Tag Archives: Portugal

No Country for Young People

Between the Beach and a Hard Place*

I’ve recently visited one of those summer music festivals in which youth is given a “free zone” to let off steam. Except for the upper floors of the sponsors’ VIP lounges, the beautiful landscape around was hidden from view by way of advertising panels, much like in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Youngsters received a wristband with an electronic chip so as to record their booze consumption. Drones blinked around silently. The sophisticated urbanism of the grounds reminded me of refugee camps in which city life is quickly recreated. One could look at this fenced universe as just another benign festivity, or as an expression of a dystopian apparatus that has been insidiously making its way into the most common aspects of our everyday life.

Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster typically makes us aware
 of hidden meanings in apparently innocent environments. In the first site-specific commission for the new MAAT building, in the context of an inaugural program addressing Utopia/Dystopia, the artist offers us a fictional setting for an alien species to observe humans. Hinting at Lisbon’s easy-going lifestyle, the place looks like an artificial beach. Yet, spectators are soon caught in a performance that rather suggests the camps in which humans have been regularly amassed. Between a rock and a hard place, the artwork presents a critical dilemma. Between the escapism of a beach and the tension of a fenced camp, several possibilities lay ahead of us – but none seems ultimately tenable.

This is the small text I contributed to the Pynchon Park publication, released on occasion of the large environment created by Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster for the opening of MAAT’s new building.

pynchonparkPynchon Park by carlos.h.reis, via Instagram.

In her piece, Dominique captures very well the duality of our times, where dystopic forms of entertainment – from distorted theme parks to recent young adult Hollywood blockbusters – continue to provide the metaphors for our worst fears, as well as a form of escapism to what is now called ‘the perfect storm.’

After 150 years it was first uttered, the term dystopia has become a household companion. That is in itself revealing. However, while being mostly a fictional device, the concept also delivers a theoretical tool to struggle with what is going seriously wrong in our societies.

Coming back to Portugal, I reencountered some of the mildly dystopian characteristics that are now typical of an old and ageing European country – issues that can’t possibly be changed in the course of one political mandate, or the four years I was away.

Amidst the excitement and buzz that make Lisbon 2.0 so attractive – including very lucrative music festivals to which thousands of young tourists flock every year – Portugal is still tarnished by the decaying dominance of a few rich families, the average mediocrity of political and economic elites, the growing social inequality, the low productivity of most labor force, and last but not least, a sort of desperate and overarching nepotism in the face of a widespread lack of job opportunities.

It gives me intense pain to refuse one interesting resumé after the other, even if my small museum team is overworked and, at the rate of 18 exhibitions a year, will be burnt out in one year or two. The most I can offer is a paid internship, which always reminds me of one of the funniest and sharpest artwork series exhibited at this year’s Manifesta.

internsArtwork by my colleague at MoMA, Pablo Helguera, for Manifesta 11.

Look at Tuk-Tuk drivers around Lisbon and not only are they good looking, they also have Master’s degrees. Others, not so lucky to be outdoors, are buried in call centers. Youth unemployment thrives as much as in Spain or Greece, currently at nearly 30%. If novelist Cormac McCarthy suggested the US is ‘no country for old men’, Portugal is certainly not a country for young people.

Alas, the Portuguese state invests heavily in the education of these young people, with university fees as low as $1500 a year. But then, it practically hands out this highly qualified labor force to countries that are already economically ahead. The most educated generation ever in the history of the country is pushed away, forced to emigrate to Germany or the UK. How stupid can that be?

Sure, things must change, and things can change. We can take advantage of a tourist boom, without necessarily falling into the plights of Barcelonization. We have to promote entrepreneurship, although this is difficult in a country where a public service career – and, if possible, the petty corruption that comes with it – is still considered the safe way up and out.

Portuguese authorities must understand that what we are doing to our educated young adults is atrocious. Dystopian indeed.

In face of this, does the country want to be as avant-garde as some of its cultural institutions? Look at the way the world is transforming (art world included), think of the great stagnation coming ahead, and start immediately discussing the 20-hour working week. It’s the only way everyone will get its share of work and opportunities towards a better society.

 

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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.

Shrinking City

After a fairly long absence on paternity leave, last weekend I went back to Porto. This is Portugal’s second city and metropolitan area, although no longer it’s second larger municipality in terms of population – a position now taken by suburb cities like Gaia and Amadora. They call it invincible or invicta.

PortoThis is a city where I lived for considerable parts of my life, and a city to which I usually commute to teach every week.

This is also the proud home of a World Heritage city center and a few prestigious institutions: Port wine; a football team, the oldest filmmaker alive who is still in activity, Manoel de Oliveira; an architect that ranks in between the world’s finest and its connected architecture school, Siza Vieira and the Oporto School; the Serralves Contemporary Museum; Rem Koolhaas’ Casa da Música…

Porto is a small city –like the Talking Heads ironically sung of London– and, on top of it, it is also a shrinking city.  Misquoting Paul Virilio, one could even say it is a city on the brink of disappearance – if not dangerously sinking into long-term cultural and economical insignificance.

What was once the symbolic center of the so-called economical motor of the country now appears as the shy capital of one of Portugal’s two poorest regions. As I’ve learned in shock this weekend, half of Porto’s population receives the Guaranteed Minimum Income, a social welfare measure for those who live below the line of poverty.

Indeed, my personal view is that Porto’s cultural and economical contraction is to be attributed not only to its mediocre political leadership over the last few years, but also to its blatant social inequality.

In what seems to be a sort of unspoken taboo, Porto’s society, like that of any Thirld Word country, is neatly divided in two: a rich bourgeoisie that inbreeds in the posh Western area of town and cruises the urban landscape only inside their black Mercedes, Audis and BMWs; and, on the other side, a poor population that still resembles that of a 19th century half-industrial, half-rural city.

While there are always exceptions, the elites themselves lack vision and civic spirit. And, contrary to Lisbon’s steadily rising middle classes, Porto’s lower middle class minorities totally lack expectations and opportunities.

As geographer and friend Álvaro Domingues was telling me, this is a centrifugal city. Although it has a renowned university, it doesn’t have the economical drive to keep the people it educates. And this also strongly reflects in the culture and identity of the city.

CasaMúsicaCasa da Música in context, via Plataforma Arquitectura

Samewise, cultural institutions in Porto are also almost neatly divided in two strata: the highbrow state-supported institutions, like Serralves and Casa da Música, and the radically alternative art, music and design scene, which, although vibrant and inspiring, faces the eternal dilemma of catering forever for the same small audience or simply give up. Given that there is no real funding for middle size local initiatives, there is also no bright future to look upon.

SerralvesThe art museum squats the inner city emptied-out buildings…

This is probably the main reason why, like so many before and after me, at a certain point –and more precisely after 2001, when the European Capital of Culture represented the city’s swan song rather than creating an expected cultural boom–  I have decided to live elsewhere.

Ultimately, Porto’s strong scenery and historical tradition seems to offer a place more interesting to (re)visit, than to create something in. Until the city comes to its senses again, people there permanently run the risk to emulate the incredible shrinking man’s coming out of the fog into an ever-smaller destiny.

ShrinkingManamdnd