Category Archives: critique

Bem-Vindos ao Futuro 2.0 (Utopia vs. Distopia)

Em jeito de continuação do post anterior, e em modo de boas-vindas a 2014, tenho-me lembrado com alguma regularidade da entrevista que fiz a Saskia Sassen no âmbito do projecto #unevengrowth.

Na entrevista, a socióloga holandesa sediada na Columbia University revisita uma dicotomia que parece particularmente apropriada para pensar o porvir das cidades globais: a distinção assaz tópica entre uma visão utópica e uma perspectiva distópica do futuro.

S Sassen interviewSaskia Sassen on Utopia vs. Dystopia: ver 7’12”.

Como sugere Sassen, há uma visão utópica que acredita que, perante uma crise grave, todos se unirão e a criatividade emergirá para superar as divisões sociais existentes nas cidades de hoje. Do outro lado, porém, há a possibilidade distópica de que a desigualdade corrente traduza, de facto, “a absoluta desconsideração” de uma minoria privilegiada por “qualquer noção de um projecto colectivo.”

Um dos factoides interessantes com que deparei na minha chegada aos Estados Unidos foi justamente que o adjectivo “distópico,” antes reservado a novelas de ficção científica relativamente obscuras, é agora banal e corrente – tanto no discurso académico, como na prosa diária de jornais respeitáveis.

A dialéctica emergente da utopia vs. distopia – que também se pode traduzir na oposição optimismo/pessimismo – veio-me de novo à memória ao ler “Sillicon Chasm,” um artigo perturbador sobre as ilusões da igualdade de oportunidades – essa noção que antigamente informava o sonho americano.

Enquanto, por aqui, uma demência conservadora estarrecedora continua a tentar convencer toda a gente dos benefícios da economia trickle-down – a ideia delirante de que se houver uns quantos bilionários a sua riqueza  vai pingar magicamente para todos à sua volta – o texto do Weekly Standard mostra com números e estudos que, mesmo no último reduto da cultura empresarial libertária, a desigualdade só continua a aumentar.

Basicamente, a mensagem é agora: “Habituem-se!!”*

Enterrada a quimera de uma classe média minimamente afluente, autores como o economista Tyler Cowen dizem-nos que não há como a resignação para nos ajudar a atravessar a grande estagnação que aí vem – a qual o professor universitário compara sem grandes problemas a uma nova Idade Média na qual… the Average is Over.

Soa distante? Soa a distopia? A única diferença é que agora os servos andam de metro, e em vez de religião têm televisão e lojas de 99 cêntimos. Onde a esperança antes se encontrava num acto de ƒé, hoje encontra-se num auto de consumo que se arrisca tornar fátuo.

De facto, nenhum economista explicou ainda como é que o consumo continuará a alimentar a economia quando o novo proletariado já não tiver margens para qualquer tipo de consumo conspícuo. O Japão aguentou-se durante a deflação? Talvez. Uns tempos. Mas atente-se no nível de vida que já se atingira por aí…

Como os políticos bombardeiam todos os dias, em Portugal o nível de vida vai ter que se resignar e adaptar à (baixa) produtividade local. Mas não se desespere. Ganhe-se conforto na ideia de que vai ser assim em todo o lado – mesmo nos lugares de alta produtividade.

Como se aponta no artigo referido, “85% da população, isto é, 267 milhões dos 315 milhões da América, terão sorte em encontrar empregos de nível MacDonalds ou em ‘amigalhar’ ganhos marginais freelance a realizar biscates a 25$ cada para os seus superiores via TaskRabbit.”

Com o aprisionamento de todos os aspectos da cultura ocidental pela lógica corporativa que assegura o sucesso dos 15% do topo – já que o dinheiro (mais que a mecanização) tomou o comando – recordei-me também que a leitura ideal para 2014 continua a ser The Year of the Flood de Margaret Atwood.

Mas, mesmo se não tivermos mais nada para fazer, não é preciso ir tão longe como ler um livro – que horror! – para perceber que as várias incarnações da perspectiva distópica estão a invadir a nossa cultura popular em várias frentes.

thething1958Image hacked from The Celluloid Highway

A indústria da cultura sempre teve o dom de popular o nosso subconsciente com os temas do dia – quer se trate dos aliens em vez dos comunistas dos anos 50, ou zombies em vez dos pobres de agora. E o momento corrente não é excepção.

De Hunger Games e Elysium até In Time – só para referir alguns blockbusters de Holllyood que já nem se dão ao trabalho de criar metáforas – abundam como nunca as antecipações de mundos que, sem qualquer catástrofe pelo meio, se encontram perfeitamente divididos em duas classes sociais antagónicas.

O problema da perspectiva distópica é que já não se pode perguntar: de que lado quero estar? Desaparecida a classe média em que muitos cresceram, e mesmo com o aparente advento da meritocracia – que, é bom notar, também tende para a exclusão –, a possibilidade da escolha está a desaparecer.

Como Saskia Sassen e muitos outros nos dizem, num mundo que, como Nova Iorque, é cada vez mais “first come, first served”, a velha ideia de “mobilidade social ascendente” também anda cada vez mais pelas ruas da amargura.

E, assim, por entre os pensamentos pessimistas que as distopias nos provocam em jeito de cautionary tale – pensamentos que podem ou não envolver o fim de civilizações desenvolvidas no pico do seu auge – resta saber onde encontrar algum optimismo.

Será que encontraremos soluções na aparente capacidade da tecnologia para ir resolvendo todos os problemas que se lhe deparam até à debandada final, tipo filme de crianças versão Wall-E?

