All the power of architecture in the Portuguese pavilion

With the exhibition “In conflict” and a series of debates, Portugal curators rethinks the role of architecture as an artistic, public, political and ethical discipline. 

Unrelenting conflict with no unambiguous solutions is the key to understanding the vision of the curators of the Portuguese Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale, the depA Architects collective. When asked for suggestions on how to live (happily) all together, they chose to present a series of struggles, in the form of architectural projects and, therefore, themes, that have yet to be overcome.

“We believe that architecture is besieged by political, economic and social pressures,” they argue. “Our aim was to show how the project somehow gets hold of those inputs and processes them trying to find solutions. The examples we selected carry the traces of those clashes, sometimes coming to resolve the conflicts that have been created, other times leaving them open.”

Aleixo Towers_© Nelson d’Aires, 2013
Aleixo Towers Neighbourhood. Porto, 1968–1976. Manuel Teles. Photo Nelson d’Aires

With the formal composure and rigour that have distinguished the Portuguese exhibition at Venice Architecture Biennial for years, “In conflict” presents, in the rooms of Palazzo Giustinian Lolin, Portuguese architecture over the last 45 years, starting in 1974 when the country entered democracy with the Carnation Revolution. It does so by organising its analysis around seven processes marked by material destruction, social movement or popular participation. They were chosen on the basis of the media counterweight they received, amplified by the press, which was read as a measure of involvement and therefore of public interest.

“We used newspapers and social media as the yardstick for selecting projects in Portugal that were truly involved in the discussion,” they say. “It was also important that all of the projects were residential, to better adhere to the theme launched by Hashim Sarkis. We chose those in which architecture was proactive, those that, in some way, were the symbol of resistance in the midst of these ‘actions’.”

Reconversion of the Margueira Shipyard Elipse_Egasvieira_© Contemporanea (photo montage by Caixa de Imagens, 1999)
Reconversion of the Margueira shipyard – Elipse Almada, 1999–2001. Manuel Graça Dias + Egas José Vieira, Architects. Photo Caixa de Imagens

The exhibition revisits the projects of the Bairro do Aleixo towers, in Porto, the Cinco Dedos housing estate in the Lisbon neighbourhood of Chelas, the SAAL Algarve project in Meia Praia, the proposed conversion of the Margueira Shipyard in Almada, the construction plan of Aldeia da Luz, the rehabilitation of the Ilha da Bela Vista in Porto, and a group of rebuilt houses previously destroyed by wildfires in 2017, in Figueiró dos Vinhos, Pampilhosa da Serra e Pedrógão Grande.

Faced with the climate emergency in contexts lacking resources and a disconnected territory or population, the actions taken by the State and by civil society are crucial.

“Regarding contemporary Porto, 100 years of local housing policies focused on eradicating the Porto ‘ilhas’ – small, unsanitary working-class neighbourhoods built entirely within the city’s blocks starting from the second half of the 19th century – and to relocate their communities, resulted in almost 1,000 examples of this type of housing that are still active today. The rehabilitation of Ilha da Bela Vista brought forward the discussion of another participatory model, which kept this community in its homes and respected its neighbourly identity. The reversal in the way that this ‘ilha’ was viewed, if applied to other informal neighbourhoods, suggests a paradigm shift: a problem became a contingency.”

SAAL Algarve – Meia Praia Centro de Documentacao 25 de Abril (photograph by Alexandre Alves Costa, 1975)
SAAL Algarve – Meia Praia. Lagos, 1975 - 1976. José Veloso. Photo Alexandre Alves Costa

“The last case of the seven” – the architects specify – “concerns the unstructured condition to which a significant part of the Portuguese territory is subjected. In 2017, forest fires that raged in the centre of the country left a trail of destruction and triggered a national emergency. The multidisciplinary response went beyond straightforward specialised technical assistance: architects and anthropologists acted on the ground in close proximity to the population. Faced with the climate emergency in contexts lacking resources and a disconnected territory or population, the actions taken by the State and by civil society are crucial.”

Alongside these seven main cases, the exhibition will also show 21 other architectural processes, grouped to the former by their scale, problematic, or mode of action. The Portuguese curators are convinced that an analysis of the quality of a country’s housing can lead to a kind of x-ray of its democratic system. “These processes are testimonies of a democracy that began with an impoverished Portugal, facing deep housing failures, which were aggravated by the demographic urgency of decolonisation. Today, more than four decades of democracy later, this reality remains fragile, marked by the persistence of informal neighbourhoods, by urban growth based on speculation in urban centres and by the abandonment of the interior of the country”, they state. 

We want to show that architecture is not a closed discipline, but that it is shaped by people.

Everything changes but nothing really changes, one could summarise. Of course, today the debate on how to live, with the pandemic that has disrupted our daily lives and our relationship with spaces, both domestic and communal, has taken a new acceleration, but the struggles are always the same, for depA Architects, and looking at examples from the recent past is always a useful exercise. “We can read the many different examples we brought to the exhibition from this perspective and see what we can learn from them. Some of them are from the 1970s, a period that saw the study of an innovative type of housing, very different from what we’ve built in the last 50 years.”

Rehabilitation of Ilha da Bela Vista_© Cerejeira Fontes Architects (photograph by Susana Varela, 2016)
Rehabilitation of Ilha da Bela Vista. Porto, 2014 - 2016. LAHB + Cerejeira Fontes Architects. Photo Susana Varela

No less important than the exhibition for outlining Portugal’s contribution to the architectural debate in Venice is the series of nine debates ­– six organised through open calls - between Venice, Lisbon, Porto and on an online platform, attended by international speakers who have geographically broadened the scope of analysis. The results of these debates will be collected in a catalogue, which will also contain a set of other contributions – such as interviews with activists and neighbourhood associations – made by the curators. “We want to show that architecture is not a closed discipline, but that it is shaped by people,” they point out. “Faced with the impossibility of solving all contingencies, it is urgent to consider how to create places where everyone has a seat at the table, to imagine how we will all project a common future.”

Opening image:  Rebuilt houses Previously Destroyed by Wildfires in 2017. Figueiró dos Vinhos, Pampilhosa da Serra e Pedrógão Grande 2017 - 2019. Ateliermob. Photo Fernando e Sérgio Guerra

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