The Recessionary Interviews: Portugal’s Luis Pedra Silva

Luis Pedra Silva.

When Pritzker-Prize Winner Eduardo Souta de Moura faces unemployment in his own home country, you know things must be bad.

Due to the dissolution of its Parliament in 2005, Portugal has been in economic slow-down even before the 2008 global Recession set in. Factor in , and Portugal’s staggeringly weak economy rivals even Spain’s, making Portugal – along with Greece and Ireland – one of the EU’s “crisis countries.”

For the first of our “,” we spoke with Portuguese architect Luis Pedra Silva, of Pedra Silva Architects, who gave us a first-hand account of the situation, the Darwinian mindset he’s been forced to adopt, and his (he’ll admit) stubbornly optimistic belief that Portuguese architecture, which boasts a particularly plucky history, will survive this crisis to the end.

Read the Complete Interview with Luis Pedra Silva, after the break…

Fraunhofer Headquarters, designed by Pedra Silva Architects. Building of the Year Winner, 2011. © João Morgado

What was the effect of the boom-time on Portuguese architecture?

It was definitely a very prosperous period. Portugal had joined the EU in the middle of the 80′s and the economy was growing with the influx of new money. It was a period of opportunity and growth for architects and schools of architecture on the back of a construction boom. Unfortunately it was also a period where European funds were not invested in the best possible way – for which we are paying the price today.

I started as an architect in 1997 and I remember this period as the extreme opposite of what we were experiencing today. You could not get a builder as everyone was too busy and the ones that were available, charged what they wanted. This abundance of money and easy opportunity also short sighted many architects and construction companies who naively thought that this golden era would last forever, not grasping the opportunity to grow and diversify. Many are trying to do that now, but these things take time and during a crisis, if you haven’t done your homework or properly prepared, at this stage it may already be too late.

The positive side of this prosperous period was the creation of opportunities for a generation of architects and a better awareness of the importance of quality architecture by Portuguese society.  The good times don’t last forever so I also like to think that tough times don’t either – however this current crisis is a stubborn one and seems adamant in staying on!

How has architecture changed in Portugal since 2008? How have priorities changed? Has focus shifted from creation to renovation?

We felt the crisis probably earlier than most European countries. Portugal had a huge economic slow down in 2005 with the dissolution of Parliament and early elections having a new government that brought down a inherited high deficit level to sustainable levels in 2008 that coincided with the broader crisis that we are all feeling today. So in a certain sense architects in Portugal have been experiencing difficulties and stagnation for almost a decade now.

In our case we understood from 2005 that the Portuguese market was unsustainable in the long term – a small population, an over abundance of architects and an extremely competitive market. This was a huge challenge for a practice that had just been established. We began targeting foreign markets and foreign investment and [..it] took more than 5 years before we started seeing results from these efforts. Fortunately that investment is paying off now and coinciding as an alternative in this current crisis.

The Portuguese market is currently saturated in terms of construction with a huge decrease in the search for new builds, while renovation in housing and the commercial sector still exists.  However,  these opportunities are hampered and down sized by the difficulty created by banks in financing these projects in Portugal but also in the United Kingdom where we currently have some projects. The absence of money has tremendously reduced the existence of any type of project and created a new benchmark for architects where you have to do a lot more with a lot less.

Palma Apartments, by Pedra Silva Architects. © João Morgado

What firms are keeping afloat and how? Are they embracing more interdisciplinary work?

Firms that were short sighted during the golden era have either made huge downsizes or closed completely. Those that searched for new markets, understanding that Portuguese architecture had value and could be exported, are booming with projects in developing countries. Unfortunately this is more of an exception than the rule – but one of the most likely alternatives in the global market/village we live in.

The positive side of this crisis is that architects have had to be more creative in either finding interdisciplinary alternatives or rethinking how their practice is organized and useful. Flexibility is key in order to respond to an unstable work demand while maintaining fixed costs as low as possible. Merging is also an interesting option that allows for merged smaller practices to maintain their independence while [...enabling] them to search for new markets and projects they would not be able to tackle on their own.

Has the boom/bust left any positive legacy at all?

Speaking from our own experience, we try to look at the positive side of this crisis. It has undoubtedly been a period where we have been tested to our limits. Large projects that don’t go ahead, clients that become insolvent and other clients who simply  don’t pay. When one of these happen on their own, is already a big negative knock for any practice, but when they happen simultaneously, they are capable of putting the best practices out of business in the blink of an eye. It is also difficult and almost impossible to adapt as quickly as these circumstances happen, but once again, they happen when you have all your eggs in the same basket. Diversifying your type of client and market are key in order to survive these tough times. The positive legacy is that a crisis like this very quickly highlights your weaknesses and exposes them very clearly to you. These weaknesses need an immediate response and actually make you stronger in the process.