Wall-E1-800x960Wall-E hacked from WallPapersUs (Pedrog Re-Edit)

Acreditemos que sim. De facto, sem esse optimismo, projectos como Uneven Growth, ou a ideia de que arquitectos ou designers ou outros podem endereçar estas questões, careceriam de qualquer tipo de sentido.

Para regressar às noticias que muito selectivamente leio de Portugal, onde não vejo soluções locais para os problemas económicos da grande estagnação é no recurso ao Conselho da Diáspora (de que, em jeito de disclaimer, faço parte), a “fixar arquitectos” (dos quais já descolei há tempos), ou, enfim, a acreditar no conto de fadas de que o “crescimento vem aí.”

De facto, dada a globalização vigente, em última instância não determinamos o nosso próprio crescimento –  simplesmente procuramos adaptar-nos ao que vai acontecendo à nossa volta. E a dita Diáspora também não vai ajudar porque, globalizada ou escorraçada, não faz mais que também ela tentar sobreviver.

Quanto a “fixar os arquitectos,” e sem desprimor pelo meu apreciado colega e recém-empossado Presidente da Ordem dos Arquitectos, não vejo mesmo como é que João Santa-Rita vai operar esse milagre.

Diversificação? Só se for no estrangeiro, como poderei pessoalmente afiançar. Investimento e empenho estatal na reabilitação das cidades com obrigatoriedade de emprego de arquitectos? Seria lógico e apetecível, mas, mesmo com vontade política, apenas se ainda houvesse dinheiro para isso…

Como diz o outro, o economista, mais vale que nos dediquemos a saborear a resignação de alugar uns quartinhos reabilitados no Airbnb.

Enquanto o turismo global dos 85% tiver pernas para andar, claro. Porque os 15%, ou os 5%, ou os 1%, obviamente dispensam essas coisas rascas.

Under the Influence

Enquanto, para irritação certa daqueles que em Portugal se tomam como o centro da atenção, a Trienal de Arquitectura de Lisboa se abria ao mundo (aqui, ali e acolá) , eu fui antes convidado para passar pela Triennale de Milão, onde o hardcore da arquitectura portoguesa se mostra mais uma vez aos (seus) pares.

siza3Image via Bea Spoli.

Após silêncio tão prolongado deste blogue, e os inevitáveis boatos de extinção daí advindos, pensei que seria justo brindar os “meus leitores” (essa minoria insondável, entre os fiéis indefectíveis e os google translate new-comers) com o meu contributo para essa exposição que agora se abriu por terras de Itália.

Como, para minha grande desdita, a disponibilidade para o deleite da escrita se tem revelado cada vez mais escassa, também aos organizadores da exposição tive que propor uma revisita a um texto que havia escrito há precisamente quatro anos – e que aqui também deixo à mão de semear.

Felizmente, e como por sorte me sucede acontecer, a revisita não resvalou necessariamente para o plágio em casa própria, ou, em termos mais pós-modernos e legitimantes, para a mera (auto)-apropriação, mas resultou antes numa curiosa actualização da estória e dos personagens que antes inventara.

Assim, mais linkado* aqui do que o papel ou o painel permitirão, aqui fica o meu pequeno texto para a exposição Porto Poetic, para que um dia os exegetas tenham a tarefa facilitada, pelo menos no que diz respeito a descobrir conexões, referências e outras ligações obscuras que, por alguma razão misteriosa, fazem sempre parte do prazer do texto.

Regeneração Debaixo do Vulcão

Quando se fala de cultura, as figuras de referência são o que se pode chamar um benefício contraditório. Essas figuras raras – génios, talentos incontornáveis, personalidades brilhantes – dão lugar a um paradoxo que apelidarei de “debaixo do vulcão.” Quando existem figuras de reconhecimento e prestígio excepcional num determinado campo de actuação cultural, é mais que certo que o valor que se introduz nesse campo é positivo. O capital cultural, como lhe chamaria Pierre Bourdieu, eleva-se às alturas. O campo torna-se mais rico. Sob a famosa “ansiedade da influência,” cresce a exigência e, logo, a qualidade.

No entanto, a situação não é desprovida de riscos. O campo pode “paralisar” devido a um excesso de carga positiva – o que se pode evocar como o “efeito Glenn Gould.” Perante a impossibilidade de superar as mencionadas figuras de referência, o campo cede à lógica da “terra queimada,” à criação de um no man’s land onde nada cresce durante gerações. No campo da arquitectura, este efeito é deveras conhecido, associado a personagens maiores como Le Corbusier, ou Óscar Niemeyer. Após o fulgor destas figuras maiores, parece apagar-se o brilho das gerações que se lhe sucedem.

Entre estas duas vertentes pode surgir também o estado “debaixo do vulcão” – que no passado tive oportunidade de descrever a propósito da arquitectura portuguesa. Como a presença de um vulcão no horizonte próximo, escrevia, personagens como Siza Vieira ou Souto Moura originam um território fértil. No entanto, “perante a eminência permanente da devastação,” podem também gerar um estado de suspensão hipnótica. Assim, a arquitectura portuguesa contemporânea, como o vice-cônsul do famoso romance “Under the Volcano” de Malcolm Lowry, viveria “simultaneamente inebriada e deprimida.”

