Category Archives: all things urban

Sour Times… for Architectural Criticism

 

While an ‘overheated debate’ has just turned sour* around the Chicago Architecture Biennale and its critics, I thought this was an excellent opportunity to unashamedly publicize my own recent reflection on current architectural criticism.

The piece came out on E-flux a couple of weeks ago, and is accessible to everybody without any paywalls or difficult-to-find print publication – one of the reason why I decided to have it there, rather than in any other outlet.

After all, this or any other piece of reflection will today be scarcely paid – in this or any other medium – so if one is certainly not going to make a living out of writing, why shouldn’t one favor the platforms that reach a wider audience without any barriers?

Here, I offer you one of the short-stories I included in “Five Meta-Reviews and Some Footnotes on the (Im)Pertinence of Architectural Criticism.

This is actually my favorite of five micro-narratives. As it is usual in its specific literary quality, science fiction really serves well the purpose to interrogate what is emerging around us…

 

A Tower

 

John blinked one eye, then the other. The newsfeed started to feed into her retina in a joyful cacophony of ads, algorithm-selected content, and personal video-messages. She hit pause in her temple and jumped to the desk chair on the other side of her 7.5sqm cubicle in the Newark expanses. Her latest successful IkeaRabbit bid had been confirmed while she slept, tagged with a 12-hour deadline, Hong Kong time. She now had 1 hour and 34 minutes to do the obituary.

The HKNYT local editors had thought it would be fun to do arch-obits to keep Manhattan’s memory alive after the great ’29 quakes. Some called it ruin porn, but every day a new tower was revived in 6D from its own rubble, and its 1k-story dully fed into the global newsfeeds. Today was the twenty-fifth anniversary of 432 Park Avenue’s “topping out” (as they used to say).

View of 432 Park Ave from Rockefeller Center Photo PeterSesar Wikimedia Commons 2017.jpg,2000 Rafael Viñoly Architects, 432 Park Ave , 2011–2015. Photo- PeterSesar:Wikimedia Commons, 2017.

Rafael Viñoly Architects, 432 Park Ave , 2011–2015. Photo: Peter Sesar/ Wikimedia Commons, 2017. Via E-flux.

As she called out the building’s name into FountainApp, the left screen started pouring out data into different columns. As most self-appointed art critics, she always went first for AGR ratings. Yet, if she wanted to avoid a blatantly negative yield, she had to balance it with specialist social media and a couple of academic feeds from wisdomquotes.com.

Guidelines also determined that she ought to include at least one piece of self-referential archive info from the old nyt.com. Fortunately, most AGR top-rated material came from there. In this case, she realized, most of it came from 425 commentaries on one single piece published at the time of the building’s completion. She dived into the first entries:

1. I can see this building from where I live. To me it’s a colossal monument to wretched excess and megalomania. I’m sorry it’s there.
2. A vertical ghost-town, standing as a monument to excess.
3. So, we’re supposed to welcome this phallus into the pantheon of noteworthy Manhattan architecture because the developer says we should?
4. Some people call 432 phallic; I call it a giant middle finger extended upward.
5. An astonishing addition to the panoply of useless, and utterly irrelevant residences for non-resident buyers.
6. I am not particularly upset about the proboscidian height and arguably unimaginative architecture of the 432 Park Avenue building, per se. Times change, cities grow, and architectural taste is subjective. What upsets me most is that this building is symptomatic of Manhattan’s decline as a place where people of moderate means can afford to build a life, raise a family, and be part of the wonderful history here.
7. It looks like the architect was poking fun at modernism. The perfectly square windows and extreme height make it a caricature of the modernist skyscrapers it’s surrounded by. It’s a perfectly contextual, satirical building.
8. This odd fixation with the material side of things at the expense of their aesthetic value (or lack of it) speaks volumes, and it promotes a culture of dumb strength.
9. As an architectural form, I think 432 Park Avenue is beautiful in its simplicity and symmetry. As a reflection on our city and society, the view is much less pleasant.
10. The clicking of boot heels on cold concrete. The distant churning of a furnace. An ocean of unreckonable souls reflected outwards, away, in the gloss of a pure and total pane of triple layer bulletproof tempered Paramount™ glass.
11. … (1)

This was truly the voice of the people as scored by their attention-grab nodes. Since Applefabet had secretly started to record and keep neuronal information from readers’ retinas around the mid-teens, this rating was the most reliable source for juicy, fun stuff.

She had a $9.99 budget for samples, and only from authorized PremiumWiki pages. So, any online vox populi had to be manually twisted and made invisible to piracybots. That was her job. And, with a little help from her apps, she excelled at it.

She spent the next 15 minutes selecting an amount of relevant information from other sources. From what seemed like one of the few specialist magazine publications on 432, she picked a nice contrasting opinion from one Aaron Betsky: “The tower’s very appearance represents the transformation of this and every other city into a place for the wealthy to live and play, but on the other hand it does so with an elegance, borne out of its simplicity as much as its height, that make it clear that it is still possible to make a beautiful skyscraper.”(2)

From another source, the single academic review she could find on the tower, she collected a cool-sounding theoretical reference: “Here, myths such as the democratic equanimity of the market and the rationality of global capital—performed in the repetition of squares, the flexibility of plans, and the durability of materials—are exposed in the act of their reproduction.”(3)

As she went along, she couldn’t help noticing that the building had elicited a lot of arguments on economic inequalities, which were now mostly incomprehensible. When the wealthy and powerful migrated to their cryopods and started to control things from their virtual paradises, such debates had become outmoded.

Even so, for the sake of context, she threw in a quote from a then famous business magazine: “The ascendance of 432 Park Avenue to its now-dominant place in the skyline says more about the state of our world than a thousand Thomas Pikettys typing on a thousand keyboards ever could.”(4) She was unsure this bit would fit in, but she liked the sound of it, and guessed the app would sort it out.

She fed it all into WordAI5.0.

Any arrangement of more than three words showing any resemblance to the original text was automatically presented between quote marks, permanently hyperlinked to the original and, once signed off, charged from her personal account. She used to joke that writing was now all about chasing inverted commas.

It took her another 28 minutes to edit connections, substitute words where needed, censor any ideological hues that the AI might have overlooked, and even add a personal flourish.

She re-read the piece, checked the 1000-character count, and felt good. She called out “Send!” and looked at the clock. She rejoiced, having made it 35 minutes before the deadline, adding a few precious credits to her online profile.

Now she could hit the shower, reconnect to the flow of her newsfeed and, like everyone else, wait for the notification on her next effective bid on IkeaRabbit.

 

Notes

  1. To the exception of points 7 and 10, all quotes from New York Timesreaders, on the piece Matt AV Chaban, “New Manhattan Tower Is Now the Tallest, if Not the Fairest, of Them All,” New York Times, October 13, 2014. Comment 7 taken from a comment placed on thisgreatname, “How do you architects like this building in Manhattan. It is referred to as 432 Park Avenue, but I like to call it ‘Stick Building’,” reddit, November 6, 2017, by ThatGreyKid.
  2. See Aaron Betsky, “432 Park Avenue and the Importance of Being There and Being Square,” Architect Magazine, October 16, 2014.
  3. See Jacob Moore, “432 Park Avenue: Pointing Fingers,” The Avery Review 4 (December 2014).
  4. See Joshua Brown, “Meet the house that inequality built: 432 Park Avenue,” Fortune, November 24, 2014.

