The South Will Rise Again?

(OR THE EMERGENCY OF EMERGENCE)

(Published in 2G, GG, Barcelona, 2006; extract published in Hatch, The New Architectural Generation, by Kieran Long, Laurence King, London, 2008 )

In a scenario in which lack of resources may become critical it is to be expected that those who always worked within a condition of necessary resourcefulness can offer more sustainable and creative solutions to new everyday problems.

When oil is the object of war, water faces shortage, temperatures rise and energy has to be rethought on alternative sources, one is led to reflect more seriously upon waste and luxurious expenditure. And one may imagine that in a few decades, the values and strategies according to which we build our environment will have to be fundamentally changed.

Although the system of consumption will always serve the conspicuous distinction of a small minority, there may come a time in which the space for inequitable shows of high-technology, expensive materials and shiny starchitecture is increasingly restricted.

Even if justified claims for progress generally lie behind such shows of strength, there may come a time in which its effective evidence has to be devised and enacted in other ways.

The so-called South is already facing this kind of dilemma.

Although integration in a global market and in a global media culture drive entire sections of some southern countries to seek for a piece of the action within the attractive realm of the more advanced architectural production, the general economic situation of these countries make inequalities particularly blunt and unacceptable.

Creativity has, thus, to be directed at resourcefulness in the face of adverse conditions.

As it is, it is also true that historically the architectural output of these countries has been frequently singled out precisely on account of the fact that it employs minimal resources, traditional materials and technological scarcity.

Portuguese architecture has been a good example of this predisposition.

It is not only the idea of scarcity that can be identified as a conceptual drive for a long-established way of producing architecture.*  More recently the major international recognition of Alvaro Siza Vieira’s oeuvre was also interwoven with a particular acknowledgment of his ability to use craftsmanship and a reduced palette of materials and technologies in order to produce an exquisite spatial experience.

Subsequently, however, a tendency arose in Portuguese architecture which turned away from the complexity and resourcefulness of Siza Vieira onto a more generalized minimalist or commercial approach. Albeit at the cost of architectural richness and diversity, this has provided a model that still reveals a general pursuit of economical and material restraints.

Unfortunately these restraints have in many cases, become something of a straitjacket, rather than an inventive practice which would deal with the economical and social crisis that recently hit the country.

This could mean that in order to reinvent resourcefulness and still enjoy a vibrant and significant architectural practice Portuguese architects may have to explore new avenues.

After an emerging trend that brought some younger Portuguese architects closer to an upcoming shared European identity – triggered by the Erasmus exchanges and powered by an increasing mobility of people and information – there might be still a need for developments that face the questions we are addressing here.

Even if the generations that are either refining the minimalist approach with new conceptual tools or, on the other side, opening up the field for a more diverse formal and thematic architectural research are still striving for affirmation – and are indeed the ones who are now being focused in recent exhibitions** or publications like this – one needs to look for signs of practices that are already changing course and revealing a new range of concerns.

If the emergent practitioners that are being portrayed and discussed in recent media are still sprouting from architecture’s need to renew itself within a system of autonomous concerns – even if external references are now called upon to instigate and justify a dérive or a renewal of architecture’s internal frame or established traditions – there are already suggestions that the next step may indeed be taken in the direction of a new type of emergence.

As I was proposing at the somewhat allegorical beginning of this text, a realemergency is becoming tangible just outside the long-established realm of architecture and the practices that are starting to address that emergency are those that, more justly, should be called emergent.

Curiously, if in Portugal this tendency may be sensed – as it is a noticeable rule in some art, design and architecture of most South-American countries – it is because this is a country now divided between its European and Southern identity.

It is perhaps from Portugal’s closeness to the South and its problems and idiosyncrasies that an explanation may be drawn so as to justify the presence of young practices that, here and there, are radically evading from the locally accepted understanding of architecture’s social service.

In this sense, architecture is no longer seen only as a self-explanatory and self-sufficient answer to clients and markets, but is seen as a practice the must face up to new problems growing in contemporary societies.

Although the concerns addressed here are quite global, circumstances such as historical ties to a recent colonial past, geographical proximity to the southern hemisphere and a closer sense of climatic and economic problems seem suddenly to be enabling for, a new attitude to arise within the Portuguese context – yet one which is still clearly attracted to the values that distinguished the ascension of the late modern architectural star-system.

In this sense, and as shown in the emergent – and emergency – deeds of Plano B,Moov and and other Portuguese or Southern practices, the resources coming from the by now well-established architectural tradition, the knowledgeable resources of the architect may now be used for something more socially useful than just solidifying a nice career within the ranks of the profession or of the market.

Strategies of self-construction in the case of Plano B, performative architecture with critical social content in the case of Moov, or cooperative models for developing countries in the case of many others fortunately show more concern for sustainable and critical resourcefulness than the mere pursuit of architectural style.

Architecture is here shown as means, rather than an end in itself.

As some social and utopian practices anticipated in the sixties and seventies, architecture is again taken as a problem-solver for the emergencies that manifest themselves around us.

But because concerns with resources and resourcefulness are, as said, global – and because certain philosophical and social stances also make their return as collective fashions that, more than ever, know no frontiers – one must stress that the attitudes described here are not only becoming visible in places where the emergency is more urgently felt.

If emergent iberoamerican architecture is prone to show this tendency out of the pure contingency of its settings and circumstances, the phenomena I’m trying to address acquires many different shades as one looks at emergent architectural practices around the world.

Recent trends have given ample evidence of this precise emergence: the architect as researcher, scavenger and social critic who tries to develop new creative strategies to face the scarcities, inequalities and authentic eco-disasters that, at any latitude of the globe, are surfacing in the contemporary city.

Deploying ready-mades or self-construction, recycling debris and defunct technologies, reinventing the social through the aesthetic appropriation of everyday materials, recreating optimism out of the poorest conditions; this tendency initially arose within the world of contemporary art practice. Now it may become a driving force within architectural and design practice.

Emergency demands it. And all the more so in the context of rapidly developing cultures.

Pedro Gadanho, Lisbon, 2006


*   See my own article “Scarcity and Dislocation,” in Gadanho, P. e Tavares Pereira, L., (eds.), Influx, Arquitectura Portuguesa Recente, Civilização Editora, Porto: 2003.

** This was incidentally the theme of the Portuguese representation to the 2004 Venice Biennale. Metaflux, Two Generations in Recent Portuguese Architecture, curated by myself and L. Tavares Pereira, dealt precisely with the renewal of Portuguese tradition within the opposed realms of minimalism or diversity and hybridization. See my text “X vs. YNOT = Diversidade: Equações de identidade na arquitectura portuguesa recente” in Gadanho, P. e Tavares Pereira, L., (eds.), Metaflux, Duas gerações na arquitectura portuguesa recente, Instituto das Artes / Civilização Editora, Lisboa: 2004.

One response to “The South Will Rise Again?

  1. Pingback: Guess what I am working on… #03 « shrapnel contemporary

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