UndertheVolcano

 …

Perante a dificuldade de copiar Siza, ou a facilidade de copiar Souto Moura, perante a evidência da fertilidade ou a eminência do vazio, as gerações pós-Pritzkers encararam um falso dilema: continuidade ou ruptura? Essa era, pelo menos, a tónica do discurso critico que também crescera à sombra do vulcão. Contribuí para a agitação das almas, propondo que, entre esses dois pólos, duas gerações emergiriam em Portugal num curto espaço de tempo. Essas gerações não eram assim tão diferentes. Mas, como mostrado na Bienal de Veneza de 2004, manifestavam diferentes apreciações das cinzas onde prosperavam.

A geração que levava a “continuidade” para novos territórios – e que é agora re-apresentada em Porto Poetic – fez-se herdeira legítima dos mestres, permitindo-se introduzir novas influências e perspectivas no seu legado. Usufruindo da proximidade geográfica e emocional ao vulcão, pelo menos enquanto aí havia espaço, cultivaram diligentemente o  terreno fecundo deixado pelas magnas erupções do passado.       Trouxeram novos instrumentos e técnicas, importaram referências do estrangeiro ou dos campos adjacentes da arte, e garantiram que a fertilidade dava os seus frutos.

A geração que era acusada do pecado da “ruptura,” não era menos dada a gerir a fertilidade que encontrara no chão onde crescera. Porventura mais volátil e inconstante, como costuma ser apanágio da juventude que pode sê-lo, apenas precisava de mais tempo para dar uso aos talentos que lhe foram confiados. Viajaram para longe do vulcão, pensaram eventualmente em estabelecer-se noutros territórios convenientemente distantes. Voltando ou não voltando, usufruiriam, também elas, do caldo genético que o vulcão deixara nas suas terras de origem.

Revisitada esta estória, é justo dizer que o trocadilho contido no termo “re-generation” é apropriado à descrição das novas gerações de arquitectos portugueses, quer estes sejam aclamados pela “continuidade” ou pela “ruptura.” Entre vulcões e pools genéticas, a importância da herança da arquitectura portuguesa, e de Siza Vieira em particular, é mostrar que a arquitectura se faz por regeneração, miscigenação, renovação.  Como dizia o outro, parar é morrer. Portanto é preciso que cada geração construa algo novo sobre aquilo que lhe é deixado. Uma vez que se compreenda isto, tudo o mais é relativo.

Nova Iorque, Agosto 2013

Black Friday (Confidências do Exílio)

So, I’ve enjoyed my first (discrete) Thanksgiving in New York, and today people out there are having another consumeristic frenzy – while retailers respond accordingly, namely extending shopping times and dragging underpayed labor to work on what used to be the most sacred American holiday.

Where this sacred and blind belief in consumerism will drag the U.S., I don’t know. But it does sound unpromising, specially when one knows that around 2030 we will need 2,5 planets to feed the population on Earth. In this age of interconnected global disaster, believing that one’s backyard empire will remain unaffected by such a lack of resources sounds silly and irresponsible.

This Black Friday was also the dark occasion in which I received news that my old publishers in Amsterdam, Sun Architecture, are currently holding a massive sale of their architecture titles, thus confirming the end of a beautiful, but apparently untimely editorial project.

Those were the editors that welcomed Beyond and its Short Stories on the Post Contemporary. The good news is that, if you had an interest in Beyond and were put off by its pricey cover value, you may now order the bookazine series with unique fictions by up and coming European architectural writers for only 15€!

Image

Yes, you have read correctly: fifteen euros for the three published volumes of Beyond at a distance of a click! A true Black Friday bargain!!!

This made me feel sad, of course. Ultimately, it’s just another episode of Europe’s anihilation of its best asset: cutting-edge cultural production.

With cultural cuts happily leading austerity measures even in the richest of countries –  and the private sector inevitably aligned with public policy – Europe takes care of its self-destruction by wiping out what could be its largest future export: intelligence, design culture, creative thinking.

Even if only for touristical purposes, production of culture in Europe was a powerful and profitable investment: beyond German engineering, European culture, as its welfare State, produced the profile and richness for which Europe was recognized, visited and looked at as a desirable model.

However, when austerity measures are the rule, culture is considered superfluous. Along the same line of thinking, Europe’s investment in higher education too is to be trashed and emulate the production of inequality and profit that is typical of the anglo-saxon education model – until that bubble also burstsand perhaps demonstrates that there is nothing really interesting to emulate in such a model.

One wonders if the desinvestment in a democratic access to education is part of an invisible class war, or if it is solely a pragmatic response to the fact that, after all, higher education in Europe only contributed to produce its most cultured ‘lost generation’ ever…

It’s not only in the South European countries, and not only amongst its young, however, that Europenas are faced with the dilemma of either unemployment or self-imposed exile, i.e, choosing emigration as a way of escaping recession (and its silent partner depression).

I’ve landed in MoMA because I felt I had to look for alternatives – thus enjoying the privilege of spending a terrible period for Portugal in a golden exile. Recently, though, previous directors of publishing ventures such as Actar in Barcelona, or, alas, Sun Architecture in Amsterdam, were also welcomed by Montreal’s Canadian Center for Architecture.

Many others are probably looking for similar opportunities, and, like in other historical periods, the New World gladly takes in the European talent. In other historical periods, nonetheless, there were profoundly serious reasons for the exodus of European creative minds: racial prosecution and a World War.

Now, however, while we hear that if the European Union was one nation its achievements in the Olympics would have tripled the U.S. – and as if announcing Europe’s unfortunate and miserable decline –  the only reason for the new exodus seems to be stupidity, and a definitive lack of political vision.

Salon des Refusés #02

Penguin Pool, Berthold Lubetkin, London Zoo, 1934. Via PostalesInventadas.