*Here’s your soundtrack.

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Them or Us: Matters of Concern

 

The ambivalent idea of ‘them or us’ eloquently reflects some of the matters of concern that have occasionally propelled my past curatorial projects.

When asked for a contribution to an exhibition‘s catalogue of that same title, I proposed a walkthrough through some of those matters of concern.

Originally written in 2017, these arguments have since been lying dormant in another curator’s dream of a yet unpublished book.

Now, it felt urgent to spurt these stories out.

For one, because their timeliness may wane. There is a precise moment for everything, and our minds will certainly and hopefully fly away from our darkest considerations at one given moment. And for the other, because perhaps my own curatorial path has come to an interesting turning point.

After four blissful years at one of the most prestigious museum institutions in the world, and after another four schizophrenic years in Lisbon launching a museum at the intersection of contemporary art, architecture and the impacts of technology, it certainly feels like the sucked-out, turned-to-entertainment cultural arena is no longer the place from where one can address some of the matters of concern that affect our world today.

Perhaps writing is one good platform to address such matters of concern– and so perhaps I should again cherish this outdated blog format.

Or perhaps I should work harder on that plan to bring curatorial knowledge to those few cities and philanthropic institutions that have already come to realize they must redirect their resources in preparation for coming emergencies – but are still lacking the connections to the appropriate art and design intelligence.

For sure, in a society that has proclaimed itself capitalistic to death, one can also perhaps take in and accept Regine Debatty’s ironical intuition: we (must) make money, not art.

Maybe business and profit are indeed the ill-fated answer to emerging problems – as the words below may hint at.

As I land in Cambridge, Massachusetts, another blissful year immersed in the expansive intellectual environment of Harvard University will tell.

So, before everything becomes so last year, in this last Sunday* of our beloved month of August, here is my farewell gift to the country where I’ve spent the last four years.

I was seduced back to Portugal by that sort of sentimental appeal to which one eventually caves in for more personal and less obvious reasons.

These included the rare opportunity to launch a new institution, but also to provide your kin with a wider net of resources, including a few years of a (barely) still humanistic European education – i.e. giving your kids a second language in which they can properly express other ideas.

But now, it is time to leave again. Who knows if it is for good?

As expressed by a 17th century thinker that came to my mind during this last year of turmoil: “To be born, Portugal: to die, the world.” The son of a mulato woman, Padre António Vieira, travelled extensively around the world before he died in Brasil.

That is the Brasil that is now burning and was once the destination of a substantial part of Portuguese society, the aristocratic court included. Many Portuguese moved there, en masse and for good, two centuries ago. This became a quite unique, little known colonial history – a tale of ‘metropolitan reversal’ and substitution of a country by its colony, which is still to be unravelled and deconstructed in all its implications – especially for those left behind…

Meanwhile, today, in its desperate, ridiculous measures to lure emigrants back to Portugal, the current government may be realizing too late that one day in the near future this ever-after impoverished place will desperately need everybody that is still being systematically and viciously driven out of the country.

PublicoAs announced on Público these days, a program of millions to bait emigrants back to the country, decoyed only 71 sentimental and ill-informed individuals.

Madonna or Philip Stark may come and sing idiotic praise of Lisbon, but they will do only while they are bribed with 20% tax rates on their international royalties. Or until they quickly realize in what kind of bureaucratic nightmare they have landed – as Madonna did after only two years – and quickly promise to fly to the next fiscal paradise.

On the other opposite, what talented emigrant needs a 50% tax discount on incredibly low salaries? No ‘talent’ will be easily contented in a country in which the median salary is 950€ – but where a privileged, self-maintaining economic-political chaste diverts millions to offshores while a so-called leftist government coalition cracks down on the basic rights of the less affluent.

The logic of the local, nepotistic mafia, as I’ve heard it put by an insightful and exiled Portuguese researcher at Brown University circa 2012, is still basically the same: let them emigrants go eat cake somewhere else, so the less of us are left behind to fight for the remaining bread crumbs.

But if the day comes when all this exiled talent is needed, ties might be severed for too long for a comeback to be possible.

Think of the Portuguese names inscribed in the walls of the first synagogue ever established in New York, a few streets away from where I used to live in the Upper West Side. As Marx wisely put it, history first happens as tragedy, then as farce. Diaspora is diaspora.

So, in a mood of exorcism and cancellation, I offer you, and the world, a long weekend read: the previously unpublished and completely open-source English version of “Them or Us: Matters of Concern.” (Portuguese original essay here).

 

The Zombie Middle Class

In old John Carpenter movies, as again in the unstoppable awakening of the living dead in recent popular culture, one could already discern those allegories that evoke the indistinct and repellent forms to which the ‘others’ tend to be abridged, and ultimately turned into a ‘thing.’

Alas, when I was preparing the Uneven Growth exhibition at MoMA, in New York, it was the first time in my life in which I started to consider on which side of the fence I wanted – or could – situate myself in this dichotomy of ‘us’ and ‘the others.’

In a city and a country where class stratification is carefully obliterated from any debate – but where economic inequality is as expressive as in a regime of apartheid – we are inescapably driven to reflect on a daily basis about the pole where we might find ourselves, or where we aspire to be within a dual social scheme.

In Europe, while economic stress does not spread from South to North, one still endures peacefully with the imprecise comfort of a middle class generated by the post-War Welfare State.

In the United States, and in a city like New York, the idea of the social elevator associated to the American Dream has long been broken, reduced as it is now to a random social lottery. This is the place where we seriously start to consider if we may be contented with a falsely idealized ‘us’.

zombie-decayImage from Business Insider: The Global Middle Class is in a State of Decay

With the rattle of a middle-class increasingly squeezed between opposites, we discover a socio-economical niche slowly compelled to choose if they adhere by all possible means to the top 1%, or if, without true choice, they let themselves slid into deprivation.

Even if ideologically or culturally one does not want to embrace the 1% – and thus contribute to a growing asymmetry – who in their perfect mind would choose the second option?

 

I’d Rather Not

Although ultimately everything may depend on the difficult art of maintaining all options open, the ‘us’ of an urban(e) middle class in risk of extinction will eventually have to choose between the two ‘others’ that increasingly and radically polarize in globalized cities.

It is certainly not per chance that the biggest growing ‘urban typologies’ in recent years are ‘gated communities’ and… the slums.

The ‘choice’ between these two –or the rising loss of such mirage– is what pervades a metropolis such as Rio de Janeiro, one of the megacities examined and portrayed in Uneven Growth.

UnevenGrowthBlogUneven Growth’s blog, with tactical urbanism contributions from around the globe.

