Monthly Archives: December 2009

Yearly Balance

You know what they say about broken clocks: twice a day they tell the time correctly. I remembered this when I realized that the image on this blog’s header portrays the now unfortunately polemical architecture typology of minarets – in this case photographed in Maputo, Mozambique.

I chose the image, I guess, because I liked the stark opposition between the decay of sixties’ colonial modernism and the rise of those two minarets, portrayed as a symbol of the inevitable miscegenation of today’s growing metropolises.

Little did I know that this would end up being symptomatic of one sign ‘o’ the times of the current year, if in the worse sense: one of Europeans growing ever more fearful and letting go of their supposedly intrinsic cultural openness.

Image via Open Salon

That architecture itself was brought to the foreground as an ideological excuse for racism and cultural regression – on the argument that some architectural forms don’t “belong” in certain cultural landscapes! – was surely the architectural non-event of the year.

And as critics like Jonathan Glancey went to great efforts to make the noughties sound interesting, architectural excess also had its symbolic counterparts in 2009, somehow welcoming the definitive ideological crisis of starchitecture

As for myself, I’ve enjoyed what can only be deemed as an excellent year. Not being a pessimist, I do think reality checks are needed for a healthy optimism to be possible – and this is even more evident in times of instability.

One year of blogging has hopefully proven that critical dissent is still a value to be cherished, if only to slightly shift the perspective to which one grows quickly accustomed amidst the hypnotic information overload of the web…

The Beyond book series was also launched this year to a discrete but decidedly growing acclaim. It proposes, somewhat similarly, that “fictional techniques” are a useful tool to provoke a necessary shift in the way we look at architecture and the city today.

Bruce Sterling in Beyond the Beyond, Léopold Lambert in Boiteaoutils, Sam Jacob in Strange Harvest, and, more recently, Pietro Valle in Arch’IT, were some of the people who wrote about it. Icon magazine and Abitare are coming up next.

The other book I edited this year leaves me equally happy.

HP 06/08 started as the catalogue for an institutional exhibition of 80 buildings finished by Portuguese architects during the last three years, but turned out to be a book to remain on its own right.

Ultimately, this was the first time in many years in which seven rather young critics were given the freedom to survey the current state of an architecture only usually known and recognised for a few of its highlights and exceptions.

While I can announce the show organized by Ordem dos Arquitectos will reappear in the London Festival of Architecture in June 2010, the book itself will be there for the years to come for anybody who may be interested in understanding what’s changin’ in Portuguese architecture after Siza Vieira.

Ready for 2010? 3,2,1… go!

Other little magazines (and their stores) #07

My humble, accidental collecting of new révues certainly pales besides a truly fierce love of magazines as strange objects – like the one you can check on this video or on the related book that came out in the States a couple of years ago…

Even so, I still feel compelled to give you a glimpse of my latest acquisitions before they are definitely assigned to the library archive…

Here is an end-of-the-year list of #01 issues gathered in my recent visits to stores and places that are also to be supported for their aesthetic belief in independent publishing – particularly when, as I’ve heard recently, Amazon cities like San Francisco are already seeing their last bookshops heading for disappearance…

The first bunch of mags I brought from RAS bookshop in Barcelona. This is the place you want to be browsing near the MACBA and CCCB, if you are interested in design, architecture, fashion or, actually, any form of alternative culture.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………Here I found the first issue of the Belgian Tickl, an erotic cabinet that has a special penchant for polaroids and their intimate, blurry, peephole qualities, but also the Spanish Marikink, one of Paco & Manolo’s cult magazines (who ever they might be…) that is all about everyday nudies photographed in a sort of unglamorous post-Almodovar banality.

I would say these mags even deserve an appropriately 70’s retro soundtrack.

Also at RAS there was the Swiss Diary 16. Entirely shot in black and white, this is another photography and illustration magazine with the city and the urban world as its main inspiration.

“We couldn’t picture ourselves living in a place without bums, concrete, grafitti, department stores, banks, metros, or constant traffic and all kinds of different sirens.”

Another interesting set of magazines I found in the Concrete Hermit, a great small bookstore specialized in illustration that sits at the heart of London’s new hip-hop and graffiti zone, up from Brick Lane.

