"The house is among the first concepts shared by society and architecture", states André Tavares and Pippo Ciorra, curators of the exhibition called At Home: Projects for Contemporary Housing, on display at Garagem Sul / Centro Cultural Belém, in Lisbon. The show, which is the unfolding of another one previously held at the MAXXI Museum in Rome, gathers pieces from the huge collection of the Italian institution and seeks intersections with contemporary Portuguese architectural production. Its main topic – the house, the home – has never been more discussed than right now.
Bringing together houses of different scales, built in diverse locations by various methods and techniques, and designed by Italian, Portuguese and international architects, the exhibition gathers, in groups of three, projects from which it is possible to weave relationships that go beyond geographies and materialities and foster reflections about the future of housing and what the home of tomorrow will look like.
We had the opportunity to talk with Tavares and Ciorra about the exhibition, its motivations and expectations with its opening in the physical venue of Garagem Sul. Read below.
Romullo Baratto (ArchDaily): How did this collaboration between these two major institutions in Portugal and Italy take place?
André Tavares: Garagem Sul acts as a platform to present and discuss, with a wide audience, what is going on in architectural culture. It aims to share ways in which architecture can be relevant for society. Last year, after visiting the At Home exhibition presented in Rome, we realized that it would be timely to bring the exhibition to Lisbon, and to expand the ongoing conversation on the design of the house between architects of different generations and realities. This presented the possibility to engage with ongoing discussions in Portugal, and, by doing so, to activate debates throughout the European context. That’s how we started to work with the MAXXI to develop the exhibition that is now opening in Lisbon.
Pippo Ciorra: We were extremely happy and enthusiastic when we received the proposal from Garagem Sul – to not only export but also expand the exhibition.
The exhibition deals with the idea of the house: the house is among the first concepts shared by society and architecture. The beginning of architecture might be a roof or a cave, or something in a tree, but in any case, the aim was for this to become a house. When we talk about connecting society and architecture, which is extremely important today, we think of the architectural culture around us, and it’s grounded in the concept of living. The concept of the home is important, especially today, because we need to understand on which grounds to bring back the links between society and our profession, discipline, and culture – the culture of the architect.
This was a very good opportunity. The idea, in Rome, was to produce a hybrid exhibition between our collection and invited architects. Materials from the MAXXI collection were paired in a set of dialogues with different contemporary architects. This became even more interesting when we had the possibility to expand this conversation further through the addition of Portuguese examples. It is funny to think that Italian architecture culture – academic culture – never paid much attention to the traditionally designed Italian home, but we always paid a lot of attention to the Portuguese. There is a lot of attention every single time a home or housing is designed by an architect like Siza.
RB: The exhibition relies mostly on MAXXI’s historic archive of Italian architecture. What contributions and questions does this bring to Portuguese contemporary architecture?
AT: One of the keys for the Lisbon iteration was to expand the exhibition’s duos into trios. The dialogue established in Rome between the MAXXI collection and works by contemporary architects was expanded to bring into the discussion questions that relate to the various modes of architectural practice, typologies and functions. Themes such as construction materials – between architecture built in stone or built in wood – or of the urgency of new functions and uses for houses. We have an example by Aires Mateus of residences for the elderly, which represents new forms of living together and new demands for living spaces that are becoming more and more relevant to our contemporary society. Another example would be the participatory process of the construction of the temporary Casa do Vapor. The ambition, the extension and the ideas of the Rome exhibition were the backbone for forging a refreshed view of recent Portuguese architectural production. To see this production through new lenses, offering a vision that I expect will differ and diverge from the representations that have been produced and promoted in the last years.
RB: Would you say this exhibition focuses more on home or rather on house? This is a subtle difference perceived especially in the English version of the title (which translates Em Casa as At Home), but one that can affect a tremendous shift in how we experience the show. Or, do you not make such a distinction?
PC: For the MAXXI, exhibitions offer on one side the possibility of investigating a topic, a theme – which was in this case the theme of the “home” – and at the same time a means to investigate, expand and discuss our collection. In the MAXXI collection there are a lot of Italian architects of the 60s and 70s, with all the legacy that comes with them. If you think of Aldo Rossi and Carlo Aymonino, or Mario Fiorentino, the house is the raw material to build the city. This was extremely important in the history of Italian architecture, of European architecture, but somehow left aside a discussion of the home itself. The home is the space where people live, and it was thought imperious to consider it. If we consider the home versus the house, translating from Italian, “casa” refers to the architectural tradition of the single-family house. Not in terms of the villa, but the single-family house, as opposed to large-scale projects. At the same time, there is a rich legacy of lesser-known works of single-family houses to be discovered in the archive, by super interesting, radical, progressive or urban Italian architects of the 50s, the 60s, the 70s. Such examples find echoes in today’s contemporary production. We’ve tried to build some weird and oblique connections between old examples and contemporary projects, for instance between Monaco Luccichenti and Pezo von Ellrichshausen, who echo each other. The idea of the home was important to enable focus upon a space where architects engage in the presence of the human, of the inhabitant, versus the house as a piece of the city. This was how we started and developed the project. Then, of course, we incorporated the theme of home versus house a lot.