Park Life*

A final blow to the mythology of concrete as the ultimate, universal modern material took place in 2004, when the last remaining penguins in Berthold Lubetkins’ Penguin Pool at the London Zoo polemically left their celebrated shelter in search of a setting that would feel closer to their natural environment. After 70 years, Lubetkin’s architecture was still deemed organic, but not sufficiently so. Sympathetic to the penguin’s stand, a local zookeeper was reported to say that the pool was “an architect’s dream, not a penguin’s.”

 As the Armory Show is coming to town, and as yesterday I was hearing Michael Loverich of Bittertang describing the birdcage they had just fabricated, I couldn’t help remembering that Candide #5 is finally coming out – with the personal plus that it carries four micro-fables I much enjoyed fabricating myself last year.

The cautionary penguin tale above was one of five that were actually left out of the forthcoming issue of the magazine led by Susanne Schindler and Axel Sowa, which is to be released next week through Actar. In print you will find another four very-short stories featuring a coakroach, some cad-monkeys, the inescapable Orwellian pigs and, most naturally, a Venturian duck.

The Big Duck, New York, 1931. Via Wikipedia.

The fables were initially proposed for LOG #22, after Michael Meredith invited me to participate in his guest-edited issue on the absurd. I thought the best way to reflect on the absurd was obviously to produce something absurd. Thus, the predominantly post-apocalyptic Fables of the Reconstruction (after REM).

Nonetheless, the editors obviously preferred politically-correct theoretical takes on Bruno Taut. This being said, it is understated that I will never understand the editorial logic of architecture magazines around this side of the globe, except if for their odorous lust for an imprecise academic celebrity.

Conversely and ultimately, and as I was confiding to both the former Michael and Cristina Goberna of FakeIndustries, I do think one of the more delightful and obscure crazes recently unfurling in the para-architectural world is precisely that of a bizarre, wide-range excitement for animal architecture.

Daniel Arsham, Untitled (Kangaroo), 2009. Via Flavorwire.

In this case, the absurd is definitely not in the eye of the beholder. It really is lurking out there. And it certainly has something to say on architecture as a discipline today. Remotely, it may even provide for its critique.

As Gogol had it in The Nose, back in 1836: “Where aren’t there incongruities? — But all the same, when you think about it, there really is something in all this. Whatever anyone says, such things happen in this world; rarely, but they do.”

Postscript: finally, how would I resist adding an image of Tom Ford’s doghouse?

..Image courtesy of Todd Eberle.

Welcome to the New World

No. This post is not yet another tribute to Terence Mallick – although I did offer The New World* dvd to my brother over Christmas. Neither is it a sardonic bienvenue into the harshest year the Old World is about to see in a long time. (Nor is it a self-congratulatory note on my new appointment at MoMA.)

The New World. Image via satyamshot.wordpress.com.

Nope. This is only a small reminder about paradigm shifts, and changes and opportunities provided by ideological crises and stagnant realities, and the way in which architecture may these days be finally metamorphing into something completely different – as the Monty Python would surely put it.

So, this is also about the last article I’ve published in 2011, as it just came out in a great issue of MAJA, the Estonian Architectural Review. Facing the theme of architecture as event, this was ultimately a reflection on the idea of networks vs. affiliations, of which I want to give you a new year’s gift of an excerpt:

Is architecture a technical service or a cultural production? Is it both? Or is the profession actually splitting to accommodate potentially contrasting positions? Such questions illuminate how, within a heavily mediated context, social networking and cultural exchange acquire a renewed relevance. Pierre Bourdieu has classically written on how the fields of cultural production – what he, in fact, called the economic world reversed – always contain two opposed sub-fields. In contrast with a sort of extended, middlebrow production that engulfs the majority, one of these sub-fields is a restricted territory to which only a few can belong, but which actually determines the effective symbolic values at play in the whole field. Still, he considers that the two sub-fields are magnetically united by permanent transactions, including players who, by ascension or declassification, move from one sub-field to another. But what if these two sub-fields are actually splitting into two entirely different professions? What if a part of the architectural profession, namely its restricted sub-field, is detaching itself into an autonomous sphere that, although it might still inform and produce reflection on the world of construction, is no longer tied with the dimension of architecture as technical service? This would mean that a section of the profession would acquire independence as a purer form of cultural production. And would thus be ruled by the thorny, uncertain laws of culture making. Intrinsically, more than formally, this world would then be inevitably closer to the functioning of the art world – with its galleries and museums, and its biennales and events, and its collectors and markets, its media and formats, and its power games and exquisite social networks. It would be as if the Moon stopped orbiting around the Earth and turned instead to Mars. Well, beware. The Moon is already making its way to Mars.

 In Architecture, Networked Cultures and How to Make the Most of Them, MAJA #70, Tallin, December 2011

What Used to be Called Public Space

As I delivered my nominations for the 2012 European Prize for Public Space, and as the classic thinker of the corresponding sphere was suddenly raging, I felt the urge to go back to a book that reassesses, if not indeed upturns, the fashion in which architects and planners regard urban space and its public dimensions.

It’s only in appearance that the recently published Urban Maps is about establishing a cartography of the city. Unless, of course, one considers that the practice of mapping the city is nowadays becoming itself highly performative.

The investigation’s subtitle is eventually more enlightening: Instruments of Narrative and Interpretation in the City. Even so, the academic overtones hide the fact that this exciting read is all about grafitti and street art, film and underground flâneurs, pixadores and new modes of psychogeography – as practices that should now be taken as referentials to occupying architecture.

