Navigating a quiet revolution: Portugal's current generation of architects are inspired latter-day navigators and explorers of a shrinking world
Catherine Slessor, The Architecural Review, Junho 2004
Poised on the western periphery of Europe, Portugal has always been on the edge, looking outwards. Since its foundation in the twelfth century, the country's history has been marked by cycles of invasion, occupation exploration, emigration and return. Hemmed in between Spain, its overbearing Iberian neighbour, and the vast watery gulf of the Atlantic, Portugul has long been drawn to the enigmatic, enticing sea. The country set sail in the early fifteenth century and never looked back, its explorers and navigators opening up lucrative trade routes to Africa and India. Today, former Portuguese colonies include Brazil, Goa, Macau and Mozambique, reflecting an extraordinary geographical and cultural diversity.
Portugal still has a migrant soul. In the modern era, industrialization and rural poverty fuelled mass migration to cities such as Lisbon and Oporto, swelling their populations and creating a new urban underclass. Following the Second World War, large numbers left to seek work elsewhere in Europe--Paris currently has the second largest Portuguese population after Lisbon. Economic migration is still a hard fact of Portuguese life, with successful emigres often marking their return by building a house on a plot of land (the so-called maisons de reve). Yet the corrosive effects of this dislocation are evident. Portugal's rural interior remains chronically poor and depopulated, with 80 per cent of the country's population occupying a narrow coastal strip between Lisbon in the south and Viano do Castelo in the north. Somewhat alarmingly, this swathe of more or less continuous suburbia has become one of the most densely inhabited parts of Europe, but the rapidity, vapidity and intensity of such development is clearly not sustainable.
For most of this century, Portugal's geographic isolation has been compounded by the political constraints of the Salazar dictatorship, which lasted from 1928 until the Carnation Revolution of 1974. Initially, the re-establishment of democracy was a painful process, but since the 1980s. Portugal has assumed a more confident Western European demeanour, its economic and political life greatly transformed since it joined the European Community in 1986. In some respects, the Portuguese experience parallels that of Ireland, another Catholic Rationalist fastness on the western fringe of Europe, in which poverty and diaspora are an indelible part of national consciousness, and whose traditional economic and social structures were quietly revolutionized by massive EC investment and engagement with the wider world.
Architecture is also feeling the effects of these changes, most obviously in quantitative terms, with the Portuguese profession witnessing a phenomenal growth. In 1980 there were around 1500 architects in Portugal, but this number has now risen to over 10 000, with the number of architecture schools also increasing from two to 23. Though more does not necessarily mean better, architecture is now disseminated, discussed and practised with a renewed vigour and been given wider public impetus by spectacles such as the Lisbon Expo of 1998 (AR July 1998), Oporto's stint as European City of Culture in 2001, and the sporting fiesta of Euro 2004.
Historically, Portuguese architecture is firmly rooted in the vernacular, with craft-based, artisanal origins and a limited range of forms and materials. Apart from a Brazilian-style flourishing of Modernism in the 'verdant years' (1) of the 1950s, progress has been slow, and Portugal's urban landscape is not an inspiring sight, with many fine historic town centres in a dilapidated state, surrounded by chaotic peripheries interspersed with unimaginative new development. Yet within this maelstrom it is possible to detect touches of refinement. Over the last 30 years, Modernism has been an essentially liberating influence, nourished by the abstraction, sensitivity and social awareness of the Oporto School positioned at a crucial geographical and philosophical distance from the state-sanctioned orthodoxy of Lisbon. The notion of what architect and curator Pedro Gadanho calls 'critical scarcity' (2) also strongly underpins the best recent Portuguese architecture. Lack of resources together with a relatively unsophisticated construction industry has forced architects to be especially inventive, epitomized by the poetically understated work of familiar pioneers such as Fernando Tavora, Alvaro Siza and Eduardo Souto de Moura, who embody a resonant sense of Portuguese regional identity.
Today's emerging generation is able to draw on a much wider frame of reference than was ever possible for predecessors, that typically involves studying and working abroad (notably on the 'Erasmic axis' of Rotterdam and Basel) to absorb different cultural, conceptual and technical influences. As Yehuda Safran observes, 'In Portugal today, you no longer have to be a Tavora with a Gulbenkian stipend in hand, to travel abroad and enter into the worldwide web of architectural discourse'. (3) Such experiences naturally help to enrich and inform, but on their return, these latter-day explorers must also fit into Portugal's still relatively small architectural milieu in which people tend to know one another, so generating a degree of professional and social pressure. Moreover, many younger architects have spent time in the offices of the masters. 'The sons have too much respect for the fathers', notes Fatima Fernandes, (4) which perhaps helps to account for the inherent conservatism that still touches much Portuguese architecture.
Finding a voice
There are indications, however, that a new generation is starting to find its own voice, tempered and inflected by more exotic influences and general intellectual curiosity. Within this issue, along with work by the established master Eduardo Souto de Moura, whose Braga stadium (p42) shows a new confidence and maturity, are projects by emerging practices such as Aires Mateus, ARX Portugal, Guedes + deCampos, Promontorio Arquitectos and Antonio Portugal & Manuel Maria Reis. In all its various manifestations, their work displays a fascinating cross fertilization of ideas that sympathetically and realistically address the Portuguese condition. Even the Azores, a remote outpost of Portuguese territory marooned in the mid Atlantic, has proved an unexpectedly fertile breeding ground for vibrant experiment (p74). Certain themes emerge--an eagerness to expand the repertoire of forms and materials, a concern with context, a sensitivity to the past (many young architects are working responsively with old buildings), all underscored by an innate awareness of local culture and tradition. There is great hope that, mindful of their recent history, Portugal's new generation of architectural navigators can grow in confidence to absorb and transmute local and global influences to ferment a quiet revolution of their own.
(1) See an essay by Ana Tostoes, 'The legacy of the verdant 1950s' in Portuguese Architecture-a new generation, 2G, IV 2001, p131.
(2) Pedro Gadanho helped to organize the seminal Influx series of exhibitions devoted to the work of younger Portuguese architects between March 2002 and September 2003 at the Silo-Espaco Cultural in Oporto, in conjunction with the Serralves Foundation. An accompanying catalogue Influx: Recent Portuguese Architecture, published by Civilizacao Editora with dual Portuguese and English text provides a lively snapshot of current practice.
(3) Influx: Recent Portuguese Architecture, Civilizacao Editora, Oporto, 2003, p14. 4 In conversation with the author. Fernandes and her partner Michele Cannata edited a major survey of recent work Contemporary Architecture in Portugal 1991-2001, Edicoes ASA, Oporto, 2001. An updated version is due out later this year.