This lot includes Bonafide, an hip-hop magazine with great retrographics that is already on its second issue…

Popshot, an A5 edition that is also already at its #02 issue and gets poetry and illustration together under the banner of “the wonder of the ordinary”…

… And Making Do, which is an yearly magazine with a first issue from 2008 focusing on “methods of creative production”.

At the same time, other magazine stores in London offered the last two titles I have here today. One was the première issue of Blown, a magazine born in Wales to the idea of cultural intelligence – which is just another way of describing art, music, fashion and photography, but with actually some distinct local feel.

The very last item, though, it is the most delicious of them all – and one also exquisitely fit for the festive season at hand.

I just love the idea of a food journal mixed up with the bewildering notion of a “new writing for food lovers”, and Fire & Knives is definitely up to the challenge of being the most curious and beautiful answer to such a difficult riddle…

Filled with whammy archeological stories, visual essays on abandoned diners, retro kitchen ads, crunchy Victorian illustrations, Vincent Price’s secret talent for cooking, or architecture as a machine for eating, what a tasty way to finish 2009 in gourmet style.

Xmas Gift

(or This is Portugal #02…)

In Portugal, a poor country, if all built dwellings were fully occupied, we could house a population of 15 millions inhabitants. The resident population, including immigration, remains however at 10 million. Only 70% of the existing dwellings are occupied.

As this Portuguese source claims, this is the country in Europe in which new housing construction bears more weight (90.5% against an European average of 52.5%), but also the country in which, in between 1970 and 2001, 750.000 dwellings built before 1919 were abandoned as primary residences.

This means also that this is the European country with less investment in rehabilitation, either in financial or cultural terms.

Lisbon – which with its 560.000 inhabitants is also today a shrinking city – bears a staggering potential of 930.000 inhabitants if all its existing, planned and dwellings under construction were fully occupied.

No wonder the New York Times keeps on alerting the world to Portugal’s potential as an inexpensive golden retreat. (I would say hold your bets for a while, just to check if the country is not going feral-greek in a while…)

Strangely enough these don’t seem the statistics of a poor country. Instead, they remind me of the numbers Campos Venuti used to give us about Sicily, in his Urbanistica classes at the Milan Polytechnic. These are indeed the numbers of a blooming parallel economy – one that, according to McKinsey, ascends to 25%.

In this sense, the current political scandals in Portugal – a country in which there is no philanthropy but bankers have the nerve to suggest that younger generations should emigrate because this will only get worse – remind me of Italy in the early 90s, when the Mafia and the parallel economy were being targeted by some fierce judges: there was an immediate economical crisis. Falcone was killed, Berlusconi ascended to power and now Italy is what it is.

Was this article I kept sending to national newspapers such as Público, or i, or Diário Económico subtly silenced because of the weight of corruption and the parallel economy in Portuguese society? Or was the “oblivion” otherwise induced by the weight of the building sector in media economies?

I don’t buy it that newspapers that are thinning out by the month, and are happily sinking into the acclaimed “disappearance of print”, don’t have “space” for opinion articles other than those they pay at old skool rates…

Would it be the case that my argumentation was too feebly put or, on the contrary, rather too aggressive to established local political powers? Or was it that demanding to stop all ex-novo construction and allow to only rebuild in land already claimed by earlier construction a little bit too much for a corporate class like that of architects?

Whatever. (After all, we are indeed the strangely proud whatever, silent generation. Five years ago I wrote something on this…)

The fact is that the original unabridged text is finally coming out, just in time for Xmas, in a lavish architectural book that, even if it may look like something else, does ultimately address the necessity to make rebuilding city centers the very first priority for Portuguese architects.

Again, and as I argued somewhat differently for other architectures of need, the outward show and tabletop appearance of Living City/Habitar a Cidade are, in this case, entirely justifiable…

After all, architects themselves have to be seduced rather than convinced to display an ethical position when it comes to engage or not with the irrational, shortsighted economy that surrounds and lures them.

Trends and Fads

Talking about trendiness, as announced in the current volume of Beyond the third short-story collection in the book-series-cum-urban-literary-bookazine will be on the theme of Trends and Fads, due to be published in May 2010.

As it says in the Call for Contributions for the next issue,

While the many happily embrace consumption as lifestyle and instantly embark in any fad that may fulfill a sense of permanent gratification, the very few that claim to resist the lure of fashion also constantly fail to understand the mechanisms by which trends and fads actually affect cultural productions at every level.