RB: Italian projects are paired with Portuguese projects, and sometimes also buildings and architects from elsewhere. Grouping is not random, of course, and creates narratives. What do these small narratives tell of the whole exhibition?
AT: The exhibition begins at the scale of the shelter and ends at large-scale public housing, going from Casa Malaparte to the Corviale, the 1-kilometer long building. This kind of growing intensity, in terms of dimension and problematics, progressing from detached buildings to those in dialogue both with the city and the idea of home – as Pippo was saying – was the narrative structure that allowed us to go in various directions. The parallel narratives that arise to the side of this linear structure are crucial for giving content to the visitor who doesn’t need to follow the exhibition from A to Z. We expect visitors to enjoy discovering what is happening “at home” without too much compromise, and then to realize what the discussions are at different scales – from the single family house to the city. For example, one of the exhibition’s groupings presents films of the Moriyama House, SAAL (a public housing program developed in Portugal following 1974’s Carnation Revolution), and Stefano Boeri’s Green Tower in Milan. The exhibition becomes the space for the visitor to create unexpected connections. I think the narratives unfold in quite a free way, as opposed to an academic essay, but they always build upon the backbone of what was conceived as the exhibition’s structure — from the shelter to the city.
PC: Yes, and architecture is a migrant entity. Along this route that goes between the Iberian Peninsula and Italy, there’s been a long tradition of migrating ideas. Maybe in the 40s, in the 50s, some ideas traveled from Italy, and then Casabella and the Italian rationalists had a lot of influence. But then in the 80s and 90s, in Italy we were receiving so many challenges and ideas from Portuguese architects. I think there is an ongoing conversation between Italian and Portuguese architecture that makes sense in this project.
And, of course, in the show you have archival material, so you can travel both geographically and chronologically, as André was mentioning. Not in a linear progression, but you can wander and discover the items, discover the projects, discover the trios. And build relationships between these trios. In this sense, it is a quite open exhibition, an open possibility that allows the visitor to build their own perception.
RB: Taking into account the geographical and temporal distances between the featured projects, along with the cultural specificities of their contexts and their differences in scale, is it possible for the visitor to understand how notions of housing have changed over the years?
AT: More important than understanding those changes – which are visible through the examples themselves – I think the key aspect of the exhibition is an imagining of how notions of a house can change in the future. More than a historical exhibition, it’s a prospective exhibition.
PC: I agree. And the somehow surprising thing was that we first made this exhibition a few months before the pandemic. And the pandemic fueled this need to consider what the space of the house means to us. On one side, the exhibition was a way to discern and expand the investigation between the twentieth century tradition of large-scale housing and the many other different possibilities that André was mentioning – what house, housing and home can mean today. What are the different processes that can bring you from self-construction to commercial, subsidized, or public housing? There are many, many possibilities, and we need to consider what it means for a person to live in a specific space. Each person wants to be taken into account. Because of what we learned in this last year, it is interesting to think how a home, or the concept of the home, is making us ask new questions. And the exhibition gives us a ground to explore the future, and to expand ideas about the future of home design.
RB: What kind of material and archival documentation will be displayed of each project? Will it allow the public to go beyond formal and aesthetic comparisons, to dig deeper into each specific context and the methods applied?
AT: The MAXXI archive is the starting point. The exhibition builds up from that archive, which allows us to build our knowledge upon the history of architecture, which is so rich and deep. But, as has already been said, it’s not a historical exhibition. It’s a prospective exhibition. The objects are powerful by themselves. The quality of a Scarpa drawing is thrilling, even beyond the specific quality of the project it represents. Moreover, the projects are not being presented solely by, or for, their formal or aesthetic qualities – which they also possess. It’s the dialogues in which they engage that allow us to bring up precious – and often invisible – connections and relationships. The objects, the drawings, the films, the interviews, the models, they trigger different discussions that go beyond the form of architecture, they lead to the way we live, how we can live, and how, as architects, we can deal with and reinvent the way we live, every day.
