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Docomomo International Conference, September 6-9, 2016: "Adaptive Reuse - the Modern Movement towards the Future"


6 Sep 2016 | Judi Loach


This time Docomomo International's biennial conference was held in Lisbon, moreover in the wonderful setting of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation – surely one of the most beautiful Modern Movement buildings of the 1960s, surrounded by lush gardens that were much enjoyed as a respite to the heat (upper 30s!). Efficient organisation and delicious food helped to make it an enjoyable as well as intellectually stimulating experience.  


There are now Working Parties in over 70 countries (with Ghana, Iraq and Kosovo being admitted this year), and the increasing presence of African and Asian representatives was refreshing, especially due to presentations of their own Modernism, mixing (initially colonial) Modern Movement with indigenous culture in a variety of ways. It was a great opportunity to meet up again with members we already knew but also to make new contacts – or rather friends – from literally all over the world.


If we were initially disappointed at the absence of most starchitects announced as plenary speakers – Pallasmaa having broken a leg and Siza a tooth (!) – the Iberians giving plenaries more than made up for them, their lectures at once using recent projects to demonstrate how conservation and urban regeneration can be mutually supportive and their images poetic enough to inspire us.

As if aware that architects abroad have long seen Porto as their nation's architectural centre, the conference organisers, from Lisbon, seemed to use this opportunity to redress the balance.  If we were aware that the Expo in 1998 had helped to regenerate an ex-industrial district along the Tagus to the north of the city we had not realised how this fits into an ambitious, long-term plan to reclaim virtually all Lisbon's coastline, with old docks and industrial sites giving way to a near-continuous esplanade; privileging pedestrians and cyclists, this forms an integral feature within the policy of decreasing car usage within the city, which has included adding new elevators up steep hillsides and creating a metro system, in turn linking "poles" within the expanding city. 


Such opening up of quaysides and squares (with a citywide policy of "one for every local district") for cafés and leisure also attracts more tourists, generating income. In parallel, run-down or mono-functional (due to conversion to offices) districts behind are being regenerated for mixed use by adding residential, including social housing, alongside offices and shops, adding new layers while retaining as much historic fabric as possible so as to "reinterpret the city"; Siza's well-publicised (and still ongoing) reworking of the Chiado district, after the 1988 fire, is but one example here. Refreshingly, although these speakers were leading architects and planners, most of them modestly refrained from the usual show-and-tell of their own works, instead presenting the wider geographical and historic context – a city of seven hills, facing out over the Atlantic, and built as a proud capital of Empire - so as to explain the city's current vision: facilitating social mixing and thus democratisation, through mixed development and prioritising open spaces and public transportation.  


This approach was particularly impressive when one had seen, in the pre-conference visits, the quality of recent buildings by these same architects. The reworking of the ruins of a late 18th century private opera house, the Thalia Theatre, into a multi-functional auditorium for the Ministry of Education (but separately usable by the local community) by one of the plenary speakers, Gonçalo Byrne, was impressive for its retention of bare brick structure but contrasting new additions; his conversion of St Juliaio's church into the banking museum again conserved both original fabric and traces of decay, delicately sliding in blatantly modern spaces and elements. 


Most are already aware of Gregotti's Cultural Centre (1988-92) in Belém but not of how this was planned to stimulate the regeneration of that riverside district to the south of the city centre; our visit there also included the new building for the National Carriages Museum (2008-15) by the Brazilian Pritzker winner Paulo Mendes da Rocha and the Documentation and Information Centre for the President's Palace, by another plenary speaker, João Luis Carrilho de Graça. Gregotti's behemoth somewhat lacks context but has beautiful hanging gardens and some carefully crafted interiors, and it has proved successful in functional terms; likewise the other foreign architect's building is spatially dramatic but less well integrated into its surroundings, and also less well detailed. By contrast Carilho de Graça's partly submerged addition to the President's Palace combined dramatic spaces and daylighting with sensitive attention to context and detail.


The conference illustrated its theme of "adaptive reuse" through the largely local examples presented in the plenaries and explored physically in the visits organised before and afterwards – and both in the sense of reusing Modern Movement buildings or of using contemporary architecture in a Modern Movement idiom for the interventions enabling buildings of earlier periods to gain new uses.  


If the lectures and visits tended to privilege the former, the city offers plenty of instances of the latter, such as Carilho de Graça's conversion of a listed salt cod warehouse (1940s) into the Museu do Oriente (2008), or Duarte Caldas and Victor Vicente's of another listed building, the last remaining (and most Modern Movement) pavilion from the international exhibition of 1940 into a restaurant-cum-gallery, Espaço Espelho d'Agua (2014).  These not only increased ones appreciation of the quality of Lisbon's, as opposed to just Porto's, current architectural culture but also carried several lessons relevant to us in the UK. 


First, there was the sensitivity to layers of historic fabric, each with meaning of its own, and of the place of the Modern Movement within this. Second, in this the collaboration among professionals, and perhaps especially with landscape architects, is outstanding – witness the Ribeira das Naus section of the esplanade alongside the re-excavated dry dock beside the Caldeirinha dock, due to the landscape architects João Nunes and João Gomes da Silva (2009-13), co-ordinated with the reworking of the naval buildings behind. Third, the importance of long term planning, is evident both in the overall strategy for reclaiming the riverside but also in individual projects such as this one. Finally, and far from least as it was to some extent a prerequisite to all these, is the willingness of architects (and allied professionals) to actively engage in the political realm. 


Several of the Iberian plenary speakers – and even most of those from Lisbon or Barcelona – had served time as mayors of major cities, government ministers or directors of port agencies, and only by such means had they influenced public opinion and secured the funding for these inspiring projects.


First published in Docomomo.UK Newsletter 32

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