2016, a year for major cultural Architecture events

By Inês Moreira
Architect, curator and postdoctoral researcher (IHA-FCSH-UNL), Professor FBAUP

Installation at Oslo Architecture Triennale 2016, After Belonging
©Istvan Virag


2016 was a prolific year for major cultural events in Architecture, the main exhibitions having taken place over the Summer and Autumn. The epicentre was Italy, with the Venice Architecture Biennale (15th edition) and the Milan Triennale (21st edition).

In addition, other events also coincided all over Europe, despite their bienniality or trienniality cycle: the Lisbon Architecture Triennale (4th edition), the Oslo Architecture Triennale (6th edition) and the Istanbul Design Biennale (3rd edition).


The unique acclaim by an international community gathered  in the events of long periodicity has been pulverised through the last decade (think of Expos, or major international fairs), responding to new challenges. First of all, the speed at which the Internet makes immediate dissemination and spreads the word on new architectural projects, from ideas to newly constructed works and feeds the voracious access to information. The newly exhibited works on different platforms and in/digital specialised magazines, such as archdaily.com or dezeen.com, accelerate and exhaust the contact with the work itself, bringing new challenges to exhibitions of (or about) Architecture. This happens because to exhibit every two or three years is immeasurably broad, compared to the immediacy of the online narrative.



Time contraction and space simultaneity


Time contraction and the global geographical simultaneity that come from the media acceleration are a paradox. If, on the one hand, they potentiate the public impact of the big bi/triennials, then on the other hand they also bring new demands that make us re-think the events. It is for the events to guarantee the needed substance to compete with online disclosure of architectural works and projects, waging on ripening programs that might contribute to reflection, besides the speed of media divulgation – knowing that their timing is also not the same as the museums. One of the challenges is the proposal of themes that can generate a legacy and future knowledge, captivating the public and that go beyond online content research. Another challenge is the way mediation and transmission to the public are done, in an immersive visit, that differ from accessing a website. If Venice (curated by Alejandro Aravena) shows the lack of time in the maturation of relations between works, or in the meagre texts for mediation in the Italian Pavilion and at the Arsennale, making the exhibition closer to a 'show', than the Lisbon Triennale, thought out by André Tavares and Diogo Seixas Lopes, presents contents elaborated with sophistication through time, in a distant sphere from that one.


From a more systemic perspective, not a disciplinary one, the economical and cultural dynamics also have a role in the affirmation and investment of  big events. The generalisation of the short journey and the ease of access to peripheral places lead to the affirmation of new destinations that, in the challenge for low-cost tourism, look for an attractiveness to potentiate them, to their urban regeneration. Therefore, in a mediatised cultural context, almost in live streaming, cities compete for attention and the events disseminate geographically. The cultural attractions lean on those of tourism, confirming new cultural destinations, leading to the atomisation of epicentres. Still, Venice will always be Venice.


The speeches and contents in each event brand their identity and relative specificity, also attracting audiences with increasingly positioned and specialised interests, which is expressed in the inclinations towards criticism and in the fervour of comments. It is worth highlighting the difference between the Oslo Architecture Triennale, and the Lisbon Architecture Triennale. The first one explored, in 2016, notions of 'belonging' in society and transitoriness in architecture, having the previous edition focussed on materiality and life cycles. The Lisbon Triennale, in the same year, looks towards architectural form, authorship and to retake the transformative power of architecture from designing and construction, in a program driven away from the previous edition, dedicated to spatial practices. To sum up, in 2016, side by side, the two main triennials in Europe defined  contents that put focus on contrast and exacerbated limits, rising as events that radicalise the limits of the disciplinary field: focussing on research processes and spatial surveys in which architecture is an epistemological tool (without concretisation in tectonic or formal projects), focussing also on the composition of the practice of architecture, returning to form and objectualising the construction processes, inclusively 'musealising' the work documentation, that arises as document.





Altogether, major biennials and triennials continue to offer a broad panoramic reading of production, of the thinking on architecture and, more and more, the diversity of spatial and cultural practices that expand the disciplinary field of architecture. But for such broad and comprehensive reading, it is necessary to consider that the various biennials have their own programs, structures and characteristics. This is reflected in more and more specific curatorial projects and in diverse participations, selected by salutary call for ideas, or by invitations directed by the boards of events. The most radical case of this specialisation is the Bergen Biennale, also in Norway, which affirms itself as a platform of encounter and thought, moving away from the biennial exhibition (of art) and is now close to being an international meeting for the critical reflection on the contemporary. This panoramic effect between events, in spite of its extreme differences, is also explored in book publishing: the publisher Lars Müller published, in 2016, three of the events, offering in its editorial catalogue the synthesis of this panoramic image of contemporary architecture portrayed in the Oslo and Lisbon Triennales and the Istanbul Biennale.