As my own endorsment prints in the back cover:

Fifty years ago, Kevin Lynch offered us a classical reading of ‘the image of the city’ based on a waning ideal of clear built landmarks and distinct urban signs. Now, through inspired insights and an in-depth inquiry into a vast array of contemporary urban practices, the authors of Urban Maps reveal us how the complex narratives currently converging in the appropriation and redefinition of an eroded urban space require a totally revamped cognitive mapping… From the readings of cinema to the interventions of street art, from the markings of graffiti to the identities of brandscapes, and from the wanderings of contemporary art to the fictional drives of theory, architecture is confronted with the need to review the cartography of its references when facing the ascendancy of the urban condition – and the prominence of new networked, information-augmented realities – as substituting for previous conceptions of the city.

Like the most interesting charts of new territories, Richard Brook and Nick Dunn’s publication presents us with insights into the least seen spots of the current urban condition, into the borders and hidden spaces of varied forms of intervention within the city landscape.

As an appropriate side dish, we are ultimately offered a thorough reflection on how architecture now competes for an expressive space in this sign-invaded, market-dominated, narrative-filled urbanscape.

Image by RE_MAP, Manchester School of Architecture’s design research lab

After we turn these pages and practice stories we’re left with the pertinent and resilient concern on how “a critical understanding of the evolution of art in the environment can be translated to a discourse concerning the production of architecture.” And the more we take to the streets,* the more such concerns are to overcome any remaining delusion of architecture’s conventional autonomy.

Autonomy should still be there, yes. But, if you want, in a kind of Hal Foster version in which culture practice is still able to relate to social and political reality, while it manages to sustain its ability to be critical and somewhat exempt from the demeaning effects of external (and peer) pressure.

On the Drive of Writing (and Reading)

             © Pedro Gadanho, Untitled (Tallinn Winter, 2011).  Soundtrack here.

13.

Translator Richard Howard writing on Roland Barthes reminds us of the latter’s fierce determination to assert “the pleasure we must take in our reading as against the indifference of (mere) knowledge.” Barthes, himself, evoked the writerly bliss as that which “unsettles the reader’s historical, cultural, psychological assumptions,” a specific event that “brings a crisis to his relation with language.” Meanwhile, it sounds like architecture only recently has come to be seen as a form of knowledge, a language that is related to something more than just erecting buildings. Now that its erogenous zones have been reallocated, maybe the bliss of writing (and reading) on architectural matters can be about something else. It may now be about merrily upturning our liaison to architecture’s very foundations, instead of further tying us down to its fundamentalisms, its recurring institutional incarcerations, its plain unfortunate downturns.”

in “On Experimental Architectural Writing and Its Media”

This is one of sixteen sections in a text I have recently contributed to the catalogue of the exciting Archizines exhibition, opening this Friday November 4th at the Architectural Association, in London.

While Beyond was chosen as one of the 60 independent architectural magazines on show, Elias Redstone was also so kind as to challenge me to dwell on “why it is again critically imperative for creative, fictional and personal narratives to be inventive in regards to architectural discourse and practice” – as related to media where this is still possible, as against the general (main)streamlining of culture.

The resulting exploration was an opportunity to finally weave together some wandering ideas on the pleasures of writing and reading architecture, especially after my participation in the On Experimental Writing panel debate, at the CCA, back  in February. (The podcast is still available on that link).

Beyond criticism, press releases and other boring reports on what’s up in the world of architecture, I specially wanted to focus on how writing can and should be a practice on its own terms, one that nonetheless only accomplishes itself when it reaches the reader through what Barthes appropriately called bliss.

Being an avid, curious reader, I tend to consider any text that fails to sustain my attention simply badly written. Fiction itself is about the precise technique with which one delivers a story, more than about the inventiveness of the narrated facts. Good writing is one that captures its reader through both idea and form.

This being said, there is a considerable difference in between the baroque complexity of one Pierre Bourdieu – in which the sheer strength of the ideas surmounts a decided, purposeful difficulty imposed on his readers as a sort of initiation rite – and someone whose thoughts are simply insipid and unclear.

Texts must want to communicate. They must want to communicate ideas, or emotions, or even straightforward information. In an age of information surplus, texts that lack such inner, initial desire, become merely superfluous. Vain. And the same should be said of any form of communication, architecture included.

Two or Three Things I Learned From Her

Recently I went to the city where the International Court of Justice has its seat. At breakfast I mused at the unexpected juxtaposition of an early Rem Koolhaas, an outmoded Richard Meier and a bunch of slumlike shelters put up overnight by architecture students who were actually not indignados. Yet.

Apart from the surrealistic memento, what did I learn from Den Haag, one could ask? Visiting the administrative capital of the supposed richest country in Europe always ought to taught you something. So, let me briefly debrief you.

Unfortunately, and first of all, I didn’t learn what Luomo is up to these days. Given the sudden need to include a trip to Paris inside my trip to Den Haag, I ended up arriving quite late for my one-nighter in Den Haag.

Due to a badly signed, unfinished highway I  actually got lost in the port of Antwerpen, had to ask directions from a Polish truck driver in a deserted gas station… and payed a toll on it too.

Nevertheless, because of the happenstance, I did see the new Rotterdam skyline, did my beauty sleep and kept my usual 6am schedule, something highly improbable if I had attended Todays Festival exciting nighttime programme.

Thus I lost both the dark side and the cultural plus Den Haag might have offered and had only what they call the city’s tunnel visionIn this instance, you are lucky if you have half an hour to walk up and down a highly commercial high street that could belong anywhere in small-town Europe. Same brands, same suburban feel.

No Trust No City © Designboys, via Designboys.