As in other metropolises of Asia or Africa for which we’ve harnessed some top critical thinking, the social strata that corresponds to a lower, worthy middle class –comprised of qualified workers and services employees– is now bound to inhabit the city in ‘informal conditions.’ This is the only regime that ‘favelados’, or those condemned to the slums, manage with their meagre earnings.

One should always correctly underline that, globally, millions are escaping extreme poverty. But what is usually and conveniently forgotten, is that such an escape does not necessarily translate into a palpable and dignified access to the ‘formal city’ that fits with the Western definition of middle-class.

More alarming is the fact that, given the evolution of the planet’s ecological crisis and the gradual depletion of its resources, we should not expect this tendency to reverse. On the contrary, it is not difficult to predict that this tendency will rather spread to contexts where until now prevailed the formal regime of a broadly established middle-class.

One should only remember the cautionary tale of Detroit, once the capital of the American auto industry. Or be reminded of how, in the wake of the Katrina storm, New Orleans made evident that urban ferality – or the potential of a city to regress into chaos and a previous evolutionary stage – is always lurking closer than one imagines.

As in other subjects, the research of American military intelligence has already long ago registered these facts with a cold, calculating, sort of mild anxiety.

 

A Lapse in History

When we remember that, in Europe or in cities such as New York, substantial parts of the urban population only gained access to a ‘rightful’ city in the beginnings of the 20thcentury, we realize how the ‘us’ of the middle-class as we know it today can one day be studied as an ephemeral reality, a brief and exotic instant in the long history of humanity.

As we have discussed throughout Uneven Growth, the slum eradication programs in big European and American cities were sustained by rapid industrial growth – as well as, let’s face it, by the wealth resulting from colonization and the increasing devastation of fossil fuels and the extraction of other natural resources.

Today, however, we will hardly have the resources to control and counter the expansion of new, fast-spreading informal urban developments. The tactical urbanisms addressed in the MoMA exhibition predicted bottom-up solutions for adaptation, more than an impossible eradication.

In this context, it is not hard to anticipate scenarios that align with much science fiction recently produced in Hollywood –from Elysium to Ghost in the Shell– in which informal regimes, radical inequality and generalized poverty fuse and hybridize with advanced, mass-produced technologies.

elysium1 The global slum in Neil Blomkamp’s Elysium. Image from solidarity-us.org.

This is the everyday steampunk that has been portrayed by the likes of Margaret Atwood or Bruce Sterling, but was first glimpsed at the level of popular culture in films such as Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.

Now, after movies have made it distortedly glamorous, it really is the time to welcome the technologically-enhanced slum.

 

Rat Tribes and Other Contemporary Humans

The more dystopian scenarios facing humanity in the near future – as opposed to the 500-year dream of utopia that brought us to the present –  was the theme of the Utopia/Dystopia book, as well as MAAT’s first manifesto exhibition reuniting artists and architects.

Given the sudden turn from utopia to dystopia, it is unsurprising that so many artists today look at the decline of basic human rights in different contexts, often related to the growth of urban informality in an age of ecological distress.

The informal is back, also as an aesthetic pursuit. 

And amid the broad return to a plastic and visual informality, some artists focus particularly on emerging hidden social realities so as to make them visible to the general public.

During the 15thIstanbul Biennale, led by artist duo Elmgreen & Dragset under the theme A Good Neighbor, some 10% of the 56 invited artists decided to work on the emergence of new, dismal realities of the urban informal habitat.

Originating in different geographical contexts, a few artworks portrayed individuals that some years ago would be happy to be born in societies where slum living had been or was being abolished.

In The Fascism of Daily Life, British artists Morag Keil and Georgie Nettell reveal the degrading shared-housing conditions of young London professionals who, in the heart of Europe’s financial capital, confront the harsh reality of being the first European generation that on average earns less than their parents.

Chinese artist Sim Chi Yin, on the other hand, discloses the tight, unhealthy subterranean dwellings of what Chinese media call the ‘rat tribe’: youngsters who are forced to live in dire conditions to guarantee proximity to their jobs in downtown Beijing.

SimChiYin-RatTribe-1_1200px

Image from The Rat Tribe series, circa 2012, courtesy Sim Chi Yin.

During the research for Uneven Growth, similar situations of ‘invisibility’ were found in the neighborhoods of Queens, New York, where incoming immigrants share slum-dormitories by the dozens, in anonymous converted terrace houses.

The difference regarding the past is that the new tribes own smartphones and, beyond their unavoidable fiscal contributions, they willingly play their share in the system of consumption that drives the global economy towards its logical disaster.

As a member of the public wittingly responded to one of the proposals in Uneven Growth, “if you can’t give them bread, give them wifi.”

 

Them or Us

Even in a periphery such as Portugal, the notion of ‘us’ is progressively identifiable –to the extremes of political correcteness and its opposites– with those who have a certain economic or social power, who have come to achieve a certain level of knowledge, those who ‘understand the world’ (including understanding ‘the other’), those who have supposedly deconstructed and overcome their colonial symptoms.

The ‘us’ is also identifiable with those those who still proudly self-classify as middle class, and those who, well, are convinced that they are definitely beyond the evolutionary stage of slum living.

The ‘them’, on the other hand, encompasses all those who are not framed within such diffuse ontological categories.

These include the usual migrants and refugees, the indigenous, those of ‘other races,’ the ‘poor’, but also those who came before us, those who don’t agree with us, those who in one form or another dominate us, and also all the non-humans who, in a forthright Anthropocene age, seem to have suddenly ‘reappeared’ to share the planet.

And it is true that the ‘or’ that sits in-between these two interchangeable realities has a character of radical exclusion, which again and moreover comes down to a Darwinian survival instinct.

If, anthropologically, this instinct has always been present – the survival of ‘our’ group depends on the annihilation of the ‘other’ group – such impulse accrues whenever a generic menace pops up.

If racial and ethnic differences serve to spark the conflict, factors such as the scarcity of resources, not to say the endemic poverty of a region or a nation, as well as the yet only barely perceived effects of climate change, are some of the threats that sharpen the mutually exclusive character of the ‘or’ that sits between ‘them’ and ‘us.’

In the midst of this terse dichotomy, full of inevitable belligerent contours, it is convenient to be reminded that ‘we’ are always the ‘they’ of another ‘other.’

In Southern Europe, as we well know, we are the ‘them’ of Northern Europeans. And vice-versa. In the streets of Luanda, I occasionally felt an entrenched racism penetrating the surface of my phantom-white skin, as I’m sure that all Angolans who do not resemble affluent oligarchs have occasionally had the same exact feeling in the streets of Lisbon.

As another curatorial project came to investigate, one of the less discussed impacts of the climate crisis is precisely the radical increment of socio-economic inequalities.

The investigation for the Eco-Visionaries exhibition and book may well have started with the idea of combining ‘the pessimism of the intellect’ with ‘the optimism of will.’ But, early on, the latter was easily submerged in the former.

