The Other Ones
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The Other Ones

Posted on December 13, 2022 by xavigonzalez

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The particular story I want to narrate here begins a couple of years before OODA's young founders started emerging from an architecture school in Porto.

Late in the summer of 2004, in a still tourist-flooded Venice, a smallish room in the old Artiglerie dell'Arsenale welcomed a representation of young Portuguese architects. The delegation eluded the fanfare of past national embassies to Italy, such as that most mythical celebration of the feats of Portuguese explorers some five hundred years earlier. And yet, this mission also held a certain promise and vibrancy. It held an untold ambition, which surely sheds some light on the present account.

Although the modern pioneers amongst Portuguese architects had international reputations since the 1960s, this was the first time that a Portuguese participation in the Venice Architecture Biennale was intentionally proposed, organized, and curated. Through a crack in the institutional passageways, before the establishment quickly took over this newly-perceived avenue to shine in a worldly context, an exhibition enigmatically named Metaflux arose as an opportunity to take a look at the alternative future of Portuguese architecture, rather than only at its sanctimonious present.

Truth be told, the previous edition of the most important networking event in the architecture world had already included Portuguese representatives. That was the year that the Biennale awarded the Golden Lion to Álvaro Siza Vieira — crowning his first successful Brazilian incursion, with the Iberê Camargo Foundation. Meanwhile, faced with the chance to inaugurate an official presence at the Architecture Biennale, the national commissioners avoided any hint of a conflictual curatorial choice. They brought to Venice a landscape architect's solo show, which prior, and very conveniently, had been travelling through provincial Italian towns. By contrast, two years later, Metaflux and its bid of "two generations in recent Portuguese Architecture" aimed at a different, more provocative game.

Metaflux tweaked the Biennale's title for 2004, Metamorph, and merged its formalist overtones with the conceptual notion of Influx. This, on the other hand, was the name of an exhibition series in which the Venice show's curators — of whom, incidentally, I was one — had already researched and portrayed a number of up-and-coming architecture practices in the Portuguese context.

Metaflux's ensuing argument was that, due to new incoming influences, Portuguese architecture was about to undergo a metamorphosis. Just as the democratic transition of 1974 had deeply changed Portugal, and its joining of the European Union had further accelerated such transformation, the boundaries that had kept Portuguese architecture relatively isolated were being overcome in the short scope of one generation leap.

During the 1980s and 1990s, the country had flourished into a massive infrastructural upgrade, economic globalization and the embrace of a borderless consumer culture. In the 2000s, after the European Union Erasmus student exchange program started producing its first outcomes, the closed world of Portuguese architecture was also about to be revolutionized. From Generation X to Generation Y, from those coming into practice after the late 1980s to those starting one decade later, one could identify a glimpse of a mutation in form-making, in language and themes, in design inspirations and in the ways practices were conceived.

In hindsight, however, one must recognize that the promise of Metaflux was ahead  of its time. Although the signs were there, a thorough change in architectural language was not going to be that easygoing. Well-established and recognized as it was, the "Portoguese School" — as insightful Porto critic Manuel Mendes aptly and ironically dubbed it — was also extremely resilient. After the last postmodern gushes from the Lisbon School of architecture in the 1990s, the Porto School spread its supremacy to the whole of the national architecture scene. It dominated not only the style wars, but the market itself. In its grip, it took down any resemblance of divergence or resistance, including the young promises that Metaflux once singled out as Generation Y. Notably, representatives of the so-called Generation X, who were aligned with an encroaching convention of minimalism, prospered and profitably perpetuated the linguistic legacy of the Porto School. In contrast, the five young Turks of Generation Y progressively split and waned. Metaflux's promise of an incoming blooming diversity broke down with them — and the one practice that persisted among the five was, again notably, the one that was held to continue the Oporto tradition.

Although local architectural debates following Metaflux pursued that mirage of a richer diversity of practices in the Portuguese context — even soon unearthing the fresh potential  of a Generation Z — the fact was that such prospect was not to be accomplished. At least, not so soon. Slow mutations did occur within the form-shaping canon, as they would in any evolutionary process. Yet, the following years were not to see any proposals that would consolidate an envisaged creative hybridity, away from a Portoguese School increasingly reassured of its formal dominion. Rather, after a smaller circle of cultural influencers had surrendered to the increasingly universal language of the Porto School, its sway continued to spread until it actually became the bland jargon imprinted across the landscapes of an entire country. Forward to 2020, and while the last surviving forms of 20th-century Portuguese vernaculars still sporadically pop up in nouveau-bourgeois villas or in the random regionally-committed tourist resort, the Oporto Suave has definitely taken over.

When I was recently prompted to take a closer look at the architectural practice of OODA, this tale of fading revolutionary promises had been cooking in the back of my mind for a while. Meeting them, visiting their offices, and capturing the vibrancy of their motivation, positively brought that perception of a certain progression of architectural affairs to a quick boil. Many years later, in the midst of an encompassing state of dormancy, here was an unexpected reincarnation of Generation Y, which came close to the original beliefs in a potential metamorphosis in Portuguese architecture.