Putting together an architecture festival devoid of buildings might seem a daunting prospect for any organiser. Yet this is exactly what this year's Architecture Triennale in Lisbon, entitled Close, Closer, is bravely offering.
Divisive as it may be, leaving the buildings out of the equation was not an end in itself for the curatorial team. 'The funny thing is that we didn't consider it that bold', explains the British chief curator Beatrice Galilee. 'I never told people not to put buildings in their shows. Our intention was to show the forces that shape architecture before the client comes in. We did not do this because we hate buildings or as a reactionary act.'
The premise is certainly a recipe for sparking debate, closing the gap between architecture practice and theory and focusing on the things, situations and people that help shape today's architecture, rather than the buildings themselves.
In its structure, the Triennale is straightforward and consistent, with common threads, such as themes of control, participation and architecture's dialogue with its various influencers (such as technology, or independent organisations), running through its four main events.
Three of them are exhibitions; The Institute Effect, curated by writer and curator Dani Admiss and designed by Italian collective Fabrica, focuses on the role of architecture institutes. 'From the beginning, I had quite a clear idea of what I wanted to talk about: all the other forms of architecture practice', says Galilee. 'The Institute Effect is about the people who frame our understanding of architecture.' The show engages with 12 organisations from as far away as the US and Mexico, presenting a series of events during the festival.
Future Perfect, created by Liam Young, is an experimental look into the future of architecture and includes installations and performances by designers such as Bart Hess. 'We need big visions and bold gestures', says Young. 'It is not a time to retreat'.
Meanwhile, The Real and Other Fictions, orchestrated by Portuguese architect Mariana Pestana, takes its cue from one of the city's historical landmarks, the Palacio Pombal, revisiting its spaces and re-imagining its past uses in a series of installations that incite debate and participation.
The fourth leg of the festival, New Publics, is a public program of performances overseen by José Esparza Chong Cuy. This included a creative re-imagining of Charles and Ray Eames' Powers of Ten documentary from 1977, by Spanish architect Andres Jaque and The Office of Political Innovation, called Superpowers of Ten. 'We wanted an alternative to the more traditional conference form, for our public program', explains Galilee. The result was a round civic stage designed by Frida Escobedo in central Lisbon that anybody could apply to use.
Many smaller collateral shows are peppered around town, many of these funded by the Triennale's Small Grants Program: Crisis Buster, that awarded a small sum to interdisciplinary teams - including Paris based collective EXYZT - to realise their proposals. Openly aiming to focus on young practices rather than established ones, the Triennale's team admittedly includes mostly non-Portuguese participations, although several local institutions are in dialogue with their international counterparts in the many interactive offerings.
Mirroring Portugal's ongoing economic woes, the Triennale sadly suffered from lack of steady funding, which, as Galilee admits, in many cases forced them to scale things down. 'All biennales are different. Nevertheless, there are of course things that you don't see here that you see in others, like big monographic exhibitions,' she explains. But economic restraints engender creative thinking. 'Working like this makes it difficult to make anything conventional,' Galilee adds. And, while the Lisbon event might not offer the drama and glamour of the Venice Biennale, it does create a valuable platform for debate and a fertile ground for the exchange of ideas, within the country and beyond.
Lisbon's rich urban and natural landscape also chipped in, offering a selection of beautiful venues, which were just as worth visiting; an old bank, complete with its underground vaults, houses the city's Design Museum as well as The Institute Effect; the Electricity Museum and Future Perfect are located in an old industrial power plant; and the stunning, yet neglected Palacio Pombal, the home of The Real and Other Fictions, sits in one of the city's finest neighbourhoods, Bario Alto, and has served in the past, among other uses, as a residence and an embassy.