After all, it is necessary to state that, contrary to how the news of the day non-challantly put it, the growth of global inequity will not so much occur because the ‘poor’ countries who less contribute to climate change will be the first ones to be affected.

Even in a country undergoing severe drought and increasing desertification, such as Portugal, this is the kind of factoid that seems to have little effect on ‘us.’

We conveniently assume that this new imbalance affects only some distant ‘them’ – a few small island-nations that will sink into oblivion, or, on the other side of the scale, a few African countries whose populations are beginning to fall prey to hunger and thirst.

No.

What is seldom discussed –and only a few dare to suggest in writing, most notably Bruno Latour in ‘Down to Earth’– is that the slow evidence of a 6thMass Extinction on planet Earth will trigger first famines and war, and then a technological rat race to determine who are the 66 to 97 or 99% of the human population (have your guess) that will face extermination, so that any number from the ‘other’ third to 1 or 3% will comfortably join the new Noah’s Ark.

In preparation to such an event, these cold probabilities imply, first of all, that inequalities must be accentuated beyond recognition, as governments around the world seem to have already quietly assumed.

And secondly, one must actively and furiously create the biggest number possible of ‘others’ that are destined to be erased, so as to start fast reducing the numbers of those who will be able to integrate the privileged group of the surviving ‘us.’

The ease with which, as I write, Donald Trump announced at the United Nations –to no visible indignation– that he was more than ready to eradicate 25 million North-Koreans is, of course, only a bitter aperitif to the coming decades.

If those 25 million humans are merely guilty of the unfortunate fate of living in a mad dictatorship, the less affluent in the United States should start to shiver.

 

EcoVisionáriosMadridAn Instagram view of Eco-Visionaries at Madrid’s Matadero.

 

The New Normal

The probable event that scientists designate as the 6th Mass Extinction, is nothing else than the logic and objective corollary of a thorough analysis of five previous such events. As research shows, along the history of our planet these events have led to the disappearance of most species then existing.

We humans are left with the doubtful comfort that our ancestors were one of the species that survived the 5thMass Extinction. But we may also cheer with mixed joy that, given the current status of our technology, we may be one of the few species that will also survive the next extinction event.

Even if we are not guided by principles of divine justice, we may lament everything that is already disappearing. (What was that piece of news that seemed so impactful the first time we read it? Ah, yes, finally it is only one million species that are facing extinction. Phew!)

We may also furtively commemorate that there is a strong and perverse possibility that we survive that ugly moment in which the planet will naturally regurgitate and vomit all the garbage that we have produced since the advent of the Industrial Revolution.

Meanwhile, out of the pure need to maintain our mental balance, we will adamantly ignore and repress this seemingly unstoppable progression towards planetary readjustment.

In fact, this extinction phenomenon may occur anytime between 50 to 250 years ahead, according to the degree of optimismof each potential scenario.

As such, ‘we’ may, once again, take comfort from the probability that we will no longer see the worst – even if, with this psychological resource, we are actually (and indifferently) putting our sons and grandsons in the despicable category of ‘them.’

Put in other terms, the emotional readjustment to what is coming will necessarily translate in a need to adapt the human perceptive system to a ‘new normal.’

And this is a ‘new normal’ which is pretty more radical that the one that still inflates the discourses of politicians and economists.

This is not the ‘new normal’ of the economy’s secular stagnation after the great recession of 2008. And this is not the new normal of slowbalization.

This is not even the ‘new normal’ of the rebirth of nationalist and populist base instincts. This is the ‘new normal’ of the long, bumpy road to a potential total annihilation.

And, in this respect, contemporary art and culture may hopefully still have a role that goes beyond a necessary political activism – as I’ve once suggested to the architectural field in MoMA’s exhibition Ways of Being Political.

It may have a role that goes beyond the occasional unveiling of what remains invisible in today’s society, as put to evidence in the video works shown in MAAT’s exhibition Tension & Conflict.

Jorge Macchi, 12 Short Songs, 2009Jorge Macchi’s 12 Short Songs, at MAAT’s Tension&Conflict, Video Art After 2008.

J.W. Turner and the Impressionists have helped us get acquainted to a new industrial era, and transformed atmospheric pollution in a new motif for the Kantian sublime – a notion that, let’s recall it, was itself triggered by the idea of catastrophe, and in particular by the lasting echoes of the Lisbon 1755 earthquake on the thinkers of the Enlightenment.

Futurists and Cubists, on the other hand, helped us getting used to the modern distortions of visuality and culture, ignited by the rise of new technologies that both fed the vertigo of speed or the complexification of urban life, as well as the massacres of World War I.

In face of the new normal’s most superficial signs, many in today’s art field find immediate consolation in the humble idea of ‘resistance.’ In a polarity that since the heights of Modernity is already traditional in cultural production, the illusory attraction of ‘resistance’ orients art towards autonomy, but also more dangerously to an effective refusal to take the bull by the horns.

Yet, while the uselessness of art, usually hiding in such arguments, may still be considered a silly advantage, such uselessness may effectively come to assert art to its own inconsequential mass extinction.

Indeed, in face of the new normal’s deeper character, what would be the advantage of art’s uselessness? Temporary comfort while one sinks? Food for thought while one starves? Or is it just a market strategy to guarantee the symbolic values of an increasing inequality while we fight for the last resources?

On the contrary, I still want to believe that art can again assume the role of an avant-garde in dissecting a yet poorly understood global war. I still want to believe that cultural production, as cultural mediation, will still have a role in that opposition of ‘them’ or ‘us’ that ultimately is the quintessence of the ‘new normal.’

The ‘new normal’ – the expression we now use to express resignation to an era in which nothing will be as before, or as Naomi Klein put it, to a condition that ‘changes everything’ – is surely a good theme for a future curatorial endeavor, wherever that may happen.

I do believe that, vis-à-vis ‘our’ and ‘their’ long path of psychological adjustment to the ‘new normal,’ artistic practices in any cultural field – think of Darren Aronofski’s Mother – are once again called upon to make us cope with the inevitability of living on an everyday basis with the new paradigms of the unequal, the informal, the ugly, and the monstrous.

 

This text was commissioned for the yet unpublished catalogue of “Them or Us: um Projecto de Ficção Científica, Social e Política”, an exhibition curated by Paulo Mendes at Porto’s Municipal Gallery, from June 2 to August 13, 2017.

*Here you find the soundtrack for this post.

Lisboa 2.0

 

Não há fome que não dê em fartura. Este ano — este mês, este dia — este blog oferece dois posts. Espantoso. É tempo de balanço.

Há um ano regressava a Lisboa e abraçava o meu ‘novo normal.’ Deixava um confortável e prestigiado ‘9 to 5’ para embarcar numa montanha-russa emocional que, como já sabia, me traria dissabores e desilusões, como também doses sobressalentes de excitação e ilusión.

A vida é mesmo assim. Feita de contrastes, esquizofrenia acelerada. E  apenas vale a pena quando se persegue algo maior — ou, como diria o poeta, quando a alma não é pequena. Apenas assim os obstáculos se tornam ínfimos e indiferentes. Até à frase liminar com que o arquitecto de Ayn Rand brinda o seu assanhado detractor em The Fountainhead: “But I don’t think of you.”