Ultimately, I did do my thing and learned that Raumlabor’s inflatable BXL at the festival grounds hadn’t the most perfect acoustics in the world. Still, it allowed for a decent, intimate conversation, especially if you would sit on the floor of the Ant Farm inspired bubble in a circle like Indians did ages ago. By then, however, you could imagine a neo-hippie conspiration was taking place. Which would sound* perfectly ridiculous, anyway. Even in the present circumstance.

Secondly, I also learned that Metropolis M magazine carried eloquent protest editorials in a moment in which severe budget cuts are undermining the acknowledged potential of Dutch intelligence.

If no other impression comes to mind concerning the whole of Europe at this moment in time, such protests should at least be read as generous warnings regarding the destruction of a nice funding system.

This grant system was what eventually allowed for successful Dutch cultural exports in areas such as graphic design, product design, fashion, and architecture. Even I was twice the benefiary of that system, although I’m positively no flying Dutchman. Its demise illustrates the bigger picture and a gloomier outcome for what is touristy Europe’s major asset: its culture.

Finally, some friends would also ask what did I learn from my brisk visit to Paris? The only thing I can reveal is that I had a not too bright glimpse of her becoming a second Lagos. As fascinating as the African megalopolis, certainly more attractive to the naked eye, Paris felt as irrational to use in a car. Unless, of course, this was carefully planned in view of a fictional scenario in which the city officials are preparing to ban cars totally and forever.

Another Boring Postcard, #31 (Paris), hacked image via Stephy’s in Paris

Crossing Paris by car reminded me of a huge traffic jam I was once in, in Morocco. On a holiday trip, cast against a rural landscape, the thing felt delicious and exotic. In compact Paris, slowly zooming in and out of the city centre felt only stressful and shocking. Even if on Friday everybody is frantic to escape the city, there were behaviours and time loss rates I would expect in places like Luanda. But then, Angola’s capital is now the most expensive city in the world.

Which reminds me of a time when the most expensive cities in the world were also the most attractive to live in. Now, particularly in Europe, it seems like the once expensive are turning into a bad Mad Max version of an unwanted future. Considering its undesirable political, social costs, what was once highly priced is now indeed becoming strangely unappealing.

Given this curious inversion, I can only doubt if we are at a period when, of all things, “the luxury retail store has become a crucial forum for architecture,” as Mohsen Mostafavi has  recently sold it ouhmm… I mean, put forward.

Pondering such epicurean statements from the dean of one of the most acclaimed architecture schools, should we be still surprised or sad when claims regularly have it that “architects are not the solution to urbanisation“?

Other Little Magazines #19 Views from Academia…

Murphy was a bilingual journal of “architectural history and theory,” one of the few that ever came out in Portugal. It was published from 2006 to 2008 at the University of Coimbra Press, the project of architectural historian Paulo Varela Gomes – whose critical writings around the 90s were quite referential for me.

Denoting a chronic local yearning for external recognition, the name of the publication stems from the architectural traveler who, around the end of the 18th century, first reported on Portuguese architecture to its European counterparts.

Murphy’s first editorial aimed high at contradicting a local ad hoc academic situation, which, when it comes to theory, is portrayed here with straightforward accuracy as a kind of anything goes, while the essayistic nature of most writing in the field would only disguise its lack of scientific rigor.

Welcoming its desire to overcome “the obstacles that have caused academic work in Portugal to fall behind” – while I doubted its subservient willingness to emulate the most traditional Anglo-Saxon journals – I immediately asked myself if two fifty-something page essays on regional medieval matters were the best way to start catering for a new readership and create global impact…

This would be the case, if such essays presented overwhelming new methodologies or radical ways of thinking that would profoundly affect the way we understand our building and urban matters today. Unfortunately, these were writings that preached rather exclusively, conventionally and conveniently to the ultra-niche and the already converted.

In Murphy’s opening edition even the more contemporary “approaches” seemed to suggest a middlebrow view of academic production. They might sporadically experiment with a sexier language, or even provide the occasional insight for the analysis of the present, but they also basically procrastinated on how to maintain things as they are.

At the risk of flogging a dead horse I would say that, ultimately, most of Murphy’s first contributions risked being integral to the feeble, but dominant arena in which to be “scientific” is to quote correctly and put together the right references in a permanent, protracted historiographical reconstruction – rather than displaying the capability to introduce the subtlest of paradigm shifts in current knowledge or practice.

Le Journal Spéciale’Z, which I’ve discovered because of my recent visits to ESA, is altogether keener to dwell on those other territories of intellectual exploration where connaissance is faster erected with the intense, unpretentious delight of simultaneous recollection and discovery.

Here – and in the parallel blog –  you may truly discern new interesting voices beyond the usual suspects of contemporary architectural theory – although you might also find an interview with the ever-intense Antoine Picon amidst the well-assorted bunch that rédacteur en chef Sony Devabhaktuni puts together.

Hence, in the inaugural issue of the Spéciale’Z you are bound to hit upon several gems of unexpected reflective sway – either if you want to know more about urban “audio topographies” (Shannon Werle) or you are otherwise interested in how neuroaesthetics is soon bound to enhance your perceptions of public space (Ruzica Bozovic-Stamenovic).

What else would you want of a little scholarly magazine? :-)

Contrary to an obedient reverence of all things past – which may inform, but sometimes also immobilizes the historically-prone practitioner – Le Journal Spéciale’Z is more inclined to joyfully accept that “every generation” declares “the language of the precedent generation to be useless.”

