The architecture exhibition as an exercise on research
No other profession is as exposed to space and time as architecture. The multiple disciplines involved prove just that, encompassing many other technicians and knowledges, who are perennially required to excavate and edify from the stones. Because, as inert as it may seem, a stone is always the witness of a past or potential story.
And with all the time in the world, from a steady point of view, architecture is also the field of waiting. The bureaucratic waiting of urbanism, the waiting for a solution that is still blurred, the waiting after unforeseen events emerge when excavations take place: unearthed bones, an object that shines again in daylight, cobblestones aligned that point to a time-worn place and experience.
In this delay, unbearable for some, the whole archeology intrinsic to architecture is unfurled. But such archaeology refers not only to what was objectively brought by the archaeologist or historian, but also to the knowledge that was acquired and the solutions, grammars and languages of previous buildings that survive in the building about to emerge. Just as a drawing points to many previous traces, scratches and spots, a building contains many other buildings in itself – from those that preceded it by the hand of its author and those that served as a cornerstone and study.
In this context, architecture is an exercise of addition and subtraction, construction and excavation, in different strata – physical and metaphysical layers that unfold in space and time, in a never-ending continuum, waiting for an order, a synthesis. Um edifício, muitos museus: Alcino Soutinho e o Museu do Neo-Realismo (A building, many museums: Alcino Soutinho and the Neo-Realism Museum) curated by Helena Barranha in a close partnership with Fundação Marques da Silva, is the exhibition that conducts this very synthesis and the title just proves it.
Encompassing the different project stages, without covering the traits of the constructive process, Um edifício, muitos museus is an in-depth research of the Museum of Neo-Realism and the different museum projects designed by Alcino Soutinho. Nevertheless, the exhibition is also a full-fledged show regarding the profession itself, with some aspects having already been mentioned: the antecedents that inform the project, the framework, its final construction and execution, with the associated unforeseen events of the past; the different chronologies amassed in a portfolio; and also the multiple investigations underlying the practice.
The exhibition’s thesis is quite straightforward and could not be more strongly justified in this case: Alcino Soutinho was one of the most prolific Portuguese architects in the study of museum architecture and museology and his early academic efforts already revealed an avid interest in these typologies. The different sketches and notes that remained from the logbooks on the visit to Italy – sponsored by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation Scholarship – show a gifted student driven by the constructive minutiae and the dialogue between the building and the object of art. The projected photographs uncover the acquired knowledge, the solutions tested, the several layers of survival research after research, drawing after drawing. And, in resorting to space and opposite walls, the museography of the exhibition itself emphasizes it, confronting these projections with the sketch that was left from the previous study of the Neo-Realism Museum.
Another interesting aspect of the exhibition is the option not to conceal the unbuilt projects. In fact, they open the way to some of the more daring experiences conceived by Alcino Soutinho, both from a formal standpoint and from the point of view of space division, proposing, in certain cases, some kind of hybridization of models, in which social, pedagogical and cultural elements are combined with the informality of civic life. The absolute realm of scales, the urban implantation of museums, their connection to the city, the exhibition spaces and the furniture itself are what remains.
However, when considering which museological effort assembled by Soutinho constitutes the most radical and pertinent example of the study of museum architecture, Helena Barranha immediately points to Museu Municipal Amadeo de Souza-Cardoso in Amarante. The dialogue with the built heritage of the former Dominican Convent of Amarante, the systematization of the exhibition, circulation and services areas, and the reinterpretation of what was once a crucial body in that space are characteristics – all make this work one of the most relevant in the contemporary cultural Portuguese landscape.
As a matter of fact, the show puts Alcino Soutinho as a household name in contemporary architecture. His connection to Porto School of Architecture and Fernando Távora, the essays carried out during the Survey on Popular Architecture in Portugal (Museu de Artes e Tradições Populares), the decisive support provided by Gulbenkian in his maturation and consecration, respectively with the new building for Museu Municipal Amadeo Souza-Cardoso and Museu de Aveiro/Santa Joana, are moments that mirror what was the modern Portuguese architecture and what is the contemporary Portuguese architecture, particularly its blend with heritage. The trips to Italy and the conservation and restoration theories are combined, especially the Critical Restoration, which proposed a new perspective and contact with the heritage, through a renewed interpretation of the past-present duality.
A parallel guiding line enunciates another look on this author’s work. The importance that Soutinho paid to the so-called public building was consistent with an idea of dignifying the public life and an attitude (in a process of quick extinction) that assumes architecture as an element whose tendency is to be part of the public domain. After all, no matter how much remote a construction is, architecture always lies in political efforts; regardless of how private the investment is, there is always a quotient that clashes against the common domain. And this is evident not only in the experiences proposed for the creation of civic spaces and, therefore, open to the community, refusing rigidly planned uses, but also in the negotiation between the needs of the present and the respect for the old.
Shortly put Um edifício, muitos museus: Alcino Soutinho e o Museu do Neo-Realismo rehearses the exhibition of architecture as an exercise in research, emphasizing different lines of research based on a name of Portuguese architecture that finds here the first step for an updated monograph. This is one of the few exhibitions that add subject matter to the study of architecture, exhibiting unpublished material under the light of the demands brought by the current museography, technology, and academic parameters.
(Until 26 May, at the Museum of Neo-Realismo, in Vila Franca de Xira. The exhibition is the culmination of shared efforts between the Museum of Neo-Realism and Fundação Marques da Silva, which holds the collection of Alcino Soutinho’s work.)