No Portugal obediente e servil que nos habituámos a conhecer, o parágrafo anterior  soaria arrogante e pretensioso.* De facto, por entre os resquícios de um país submetido a 40 anos de fascismo, este tipo de afirmações na primeira pessoa soa ainda indizível — “A lata!” — O despudor, mesmo.

Felizmente, agora estamos na Lisboa 2.0. Começamos a aprender que apenas não temos motivos de orgulho, como temos direito a estar orgulhosos. Começamos a perceber que temos direito a moldar uma cidade à nossa ambição e às nossas capacidades. E que, pequeno detalhe, temos Presidente de Câmara com ambição e capacidade a condizer.

Na Lisboa 2.0 começamos até a perceber que, na abertura de um museu, podemos também ter direito a um discurso prime time inaudito por um Presidente de República brilhante. (A eleição de outro português generoso para secretário-geral das Nações Unidas chegou no dia seguinte.)

Como aconteceu noutras paragens, pode acontecer que a economia da capital do país descole da economia do país — e que onde um perde população, a outra a recupera. O Porto 2.0 também lá está para provar que, como já se sabe, as cidades são o motor económico das regiões — mas também o podem ser para um país.

Claro que ainda há pontes por completar. Claro que ainda há situações ridículas em que compreendemos que as nossas ambições — “Vamos revitalizar a frente ribeirinha de Lisboa!!” — são limitadas por infra-estruturas inadequadas.

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Via jornal Público, sample de foto de Fábio Augusto.

Pode ser por real falta de fundos. Pode ser por galhardias partidárias que ainda nos fazem parecer atrasados mentais perante o mundo. Mas a verdade é que, como país pobre que somos, ainda temos muitos desafios pela frente.

Apesar de Portugal ser um país de pequena dimensão, e logo mais fácil de gerir, há dificuldades reais em ultrapassar atrasos estruturais. É difícil recuperar a distância quando os outros não param de correr. E é mais fácil aos outros continuarem à frente quando partiram com avanço considerável.  Mais irritante, porém, é que num país que não é mesmo para novos, permaneça a abundância de velhos do Restelo.

Estes são os que protestam contra o investimento em cultura por parte de uma empresa que foi privatizada pelo Estado — e que, portanto, a partir daí apenas deve contas aos seus accionistas. São os que ficam obcecados com os detalhes mal-acabados e passam ao lado do gesto maior. São os detractores profissionais a quem falta generosidade para exercer a crítica como um estímulo positivo.

Ainda assim, para todos aqueles que ainda não captaram bem o que está a acontecer, aqui ficam (quase) todas as minhas razões para ter deixado Nova Iorque e regressar a Lisboa. Até que, de novo, precise de mudar de ares.

O texto está todinho na UP, aquela revista inflight da TAP que tem um milhão de leitores por mês. Lisboa 2.0 já não é “um segredo bem guardado.”

 

– “Então, mas, conte-me lá… Porque decidiu regressar de Nova Iorque?”

A senhora sussurrava como se me conhecesse há décadas. O torso ligeiramente inclinado como que à espera de uma confidência, sorriso pícaro, o ponto alto da entrevista. As variantes desta cena repetiram-se ao longo de meses a partir do verão de 2015. A outra pergunta recorrente deixava-me mais inquieto:

– “Mas, então, explique-me lá… Quem é que deixa o MoMA para voltar a Lisboa…?”

Primeiro, tentei as respostas superficiais, nem por isso menos verdadeiras.

– “Ah! A qualidade de vida de Lisboa!”

Depois, entediado, ou apreensivo que alguém pudesse ler todas as minhas entrevistas, mudei de direção. As verdadeiras razões deviam ser caladas para sempre, até que mudasse de ideias. Assim, desenterrava coisas vagamente credíveis sobre o desejo improvável de regressar a Lisboa.

– “Sabe? Um dia via a CNN num quarto de hotel de Düsseldorf e ouvi: “Lisbon is now the coolest capital city in Europe!” Imediatamente pensei: “WTF??!! What am I doing here?”, percebe?”

Coisas do género. Cada escavadela uma minhoca. A ausência de humidade. O almoço na praia a 20 minutos de carro, de maio e outubro. A quantidade de major cities a duas horas de avião.

– “Pense em Nova Iorque… Certo? Nada de interessante a menos de cinco horas de voo.”

Pois. A Europa. A minha casa. O peixe grelhado, claro. O estado do mundo. A beleza inacreditável de Lisboa – quando tantas cidades perderam a graça. Farrapo a farrapo, lá se construía um repertório. Finalmente, vinha a resposta profissional, fácil, ou nem tanto:

– “Minha senhora, não é todos os dias que se recebe o desafio de lançar um novo museu.”

Não queria soar pedagógico, claro. Mas, ainda estrangeirado, lá tinha que explicar que isto, enfim, era once in a life time. Mais a mais, enumerava, se o museu tinha ambições internacionais. Se pretendia ser inovador, a intersetar arte contemporânea com arquitetura, cidade e tecnologia. Se significava uma chance ímpar de pôr artistas a refletir sobre o que está a mudar (n)as nossas vidas. Um projeto assim é único em qualquer sítio (acrescentava). Mais ainda em casa própria, onde nunca se é honrado como profeta (coibia-me de dizer). Dá trabalho. Mas compensa o não usufruir tanto da qualidade de vida para a qual, supostamente, se voltava.

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Via Instagram, foto de Pedro Gadanho.

A abertura do MAAT vai trazer um público diferente a Lisboa. Alguns deles, com quem me cruzava em Bienais e eventos internacionais, diziam-me que procuravam uma boa razão para vir à cidade pela primeira vez. Não se apercebiam que lhes ficava mal a confissão. Não percebiam que era como dizer que nunca tinham visitado Roma ou Paris. Ou Londres. Ou Istambul. Ou Nápoles. Lisboa já tinha tudo de irresistível. Há séculos. Mesmo assim, quisemos juntar-lhe água de beber, contemporaneidade, internacionalização. Agora, temos apenas que evitar que a cidade se torne demasiado atrativa demasiado depressa.

– Shhhhh!…

*Para aqueles que ainda não conhecem, no asterisco está a banda sonora do post.

Futuro Desigual, Destino Equivalente

Enquanto Uneven Growth, Tactical Urbanisms for Expanding Megacities parece lentamente tornar-se realidade – pelo menos do ponto de vista mediático – lembrei-me de publicar aqui a versão original e completa do “white paper” onde germinaram muitas das ideias por detrás da exposição que agora se anuncia para o MoMA, em Novembro de 2014.

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Merece-me comemorar aqui o facto de a tradução portuguesa deste ensaio, que em 2011 viu a luz do dia numa publicação académica da Universidade de Gent com o curioso título de Tickle your Catastrophe, estar para breve.

