Creative Cities

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“Cities are the places of opportunity, but also of challenge”: this is how Francesco Bandarin began his address at the international conference on Creative Cities, that I attended just a few days ago. Porto, that hosted the fifth edition of the conference, is itself one of the creative cities (with or without the UNESCO’s designation). The city has been marked by constant interplay of its historical and innovative side, and thus was a great choice for an international, transdisciplinary gathering exploring creativity and the city.

The event was complex and demanding in terms of organization: participants arrived from all continents and disciplinary backgrounds. Three conference days were needed to give space to them all. Yet, parallel presentation sessions and parallel round tables could not be avoided. All in all, there were 25 paper sessions and six round tables, but, with thorough preparation and insight into the program ahead of the event, I managed to attend most of the presentations from my “wish list”. For the others that I missed, it is great the organizers have already provided the book of abstracts and the draft version of proceedings (here I need to point out a slight obstacle for an international attendee: many contributions were in Spanish and Portuguese only).

I am still going through my notes and the materials made available by the organizers, but I can point out two great benefits this conference brought me: the first is that I learned a lot about the UNESCO’s Creative Cities network and sustainable urban future, thanks to the keynote speech of Francesco Bandarin; the second is that I learned so much about Porto, the city that is subject to my own research.

More about the Creative Cities conference: http://www.cidadescriativas2017.com/en/

Mira

Porto is an ever-inspiring and creative city. But Campanhã area is certainly not the first that comes to a cultural wanderer’s mind. Yet, there is a gem there that I only recently discovered.

A short film festival was my pretext to finally visit Espaço Mira and Mira Forum, two adjacent former warehouses that now work as artistic spaces. One is primarily an art gallery, the other is multi-functional and has a commercial component (offers a possibility to rent the space for book presentations or exhibitions – we all have bills to pay, after all).

I arrived a bit ahead of projection time, knowing that Mira pursues more than one initiative at a time and curious to peek into the exhibition spaces. What a warm welcome we had by Manuela Monteiro, who lead the visitors throughout the ongoing exhibitions! Together with João Lafuente, she created Mira three years ago, in October 2013. They uncovered the potential of the row of abandoned warehouses in Rua de Miraflor, that even played a part in their families history. Former storage spaces for coal and wine were converted into spaces of culture with a lot of respect and sensibility.

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One of the current exhibitions in Mira lead me to learn important facts about the cultural landscape of Algarve and the threat of complete eradication it has been exposed to because of the aggressive oil extraction initiatives. The initiatives have been stopped for now, but drawing attention to the problem is of huge importance. With its engagement, Mira gives hope that art may be able to save the world!

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Last but not the least, the Mira experience inspired me to share a (holiday) thought: all we need is less.

On summer Sundays and paper suits

It’s a summer Sunday in Porto. A logical move – going for a stroll along the oceanfront. Living in a city by the sea, one can hardly think of nicer way to spend a sunny weekend morning! So, here I am in the neighbourhood of Foz, where the river meets the ocean, and which, within the city, has a distinct cultural identity. Foz is among the most desirable locations to live in Porto, and those of us whose residences are elsewhere love coming here over and over again, for strolls, festivals, gastronomy or nightlife.

This Sunday, it seems all the city strollers decided to unite: the streets of Foz are turning into rivers of people! And it seems the strollers have taken over the roadway, too, as cars cannot pass.

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Hmmm, what might this be all about?

People line up in the shade along the sidewalk, and the music starts. I approach, too, with my camera ready to register this curious event I stumbled upon. And here they come: dozens of ladies and gentlemen, bishops and kings, children, maids, fishermen and their wives, in a parade that revives local traditions, ways of life, monuments, and reminds of prominent people that marked the history of Foz.

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As if we have gone back in time: they are all dressed in beautiful, elaborate, colourful, sometimes even theatrical clothes from the epochs long gone.

