Pancho Guedes: Story of an Exhibition

A truly massive Pancho Guedes retrospective, organized and put up by the architect’s own son Pedro Guedes, just opened in Lisbon.

The occasion presents a good motive to release my curatorial text on Pancho, written on the occasion of the exhibition I myself curated for the Swiss Architecture Museum, in 2007, and which later also traveled to South Africa. This was the show the architect himself has recently called a pudding – which can only make the Museu Berardo retro a true mixórdia (a word even the English speaking world will understand…).

Now that everybody is talking about the altermodern after Bourriand, it is funny to remember that the show was aptly called “Pancho Guedes, An Alternative Modernist,” and that its curatorial text even proposed that same notion of altermodernity two years ago… I think the catalogue-cum-magazine is still available for internet orders.

Like so many projects in the growing arena of free-lance architecture curating (Philip, salve in memoriam!), the venture was kinda crazy and took an incredibly long time to accomplish. And now I kinda feel like telling the whole story.

Bear with me, if you want – but be warned that this is like an excerpt of a future autobiography! If you’re not onto this sort of thing, pass on to the next post…

The exhibition was first proposed as early as 2003, after Nino Saggio asked me nonchalantly if I wanted to do a book on the anti-Siza over a nice lunch back at Archilab… (Nino, thanks for that initial challenge!).

Incidentally, the project was at that time presented to CCB, an institution not to be confounded with Museu Berardo, who actually “substituted” the earlier venue and is now paying good money for the new blockbuster retrospective.

At the time I presented the wild idea of doing a show on this forgotten but important Portuguese architect and Team 10 member – who was particularly hyperactive in Mozambique between 1951 and 1975 – the concept was welcome, but not quite yet.

After one chief curator gone, and another apologizing for not “being able” to realize the show, the idea was dropped on the basis of dramatic administrative changes… The interesting aspect here is that such a decision can take as long as 3 years to reach the final “no.”

This is the result of the well-known “nim,” a fabulous and ironic Portuguese concept – specially adequate to the institutional arena – a word that merges a “não” (no) and a “sim”(yes) in one single word.*

Which is like saying, “yes we want it, but we don’t really have the intention or ability to do it.” After the final “no,” institutions are thereafter obviously legitimated to realize the project with someone else. Not that this happens only in Portugal. But let’s say it is strangely more frequent in this small European country. It must be some residue of a long fascist tradition. Or whatever.

After I had totally given up on the idea, the director of yet another famous museum in Oporto heard about the story and pushed me again into thinking about the possibility of realizing the show in Serralves. (João, my thanks for that passing stimuli!).

By that time, with cancer and everything, I was already thinking some kind of African spell had been cast on the project (Ah! little did I know…) and I remember asking João: “Look, are you sure you want to do this?” He actually said a straightforward “yes!” (which is the most hardcore form of “nim”) and, still amazed, I traveled to Berlin for a much needed break.

Now, the real story starts. I met Francesca Ferguson when she was launching the “Talking Cities” magazine-cum-catalogue, back at the fabulous Urban Drift headquarters. Our introduction was coldish, but we manage to arrange a date for a coffee. And then we really hit it off.

At the time, Francesca was  discussing her position and preparing her program for Basel and it was magical to tell her “Look, I have this idea about this guy who was truly alternative in terms of modernism, and so on…” and to see her pick up her little note book and tell me “God, Pedro, that is an incredible coincidence” and indicate a small underlined sentence saying “alternative modernisms.” A true meeting of minds. This was 2005.

Some people know the rest of the story. Serralves Museum eventually dropped off the institutional collaboration being set with the Swiss Architecture Museum, but, with much dedication and some painful hardships, the show was accomplished in September 2007. (Francesca, you deserve the deepest acknowledgment.)

With the support of some – the team at SAM, Manuel Costa Cabral from Fundação Gulbenkian, the Instituto das Artes in Lisbon, etc. – and the unexpected contribution of others – like Simon Adler, who did an excellent contextual research in almost no time – the show was small and essential, but it got Pancho again in the international arena. Which he fully deserves, if only for being a radical eclectic before his time.


What gratification and lessons do I take from this story?

First, the enormous pleasure of having had the opportunity and the privilege to dive into the crazy oeuvre of the truly first international Portuguese architect. This I owe to Pancho, which was a gentleman in letting me do my work in Basel the way I wanted, providing me full access to his archive and agreeing with every option I submitted to his approval. Alas, he didn’t like my version of the story, but, as we all know, in a curatorial world that is bound to happen sometimes.

Second, and as a result of the first, I was able to leave behind a document that makes me truly proud. This was a very concise 30’ video documentary that was just presented on Portuguese TV with a very good reception and an audience of 60.000. Its international premiere is currently being discussed with the Architectural Foundation, in London.

Thirdly, I got myself a true-life lesson. Don’t take a “no” for a definitive answer. Sometimes, the lingering of a “no” in the form of a “nim” – despite all the pain it main cause – is only a way to mature a project until it finds its right partners. If things have to happen, they will happen.

Finally, throughout six years of dedication you inevitably cross paths with some bastards along the way – something that I carefully try to avoid as a rule. But, most importantly, you also meet wonderful and unforgettable people.

And that is funktastic.

Chapter closed.

(*Beware of the Portuguese language and its delicate subtleties: Portuguese is the 5th language of the world in terms of the numbers of speakers, after Mandarin, English, Hindi, and Spanish. I must say I have already considered the perversity of buildig up an audience for this blog and then, in about two years… switch to Portuguese language : )


4 responses to “Pancho Guedes: Story of an Exhibition

  1. uma pena, o doc sobre o Pancho Guedes não estar on line (ou então no you tube…)

  2. Pedro,
    You have a fantastic article here.
    Pancho is an amazing person and the Exhibition in Lisbon was a “must-see” – fantastic!
    In 1995 I was lucky enough to have him as my Project Teacher in my last year while taking my Architecture Degree. It was always a pleasure to discuss my ideas with Pancho, his enthusiasm was contagious and his comments were enlightened by a sparkling magic often accompanied by challenging visions always pursuing new ideas and possibilities.
    For my great delight and surprise I met Pancho Guedes during my visit to his Exhibition. I wrote about this in my blog
    All the best,
    Isabel Barros

  3. Pingback: Little magazines « shrapnel contemporary

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