Pelo menos é o que me diz um desses corajosos editores que, no meio da pantanosa crise portuguesa, ainda insiste em fazer alguma coisa.

Esta publicação junta-se assim a algumas outras, como os catálogos da conferência Once Upon a Place ou da exposição Performance Architecture, que nos últimos tempos aparecem muito a custo, a culminar os últimos projectos que levei a cabo em Portugal.

Lembrando-me desses projectos, ocorre-me quão incrível é que, em Portugal, ainda sobre gente* como a Susana – a figura tenaz por detrás da conferência sobre arquitectura e ficção, que, a propósito, tem agora a sua segunda edição já noutras paragens, infelizmente em versão um pouco mais boring.

Ainda há portugueses que, a partir do seu lugar, resistem a essa mistura de ódio entranhado e inveja encapotada pelos que querem fazer alguma coisa, que infelizmente ainda singra na sociedade portuguesa – mesmo quando a austeridade deveria sugerir maior solidariedade.

No momento em que, por outro lado, a solidariedade de gala começa, por incipiente e bacoca que seja, a substituir o Estado na manutenção do que tínhamos adquirido por básico, torna-se mais ou menos claro que estamos a bater no fundo. (Na Europa e no mundo, os outros também se estão a afundar, apenas ainda não o reconheceram.)

Talvez devêssemos começar a mostrar mais do nosso típico respeitinho por aqueles que ainda se dão ao trabalho de querer fazer – em vez de, também eles, sejam empreendedores, políticos ou agentes culturais, se dedicarem à tarefa bem mais fácil de ir para a praia

Diria com algum grau de certeza que, se há gente que ajuda a manter qualquer coisa à tona, essa é precisamente feita dos que gostam de “fazer” malgré tout.

Para dar algum alento aos que persistem, devo dizer que, como todos os projectos com alguma ambição, também Uneven Growth teve uma gestação longa e difícil – o que, de resto, continua a ser verdade mesmo após o lançamento público bem sucedido da exposição e do primeiro workshop do projecto no MoMA PS1 há duas semanas atrás.

Cohstra@MoMAPS1MoMAPS1, do modo que agora encontramos as nossas imagens… via Twiter.

Por vezes, ocorre-me que a razão essencial porque o destino me trouxe a uma instituição como o MoMA tem precisamente a ver com a necessidade inata, ou a profunda carolice, de querer levar este projecto a bom porto. (Embora, obviamente, não devesse falar antes de tempo.)

Aqui e ali e acolá e outra vez aqui, ainda sob a designação de Emergent Megalopolis, podem ainda ler-se os restos arqueológicos de um conceito nascido numa visita a Saigão há mais de dez anos atrás – num tempo da minha vida em que ainda era possível decidir, de um momento para o outro, que ia viajar durante um mês no Sudoeste Asiático.

Em Saigão, sob o efeito da percepção aguda que as viagens proporcionam, tive uma experiência decisiva e transformadora: atravessar a rua numa realidade urbana que me era inteiramente nova.

Saigon-ViaWithoutBaggageAs ruas de Saigão, a.k.a. Ho Chi Min City, via Without Baggage.

Quando se atravessa a rua em Saigão, o acto tem que ser negociado de uma forma diferente do habitual. Numa cidade sem semáforos e com milhões de scooters (como agora vim a reencontrar em Taipei) a primeira coisa que nos ensinam é que, para atravessar os antigos boulevards carregados de um fluxo de trânsito incessante, também os transeuntes não podem parar.

Quando se atravessa a rua em Saigão, temos que nos munir de coragem e avançar sempre ao mesmo passo por entre a corrente compacta de tráfego. E temos que olhar nos olhos todos aqueles que avançam para nós, para perceber se vão passar à nossa frente, ou atrás de nós.

Foi nesse momento da negociação do olhar com milhares de jovens asiáticos que nasceu a inspiração de que, mais cedo do que mais tarde, teríamos que imaginar novos modos de responder ao crescimento do urbano no século XXI.

Tal como, no inicio do séc. XX, Georg Simmel alertou para a emergência de uma nova consciência metropolitana, agora devemos preparar-nos para o estado de emergência da urbanização completa de um planeta em que os recursos, ao contrário da população, não estão propriamente a crescer de dia para dia.

E por isso vale a pena sublinhar que, depois de querer ter sido programa de televisão e documentário experimental multi-episódios, e para além do desejo de mapear de novas formas de prática arquitectónica, ou a vontade de perceber como substituir estratégias de planeamento obsoletas, este projecto é agora, apenas e só, uma investigação sobre como arquitectos e outros actores urbanos podem vir a lidar com a desigualdade e o empobrecimento progressivo de uma sociedade cada vez mais intrinsecamente global.

Turista Acidental (Dose Dupla)

Não sei bem se por preguiça (de deixar as imagens falar) ou por necessidade (de deixar o registo ficar), sempre desejei começar aqui uma espécie de travelogue que me permitisse deixar instantâneos e impressões das inúmeras viagens que tenho vindo a fazer por “obrigação profissional.”

De regresso de Zurique, acresce, senti-me inundado por uma sensação que seria arrogante, se não fosse também sinceramente humilde: reconhecer um enorme privilégio por, entre outras solicitações, poder continuar a fazer um circuito intenso e variado de conferências um pouco por todo o mundo.

Raramente vejo as conferências como um fim em si. É certo que é bom contribuir com o conhecimento que, por alguma razão, se acumulou. Mas a secreta atração das conferências sempre foi, para mim, a possibilidade de conhecer lugares, instituições e pessoas interessantes: criar redes e acolher novas perspectivas.

ZurichZurique em versão postal ilustrado.

Na ETH de Zurique, para além de estreitar laços com uma network de Arte e Arquitectura do MIT agora espalhada pelo mundo, gratificou-me poder dialogar em palco com a fabulosa Ute Meta Bauer, alguém que apenas se pode descrever como uma referência incontornável da curadoria contemporânea.

Comentámos que, curiosamente, já nos tínhamos cruzado quando há 12 anos atrás organizámos exposições que se sucederam na agora sub-utilizada galeria da Biblioteca Almeida Garrett, no Porto – obviamente por ocasião da swan’s song da cidade que foi a Capital Europeia da Cultura de 2001.

1PostR05Post-Rotterdam, uma estreia curatorial há 12 anos atrás.

(A Ute Meta Bauer no Porto, em 2001, como outros ao longo dos anos, diz algo do talento português para identificar e trazer a casa quem está prestes a explodir na cena internacional. É de relembrar que, depois do convite de um dos nossos primeiros cultural exilées, Miguel von Haffe Perez, a Ute prosseguiu para dirigir a Documenta e a Bienal de Berlim, antes de, como tantos europeus hoje em dia, ser ela própria cativada por uma instituição americana).

Em Zurique tive a oportunidade de observar como, na última verdadeira bolha de bem-estar do território europeu, a qualidade de vida continua acima de qualquer média. E as instituições como a ETH renovam-se virando-se para fora, para esse mundo em convulsão que verdadeiramente pode beneficiar da enorme acumulação de conhecimento da Europa.