The parade doesn’t seem to be very disciplined: here and there, participants step out to wish a good day to a friend or to take a photo or two for their family albums. Quite a few approach to greet an elderly lady who has chosen a nice, shady spot right next to me. Being the participants just steps away, I realize: those wonderful dresses and suits, all the equipment and details, even their shoes, are all made of paper!

I find out that I am in the middle of the celebrations of St. Bartholomew, traditional of Foz, and that the paper suit parade happens to be their highlight. Some claim the tradition is over a 150 years old, others say that it goes just 50 years back, and that it became constant from the early 1990s. I won’t be investigating much into the dispute: maybe it is for the best not letting the truth get in the way of a very nice story!

The parade ends in the sea, but not all the participants dare to have a swim. Despite it is late summer, the ocean is unpleasantly chilly. The bravest ones dip in the ocean in their paper suits until they fall apart.

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This summer day in Porto remains so unique and memorable: the parade theme and the paper suits will be reinvented over and over in the years to come, yet in my mind there is nothing ephemeral about this Sunday.

Genius Loci

Better belated than never, here I come with a glimpse into a recent conference on places and meanings: Genius Loci, held at FLUP in late April. As if the programme was tailor-made to correspond with my latest research interests! The presentations within seven major thematic sections were organized in parallel sessions. And there lied a little problem: I simply couldn’t be at all presentations I wished to attend!

FLUP’s Department of Heritage Studies organized the event on the occasion of its twentieth anniversary, together with its specialized body named CITCEM (standing for the Transdisciplinary Research Centre “Culture, Space and Memory”). The diverse areas covered ranged from sacred spaces, over heritage management issues to representations of vernacular and transitional worlds.

The atmosphere at FLUP was amazing: a river of curious people engaged in learning something new and passionate about knowledge exchange. I heard about creative geography of cinema, learned valuable facts about the spirit of Porto, about Portuguese architectural regionalist movements, got acquainted to theoretical approaches on walking as a mode of construction of place, on hybrid spaces and place-making. Some of that, actually, by serendipity, stumbling upon presentations: while waiting for the desired speeches, the others that were to attend in-between revealed themselves equally interesting!

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Last but not the least, the position and architecture of the FLUP’s building certainly contributed to the inspiring atmosphere of the event. The postmodern edifice is a work of Nuno Jennings Tasso de Sousa from the end of 1980s. It was designed for 4000 students, combining a myriad of open and covered spaces, carefully integrating the interplay of light and shade, and viewpoints leading the curious visitor to discover the surrounding cityscape and the architectural accents of the building itself.

Photographing heritage

Porto has a very special photographer: Luís Ferreira Alves is dedicated to capturing Porto’s spirit through its architectural heritage. As much as to the city’s historical landmarks, his architectural photography focuses to the more contemporary built legacy created by protagonists of the Porto School of Architecture.

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They actually seem to be the reason why Luís Ferreira Alves dedicated to the architectural photography in the early 1980s, after some soul searching in the area of experimental film and amateur photography. At that time, he helped out a friend who needed photos of his project for an exhibition, and after it was presented at the Faculty of Architecture, interest was raised among architects and commissions followed. Alves then made a risky move: he abandoned his permanent job to dedicate completely to architectural photography.

It turned out the right choice.

Now we know him best through beautiful photos capturing his city and its heritage, like the ones that embellish the recently reissued luxury album Sentimento do Porto. But there is one more curiosity about this author: he specializes in exposing the process of heritage transformation through photographing restoration works. These are far beyond the documents testifying of the works done in the project dossiers, they make one rethink heritage and see it more clearly as a living thing, with a potential to change and adapt to the present times.

This gives visibility to the hidden layers of the monuments’ and the city’s history that often remain inaccessible and overlooked, and (here I borrow the spot-on expression of Pedro Bandeira), helps demystifying heritage that comprises a significant part of our surroundings and daily lives.

My “discovery” of Luís Ferreira Alves comes just on time to share the news of an exhibition that is about to be open in Porto: “Nasoni – Regressos” is about the restoration works on the city’s symbol – the Clérigos church. The opening is on April 21st, 2016, in MMIPO (Museu da Misericórdia do Porto). No need to mention the name of the author!