Architecture and urban creation do not escape a tendency that is pervasive in all cultural scopes, which is the inescapable impact that both long-term trends and short-notice fads have on the production and consumption of ideas, objects and sites.

From celebrity to everyday culture, from gravity to ornament, from iconology to no-branding, from affluence to asceticism, from aestheticization to ugliness, from depression to optimism, from starchitecture to emergence, from pressure groups to particular interests, which are the currents and whims that are today deeply affecting the definition of our cityscapes?

Now that the holidays are arriving, do remember to pick up your Brett Easton Ellis and, if you think you are able to produce an interesting fiction of 2000 words max about such issues, do give it a try. We are open to submissions through Beyond’s webpage until the end of January 2010.

Architecture for Humanity

As I was browsing through this year Architecture for Humanity’s very considerable output, I was wondering if there isn’t still something missing in this kind of architectural action, at least for it to be relevant not only to humanity, but also for the architectural field itself.

Why should I ask such apparently irrelevant question? Because I know only too well that any architectural movement that forgets to produce advancement in the architectural field will tend to be marginalized by the field itself. And, at this moment in time, maybe this is an indulgence we can’t afford.

Of course, all the “architectures for humanity” out there are relevant by simply bringing architectural service where this is most needed. But maybe the problem is, ultimately, that architecture should not be simply considered a service.

As I was recently musing, we should rather consider architecture as a form of creative intelligence – not to enter the old discussion of it being a form of art or not – and ask ourselves how and to what purpose should this intelligence be deployed besides its banal contribution to middlebrow culture.

The thing is: as constrained as it is by economic and logistical difficulties the output of Architecture for Humanity is highly respectable, and yet fails to trigger the imagination or any craving for architecture’s creative potential, as somehow their own publication “Design like you give a damn” or, for instance, the work of Rural Studio have done in the recent past.

And in order for a work like that of Architecture for Humanity to grow into even more significance –and thus replicate throughout the world of architecture– it has to attract and offer sheer intelligence. Not more or less traditional solutions, not more or less lame architecture, but definitely more radical answers.

As painful as it may be for many different reasons, try and imagine BjarkeYes Is MoreIngels employing his amazing energy and optimism onto devising solutions for African feral cities, rather than for providing jewels for the ascending, nouveau-riche crowns, and you will know what I mean.

In the strange world of architecture’s semi-autonomy there are two ways in which one may be a successful achiever: by aspiring to economical wealth or by juggling in symbolic power. As it usually happens in the “reversed economic world” of culture and art – as Bourdieu has put it – symbolic power is the one that is more difficult to obtain and maintain.

The current, declining star-system attained its status by achieving symbolical power, as it is the rule. One still remembers OMA or Nouvel going bankrupt or selling their companies because of the level of research that permeated the logic of these offices. When, on the other hand, one feels such practices have “sold-out” on another level their symbolic status immediately plunges.

When, in the spirit of an inescapable Hopenhagen, one now says that design and architecture intelligence must be applied elsewhere rather than where it has been applied for the last decade, one is also saying that the game of symbolical power must also shift around what architecture is recognized for.

Although prizes and rewards are already being readdressed to shift this balance of symbolic power, organizations like Architecture for Humanity must be made more relevant not by feebly fighting the status quo, but by addressing not only what humanity needs, but also what architecture needs.

And this is to be done by employing the architectural creativity that is being laid to waste by the “crisis”, or more precisely by the unemployment or underemployment of young architects who, ultimately, just want to follow on BIG’s footsteps but haven’t yet quite worked out the right strategy for it.

This is to be done not by simply clinging to traditional architectural thinking, not by blindly obliging to the user’s needs in terms of a very delimited sense of taste, but essentially by thinking outside the box and by constantly readdressing architecture’s sense of autonomy – that is, architecture’s inner need to progress as a field of knowledge and practice.

In this sense, like others, the world of architecture itself would certainly gain something from considering Hal Foster’s concept of semi-autonomy in art and design as an oscillating movement between art’s critical need to remain autonomous from external forces and, on the other hand, its inevitable reconnections to reality so as to reestablish priorities and issues to address.

Faced with the absurdity of maintaining the fiction of architecture’s aesthetic autonomy, but also faced with the error of demising oneself from architecture’s inner symbolic drives, one has to meet somewhere halfway so as to make architecture intelligence more relevant to as many people as possible.