Depois de conversar com Marc Angélil, o director do Master de Urban Design da ETH, e Hubert Klumpner, dos Urban Think Tank – que após o sucesso de Veneza são agora também “residentes” na Suiça – concluí que a minha intuição estava correcta quando pensei incluir a ETH no meu próximo projecto curatorial.

Com os labs de Columbia e MIT (justamente), a ETH é a outra instituição académica que, ao lado de colectivos emergentes e ateliers locais, deverá fazer parte do grupo de participantes de Uneven Growth, Tactical Urbanisms for Expanding Megacities, a exposição que, desvele-se, está prometida para suceder a Rising Currents e Foreclosed no MoMA…

Adiante, porém, ou para trás, de Zurique para Kuwait City – que, em rigor, deveria ter correspondido ao meu falhado travelogue de Março. Eis pois outra cidade imensamente afluente que me vejo revisitar amiúde, pelo menos em memória,  quando conto a quem me quer ouvir que este foi um dos mais estranhos sítios que já se me deu conhecer.

Kuwait1Room With a View #35, 2013. 

A primeira imagem que tive do Kuwait quando acordei no meu hotel foi talvez sintomática: uma paisagem lunar e desértica, que só mais tarde compreendi ser um cemitério. Decepcionado com a ausência de urbanização galopante, pedi que me mudassem de quarto.

O Kuwait é diferente do mais mediatizado Dubai por uma razão essencial: o petróleo foi descoberto mais cedo, nos anos 30. Portanto os naturais do Kuwait consideram-se naturalmente um povo à parte, obviamente muito menos nouveau riche que os seus companheiros do Golfo.

Kuwait3aRoom With a View #36, 2013

Convidado por Zahra Ali Baba, do National Council of Culture, Art and Letters, para falar sobre plataformas de divulgação e reflexão de arquitectura, esta foi uma oportunidade para conhecer um quadrante da geopolítica política totalmente novo para mim. (Como nos livros do Tintin, não deixaria porém de deparar com mais um português “na diáspora,” um jovem arquitecto com quem, por sinal, já tinha colaborado há não muito tempo.)

Num país onde a primeira Faculdade Arquitectura surgiu há pouco mais de 10 anos, a minha lecture inclinou-se a contrapor as diferenças e semelhanças entre as possibilidades de uma prática crítica da curadoria – algo sobre o qual já é tempo de partilhar aqui um velho ensaio  – quer essa seja feita em regime free-lance, quer num âmbito mais institucional.

No entanto, a conferência – e as escassas 36 horas que passei em Kuwait City –serviram também para anotar algumas impressões sobre um mundo à parte, pelo menos enquanto o petróleo durar pelos próximos 30 anos.

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As poucas décadas de avanço que o Kuwait levou sobre os seus vizinhos significaram apenas que este pequeno Emirado abraçou um modelo de re-urbanização um pouco diferente das opções mais recentes. Um modelo que, no entanto, quando olhado em retrospectiva, não parece menos duvidoso.

Até aos anos 30, Kuwait City não era mais que uma aldeia piscatória adaptada às duras condições locais – i.e., a temperaturas frequentes acima de 60o centígrados. Após a passagem da II Guerra Mundial sob protectorado inglês, porém, o Kuwait decidiu-se a comprar a receita urbanística da época e dedicou-se diligentemente a erradicar o seu próprio passado.

Perseguidos os ideais modernistas de um zonamento funcional estrito,  a cidade destruída pela opção urbanística de proceder a uma rigorosa segregação social e espacial, Kuwait City parece ter sofrido mais com as suas opções urbanísticas de então do que com a destruição proveniente da invasão pelo Iraque nos anos 90. Os edifícios reconstroem-se, as comunidades não.

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A segregação espacial proposto pelas corporações arquitectónicas inglesas tiveram efeitos estapafúrdios. O centro da cidade, esvaziado de habitação, esvaziou-se também de pessoas. Encheu-se, no entanto, de automóveis que – como na Islândia, mas por razões climáticas inversas – funcionam perfeitamente como uma extensão MacLuhaniana do corpo e da roupa.

Quando a minoria da população natural do Kuwait não se encontra no ambiente climatizado do seu automóvel topo-de-marca ou do seu escritório 8-to-1, é mais que certo que se encontra num centro comercial. Parte do roteiro turístico obrigatório, em particular quando nos encontramos no paraíso da cultura franchise, os grandes shoppings de Kuwait City constituem obviamente o tipo de espaços que fazem o Colombo empalidecer para a escala das Amoreiras.

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Se o centro comercial que visitei me impressionou pela escala de cidade, logo viria a descobrir que os focos de inovação urbana de Kuwait City estavam, como seria de esperar, elsewhere. Depois de comprovado que as leis secas levam sempre ao seu oposto, seria apenas a altas horas da noite que, graças ao olhar informado do Ricardo, viria a desvendar o ‘outro lado’ do Kuwait.

Como sucede quase sempre, seria no lado mais informal da cidade, neste caso no anel urbano destinado aos imigrantes e aos expatriados, que surgiriam as mais inéditas tipologias urbanas. Num lugar onde o dia é insuportável a partir da Primavera, não deveria afinal constituir surpresa que fosse do lado da noite que surgisse a realidade urbana mais exuberante.

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Por entre a necessidade, o empreendedorismo e as típicas subversões da lei – numa cidade em que, como em Zurique, o controlo parece absoluto – a ocupação dos interstícios entre edifícios levaria a uma proliferação de pequenas unidades comerciais que, com as suas variações festivas e a distância à cultura climatizada do franchise, parecem ser a única coisa que devolve a vida a Kuwait City.

The Stone Raft

Incognito in Lisbon, I happened to pick a strange day to again visit the streets that, no more than six months ago, I used to walk two or three times a week. As it was, I soon realized that Lisbon’s downtown was unexpectedly packed due to a bizarre event in the city’s most prized praça.

Praça do Comércio, a.k.a. Terreiro do Paço, is like a Spanish plaza mayor but with a twist: one side opened onto a wide, sumptuous river.

This is the kind of small, but generous spatial detail that has always made the difference between nuestros hermanos’ obstinate colonial urbanism – which led to grid-locked cities like México City – and the sensous, easy-going Portuguese city-making, which gave the world its most beautiful city: Rio de Janeiro.

During some of its many lives, Terreiro do Paço was a carpark during the Seventies and got polemically redesigned two years ago – when it also received alternative visions such as the one below, by this humble servant of yours.

Nonetheless, as a part of the larger Enlightnment plan that allowed for the reconstruction of Lisbon after the infamous 1755 earthquake, this truly royal amphiteater was conceived as a welcome space for incoming imbarcations – a maritime entrance to the city at the vaguely fabulous time when airports had not yet transformed traveling into a sucession of non-places.

This peculiar weekend, however, the magnificent Baroque setting where once the King had offered river fireworks* to the people – became the rental venue for a populist mega-picnic. In essence, as Lampedusa would say, nothing changed.

