Creative Cities

creative-cities-conference

“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/

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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.

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.

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

Happy 100th anniversary!

A little belated, though, but I hope two days don’t mean that much of delay for a proud hundred-year old!

On February 1st, 1916, the works on the new city avenue, today known as Avenida dos Aliados, began in Porto. The importance of the work can be illustrated by the fact that the very president of Portugal of the time, Bernardino Machado, was present. On a second glance, it becomes clear that one of the most well-known public spaces of Porto is actually composed of three spaces: the Liberdade Square, the Humberto Delgado Square, and the Aliados avenue. The idea to create a grand public space dates back to the beginning of 18th century: the role model was the main square of Madrid, Plaza Mayor. But the full conditions to conduct the works and create the Aliados avenue as it is known today were reached only in the first decades of the 20th century.

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Its construction began with a demolition: the space had been intersected with several streets and contained built structures … and orange orchards! So, on February 1st, 1916, the ancient city hall building, that was situated in the southern part of today’s Aliados, defining one of the façades of the Liberdade Square, began to disappear.

Each square meter of the avenue, the squares and the surrounding buildings tells a story of Porto’s architectural and artistic trends, social life and economy over the last century. Among many important names that contributed to it, I would like to point out three: Barry Parker, Henrique Moreira and Álvaro Siza. Parker was the author of the green gardens of Aliados many Portans still remember, suffer for and idealize a little bit. Siza, together with Souto Moura, changed the square to what it is today: maybe it could be less grey, but the city needed a paved space for huge public gatherings, and the eclectic architecture of its “façades” finally came under the spotlight.

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The third gentlemen, Henrique Moreira, has given much of a soul to Aliados: he is the author of two sculptures situated there, the Youth (known also as The Girl of Aliados) and the Abundance (or The Boys).

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Across the river

Almost two years have passed since my arrival to Porto, and I am turning less and less visitor and more and more inhabitant of the “invincible city”.

After the dreamy, rainy and uneventful post-Christmas epoch, the time has come for the new urban experiences. The decision was simple, to cross the river and get to know the heritage of Vila Nova de Gaia. Despite being named “the new town”, Gaia has a long history, reaching back to Celtic times. And by area and number of inhabitants, it turns out to be a much bigger city than Porto today! So far, I knew the river bank, the mount Pilar, the terraces of Arrabida Shopping and the Yeatman hotel, but the reason to visit them was primarily to enjoy amazing views to the historical center of Porto! Other sites I have visited in Gaia are few: the inevitable wine cellars, several beautiful but isolated beaches, the genuine fishermen’s neighbourhood of Afurada (on the most important day for the community, the St. Peter’s day), and the Teixeira Lopes Museum.

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An injustice that has to be corrected … but hey, if one wants to prepare, it is difficult, for the latest monograph on Gaia’s heritage was published in 1908! Finally, in 2016, the conditions have been fulfilled to address the problem. And I found out the key facts a few days ago, at the Solar Condes de Resende, an ancient country villa now converted to the Municipal House of Culture. Heritage people are often very passionate about what they do, and J. A. Gonçalves Guimarães is no excuse. The director of the Solar Condes de Resende is a proud “gaiense” (born and raised in Gaia), with the background in history and archaeology. He personally presented to the public the ambitious project of the future monograph (or better, a series thereof), giving an insight into the scope of work that follows and even sharing unresolved questions still to be discussed by the editorial team. And no, it won’t take long: in a little more than a year, the first book will be ready. Meanwhile, more lectures will be organized once a month in the Solar, with the aim to present the Gaia’s heritage to a broader audience. I look forward to finding out more, both from the future books and live, from the true “gaienses” that probably best transmit the very spirit of the place.

“Happiness today is a kind of industry”

The amazing Forum of the Future has just ended here in Porto. Great events tend to unfold simultaneously here, and coincide with mountains of work and deadlines, so I managed to attend just a few of several dozen talks. The common thread of them all was happiness.

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Something to wish and strive for, isn’t it? But there was one session very critical of happiness today, the one with Mirko Zardini, the one I was lucky to attend.

Zardini is an architect, a director of the CCA – the Canadian Center for Architecture, an international research center based in Montreal. He is the one behind many state-of-the-art exhibitions putting architecture in the wider context of social, political and cultural concerns (the latest was about the Portuguese SAAL housing program from the 1970s). The one safeguarding the world renowned authors’ archive (by the way, Siza’s archives are to be kept there, too!).

“Happiness today is a kind of industry”, explains Mirko Zardini. Being aware of social problems and global issues related to migration, cultural differences, energy crisis, sustainability, there is actually little room for happiness. But there are certainly potentials and possibilities to involve architecture in this larger discussion. That’s the CCA’s mission and they do it by putting architecture in the center of attention of the public. Their exhibitions and publications are so very successful that CCA, despite being against happiness, “can be partly happy” with what has been done, Zardini concludes wittily.

I found a special convergence between their architectural thinking and my own work: the “Sense of the City”, exhibition and publication from about a decade ago, searching for an alternative view to the city of today and its critical understanding through multisensory experience.

Zardini doesn’t hesitate to question his own attitudes and perception and insists on involving architectural into a larger social discourse. The main message of all was that of architecture & participation, emphasized by bringing in the famous words of Giancarlo de Carlo: “In reality, architecture has become too important to be left to architects.”