LISBON | Dinner
The first installment of the “Table” in our year-long research project was held in Portugal during the opening week of the Lisbon Architecture Triennale. The dinner proved to be an amazing and somewhat surreal evening that delivered many memorable moments and fruitful conversations shared by Portuguese architects, journalists, members of the Triennale, Canadian architecture students and ourselves. Our full list of dinner guests and contributors can be found here.
The stage for our first dinner was masterfully set within the framework of The Real and Other Fictions, an exhibition curated by Mariana Pestana for the Triennale in the spectacular 16th century Pombal Palace. Occupying an unassuming position on Rua de O Século, the building currently houses Carpe Diem Arte e Pesquisa, a contemporary art institution and research facility. The Palace’s many past lives (including former home of the Spanish Embassy) were the curatorial theme of the exhibition, with each room representing a different point in its impressive history.
One such room was occupied by the creators of our meal, the Center for Genomic Gastronomy, a Portland-based research institute that examines the intersection of food, culture, ecology and technology. Against a backdrop of faded grandeur, their dinner event, The Planetary Sculpture Supper Club, promised to deliver a curated culinary experience aimed at challenging our outlook on life and food through our sense of taste – as well as touch (as we later discovered).
The setting for our meal was a gorgeous vaulted space with an enormous mirrored hexagonal table placed directly in the centre, reflecting the ornate ceiling and eventually our curious faces as we sat down for dinner. We were soon told that we would be eating with nothing but our hands, and were then invited to wash by a server who ceremoniously poured water from a clay pitcher. Once we had cleaned our hands and found our seats, all of our iPhones came out to try and capture the moment. Our host then arrived to explain the dinner, its progression and its attempt to slow us down and consider the pace of our world along with the impact this has on food sourcing, production, consumption and ultimately on society. We confronted this reality with each course as we bent over to see ourselves eating food primitively with our fingers, the reflected ceiling mural acting as our tablecloth.
Within this incredible sensory experience the discussion around the table moved through many topics including the dinner itself, the venue, the Portuguese economy, the culture of architecture in Portugal past and present, as well as the implications of Siza worship, but always seemed to come back to “what will be eating next?” and “. . . still with our fingers?”
We found the conversation to be filled with Diogo Burnay’s contagious optimism, Luis Pedra Silva’s brash skepticism, Pedro Belo Ravara’s stubborn belief in Portugal, and the probing nature of the journalists present. There was an overarching sense of hope in Portuguese architecture as well as the general belief in the potential for design and architecture to affect change.
Regarding the optimism found in Portuguese architecture culture, it was believed to have emerged from a long-standing tradition of resilience and resistance, resulting in something that is used to standing up for itself and has the strength necessary to endure the forces of social pressure and the current economic crisis. If left unchecked, these forces can erode the foundations of a design culture, leaving it unable to speak meaningfully and critically to a larger arena.
The question was then asked: how do architectural practices provide this important cultural voice, while being primarily a private enterprise with its own survival of paramount importance, and often dependent on the exact culture it wishes to change?
As an architectural journalist, Brendan Cormier suggested that understanding each practice’s survival tactics allowed him to cut through most of the bullshit we spin, in order to get at what matters to us. His theory was that when firms describe how they survive, they unveil their basic instincts, and what they – or their architecture – needs to live. This thought generated a vigorous debate around the table as to its validity, and what in fact each of our survival tactics were. Regardless of the answer, it was one of the lingering questions from the Lisbon dinner that warrants further thought.
Questions that flowed from this conversation included: how do we build resiliency as a firm, a design community, a country? What are we to learn from the great architects, and to what reach is their impact? How do we move beyond disciplinary relevance into a greater cultural or social significance? And perhaps the most important question, do we really need eating utensils?
The dinner itself promised to be memorable and it did not disappoint. From the amazing flavours in the salad first course, to the visually striking deconstructed fish plate with a traditional Portuguese sardine as the star of the evening, to the affronting course of diced pig ear and fried pig tail (served in an actual pig’s ear), and finally to the dessert offering a sweet, fruity, and sloppy ending to a wonderful evening, we shared a meal that none of us will soon forget.
The day after our dinner (and a surreal nightcap on the roof of a parking garage in the pulsating Bairro Alto district), we hopped in a cab for a sort of pilgrimage to Álvaro Siza’s Expo 98 Pavilion. Along the way we chatted with our driver about what we were going to see, and we discovered that he hadn’t heard of Siza. He took the opportunity instead to point out the “most beautiful buildings in Lisbon,” which coincidentally were right across the street from the pavilion: a pair of luxury condominium towers with shark fin-like appendages on their roofs.
The episode left us thinking that perhaps Portugal and Canada are not so different after all, and that the challenges we face in Canada of creating a design culture are not so different from the challenges of maintaining and growing architectural appreciation in areas with long-standing traditions of valuing and promoting the importance of design.
TABLE FOR TWELVE POSTCARDS
In each city we visit, we will be collecting postcard responses to a series of questions related to architectural culture. These cards serve as both a memento from our dinner guests as well as a means with which we can compare different design contexts.
Our questions are:
- What is the state of Architecture in your context?
- What does it take for an architectural practice to succeed here?
- What are local authorities doing to help Architecture? What should they be doing?
- What role does design culture play in the success of practicing architects?
- What role do local academic institutions play in the creation of design culture?