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Portugal Presents Its Architects for La Biennale di Venezia
João Luís Carrilho da Graça, Candeias House, © Fernando Guerra | FG + SG, 2009.

VENICE.- The duo Manuel and Francisco Aires Mateus, Ricardo Bak Gordon, João Luís Carrilho da Graça and Álvaro Siza Vieira are the architects representing Portugal at the 12th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia.

The curators Julia Albani, José Mateus, Rita Palma and Delfim Sardo have chosen 4 exemplar housing projects, each from one of these architects.

To show them, fictional films have been comissioned to Filipa César, João Onofre, João Salaviza and Julião Sarmento, some of the most outstanding Portuguese artists and film directors. The houses, presented through the films, are all located in Portugal, and correspond to different dwelling typologies, conditions and contexts.

Represent is a transitive verb in the sense that it implies turning something, someone, into a present image or function. But it is also a pronominal verb, which implies a reflexive aspect: whoever represents also self represents.

In this case, in so far as the curatorial team is formed by the Lisbon Architecture Triennale, this represents an understanding of architecture and the way to celebrate and communicate it, and also self represents from the standpoint proposed for the exhibition, which in many aspects will be the perspective present in Lisbon in October 2010.

4 Houses
The object of the exhibition “No place like – 4 houses, 4 films” is to show how the house is a redeeming moment for the practice of architecture.

In the history of 20th century architecture, as well as in the economic, political and social transformations at the beginning of this century, housing (in its most literal version, as house, or in its metaphoric versions, in the meanings of dwelling in the world) built up the driving force of architectural thought. Based on this pretext, and taking the Portuguese situation as a possible object of representation, the possibility of thinking out different aspects of architectural practice by Portuguese architects led us to search for situations with three exemplary categories: first off, to present projects dealing in certain ways with the questions of site-specificity, embodying what Michel Butor called “the spirit of the place”; second, to find projects which are specific cases in the careers of their authors and in the way they deal with their architectural lineages, i.e., with their axes of reference, which do
not necessarily correspond to formal kinships set out in isomorphs; and, lastly, to show projects that are grounded in a complex idea of meeting understood in inter-personal, social and collective – though also historical and cultural – terms.

The house is the place of imagery about belonging.

The four houses that the “No place like” exhibition presents are so many other examples of up-summoned imagery regarding the dual condition of belonging and return, probably distinct from major architectural events and their mega-narratives, and built much more from oft discreet small changes, micro-events, which serve a particular decorum, a clear ethic of accommodation. In either case a high performance ethic is placed in each understanding of dwelling, thus distancing them from the Gongoristic excess marking a significant portion of contemporary architecture, or at least the architecture arising in tune with the growth from the capitalist financial boom of the last 15 years.

To gain some understanding of the sensible reason for each of these projects, we shall review the four and their architects. The projects presented by the architects Francisco and Manuel Aires Mateus, Ricardo Bak Gordon and João Luís Carrilho da Graça are single family homes, while Álvaro Siza Vieira’s is an exemplary case of collective housing (the Bouça project, in the city of Porto).

Siza Vieira
The latter is an especially interesting case study regarding the development of an affordable housing project. This is also because events dictated that the project would be built in two phases with a three-decade interval, meaning that the Bouça neighbourhood accompanied the socio-economic and cultural changes affecting Portugal from the period just before and after the 1974 Revolution on up to its completion in 2006.

Work on Bouça began before the revolution. Soon afterwards it was absorbed by the exceptional Mobile Local Support Service [SAAL – Serviço Ambulatório de Apoio Local], a social housing construction programme set up in Portugal in August 1974 to support needy populations which remained operational until 1976, with intense collaboration between design teams and marginal communities. The project’s result was a state-backed cooperative complex corresponding to the needs of the population it would eventually house. Although totally committed to the relationship with the community, Siza Vieira always kept a distance (in the Brechtian sense of Verfremdung), allowing him to never abdicate from his ideological, aesthetic and ethical position as an architect, as José António Bandeirinha states in a recent essay (Bandeirinha, 2010).

So during the heat of the revolution, during the endless and feverish discussions mixing the major desire for change with inevitable populism, Siza Vieira worked out a design typology for Bouça which corresponded to the target population’s ambitions and went far beyond that aim with respect to architectural performance.