As such, the authors of this particularly liminar suggestion – Johannes Binotto and Andri Gerber – also recall in their excellent Narration/Non-Ville/Description that, “to understand the world, we have first to understand our understanding.”(A great line from German ethnologist Hans-Jürgen Heinrichs.)

At the risk of seeming too obvious (or paradoxical), one would state that the re-foundation of any theory – or historical research – has to operatively gaze at the present moment, rather than only stare at the recognized recognitions of past souls, as bright as they may still shine in the firmament of the undead.

And while we are perfectly able to acknowledge that our understanding is constantly built upon the shoulders of others, we are also allowed – and advised – to use that tiny extra height to look further into new, previously invisible landscapes of possibility. Expectedly, on a clear day you may then see forever.

With the newly acquired insights stemming from both present and past we can certainly again and again defrost the realities that lie apparently petrified behind us. But we should even more preferably not loose sight of the bizarre, unlikely obstacles that lay copiously ahead.

Architects for Cultural Consumption

It sometimes happens that when one becomes a cultural producer, one absurdly stops consuming culture. Or else, one consumes only a very specialized section of culture, and mostly in mediated form: a free flow of specific information or, if one is keen enough, a knowledgeable accumulation of data and synapses that are only destined to provide more fodder for further expert fabrications.

So, yesterday, like if enjoying again the last summer of youth, I felt privileged that I could engage in a relatively uninterested expenditure of two out-of-the-ordinary cultural feats.

One was the yet unreleased A False Solution, by playwright Oren Safdie – which I read in one breadth. The other was Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Lifewhich left me quite breathless. They are both cautionary tales on life and how to live it,* and they both came at the right time.

Hacked image from The Tree of Life, via MovieCarpet.

Curiously, however, both recur to architects’ characters to trigger intriguing ponderings on the significance of life – or how we want to express this significance in some sort of unavoidable, looping self-reflexivity. And that made me read them for the sake of their potential and intrinsic meaning for the field of architecture… (And there they went, my brief mental holidays.)

More directly in Safdie’s new play, more hauntingly in Mallick’s fifth feature film in 38 years, both works may remind us of how Ayn Rand once made use of the god-like traits of the professional figure of the architect to depict liberal individualism in 20th century America. But any resemblances terminate there.

The mature camp builder in King Vidor’s Fountainhead, via Petit Sophiste.

Recently, Christopher Nolan’s Inception had offered us the last glimpse of a subconscious hope in the virtual rebirth of the master builder under the guise of a promising young woman architect more than ready to pimp up your wildest dreams. This had been the last evidence of the simultaneous, paradoxical relevance and insignificance of the architect in today’s societé du spectacle.

Another Boring Postcard, #19, hacked image via Daily Bilboard.

The portraits of architects I’ve seen yesterday, however, are of (father/son) figures that are facing existential crisis – while at the same time they mirror some external tragedies that, in one moment or the other, seem to be bending Western culture under the weight of ever guilty guises on how to build one’s own yard.

Thus Safdie’s new Oedipal character signals the somehow resonant uncertainties of a withering starchitect faced with memorializing a collective mal d’être. Mallick just barely evokes the doubts of a seemingly corporate architect utterly lost in-between “nature” and “grace.” Freud would surely take delight in either.

The odd issue here is that where once architects aptly represented progress, they now seem to provide suitable metaphors for some kind of critical, painful regression. Considering this uncomfortable arrangement – but also, at this particular moment in time, the architect’s visibility in both popular culture and the collective unconscious– maybe it’s about time architects start marketing themselves in a whole new fashion.

Salon des Refusés #01

I just love to start new series. It’s my collector’s compulsion at work. And although there weren’t that many pieces of my writing that were refused by editors along my professional life, exceptions always occur – and then what better use for a blog than also being a honorable, occasional Salon des Refusés?

I must say I have just delivered two pieces of writing that were quite welcome. These pieces constituted important, political breakthroughs for myself regarding what I want to invest in writing architecture – ie, ever since I came to terms with the fact that we must kill the Tafuri within and return to operative criticism.

I finished a lengthy text on the practice of Didier Fiuza Faustino for the catalogue of a forthcoming exhibition at the (totally unrelated) Salons du IFA. I also sent in my first piece of criticism for Domus #948 – in what I expect to be the start of a beautiful relationship. So, let’s say this is a moment in which I cannot but reflect again on the nature of an experimental writing on architecture.

As such, on this occasion, I can’t resist publishing a text with which I responded to a request from a Korean magazine a couple of months ago. The editors politely refused the article on account of their readers’ sensibility. And I can’t blame them. But then again, I couldn’t but produce this meta-critical response…

……………………………………………………

An Archeology of a Few Safety Objects*

Dear reader, before you start to read this, you should be aware that this not your typical piece of criticism. Architectural criticism is recently being nailed at its crossroads, and the critic feels embarrassed by such an instance. She cannot but mirror this moment of truth.

The critic sits at her office busy with her private quests and investigations. The critic has been trying to lose the label of being a critic. She has been refusing the role. She is aware of the uneasy stance of the profession these days. She prefers to see herself as a writer. She likes to write.

A far from odd request suddenly lands on her laptop. It comes from afar, through a foreign intermediary. A magazine on the other side of the world requires a review of four recent buildings. There is a theme connecting the disparate objects: safety and emergency programs.

The building that lies closest to the critic is not far: 461 km. Another one lies a mere 2,744 km away. The farthest is 3,713 km. Google maps says it would take 1 day and 15 hours to get there. The critic sits back and enjoys the prospect of a quick pan-european trip. She likes to travel.