Never has what Darwin said made so much sense in these days: “it’s not the toughest or the strongest who survive but those who adapt the quickest to new circumstances”…. That sentence echoes in my head more often than any other.

Dental Clinic in Lisbon, by Pedra Silva Architects. Photo © João Morgado.

Do you think the current crisis represents a cyclical moment (an era of austerity that will give way once again to prosperity) or the beginning of a systemic change that will change architecture for ever?

I wish I could predict the future! Unfortunately I haven’t been very good at it, but I do think the world will be a very different place after this. Economists say that these cycles range over 100 year spans which makes this one almost coincide with the great depression of the 1920′s. If this is true, it will still be a few decades until we get to see a glimpse of prosperity that we were accustomed to in the past.

I do think that this time it is different because it is more global and with far more reaching and with unpredictable consequences. Personally I try to stay optimistic and do know that it will have to end some day, but I also think it is the beginning of a shift of World order, with western civilizations who have dominated global economics in the last centuries taking second stage to [...] rising super economies in the east. Architecture will follow these social changes and adapt accordingly. Architects will most likely follow and respond to these markets, creating a more nomadic trend in architecture which we already see today.

What I don’t like about this crisis is that it has caught a generation of young architects at different stages of their careers. In our case, it feels like we have been put into a film that moves in slow motion. It takes longer to achieve less and I have no doubt that were it not for this crisis, that we would have a larger portfolio of built work and be further ahead than what we are today.

Architects have been essential parts of society, but almost exclusively associated to the construction side of things and this has proven to be wrong. I think architects need to shift more from the construction side and intervene more actively than ever into [...politics to shape] a better society. This interdisciplinary aspect is what should be called the real globalization of architecture.

What has been the effect on Portugal of the “brain drain” of talented young, architects leaving Portugal?

In today’s market young graduates have very reduced options when it comes to finding a job in their own country. Most seek work alternatives in more prosperous European economies like France, the UK and Switzerland. However Portugal still maintains a strong heritage with former colonies and these emerging markets are like magnets to architects as a whole. I have friends that have moved to Angola and Mozambique, which are countries that easily import what architects have to offer, while booming economies like Brazil do not need to import skills, but need them to respond to an ever increasing demand that their labour force is unable to respond to.

Fortunately, this outflux of knowledge has not impacted us since it is still easy to find excellent talent as we speak. The positive side is that architects are taking what they know and using it in economies that need it, impacting those emerging markets in a positive way that would not have happened if it were not for the present crisis.

Part of Pedra Silva’s strategy to keep afloat is to cultivate foreign projects, such as this Clinic in Brighton, England. Photo © Joao Morgado

Spain and Portugal were once beacons for revitalizing, innovative architecture – do you think the torch has been passed?

The most interesting capacity of Portuguese architecture [...is] a timeless capacity for Portuguese architects/builders to take a sublime or poetic approach with very few resources.

Portugal [...is] the European country with the oldest defined borders in Europe, unlike some central European countries that have had changing borders up until very recently. In Central Europe, architecture was, besides other things, used as a way of marking a territory with an architecture that had a national identity [...] and connection with the people’s architectural culture.

Portugal, mantaining borders and having relatively stable politics compared with other European countries, had a lesser need to use architecture as a way to show/mark territory and more of a need to respond to other practical needs: maintaining borders, agriculture, religion and of course habitat. With low natural resources, like metals, minerals or even forests (one of the first pine forests was planted for ship building [...] and not for construction), Portuguese architecture has in its genes a sense of being practical, functional [...]. This shared sense of function and low resources created a kind of specific poetic, a natural aptitude to design a simple (or minimal) aesthetic that responds to the basics, but has a natural aesthetic/architectural value.

This characteristic to create the essential conjugated with a real interest in dialoguing with inhabitants or with society established a foundation that has maintained its essence throughout the years. We had and still have very good schools of architecture and they understand this capacity and in some way teach it to new architects.

This way of doing architecture is more immune to fashion architecture and more likely to produce architects that think about solving a real problem, giving a real solution to a necessity, more than giving a total new technological or aesthetic design. This is the way our office works, and I think it’s the key to doing architecture in a crisis period. I also think that we are not the only office to think like this, and in this way, maybe the torch could continue.

This timeless essence of Portuguese architecture came in some good times, but especially in the long periods of low resources and low construction. This is a capacity to be creative and inventive with few resources and big necessities. In this way, I think, even if we have less buildings to show at this moment, and live in times of photographed architecture (images), the quality of our architecture should and will adapt as history has shown.

Cite: Quirk, Vanessa. "The Recessionary Interviews: Portugal’s Luis Pedra Silva" 03 Sep 2012. ArchDaily. Accessed 25 Oct 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=268425>