Details on the exhibition are here.

The cultural landscape of Porto

Lately, the Saturday afternoons I spend in Porto are booked: they are dedicated to new discoveries related to the city’s cultural landscape. The discoveries touch Porto’s natural environment, the man-made structures and features, and the character and values of its people.

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Yes, this article is about the new, third edition of Um Objeto e Seus Discursos, that goes on from the beginning of March all the way to December here in Porto. The idea is simple: meeting weekly at a different place, with a different group of interesting speakers, whose starting point for a talk is an object significant for the city and its history, be that history distant or quite recent.

Thanks to this initiative, I have already had an opportunity to visit some spaces normally inaccessible to public and learn lesser known facts and episodes about Porto. And after two years, there is still so much to uncover about its cultural landscape. The 2016 discoveries started with food: the history of “tripas à moda do Porto” was addressed, but it wasn’t all – the typical dish of Portans could be tasted as well!

And there is so much to look forward to! I am especially curious about visiting the Palacio da Bolsa, where Gustave Eiffel’s desk is kept, finding out if one of the bodies buried in the Clerigos church really belongs to Nicolau Nasoni (there is archaeological research ongoing), or discovering lesser known details of Porto’s urban history through a visit to over a century-old public toilets.

In the middle of the ocean

Until very recently, I knew almost nothing about Cabo Verde, except that it is a tiny country spread over an archipelago in the middle of Atlantic Ocean, and that amazing Cesária Évora was from there. But, living in Portugal, one gets to find out more sooner or later: there are more Caboverdians living abroad then in Cabo Verde itself.

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A few days ago, I learned a valuable lesson about Cidade Velha, the world’s oldest colonial city, funded by the Portuguese in 15th century (1462). Simultaneously, I learned a lot about Álvaro Siza and the qualities of a great architect.

Cidade Velha has been on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 2009. Knowing the requirements and the contents of application dossiers and having been involved in their preparation before my present “Portuguese phase”, I could imagine how complex task it must have been to manage the inscription of a site in Cabo Verde, with scarce human and technical resources and all kinds of obstacles on the way.

That process was reflected in the documentary I have just discovered: “Siza Vieira, Arquitecto e a Cidade Velha”, directed by Catarina Alves Costa. The film is not recent (it dates from 2005), but it turned out still state-of-the-art and revelatory for me, as much about Cidade Velha and its people as it was about Siza and his sensibility.

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The idea to candidate Cidade Velha for the UNESCO World Heritage List was not new: Siza was invited by the local authorities to help in the course of preparations, in the beginning of 2000s. The film was following some three years of the process, capturing the dynamics of various, often opposed forces present. It was admirable how the architect dealt with the multitude of factors: being respectful to the people and their needs, at the same time recognizing and preserving the values of historical architecture and the sense of place, and not letting local politicians compromise the project. The film was an excellent reminder on how being a (great) architect is not about being an unconstrained creative artist, it is about swimming in the sea of opposed streams and forces and still bringing in new values for the people and their cultural landscape.

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How does one explain the need to preserve authenticity to people who replace their thatched roofs with roof tiles because the only thing they want and truly need are better living conditions? What to respond when they ask: “But why don’t you cover your own house with the beautiful and authentic reed?” How does one cope with the politicians who let one take the risk of failure and, when the work is done, ascribe the merit to themselves? How does one find a fine balance between the need for change and modernization and the heritage values? How to be respectful and down-to-earth, and still contribute personally as an author? That is also what the documentary was about. Conservators could learn from this film and from Siza, I believe.

From what I have found out, the document Siza was developing, the Plan of Recuperation and Architectural Transformation of Cidade Velha, was completed in 2008, beyond the scope of the film. The Plan turned out to be one of the bases for the successful candidacy of the site, even though it was only partially realized.

Photos: UNESCO

See more about Cidade Velha: Cidade Velha, UNESCO world heritage list page