Triennale online platform has gathered provocative responses to architecture from both Portuguese and English speaking users. Photo © Miguel de Guzmán
“Marshmallow Laser Feast” puts on a performance of sculpted light and sound landscape, challenging the tangibility of ephemeral material and perception. Photo © Luke Hayes
A scale model developed together with sci-fi special effect experts shows the unified vision of a future combining all sections in the “Future Perfect” exhibition. Photo © Catherina Botelho
“The Institute Effect” offers each participating institution a make-shift space for workshops in the work-in-progress MUDE Design and Fashion Museum. Photo © Luke Hayes
The Italian cooperative Fabrica has designed a series of furniture for the coming institutions to devise. Photo © Luke Hayes
Triennale Opening: The "Center for Genomic Gastronomy" invites guests to an exquisite culinary experience. Photo © Luke Hayes
The architectural centerpiece of “New Publics” stands in the prominent Praça da Figueira. Photo © Catherina Botelho