Romantically, she clings for a moment to an old-fashioned idea. Once upon a time, the critic had to experience the architecture to talk about it. She imagines traveling by car for 3 days, 21 hours and 10 minutes to visit these buildings. She could visit friends in Paris on her way back.

“The speed and economics of the contemporary world have made me an analyst of visual culture,” she muses to herself. She looks at about 20-30 different buildings everyday. In this flow, she dedicates a few seconds to each work. One image is enough do dismiss a building.

She finds herself amused to turn this exercise in visual information accumulation into a different mode of analysis. She remembers colleagues who dedicated painful amounts of time to compare plans and sections to photographic images of beloved buildings. She envied their patience.

 She looks at the images of one of the buildings sent to her in a zip file. It’s a fire station in Bergen. It dates from 2007 and it feels already dated. Dating an object, like one does in archeology, is a curious process. It says a lot. It says time is merciless.

© Pedro Gadanho, Another Boring Postcard, #17

She reflects that the shape and materiality of this building could have arisen anywhere in-between 1987 and… 2007. To say the least. If you would be looking back on it 200 years ahead, this building would be simply undistinguishable. She sighs.

What would future architecture archeologists dig out of this object? The last remains of an enduring Nordic modernism, mixed with a properly sustainable, vaguely post-modern design sensibility. Alvar Aalto turned into an honest, slightly boring middlebrow production.

In distress, the critic turns to the architect’s description of his own building. She looks for redemption. He comes back with “magnificient views”, “the negative appearance of the traffic” and “the building as part of a future settlement.” She feels she is suffocating in obviousness.

Maybe she is being unfair. Unconsciously, maybe the building speaks of a candid willingness to provide a last glimpse of architectural social welfare in a burning Europe. On the other hand, the critic realizes she probably longs for a fire station straight out of a Ray Bradbury novel.

The critic is reminded of other fire stations. She visited Vitra’s many years ago. Zaha Hadid used to be a surprising architect – until her formal recipe killed her relevance. One could well dwell on the ironies of a fire station made out of languid concrete flames and acute blazing spaces.

                Zaha Hadid, Vitra Bas-Relief Model, via Arch Daily.

She remembers delightful fire station towers that would mesh up different bits of city. To simulate emergency action, they would assemble disparate parts of buildings in an absurd functionalist fashion. True Colin Rowe collectibles. She takes a mental note for further research.

Incidentally, the critic recalls why her profession was made obsolete by the beginning of the 21st century. Do we really need motives and arguments? As former New York Times critic Paul Goldberger stated, “nobody tears down a building if the architecture critic doesn’t like it.”

 The critic then turns her attention onto the next building…

Terrifying beauty

Today, my wife and me will be presenting a few ideas for Lisbon on behalf of CUC, at MUDE museum, 7pm, within a quite packed panel that intends to publicize the city council’s participative budget.

There are 5 million euros to be applied in ideas presented by the people, and an apparent willingness to have citizens participating in city decisions. However, people seem to have lost faith in institutions, politicians and bureaucrats to such a degree that they simply don’t bother to contribute, thus leading some brave young people to devise a way to call attention upon this program.

One of the ideas we are introducing in the debate is deliberately utopian, moreover if one considers the economic pressure we’re currently under. It can be described, in a deceivingly simple way, as the making of longitudinal car parks along Lisbon’s downtown two main arteries, Rua do Ouro e Rua da Prata.

However simple an idea, this may represent one of the major engineering challenges that this urban core requires in the future – if it really wants to accommodate new inhabitants and, simultaneously, rehabilitate from the underground one of the first comprehensive structural systems in the world ever to respond to earthquake situations.

The other ideas, the immediately feasible ones, are children’s parks, small green spaces, health care centers, the reboot of existing underused cultural facilities, and other similar amenities that may make the city centre where we live friendlier to residents, rather than only to hordes of tourists – in what could be dubbed the current barcelonization of Lisbon.

For me, this act of participation is also an inward attempt to fight a pessimism that I’ve felt growing over the course of my latest posts. One thing is to be critical of a given situation; the other is to become acid to a point in which you start melting from within…

Just last week, for example, while I was strolling through central Lisbon and observed the physical degradation of the city I was just about to start a photographic series on urban decay.

I guess the way some decaying buildings generate a sort of miserable charm is what sometimes entitles Lisbon to the dubious status of Europe’s Habana.


The fact is that, after years of destroying this country’s ultimate resource – its landscapes and geographical diversity – only now the proud local construction industry is looking at building renovation as its emergency exit.

And given the economical recession, they were lucky enough to have some mysterious, unheard-of real-estate investment companies immediately popping up to give them a hand. It seems like it is now safe to release the piles of eurocash some people have hoarded during the pre-crisis years.

To be fair, a lot of renovation happened during the last decades in central Lisbon, even if the Portuguese capital has also turned out to be a shrinking city and many of its buildings remain empty. But, of course, there’s still a lot to be done.

As it is, I started thinking that austerity would be nice, if only it had anything to do with Paul Auster. Now that people were finally heading for urban rehabilitation, it’s also probable that many investments come to an halt.

So, as poverty and inequality kicks in – and as one slowly fights the devastation brought upon us by our political “elite” – one can indeed resort to artistic observations on how the subtle alterations of dilapidation produce a certain aesthetical frisson.

One should, for example, take a positive lesson from street artists like Eltono, who registers with deserved satisfaction the way that, in spite of everything else, the city transforms itself around his fragile inscriptions.

This is perhaps one of the most amazing human survival tools still around from primeval times: the perverse, but essential ability to turn either tiny or wide catastrophes into what some call a terrifying beauty.