At the risk of sounding cynical – and since ethical arguments are useless with a professional class that is permanently ego-tripping – I would conclude that architecture for real need has to become really trendy.

Guess what I’m doing… #05

“What has made the Odyssey project different is to draw attention to the experimental, the undefined, the under-analysed. (…) The stories being produced – based on particular buildings or featuring architects – might   set one’s imagination going more effectively than other publications.”

As the Shenzhen & Hong Kong Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism left me quite satisfied by making “architecture fiction” central to one of their special projects, someone should inform the Biennale curator and audience that there is already a bookazine out there dedicated to “experimental” architectural fictions…

And that’s not the only arena where “architectural fiction” is coming up. Very soon there will be news of the 1st International Conference on Architecture and Fiction, which I have the pleasure to co-organize on occasion of the next Lisbon Architecture Triennale, at Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, in October 2010. vdbsdzmfdmsnvmfn

With keynote speakers writers Alberto Manguel and Gonçalo M. Tavares, artist With keynote speakers writers Alberto Manguel and Gonçalo M. Tavares, artist Ângela Ferreira and architect Colin Fournier from Archigram already confirmed, the Call for Papers inviting contributions on this hot theme will soon be online…

Middlebrow (Other Little Magazines #06)

Like the expansion of middle class was the social synonym of modernity, the rise of middlebrow is the sure epitome of the current digital turn.

Beyond authorship legitimated within the strict circle of highbrow culture, now now everybody can finally be an artist. Pick up the right digital tools and the right taste handbook and you too can be an artist recognized by about 223 people around the world.

Or you can also be a successful middlebrow architect, as thousands of rather decent published buildings come to prove over the last 5 years, by happily entering the 15 minute hall of fame of daily internet blog platforms aiming to reveal yet another potential claim to stardom.

(The only wrong thing with this being that there are people out there that actually think this should be stopped, regulated, or somehow controlled, as I’ve heard last week in the BIArch symposium from none other than the bloggers themselves!)

Proving that the phenomenon of middlebrow is true, and relevant, and escapes gatekeepers, and is to be studied as a phenomenon that redefines the previously well-kept frontiers of creative disciplines, the truth is that new magazines seem to pop up by the month only to cover the diverse and immense sea of visual and material middlebrow production in which we are now fully immersed.

When one would think it is an insane moment to start print media, only the production of middlebrow seems to justify that new print objects do show up.

Marc Valli, the editor of Elephant (and also the owner of the exquisite Magma magazine shop), defends the new publication as serving to cover the “vast and vital space in the middle”, the production that neither doesn’t quite fit into the strict legitimating mechanisms of the “art world” nor is it overtly “commercial” (although, let’s face it, mostly the middlebrow work is only precisely that: a fair and proper means to a living).

Another example of the current funny play with one’s own brows (or the lack of them) is the also new Nobrow magazine, a publication that bears no text whatsoever as its most brilliant feature.

Somehow resounding of the lowbrow art movement, and not as outrageous as the Lowbrow Project, Nobrow is ultimately a magazine that also deals with one of those activities –illustration– that has always been pushed to the minor or middle arts’ corner and now wants to enjoy its own cult status on a worldly scale.

As Raymond Williams once suggested, one may also correctly state that highbrow culture had to be rescued from deadly ennui by letting itself plunge onto the wide hypnotic embrace of an endless popular culture. As for the world of architecture print –and while we reminisce for immersing architecture in popular culture or await for Icon’s other take on pulp fiction– it may be said that not many publications address middlebrow.

The new Scandinavian magazine Conditions does, however, address middlebrow when it both repudiates the commercial tendency of most technical architectural magazines around it, and, at the same time, does not really carry any intellectual pretensions to define the borders of an architectural highbrow culture.

With a first issue on Strategy for Evolution, Conditions defined the interdisciplinary as its horizon of ambition –and perhaps the interdisciplinary is indeed the new middlebrow. But it is only within its second issue on Copy and Interpretation that the magazine really shifts onto the ambiguous and interesting middle ground in which most current architecture must today be interrogated.

While the highbrow magazines of the past insist in plunging into obscurity by dwelling into ever boring disciplinary obsessions –and while there’s also basically nothing wrong with the fact that the architectural blogzines that surround us are carrying middlebrow architecture to new heights of a-critical visibility– there is still a huge lack of reflection on what is really going on in other than the starchitects’ heads at this point in history.