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Launched 15 years ago, in 2007, the Lisbon Architecture Triennale opened its sixth edition on September 30. As in the past, exhibitions are being staged at the same five venues scattered across town, but where, in 2019, most of the issues tackled were classically architectural—typologies, ornament, the poetics of structure, the creative imagining of space—this time architecture is taken at its broadest, encompassing everything from geography and anthropology to economics and botany, for a theme that is just as broad: Terra, or planet Earth itself.

“How do resource depletion, socio-economic inequalities, and climate alter-actions intertwine at different scales?” ask chief curators Cristina Veríssimo and Diogo Burnay of Lisbon-based office CVDB Arquitectos. By exhibiting case studies from all over the world, they hope to encourage a conversation that would see the “current fragmented linear system of cities-as-machines” transformed into “a holistic model of cities-as-organisms.”

At MAAT, Lisbon’s contemporary art museum down on the water in Belém, the duo invited Mexican architects Loreta Castro Reguera  and José Pablo Ambrosi (two of this year's Mies Crown Hall Prize's Emerging Practice winners) to put on Retroactive, a show that considers “broken” urbanity—the context in which most of the world’s population actually lives—and how community- and architect-led infrastructure initiatives might make it a little less so. Colombia, China, Haiti, Indonesia, Jordan (the Azrak refugee camp), and Kenya are among the many places the show travels to, with projects tackling everything from water supply and sanitation to urban parks and storm-water installations.


At Multiplicity in MNAC, the Bookworm Pavilion is intended to encourage reading. Photo © Sara Constanca

Meanwhile, at the nearby Garagem Sul (a former parking garage located in the Centro Cultural de Belém), Chileans Pamela Prado (an art curator) and Pedro Ignacio Alonso (an architect and professor) have given us Cycles, which looks at materials—how and where they are extracted and transformed at a global scale, and how we might better use and recycle them at a local one.

On the other side of town, at the Culturgest Foundation, the mood is rather less down to earth: Russian designer and researcher Anastassia Smirnova and Dutch architect-urbanists SVESMI have put together a selection of Visionaries, projects from the past 70 years that “propose alternative orders of things and create not just beautiful physical structures or objects, but ambitious, and, at times, controversial prescriptions for future action.” The variety is vast, with everything from Auroville, the utopian city “without laws, prisons, or police” that was designed by Roger Anger in 1960s India, to MVRDV’s provocative proposal to raise up Eindhoven Cathedral on stilts so the valuable land underneath can be redeveloped with housing.

 At Lisbon’s other contemporary art museum, Muse Nacional de Arte Contemporânea do Chaido (MNAC), we find Multiplicity, a show curated by Indian anthropologist Vyjayanthi Rao and Tau Tavengwa, the Zimbabwean-born co-founder of Cityscapes magazine. The duo has put together a selection of projects they feel push “the boundaries of practice” and “challenge our staid definition of what architecture is, while reclaiming and redefining it as a potent tool in fighting for environmental, economic, and social equality and justice.” These include Beijing’s Plug-In House (People’s Architecture Office, 2016), which used low-cost prefabricated parts to bring a traditional hutong dwelling up to modern standards, and Indian practice Nude’s traveling BookWorm Pavilion, which was first shown in Mumbai in 2019 and is intended to encourage reading among both young and old, “spreading the message of ‘empowerment through education.’”

Finally, at the Triennale’s headquarters in the Palacio Sinel de Cordes we find Independent Projects—everything from research into how microplastics might affect plant growth (After Plastics, organized by to Joyce Hsiang and Bimal Mendis’s Terra Infirma-Terra Incognita, which imagines how humanity’s mapping proclivities, usually carried out in the name of rapacious extraction, might be turned around to protect hitherto-unmapped places.

By now, readers will have gathered that these are all urgent, worthy topics that concern not just the future of architecture but humanity and the planet as a whole. In its 2022 format, the Lisbon Triennial has made itself a forum for architects, students, and related professionals to come together around these important concerns, a possibility that will be augmented by the Talk, Talk, Talk cycle of public discussions to be held in late October.

But what, one wonders, will the general public make of this earnest and truly overwhelming display of ideas and concepts? Especially since nine times out of ten the displays fall into the classic book-on-the-wall trap—indeed Multiplicity doesn’t even bother with the wall, essentially comprising large-format printed booklets laid out on custom-made furniture. What’s more, it’s unlikely many will see the show, hidden away as it at the end of a very long and windy corridor where no one goes. Meanwhile, at Culturgest, faced with an admittedly very difficult building, the exhibition designers have chosen to hide everything behind a set of giant curtains—for some it may be an irresistible temptation to peek beyond them, but any non-initiated person walking in off the street won’t have a clue where to find what they’re supposed to be seeing.

At Retroactive, though they’ve tried to make their “books” more interesting by using 3D models and graphics, the information is so dense, the print so small, and the display tables so low that you soon give up in exasperation. The one exception is Cycles, the first successful—in the sense of dealing with a vast and impossible space on no budget—exhibition I’ve ever seen at Garagem Sul. The mix of information, objects, and films is just right, and there’s humor too—faced with the garage’s dauntingly dead end, they’ve filled it with a giant pile of unrefined cork bark, neatly dealing with a problem space while at the same time making palpable the question of scale in the world’s consumption of materials. Rendering an unappetizing subject palatable, Cycles is an exemplar in exhibition-making the others would have done well to follow.