Thinking about the great cultural events implies also considering problems inherent to the 'biennialisation' of the cultural system, an issue that has been raised in relation to contemporary art. First, as we have seen, in the global cultural system, biennials, in addition to their intrinsic cultural value, have also been strategies for affirming cities and placing them on the international map of global events. The Biennial Foundation website (www.biennialfoundation.org) reveals how the world's largest biennials are articulated and promoted through a joint platform to get a better sense of the dimension of the phenomenon of biennialism.


In the more specific field of contemporary art, biennials are devices for affirmation of artists, agents and also of galleries, as well as a circuit of meritocratic legitimation – which recognises, gives visibility and, in some cases, awards the works  of exhibited authors. It is also a potential driver of the market, interfering in the processes of acquisition and collection by museums or private buyers. There is a repetition of selected authors circulating between events, preventing the diversity of contents of the biennials' system – this is different from what occurs in Architecture. In early 2016, an opinion piece was published by António Guerreiro, which introduced in Portugal the urgency to think of biennialism, pointing to the 'Venice syndrome' as a device that associates with the 'cultural contemporary, typical of the entertainment industry and the banality of the present'. But there is still a lot of compendiums devoted to the categorisation of biennials. There is still much reflection to do, but there are more and more compendiums devoted to the categorisation of biennials.



Biennales vs Museums


In the framework of architectural biennials there has been some debate, not necessarily critical, but still problematising of the biennial/triennial phenomenon, such as the three sessions called 'ennials' promoted by/among the three biennials and unfolded in each of the three cities. At the inaugural events of the Venice Biennale itself in May 2016, one of the side events organised by the New Museum in New York, proposed a theme – Biennales vs. Museums – which, seeming common sense, touches on key questions in 2016, since the hyper-professionalisation of biennials (of times, ways of exhibiting, curatorial autonomy and growth of investment), and the weakening of existing museums (in budgets, in the lack of autonomy in relation to administration, and in the attempt to differentiate 'services'), the distinction of the different biennial/museum roles takes on importance. In Portugal, the museums of architecture and the management of repositories/archives is a hot topic, along with the disputed Portuguese national representations beyond borders.


If the biennials are cultural encounters that expose their own time – the now – or the  contemporary problematic that Guerreiro refers to, and museums are repositories of authors and collections, with public responsibility, historical and educational, what is the difference (or the overlapping) of the domain of action of the ephemeral event and that of the museological institution? Should bi/triennials occupy themselves with a legacy and have principles of continuity, or should they, on the contrary, reinvent their formats and invest on the ephemeral? These questions are generalist but allow us to look a little more closely at some aspects that 2016 highlights.


After the 2013 Lisbon Architecture Triennale and the 2015 Chicago Architecture Biennale, the Oslo Architecture Triennale of 2016 (such as the 2013 edition) adopted approaches based on non-strictly architectural tools to read and disseminate spatial uncertainties, urban, floating and geographical of today. Oslo does not undertake to disclose authors or completed objects. In the opposite sense, it presents reports and processes around complex cases to which architecture can respond, or in which one can read questions of belonging, housing and life in a wide ecosystem, which presents itself in new devices, elements and objects mostly created for the Triennale. Thus, OAT appears to be committed to testing and stretching the boundaries of the field. In the opposite direction, the Lisbon Triennale in 2016 nears the disciplinary knowledge and/or the patrimony that it embodies, proposing in one of its main exhibitions, 'Building Site' curated by André Tavares (general commissioner), an historical research exhibition, close to museum-like , with historical assets and documents from different origins, in an exhibitive logic in line with the museological program of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, where it is presented. In a different direction, the Victoria and Albert Museum rented space and created a pavilion within this year's Venice Biennale, to exhibit itself in representation before specialised international audiences, like the countries.





Alongside the major events, in 2016, Portugal also witnessed the emergence of new institutions designed to present and safeguard the architecture with international ambition, a new context in relation to the cultural fabric traditionally based on three pillars – Ordem dos Arquitectos (the Portuguese professional organization), Academies and the State – before then more focused on Portugal. The Lisbon Triennale opens simultaneously the new Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology, from the EDP Foundation, led by Pedro Gadanho, which is located in the physical neighbourhood of the specialised CCB Garagem Sul, which also hosts one of the Triennale's exhibitions in a triple strategy of empowering the audiences and international visibility generated by the inauguration of both the Triennale and MAAT exhibitions.


The cooperation between institutions and events in the empowerment of the city's cultural program leads to a final question that will be put to Portugal with the tourism boom: how to calibrate an international event between architecture disciplinary discussion for international and national specialised audiences and policies of affirmation, dissemination and regeneration of the city? Is it possible for an architectural event to produce readings about the city, also intervening culturally in it?


Perhaps the 2019 Triennale will be able to rehearse answers if, on the one hand, the attractiveness of Lisbon as a tourist hub must be considered as an essential motor of visibility – both for the Triennale and for Lisbon. It is also to be considered that part of the architecture discipline is dedicated to critical thinking about the territory, about the building and the cities, besides the authorial or objectual reading, and an event of architecture can gather critical mass and generate knowledge. Lisbon could benefit from a Think-Tank that the Triennale could offer, reflecting on  its problems, which could be a challenge.