PC: At MAXXI we started from the archival material, because it is, on one side, a tool to understand the processes that happen within a project, and on another side, it reminds us of the quality of the architectural work that we love and aim for. Putting together material of different natures – the model, the photograph, the drawing, the film – favors the discussion among different projects, the meaning that is produced by putting them together. Sometimes curating art puts you in a condition where you have to separate one artwork from the next, and from the one before. In architecture, it’s easier to include the items you display within a larger network, thinking in ideas and mindsets that help us to understand what can come out of the dialogue between different architects and different buildings. This is exactly what is happening here. It’s happening across history, but also across geography and scale, in different attitudes. You have architects that use similar tools – like the quality of the detail in Scarpa and in his Portuguese counterparts – or it can be the use of models, which is sometimes the more important part to understand a project. This is not a monographic exhibition on thirty projects, it’s rather a discourse that is generated by them, produced by the visitor through sequences of works viewed together. It’s the variety of meanings that arises, rather than any idea of a celebratory monography.
RB: This is a beautiful exhibition on a subject that became even more intimate to everybody in the last year – the house, the home. We all recently got even closer to our own homes, and I believe this brings another layer to the show. How do you see it?
PC: While we were preparing the exhibition to travel to Lisbon, we also had to deal with the first lockdown, when everybody was in their own home, all the time. When the home became the house, the office, the gym, the restaurant, the cinema, and the museum itself. While working on the preparation of the Lisbon exhibition, we made a kind of augmented version of the show in Rome, asking architects what they thought about this evolution, and the ongoing evolution of the home. The exhibition was raw material to rethink the potential of the house. In Rome, we had the chance to have the exhibition open in the museum to fill the strange gap between the spring and fall lockdowns. We used that gap to delve into the exhibition’s content, and we understood, not as a conclusion but in reflection, that the house is the most flexible space ever.
You don’t produce new typologies, you just explore the potential of this kind of fluid typology, which is the house. Of course, we can do whatever we want in a house, but a house needs its household. So, to go back to the old Italian tradition, the house also has to be something that helps us create public space.
AT: When we were being locked down in Lisbon whilst preparing the exhibition, I became very impressed with one of examples we would decide to show. It was a recently completed renovation orientating a building to Airbnb, or, let's say, a rare good example of how temporary houses are transforming the rhythm of the city. We are still seeing Lisbon in the tricky position of people not having access to proper houses to live in permanence. And, suddenly, the Airbnbs were empty, but the costs of long-term rents stayed prohibitively high. The tourists just went away. All of them. The example I am talking about is a renovation by José Adrião, a very delicate intervention in a Pombalina house, in the downtown area of Lisbon that was rebuilt after 1755’s earthquake. One of the bits of knowledge presented by this project is an unveiling of the various timescales of the use of the same space: it was a house, that became a different house, and then became an office, and then a house again, etc, etc.
We are constantly changing the way we live. Houses change, but architecture is more of a support. It brings a framework for us to make our home, to make our houses real homes. But while we change the way we live, architecture might just stay there, regardless of our own drastic changes and shifts.
RB: Will the exhibition be available virtually? What can we expect from this collaboration between Garagem Sul and MAXXI in the future?
AT: Well, we do believe in reality – at least, I do believe in reality – and at Garagem Sul we are fighting to open the exhibition physically. There is no way to mediate the physical wandering through ideas that we were speaking about. Of course, we are preparing digital materials to go on with the exhibition and to keep our minds open to what’s happening. But I think one thing does not replace the other. Virtual experiences are very rich, they offer new insights and other ways to articulate content, but they are also very demanding. They can bring new ways for ideas to circulate and open new paths for exchange, but, in my experience – and at least from what I understood in these first months of our new life – we had more physical visitors at Garagem Sul in the moments that we managed to open our exhibition. People were keen to escape from the digital world and go experience the exhibition space. We had less visitors in total, because we lost the tourists, but we had more happy visitors. We kept having school visits or Lisboners that went outside of their houses to exchange socially. Of course, we will go on with content in the digital realm, and we are discussing further forms of collaboration. But, for now, we should focus on getting back to the city, getting back to the space where we can live socially.
PC: I agree with André. I think the MAXXI had a very intense virtual life throughout March, April , the peak pandemic time [in Italy]. What we have learned in this experience is that what happens on the net is different from what happens in reality. The virtual presence of the museum and the exhibition includes different tools, different projects, and they are complimentary. The two lives – online and analog – are complimentary and do not overlap. The virtual thing never substitutes the real one. We can’t wait to be physically in Garagem Sul, to see and touch the exhibition – or what it is possible to touch!