Monthly Archives: September 2011

Useless Architecture?

The name of this talk evokes the title of a recent conference given by Peter Eisenman. In Wither Architecture? the gentle and mature starchitect situated his recent practice within a double condition of lateness: a late work in the career of his author, and also an inevitable expression of the often called late capitalism. A charming weakness emerged from the almost anxious, if self-ironic, attempt to inscribe his work in the flow of architectural history. Eisenman’s obsessive use of fictional, historical or topographical grids to intellectualize and justify the form of his buildings came about as a means to achieve disciplinary legitimation. However, this was also a Piranesian prison that kept the creator from the pure creative act. Uttering a kind of last will, the architect aspired to one of the most useless and unreachable aspects of architecture: everlasting recognition. So as to produce relevant architecture, do we really need the various legitimations of visibility? Is architectural culture utterly useless or is it’s thinking strictly necessary to reiterate again and again the ultimate, unobvious usefulness of buildings?

This is the concept I’ve presented to ExperimentaDesign when invited to host one of their 2011 OpenTalks. With talk hosts such as curators Hans-Ulrich Obrist and Zoe Ryan, this promises to be one of the biennial’s Opening Week highlights, taking place as from today at 11am  in another amazingly empty heritage building in Lisbon’s historical core, until recently the home to the Boa Hora Law-Court.

.. At Trial in Boa-Hora Court, 1980. Via Memoriando.

So, this is the weird setting in which tomorrow at 11am invited ladies Alexandra Lange, architecture critic at the Design Observer, Folke Koebberling, from Koebberling & Kaltwasser, and Gretchen Mokry, from Architecture for Humanity will take architecture culture to martial enquiry…

The issue here is not really if buildings and shelter are useful, which they obviously are, but more if we may dismiss architecture thinking and its (dis)contents as distant and useless – as so many seem to assume too quickly.

Cities for the Future

The other day, as I was flying from Tallinn to London over the Baltic sea, with Scientific American’s excelling special issue on Better, Greener, Smarter Cities sitting on my lap, I couldn’t stop* weaving together some wild cards that came under my urban radar over the last few weeks.

For one, I attended the International Federation for Housing and Planning 55th World Congress to be in a panel that summarized some reflections from the potentially ongoing Another Urban Future think tank.

While I was at it, I felt overused buzzwords like sustainability were still fully around, performing as ideological clutches – as political, marketing tools – for planner corporations and institutional decision-makers. But the fact that we’ve more or less globally committed to implement sustainable processes, lower carbon-emission and greener cities in the near future is bringing new notions to the agenda, with retrofitting positively being my favorite.

As William Gibson has just put it in terms of fictional technique, retrofitting is all about reverse-engineering exiting cities – including what we call slums, favelas or shadow towns – so as to reduce the consumption of vanishing resources. What in other times we would call survival. And what we now strangely label as business opportunities.

To the distaste of some sections of our pragmatic, Western-oriented audience, the panel proposed as an alternative that we should stress and face up to notions such as contextual complexity, intense livability and community-oriented bottom up approaches, being that these are merely considered as conceptual apparatuses to help cities grow better. Because, as one knows, many of them will grow independently of any planning…

Those ideas were also convened with the precise intention of defying dodgy political habits and unadventurous  top-down behaviours. The discussion was a means of presenting problems, more than ready-made answers. And, in my case, it served to again call to mind the oddly forgotten, and yet overwhelming global dilemmas posed by emergent megalopolises, right as we speak.

On my way in to Estonia’s capital, I had seen the last of four documentaries included in the very interesting Cities on Speed series, and was driven to acknowledge that the current growth of megacities defies both traditional  and modern planning strategies. And thus we have to look at things very differently if indeed we – all of us – want to prevent scenarios like those of Cairo slowly but surely choking on its own garbage.

Garbage City, Cairo, via Inhabitat.

Following on the perception that telecommunications have already outcomed long-established needs for conventional infrastructure, maybe developing compact metropolises have to step directly onto robotized garbage collection, drilling new tunnels or retrofitting abandoned subterranean sewage systems so as to implement trash conveyer belts or computorised junk vacuum systems that can directly receive, select and process human debris into energy production.

Likewise, any other notion of traditional, heavy infrastructure probably has to be re-imagined so as to be substituted for cheaper, self-maintaining urban systems that recur to smart combinations of hi- and lo-tech, while fundamentally catering for the participation and involvment of local communities.

In face of such challenges, while our panel’s invitation to think out of the box might have been somewhat philosophical in tone, it slightly worried me that thinking – and namely anticipating the broader consequences of current decision-making – wasn’t on the memos of those who are indeed in charge of responding to the problems of contemporary cities.

The Man Whose Head Expanded

The man whose head in fact exploded captured the meager and eager attention of local and regional sensationalist tabloids in the early eighties. He was an unbeknownst artist, until he alleged that he had been a minimalist, a conceptualist and a pop artist, all simultaneously, and before their due time. His wonderful and frightening story gained him a place in the history of alternative pop music around 1982. As the song that immortalized him went, “the scriptwriter would follow him around, the soap opera writer would follow him around, and use his jewels for t.v. prime time.” (more…)

As GMG House is enjoying its second breadth of international appearances and is popping up in magazines across the globe, I guess it’s about time to add it to this blog’s architecture archive, along with the short story I wrote to go with it.

GMG House © Fernando Guerra, FG+SG Architectural Photography.

I don’t refer often to my own architecture practice in this space. That’s probably because I don’t do that much architecture. Maybe I build one project every two years. But when I do, I do it with extreme pleasure and hoping that this bliss will pass onto others, and preferably into their own lives. Indeed this may illustrate my lazy maxim that is better do do less, but to a maximum impact.

After it launched in Mark and Domus in May and was published online at Design Milk, the house’s images have literally tumblered around like arsoning, thus introducing me to the wonderful and frightening world of microblogging. In this rentrée, though, more people can now peruse through GMG House in print.

See GMG house in Frame #82, Icon #100, Azure 09.11, AIT 7/8.2011, MD 9.11

Media success, however, does not necessary equal new clients. And that has the fortunate outcome of still allowing me to delightfully wander in between 2 or 3 different activities that are essential to my intellectual wellbeing. One practice, after all, keeps my mind off the other. And all of them inform each other.