LISBON | Impressions
We land at 6am the day before the opening of the Lisbon Architecture Triennale, the collateral event that has led us to the city for our first Table for 12 meal and discussion about the state of architecture culture in Portugal.
On almost no sleep we venture out, first in search of coffee and second to find the headquarters for the Triennale. We are struck both by Lisbon’s unassuming beauty and by its topography. Making the transition from flat Winnipeg to a city of hills – seven, to be exact – proves to be a physical challenge and ongoing topic of conversation: “Is it uphill? Can we walk around the hill? Can we go downhill from here? Maybe we should take the trolley.”
After an hour long walk filled with countless iPhone snapshots, we come to 142 Campo de Santa Clara on the edge of the Alfama district. Behind the unmarked door of a seemingly vacant building lies an explosion of architectural energy in a gorgeous and crumbling former palace. People are crammed into every corner of century old rooms, working frantically to put the finishing touches on a fraction of the over 100 Associated Projects that will become part of the Triennale during the next three months. Amidst the chaos, the young group pulling off this world class event on a shoestring budget appear relatively unfazed and endlessly optimistic. Our guide, Rita, offers a breathless summary of the exhibitions on offer during opening week, and then we head off (thankfully downhill) to check in to our apartment.
Our second evening in Lisbon is full of Canadian references amidst truly Portuguese experiences. First we watch Jimenez Lai – a Taiwanese-Canadian transplant in Chicago and principal of Bureau Spectacular – receive the inaugural Triennale Millennium BCP Début Award in front of a packed auditorium following the opening of the Future Perfect exhibition. Second, we at long last shake hands with the whirlwind known as Diogo Burnay, Director of the Dalhousie University School of Architecture in Halifax, principal of CVDB architectos in Lisbon, and an invaluable contact for us in the time leading up to our trip.
After the opening, we hop in Diogo’s car for what becomes an unexpected cultural and culinary tour of Lisbon, including a snack of pastel de nata at Casa Pastéis de Belém, the city’s oldest and most famous pastry shop that serves upwards of 11,000 egg tarts a day; a drive-by tour of the Belem Cultural Center and the Jerónimos Monastery; a crash course in which port to buy (they’re all good, but vintage ports must be drunk in a few days); and finally a slice of pizza at Pizzaria do Bairro, a brand new restaurant run by an architect / landlord / chef who is making reinvented Portuguese-themed pizzas (the margherita becomes the maria) in a building shared by his architecture studio / nightclub. We eventually meet up with two of Diogo’s students from Dalhousie who are living in his apartment in the Bairro Alto and attending FAUTL on an Erasmus Exchange. These students also happen to be winning participants in a competition for Arctic Adaptations, Canada’s official submission to the 2014 Venice Biennale in Architecture, an event that our office co-curated last year.
The streets are incomprehensibly busy, with people occupying every available inch of space for blocks on end in an entire city district. Crowding together in one of thousands of small bars in the city – we learn that this year 26,000 restaurants in Lisbon are expected to close due to the economic crisis – we have our first shot of Ginjinha in a chocolate shooter bowl, followed by our first shot of Licor Beirão, two Portuguese institutions that we could not have gone home without sampling at least once.
During our time with Diogo, we quickly discover that someone who has the endurance to travel back and forth between Portugal and Canada every month simultaneously running an architecture school and practice has the energy to stay up all night on only two hours of sleep. At 2am we leave the trio in Camões Square, going to bed much earlier than the rest of Lisbon in preparation for our Table for 12 dinner the next day.
Although it is difficult to draw concrete conclusions about any city in a short time frame, throughout our stay we were struck by the optimism, energy, graciousness and humility of the people we spoke with. Despite – or perhaps as the result of – living in a country that has the highest unemployment rate in the EU, there is a pervasive do-it-yourself, make-something-from-nothing attitude that was extremely inspiring for us.
There is also an incredibly strong sense of pride in both the country’s architectural history and its future, however uncertain it may be. In addition to being the birthplace of two Pritzer Prize winners, Portugal has also produced legions of young architects (73% of architects are under 40), many of whom are seeking work outside of the country or reevaluating their role if they choose to stay. A recent article in Blueprint identifies the beginning of a fundamental shift in how young architects are practicing:
At the same time, in a 2012 poll by the Architects’ Council of Europe, 59% of architects in Portugal responded yes when asked whether they were considering cross-border work. The longterm impact of this migration abroad and renewed sense of civic responsibility at home remains to be seen, but based on the conversations we had it is clear to us that Portuguese architects have the resourcefulness to transform this tenuous and challenging period into positive change.
“Until I’m dead, I’ll keep believing” Diogo says – and we believe him too.