The 3rd Lisbon Triennale that has just opened, is low on building count and high on story-telling, performance and socially engaged practice. Rob Wilson reports from Lisbon where built structures have been replaced with curatorial ones.
Its title an explicit command to get “up close,” the new Lisbon Triennale signals from the off that it will be no run-of-the-mill – stand-back-and-admire-this-extraordinary-building-and-its-megastar architect – type of festival, the default setting of so many architecture biennales. It’s supposed to be about connecting with people. Rather than built-buildings and structures, its focus sits squarely – through a “a participation-driven programme” of “workshops, events, speeches, conversations, plays, stories, campaigns, competitions, dinners, debates, parliaments, civic actions” – on people, strategies and ideas. This sensibly reflects the realities and context of a country where 40% of graduate architects can’t find work, and even big-name building projects – such as Paulo Mendes da Rocha’s National Coach Museum – are on hold due to lack of funds.
With the centre of the architectural discipline clearly not holding at present, this Triennale sees itself as “an investigation into the expanding forms of contemporary architecture” which have been developing to cope with this fact – curating, writing, publishing, material and digital research – the framers, dreamers and schemers of architecture, not just the builders. Beatrice Galilee, the chief curator, states: “We are presenting architecture as not just an object and idea to be mediated, but as the act of mediation itself.” The shift here is explicit: the agency shown in all these different spheres can itself be seen as architecture today, and not just the methods to frame it.
And there are many rich frames set up across the city, with five major hosting venues and sites and an extensive programme of associated projects.
Of the main venues, the most traditionally exhibit-based is Future Perfect, curated by Liam Young at the Museu da Electricidade, a vast old power station on the bank of the Tagus River. Unashamedly theatrical, the structuring idea here is an investigation into a fictional, future city: “a post-oil Dubai” as a “a stage set for a collection of stories.” This stage is literally represented and introduced by a large architecture-type model – tellingly the only one I saw in the whole Triennale – built by the same special effects artists who created the scenes of the movie Blade Runner. The following five installations explore different areas/conditions of the city, focusing on how technology and material experimentation will shape emerging urban infrastuctures, particularly via the interaction between biology and technology.
In one of these installations, Marshmallow Laser Feast’s The Supercomputer, the visitor is encouraged to physically interact with an ever-changing combination of light-beams – solidified through chalk dust-like particles – and an accompanying 3D soundscape. It is a dreamy, disconcerting experience, visually reprising the “solid light” works of artist Anthony McCall, and illustrating nicely the sensibility memorably expressed by Young that “the future is not something that just washes over us like water, it is a place that we must actively shape and define.”
Most visceral is the performance/installation by designer Bart Hess, where a performer’s body, hanging from a harness, is dipped into a sunken pool of water, on the surface of which hot wax is poured, cooling and coalescing around them, into expressively brittle carapaces.
Young described this latter process as an example of how “glitches in systems”, the chance mistakes and misfires in new fabrication techniques, will be crucial to the development of new urban forms; once again underlining evolutionary parallels between nature and technology. This then is more a Future Imperfect. And it was one that suffered from all the installations being seen in the same stage-lit chiaroscuro (why does the future always have to be experienced in the dark?), which created a sense of removal, of spectated individual visions (not least that of Young himself still seemingly working through his own childhood obsession with Bladerunner) – and not shared, communal futures.
Another major strand of programming is Mariana Pestana’s The Real and Other Fictions, a richly curated series of installations and events in a decaying old palace, directly riffing off the spaces and previous uses of a building riddled with history. Here the rooms contain artist installations or temporary structures, reflecting each room’s named function. The so-called Living Room contains a nicely literal interpretation of the Triennale’s title by Alex Schweder: here two visitors are invited to relax on sofas, which over time are made to get suffocatingly “Close, Closer” to one another. In the Dining Room, a huge hexagonal mirrored table provides the stage for dinners, each with guest chef, organized by The Center for Genomic Gastronomy, framing conversations surrounding gastronomy and politics. In this series of installations (plus Games Room, Reading Room, and Meeting Room), physical space is left beautifully and poetically – instead of awkwardly – empty, most literally in the case of the Sleeping Room, a stage set of a prison, actorless, but with the play’s script, focussed on political exile, left for the visitor to sit, read, and imaginatively engage with.
The successful, provocative emptiness present in Pestana’s project stirs up a question that might be asked across the Triennale: how would this work come across without the benefit of the curators’ words to fill in the gaps? An event so heavy with time-based performances and socially engaged practice, does provide a very full weft of events – but as result leaves a lot of down-time, and potentially empty warp, at the venues.
Often, it seems, this void is designed to gradually fill up with material and documentation, as at The Institute Effect, curated by Dani Admiss. Sited on an upper floor of the old bank building occupied by MUDE, the Design and Fashion Museum, different organizations, from magazines to museums, that “frame the practice of contemporary architecture, commission and write its future history” have been invited to take up serial residencies, including New York’s Storefront for Art and Architecture, Moscow’s Strelka Institute and Mexico City’s Liga, all housed in an institutional framework constructed by Italy-based Fabrica, the first “resident.” Throughout the three months of the Triennale, this will be a hub for programmed events both in the space itself and out in the city, powerfully demonstrating “expanding spatial practice” in action.
The danger of a Triennale being less object-based, and more scheduled programme, is that the curatorial hand lies quite heavy at times. This is an event that occasionally feels like built structures have merely been replaced by curatorial structures – and often quite complicated, over-prescriptive chains of command: curators inviting organisations to fictive residencies that are programmed by invited artists. The various layers of curatorial framing of events and activities can come across as an intellectual exercise that is an end in itself, with the engagement of any “publics” rather buried under all the rhetoric. And after popping into a simple but beautiful Alvaro Siza exhibition and an ethereal Sou Fujimoto one, both occurring elsewhere in the city, I did start to rue the lack of a bit of built-stuff as ballast in the main Triennale programme.
But the proof will be in the pudding, and if the audiences and people of Lisbon do take ownership of the programme by attending, participating, using, questioning and filling the structures and events set up: which include the New Publics series on a stage set in a central square, curated by José Esparza Chong Cuy, this Triennale will very literally have helped expand the forms of contemporary architecture.