Table for Twelve: Conversations in Architecture 2 | Lisbon

Table for Twelve, through the generous support of the Canada Council for the Arts, is a research project being conducted by 5468796 Architecture that allows hosts from eight cities to set the table for informal conversations about architecture. Over the next year, we will be investigating architecture cultures around the world in order to gain a deeper understanding of the catalysts that have built a strong commitment to design.

In addition to an ongoing blog that will be maintained on our Table for Twelve website, we have partnered with Canadian Architect to share a condensed version of our insights that are more specifically catered to a Canadian audience. Over the next eight months, we will discuss the current architecture culture as we experienced it in each city, along with what we think created it, and how we can apply what we learned towards creating a stronger design culture in Canada.

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. The full story can be read here.

What is the culture in Lisbon?

Although it is difficult to draw concrete conclusions about any city in a short time frame, throughout our stay in Lisbon 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 Pritzker Prize winners, Portugal has also produced legions of young architects (73% of architects are under 40), many of whom, out of necessity, are seeking work outside of the country or re-evaluating 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:

“In a counter-move fueled by the crisis, the past two years have seen a rise in the formation of small, experimental studios that seek alternative ways to practice architecture. Their founders are young, motivated, well-educated; many have lived, studied and worked abroad . . . Their work is fundamentally small-scale . . . but their methods offer glimpses of what could be a systemic change, offering living proof that even a crisis can precipitate opportunities for civic engagement and the profession.”

– Gonzalo Herrero Delicado & Vera Sacchetti, Blueprint Magazine

What created it?

To comprehensively answer the question of “what created the architecture culture” of any location is a monumental task, and one that we could not hope to answer after only spending a few days in Lisbon. Instead, through the conversations and experiences we had, we have attempted to pinpoint a specific source or force driving the culture that we saw as being worthy of additional research. While many common themes were identified, the impact of Álvaro Siza and Eduardo Souto de Moura is evident throughout Lisbon and Oporto (the two locations we visited) in a variety of mediums and scales, and is the specific influence we wanted to consider. 

How are icons like these created? What does an icon mean to a profession as a whole? Does our foreign or outside opinion on these two Pritzker winners echo the opinion of the Portuguese architectural community?

We came to understand that true icons are not created, rather they seem to emerge and leave a lasting impression on everything they touch. First Siza and then Souto de Moura sprung from the Portuguese architectural scene onto the international stage with impressive bodies of work already completed. Their appreciation for context and their apparent grounding in the realities of place and function, independent from current trends, allowed their work to immediately captivate an international audience and bring awareness and relevance to the broader Portuguese way of practice. The architects that we encountered during our visit held these two champions of Portuguese architecture in the highest regard, with a tremendous sense of pride and respect for their accomplishments. Pedro Belo Ravara, principal of BAIXA ATELIER, told us that he believes Siza is not a great Portuguese architect, rather he is a great architect and Portugal is fortunate that he was born there.

The influence of Siza and Souto de Moura appears to have permeated into the practice of architecture in Portugal, inspiring the pursuit of designs that are extremely contextual and functional, while spatially complex, detail-oriented and ultimately timeless. It appears that having the bar set so high and so publicly has either subconsciously or consciously created a certain drive within the architectural community, one that is more effective than a basic desire or policy with the same intentions. This is not to surmise that everyone is simply trying to live up to the examples of Siza and Souto de Moura, but rather that an environment has been created by their public recognition that expects critical design by Portuguese architects. This environment holds architects accountable while also allowing them to challenge their clients and policy-makers on their role in the pursuit of critical design. 

What are the potential strategies that could be considered for implementation in Canada?

What if Canada, like Portugal, had its own architectural heroes?

To begin to answer this question, we first have to ask: do we have the talent and/or do we already have Canadian icons? If so, do we have an environment that recognizes and supports them? Can a country as geographically large and culturally diverse as Canada find a cohesive voice? Are we simply too polite to celebrate our achievements?

From Erickson, Cardinal and Safdie to MacKay-Lyons, Saucier + Perrotte and the Patkaus (to name a few), it is easy to recognize and agree that we have significant architectural talent within Canada both historically and currently, and yet it is just as easy to see that this has failed to produce nationally and internationally celebrated advocates for Canadian architecture.

This realization perhaps then answers the remaining questions. No, we are not doing enough to recognize or support our great talents, and yes, we as a country may simply be too large and diverse to support a unifying force in Canadian architecture. But perhaps it is exactly our enormous footprint, multiplicity, and pervasive cultural humility that requires a strong core to speak on behalf of the larger collective, if Canada’s architectural voice is ever going to exercise and enjoy greater cultural influence. 

Imagine for example, if we were to select a group of firms to be at the forefront of our country’s architectural scene. Through the award of significant public projects, speaking engagements, and aggressive promotion, the ideals of these practices could begin to emerge as Canadian ideals, and permeate
all practices in Canada – not to create a singular aesthetic, but rather to inspire a commitment among the next generation of young Canadian designers to meet and exceed the bar that has been set by these trailblazers.

By Shannon Wiebe and Colin Neufeld of 5468796 Architecture

November 2013