Lisbon Architecture Triennale, MAAT Museum
At MAAT Museum, the link between surrealism and architecture is evoked in this gallery, photo @Marianna Wahlsten

Lisbon Architecture Triennale – rationality reconsidered

‘The Poetics of Reason’, Lisbon Architecture Triennale 2019

Showcased inside some of the city’s charming buildings, five main exhibitions of Lisbon Architecture Triennale respond to an evocative theme – The Poetics of Reason. Set by chief- curator, the French architect Éric Lapierre (1966), the theme translates key values from modernity, moving away from the phenomenologically-inflected theories towards a more rationalist approach. However, it’s not about mere functionalism, but could be seen as a discursive turn, where ‘poetics of space’ is replaced by an alternative focus.

Éric Lapierre, Lisbon Architecture Triennale 2019, MAAT Museum
Chief Curator Éric Lapierre introducing the main exhibition at MAAT Museum

Lapierre is an award-winning architect in France, running his own studio since 1999 and has been teaching at universities in Marne-la-Vallée (France), Lausanne (Switzerland) and Harvard (US).  “To curate a show is not to show my own work, but it’s of course completely coherent with what I do. I teach ‘rationality’, I practice it and I curate it”, Lapierre says. For the Triennale he has gathered a curatorial team from colleagues working on his teaching program. Lapierre is not the typical, intensely analytic and manic architect, but a more laid-back theorist, inspired by rock music (check out their Instagram @eye_experience), and Velvet Underground in particular. In visual arts the surrealists are his source of inspiration, evident in the selection of models displayed in the main show, including works by Belgian architects Kersten Geers, David van Severen and De Vylder Vinck Taillieu Architects. 

MAAT Museum, Lisbon
View towards the historic part of MAAT Museum from the top of the new building, photo ©Marianna Wahlsten

As the president of the Triennale José Mateus points out, the exhibitions and events touch on a global topic, instead of national concerns. The main exhibition The Economy of Means, curated by Lapierre and presented at the MAAT Museum, investigates a broad subject matter, where the fundamental question about economy can leave you slightly puzzled. While bringing out a range of references, both historic and contemporary, the narrative folds out as a dense overview into the history of architectural structures, its meaning, use and development. Although the main argument might seem slightly obscure – raising some criticism – visitors will acquire huge amounts of knowledge. The galleries are packed: video interviews, slide shows, architecture models and lots of drawings – perhaps too many drawings… In order to make the most of it, you would need to allow plenty of time.

Vaulted ceiling structure from the 16th century by Philibert de l’Orme, reconstructed for the exhibition at MAAT Museum, photo ©Marianna Wahlsten

The main exhibition is based on classical French theory, starting with a quote by Philibert de l’Orme from 1567. The pursuit of structural continuity develops from de l’Orme’s thesis and the meaning of time (past, present and future), that needs to be considered for each architectural project. The structural theory developed three centuries later by Viollet-le-Duc could be seen as underpinning Lapierre’s proposition. However, this key reference gets slightly lost amid the vast amount of conceptual links. Overall the galleries provide an experience, where ideas run deep with meaning. “For me, when I think of poetical reason, it’s an attempt to define the specificity of the rationality, it’s not completely cartesian”, Lapierre says, “So it’s important to understand, that we don’t have on one hand the boring rationality and then the fancy artist, it’s completely intertwined and included to each other.”

Elsewhere in town an atmospheric 18th-century palace, the Sinel de Cordes, is home to exhibition titled Natural Beauty. It’s curated by young architects Laurent Esmilaire and Tristan Chadney, expanding Lapierre’s proposition. Here the wider theme of rationality is explored in relation to natural forms. Showcasing classic examples including Gaudi’s investigation on parabolic vaults and Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome, the curators are showing a genealogy of formal logic translated into contemporary practice. While talking about the arch Esmilaire refers to the Rolex Centre in Lausanne by Sanaa, which shows a development of the vaulted ceiling: “Continuity is something that always exists”, he says, “Rationality is very important in classical French architecture, it’s in our DNA. But we don’t want to say its a French matter, we want to highlight its spread everywhere”.

Sinel de Cordes Palace, Lisbon Architecture Triennale
At Sinel de Cordes Palace exhibition ‘Natural Beauty’, with Gaudi’s experimental upside down model in the middle, photo ©Fabio Cunha

At the National Museum of Contemporary Art (the most central location), Inner Space is an exploration into imaginary states underpinning creativity in architecture. The curators of this exhibition, architects Mariabruna Fabrizi and Fosco Lucarelli also publish socks-studio.com and run microcities.net. The idea of evoking the scope of unconscious operations behind each project is a beautiful starting point. By showcasing a wide range of artistic devices that are part of the creative process and the abstract operations, this show builds a historic view, culminating in a virtual presentation of imaginary space. Well researched and mind broadening, but hard to pin down.

At the basement galleries of CCB, (now run by André Tavares, chief curator of the previous Triennale), the exhibition on agriculture shows how the history of anthropocene is also the history of rationalism. The concept is drawn from a research project that curator, philosopher Sébastien Marot conducted in parallel with work for OMA and another exhibition by Rem Koolhaas (opening at Guggenheim, New York in 2020). Displayed through a series of large boards, the exhibition is like a book showcased on the walls of a museum. It’s a slightly tedious way for gathering information, but some video interviews provide a change of pace while examining the long lines of hung data and illustrations. As an argument that aims to introduce alternative models for agriculture, Marot proposes forms for an urbanism of the future. He didn’t get convinced about presenting Koolhaas’ more futuristically themed proposal about agriculture and GMO, which was probably the point where their paths separated. 

Lisbon Architecture Triennale 2019, MAAT Museum
Photography series created by Éric Tabuchi, as part of the display at ‘Economy of Means’ at MAAT Museum, photo © Hugo David

Lapierre’s curatorial proposal explores a formal development in architecture, underpinned by changes in human consciousness, and the influence of surrealism and minimalism. The need to go beyond mere functionalism, while retaining a certain logic, is the inspiration that can be retained from the exhibitions. The rich historic narrative is based on exhaustive research, although key ideas do sometimes get lost in the amount of information. Exemplified by drawings, models, photographs, interviews, slideshows and illustrations, the curatorial perspective is one of an architect immersed in multiple links of significance. As exhibitions, however, the triennale proposes an outlook and overview, where classical French theory of structural logic is clearly redefined.

The Poetics of Reason, Lisbon Architecture Triennale

open 3 October – 2 December 2019