The project’s fate was nevertheless beset with difficulties. After the first phase was finished, about a third of the houses, the project was interrupted, to be taken up again nearly 30 years later. This time interval corresponded not only to a process of isolating the neighbourhood in the context of the city, but also to a dual process, like the two faces of Janus: on the one hand it deteriorated, while on the other the residents made various changes due to the evolution of the family groups and their perceived needs. The second phase’s design (which actually completed the initial idea for the neighbourhood) thus included and reworked some of the deviations inflicted on the initial plan, given that the target population had undergone major socio-cultural changes in the meantime. The other three projects are for single family homes.

Aires Mateus
The project of Francisco and Manuel Aires Mateus is for a house fragmented into four constructions on the sand dunes at Comporta, a beach south of Lisbon by the Tróia Peninsula.

Using two precarious wooden constructions and two other masonry ones, actually four small clandestine houses, the project by the Aires Mateus duo takes on a task as apparently simple as it is programmatic: to use the vernacular structure and maintain its presence in the beach landscape, splitting living functions among the four constructions. For its poetic exiguity, this project seems to allude to an almost proto-architectural vision. Similar to what happened with the 20th century artistic vanguards, which found an ethical possibility for artistic practice in typologies very close to life, this project is also based on an approximation between architecture and life, which in the apparently thinned-down design uses an almost pre-architectural economy. On the other hand, the brute recourse to the beach sand’s invasion via the floor of the unit containing the house’s common area presents a specific aspect of the place: the ground’s materiality as a hallmark of the place and its affective nature. Yet in this option’s straightforwardness, easily described as the ultimate representation of the house-on-the-beach typology, there is a perverseness with respect to the design typology itself of Francisco and Manuel Aires Mateus. This might be characterised as a materialisation of negative spaces in their most well-known projects – otherwise evident in the project representation stylistics they habitually use. Here, in the sunny and open nature that is indeed the negative of what happens in projects such as the Azeitão house, the circulation space is the space itself open to the sea and the sandy ground, re-materialising the previous constructions’ walls like outer skins containing dwelling archetypes.

This house, seemingly a positive, is a negative nonetheless.

And therein lies its particularity.

Bak Gordon
In the midst of Campo de Ourique, one of Lisbon’s livelier middle class districts with its small businesses, cafés and restaurants, the buildings from the 1940s and 1950s are arranged in blocks with empty inner spaces. It was for this space that Ricardo Bak Gordon conceived a discreet and powerful house, a concrete puzzle that redefines our concept of urban space and generates a place where only a non-condition existed beforehand. The house, whose snug fit defines a complicity between German rationalism and Brazilian modernism, configures a group of patios defining a narrative. From the cinematographic standpoint it is a set behind a set, a cinecitta that recreates at eye level and can do without the urban skyline condition because it turns the eye back to itself. Like on a film set, the eye is led on a hypothetical field and counter-field movement, opening onto its interior patios, swimming pool and small garden. Up above snake the clotheslines strung out the back of middle-class buildings; we cross one through the garage door to attain this time, whose pace is marked by the passage between different long and narrative spaces.

Carrilho da Graça
Finally, João Luís Carrilho da Graça’s project is a volute developed around a theme: the decorum of living in the south, in the Alentejo region near Évora. Carrilho da Graça has a deep understanding of this subject. He himself is from the Alentejo, that huge plain which extends south of Lisbon and occupies nearly a third of Portuguese territory. The house was also planned in very familiar contact with the client (his sister, brother-in-law and their children) and this can be seen in the clear notion of justness, precise measure, and affectivity (a word apparently banned from the architectural and artistic lexicon).

In typological terms, this house on the outskirts of a small village and facing the plain is based on the humble horizontal Alentejo house aligned with the landscape. At first glance its structure seemingly pays tribute to traditional and typical architecture. It is approached via the most discreet façade, opaque and white to reflect the heat, and is arranged around a patio to open out to the countryside, making it a landscape. Inside, the careful handling of light and the circulating air which sweeps the house from front gate to patio seems born from the southern construction tradition.

Curiously, this project also possesses its own narrative produced by its circulation arrangement, in the scenic way the space is unveiled. To a certain extent it is a project that anticipates major travelling, a huge view-sequence skimming the plain which is the source of the landscape as movement.

La Biennale di Venezia | Julia Albani | José Mateus | Rita Palma | Delfim Sardo | 12th International Architecture Exhibition |

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