Monthly Archives: March 2010

A Fictional Country?

Last week I was invited to be one of a few presenters in a curious book launch.

The book is named “A Rua da Estrada” –or “The Road Street”– an extraordinarily funny, but very real and official term, sometimes found in Portugal to designate road landscapes that from ancient rural thoroughfares slowly transformed into eccentric urban linear settlements.

The wonderful thing about Álvaro Domingues’ book is that, like any open work, instead of closing itself down into a final taxonomy, it just opens up a field of interpretation – as it was evident in the very diverse approaches to the volume.

I couldn’t but read the book as a weird tourist guide for a country that, while steadily sinking in the statistics of every possible economical indicator, can now rely in one and one only source of hope: tourism.

As many will know, tourism is already an important local resource, but before we soon reach the comical scenario described by Rui Zink in his delicious novel The Tourist Destination, there’s definitely one idea we must change about the potential of tourism in Portugal.

Given that the landscape has been proudly Balkanized much before the Balkan countries themselves discovered and exported the now fashionable concept, we have to fully embrace the notion of the exotic as a drive to bring more and more thrill-seeking tourists.

The idea had already occurred to me a few years ago, when I was driving to the Ellipse Foundation opening night. The way into the art space –portrayed in anarticle that the New York Times aptly baptized as “the suburbs turn up the chic”– resembled Mexico, but in an even more surrealist vein.

After all, this place was in the radius of a major Western European capital, and the superimposition of periods, styles, and functions in one relatively short stretch of road was truly unbelievable.

Logically, this corresponded  to the glorious historical period at which the still standing Portuguese Prime-Minister was – as I eventually commented in the Portuguese press at the time – discovered to be the author of some magnificent architectural pearls along the Portuguese roads.

As such, my argument last Friday night was that, rather than applying the cleansing recipe of someone like the smart –but ultimately traditionalist– Harvard landscape designer Carl Steinitz, we should put ourselves in the eyes of our visitors and revaluate the scrumptious exoticism of our landscapes.

Apart from all the students of the political and urban category of Balkanalogy also any scrutinizing art lover would, after all, surely indulge into the authentic leap into the void that a Yves Klein like the one pictured above may welcome.

And those educated movie-goers who are nostalgic for the situationist, yet popular iconoclasticism of Jacques Tati, may be fully enticed by a glimpse of a fantastic moment like the one portrayed by Domingues down here.

But the immense catalogue raisonné goes on. After all, it’s 230 pages of images scrupulously analyzed by the knowledgeable gaze of the Portuguese geographer.

Of course, all those who haven’t yet killed the modernist within –like FAT used to say– are also on to some undiscovered gems like this magnificent glass box of anonymous origin.

And those who are into ecologically driven green facades, another current and enticing fad, are naturally entitled to their own treats like this luscious little house, just about to bit the dust from a major national cross road.

And, finally, even the self-demanding architectural tourist will be able to discover, without too strenuous an effort, a true picnic by the roadside, like this genuine Pritzker prize watchfully guarded by a genuine marble lion – like if the ultimate reenactment of the Portuguese expression “um boi a olhar um palácio.”

This is why I couldn’t but recommend the book to everybody.

Every Portuguese should keep at least two or three copies: one for themselves and the others to be offered as an exquisite gift to the first friends that pop up to visit the country..

All images © Álvaro Domingues.

Fiction vs. the Return of the Real

Be it trend or fad, as I was pointing out in my previous post, this is a curious turning point for architecture, or at least for the architecture that gets to be published in those tracts of the blogosphere where many people are looking at.

It’s as if architecture – or its desire – is suddenly torn between the return to real needs and its own need to fantasize, be it through fiction – on which, I remind you, there’s a Call for Papers out there until the 6th April – or by the way of utopias now made possible by booming available technologies.

In the latest two newsletters I’ve received from Designboom – each covering one day of posts – one of the featured projects is again a conglomeration of shipping containers, and another a prefab house that presents itself under the guise of a 50’s childbook-like graphic illustration…

But this is only the beggining… So, please introduce your sound track now for Something Bigger, Something Better…

The next one is a bewildering sci-fi freshwater factory, competing with the water-purification skyscraper in Jakarta, and revealing that, long after François Roche‘s avant-garde move with his pollution-eating building a few years ago, architects are now quickly following on the footsteps of designers in their apt inclination to solve very down-to-water problems

As such, also the following one is a clever, crazy highrise that addresses the issue of water conflits in Sudan. And these guys coming from Poland, after Venice they have already an headstart in using fiction as a means to an architectural end…

Another is an utopian, but well-thought suspended prison fashioned after Archigram‘s walking cities, and the next one, again after Hotel Poland, is yet another contribution to the transformation of the Guggenheim museum void into yet another scenario of the near future…

(And, OK, one project is the new headquarters of The Hague International Criminal Court trying to desguise its screaming dull real-politik appearance by filling itself with Babylonic hanging gardens…)

If now everything is possible, let’s indeed pick those brains out for the most surrealist, out-of-the-box solutions for the return of the real – as it’s now being shown in an architecture office near you.

Mies Meets Lotek Meets the AFH

As I’ve sent a contribution to the Design Observer on how knowledge must now follow the circuit(s) of fashion – an oblique call for architecture and design intelligence to direct its means of recognition towards production that addresses new global needs – I keep on seeing signs of a curious paradigm shift.

Is it only in the eyes of this beholder, is it just a post-catastrophic fad, or, as it shows in one go of Arch Daily’s posts, is the architecture that now matters as relevant cultural contribute popping up in the most unexpected of contexts?

In particular, this project from TAM architecture that just appeared in Designboom is but tin clear evidence that the modernist culture of architecture is finally being twisted for the better.

After all the vain efforts of post-modernism to destroy those images of modernism that became academic norm, corporate fodder and the ultimate reflection of a golden eye of our fading ideals, reality presses on and forces modernism to adapt.

Rather, this is the time when the awareness of a tight global economy is starting to produce its benefits. The moment, perhaps, when the high costs of architecture start being seen as obscene – with stuff such as highly demanding regulations contributing to the unsustainable, cannibalistic feast.

And what a beautiful moment this is. Following Tad Toulis’ notion that ugly is taking our aesthetical perception by assault, this corrupted vision of Mies’ extenuated horizontality is the definitive homage to the modern master, and the one that again reencounters with the zeitgeist of its own instant.

As such, the exercise on shabbiness looks more like the provocative work of a bold artist than that of a group of architects. And yet, as architects childishly like to reclaim, all functional and contextual requirements are in place to justify both the spatial arrangement, the low-budget yet clever technical solution, and, last but not least, the historical appropriation of an ingrained disciplinary heritage.

Along their exquisite cultural operation, TAM have learned from Lot-ek and others earlier plays with shipping containers, and, as the work of Architecture for Humanity has the quality to suggest, they have already displaced their intelligence to a site that really needs it.

And this only makes them more like heavenly DJs that put everybody to dance by mixing old scratched records, and out of almost nothing create a vital party right in the midst of utter wilderness.

As this other little vila or a recent off-the-Ikea-shelf pavilion have proposed in different ways and totally different geographies, there is evidence that more than one paradigm shifts are indeed around the corner for current architecture.

However, as the Rural Studio first tried out, this is not only about low-budget seen as a creative drive, recycling taken as a motto, and means of popular mass-production used as an acceptable source for materiality.

It’s also about lo-fi as the new (aesth)ethics.