Terreiro do Paço, 1650, Dirk Stoop, via Wikipedia.

At this time, one of the richest men in Portugal, a supergrocer, offered the people cattle in corralspimba singers and five tons of food (being that the latter was, at least, providentially channeled to increasingly demanded-upon charities.)

This was not a case of pearls (or brioches) to pigs – which sounds too much like the kind of elitist afterthought that the politically-correct elites have learned to avoid – but one of pigs to peasants, which, carefully considered, is also somewhat of a less cynical statement.

A huge marketing operation for Portugal’s biggest chain of hypermarkets (and their anchored jumbo shopping centres), the event certainly deserves a short description beyond the praise offered on national TV by a former representative of the Portuguese gauche-caviar, now a most active representative of the city.

Imagine an historical, symbolically charged public space taken over by a highly-organized guerrilla urban farming, and you’ll start to get the picture.

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The corrals were actually well designed, a cornfield surrounded the statue of King José I, and the smell of coriander was in the air. And, cast against a giant stage for the endless procession of local kitsch, there it was: a megashow of the glorious produce sold by Portugal’s most beloved entrepeneurial empire.

For the first time in their suburban lives, children marveled at cows in their natural habitat – i.e. piles of hay –, while flocks of seventy year olds were dragged in from the countryside in Toyota coaches and acted as self-appointed tour-guides of a rural world made utterly obsolete by European bureaucrats.

I couldn’t but smile in a stupedified state of candor when I realized why the crowds gathered around one of the impromptu pavilions from which techno-folk emanated. If this had been Northern Europe, in similar context I would expect sculptural Russian whores dancing atop the sound-system. Here, it was only an old guy in checquered swim trunks who danced his spirits away behind the beer barrels, drawing a sort of neo-realist laughter from the exurban mob.

The most interesting outcome of the mega-event was, however, how its mega-audience quickly spilled to the nearby city centre. Hundreds of thousands of people – what the absentee Lisboetas would poetically call the ‘país real’ – rummaged through the last remnants of an ultimately sold-out city centre. Some of them would half-proudly, half-ashamedly, proclaim aloud how they had not set foot in Lisbon’s downtown in the previous two decades.

They cheerfully joined the hordes of tourists who had already realized that, in the midst of accelerated impoverishment, Lisbon quickly became the cheapest capital city in Europe. Besides beach and good food, one can buy exquisite antiques, fine leather shoes, top clothing and whatever else for a tiny fraction of their price anywhere else. And all of this without the annoying street riots of Athens, of course.

Rather, as I walked around, I noticed there were no signs of anarchy or unrest in sight; everybody was orderly and happy. Even if the masses carried with them the usual riff-raff of petty criminals, fake pot gypsy sellers, and the odd surviving heroin addict, all of these seemed to content themselves with only intensely eying the beef chicks (or, as the local slang goes, the bifas.)

Only as one would flow away from the epicenter of the megapop picnic, would Lisbon reveal more of itself, like in that lively corner of Rossio in which ginginha-drinking backpackers and black immigrants get together by the Wall of Tolerance and the bankrupt National Theatre.

This corner suddenly felt like an island of cosmopolitanism. There is definitely a sort of lost elegance in meeting in the streets to just talk. Not to smoke like an outcast, nor to binge-drink like an idiot, but just to talk. Small groups of Africans debated European politics, as if to better report back home.

As I myself made my way back home, I still had the chance to see a band of Spanish cokehead pijos laughing and shouting hysterically at the bewildered peasants in an open mini van. Like so many of their Portuguese counterparts, they looked and dressed like advertising people out of the Nineties.

They had rented a tour minibus and were being loud around town, possibly commemorating the eminent bailout of Spain – or, as one could put it in literary gist, rejoicing the very last acts of the Iberian empire.

After weeks of paradoxically uninspiring travels to so many challenging cities – from startling Medellín to unreal Los Angeles, from puzzling Santiago de Chile to spooky Philadelphia – those guys’ shouts in my old neighborhood seemed to have woken me up from a prolonged dormant state.

Aspleep in Niagara, © P. Gadanho. From an upcoming travelogue series.

The fleeting and noisy impression of that rattling minibus in the middle of the overheated, overpopulated Lisbon downtown finally instigated me to write again. And it also gave me the title for this post, after a great novel by the Portuguese Nobel prize, José Saramago.

As for that particular old favorite, The Stone Raft tells the wonderful and frightening story of how, most suddenly, the Iberian landmass gets severed from Europe and becomes a wandering jutland. If you are truly following European events you will know how this has again become a suitable metaphor for more than one of the Old Continent’s southern peninsulas.

Beam me up, Scotty! (Os Idos de Março)

This was a banal industrial corner under Williamsburg Bridge. Many would be disencouraged to walk the lesser-seen parts of Brooklyn’s hippest hood to reach the place from the nearest subway station. Particularly on a wet, gray afternoon like that of the last Saturday of March.*

© Pedro Gadanho, Untitled (Williamsburg), 2012.

We carried through, though. My friend’s iPhone GPS device eventually designated a low and anonymous building as our destiny. Across the stained translucent glass, one could already sense a bustle. A muffled, yet promising clamor leaked to the quiet, empty streets.

After we negotiated our entrance with the guardian of the door, we finally crossed the threshold onto a sweaty, noisy, vibrant atmosphere. And we faced it: an excerpt of Rio de Janeiro had made its way to New York. Complete with the samba band, the dancing crowd, and the hyperrealist slum-like ambiance.

By crossing that thin treshold, we had jumped through a loophole and were instantly teleported to a place that stands resolutely 8000km away. Which means that we were thrust farer than Scotty ever beamed up Captain Kirk…

Beam me Up, Scotty! Image hacked via Of Woods and Words.

Contrary to the huge efforts of scientists intent on achieving our teenage dreams – and only managing to teleport miniscule quantities of atoms across their lab – the fact is cosmopolitan cities like New York are already full of highly efficient, low-tech loophole teleporters.

What Michel Foucault called heterotopias – a concept I recently enjoyed revisiting in a text I’ve just added to this blog’s archive – is no longer only about top-down institutions and somber architectural typologies.

Bottom-up, pop-up space-time machines such as Williamsburg’s Miss Favela botequim – with their exquisitely shabby architectural interiors, their thriving imported props and their own immigrant micropopulations – are now much livelier and exhilarating heterotopias.

In New York, I’ve also found small Mexican groceries that may transport you to Oaxaca frozen in the mid-eighties, Chinese kitchens that set you in ever-present Shanghai, or even that Synagogue where on the very same Sabbath I attended my first Bat Mitzvah – one which, as I read familiar names in the walls, and listened to a choir that somehow reminded me of Ivan, the Terrible, inevitably teleported me to New Amsterdam in 1654.

Perhaps this is indeed what makes an exciting and desirable city – as indeed a good piece of architecture: its capacity to project us outside of itself by making us dive deep into its most hidden layers.