On Fertile Futures: Portuguese Official Representation at the 18th International Architecture Exhibition — La Biennale di Venezia 2023

Curated by Andreia Garcia, with Ana Neiva and Diogo Aguiar as deputy curators

Palazzo Franchetti offers a privileged view of the Grand Canal in Venice. The clouds drift lazily in the sky, illuminated by the warm, golden hues of the sunset. Tourists lean over the railings of the Ponte dell’Accademia, taking in the breathtaking views. Gondolas glide by at a leisurely pace, while the Vaporetto ferries speedily cut through the water. This image has the potential to be immortalized by Canaletto, with its sweet and bright luminosity that captures the essence of a city full of wonder and amazement. A green, fluorescent stain is present in the canal waters and spreads throughout all the routes. It resembles a bilious secretion that is excreted by a diseased gall bladder. The picturesque image of a city that once seemed romantic in a dream has now transformed into a nightmarish setting for the modern-day apocalypse. This catastrophic event is constantly documented through an influx of photographs, social media posts, and breaking news updates. The all-consuming desire to capture and share the destruction is alluring, while the gravity of the situation is often overlooked at the moment.


The practice of Architecture inherently involves contemplating the future. Architecture is a discipline that is well-versed in political frameworks and critical tools. It proposes hypotheses for the construction and use of spaces and places. It plans time and space and looks towards an uncertain, changing future. The flows and living materials that it deals with often develop ambiguous and unexpected paths.

It is crucial to examine and discuss the concept of the Future, as it is not straightforward, and the current situation is uncertain and complex. There are conflicting forces at play in the political landscape, where positive efforts towards progress are often crushed by the demonic nihilism of dissolution or by accelerationist and neo-reactionary panic.

It is possible that the Future may appear to be predetermined. It seems that we are left with a sense of helplessness when it comes to major global events. This could be due to the overwhelming influence of ultraliberal and predatory capitalism, or because contemplating the concept of Time forces us to confront the daunting challenges of both the past and the future. These challenges can be seen as representing the ultimate strata of human existence. It can feel daunting to confront the challenges posed by capitalism and the fragmentation of communities on both a global and local scale. According to Mark Fisher, “The slow cancellation of the future has been accompanied by a deflation of expectations”[1]. Additionally, large corporations have taken control of the resources necessary for creating a new future. Many people believe that we only have a predictable future based on past experiences. This is because sticking to familiar patterns ensures success and profit without any radical changes or differing opinions. Ultimately, a future that is polished and gleaming like a single coin in the sun.

The Fertile Futures project proposes a future that is different from the catastrophic visions that have been listed. It is based on collective and community-based optimism and revisits the political and community role of architecture. The project aims to promote architecture as a discipline that is committed to building a tomorrow focused on the politics of the commons or on the public good.

Looking at it from this angle, it’s clear that the worldwide initiative known as Fertile Futures embodies the concept of a cutting-edge Laboratory of the Future, which is the central theme of the 18th International Architecture Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia 2023. This idea was developed by the exhibition’s curator Lesley Lokko. The field of construction is now being placed in brackets, while conceptual, critical, dialogical, and mediating tools are taking the lead in a debate and discipline that has shed its anthropocentric focus. This shift allows for the inclusion of other material, spectral, and non-human realities. Fertile Futures represents a cosmopolitical map that acknowledges the existence of diverse perspectives and rejects the notion of universal truths. It recognizes that living in a world with multiple realities means that achieving peace is not always feasible and that political discourse is often characterized by disagreement rather than agreement.

The hydrogeographies of the Tâmega basin, the Douro International, the Middle Tagus, the Alqueva Reservoir, the Mira River, Lagoa das Sete Cidades, and the Madeiran streams are rich in economic, environmental, and political conflicts. Agreement on solutions is not always possible, and they may not conform to linear thinking or straightforward, unambiguous measures. We all experience the challenges and difficulties of modern life, which can be traumatic. All of us are involved, either directly or indirectly, in the various environmental damages that we have caused to the planet. Many issues that appear to only affect a specific area are rooted in global events.

The proposals put forth by the seven ateliers, collectives, and specialists to address various issues in Portuguese territories may not be immediately comprehensible. This is because the materials they work with extend beyond a tangible, objective, tactile, or visual reality. According to Timothy Morton’s ideas, we often encounter “hyperobjects” which are intricate realities that can only be fully understood through the analysis of extensive scientific data gathered over many years. The proposals presented offer a comprehensive perspective on the critical, problem-solving, and innovative aspects of Architecture. They cover a wide range of topics, including the reorganization of territories and agricultural practices, the reinterpretation of places and language, the challenges of language and meta-language, the passage of time, autonomous applicability, community tools and agency, emotional legacy, and material achievement.

The second floor of Palazzo Franchetti features a water line that guides visitors through rooms showcasing the findings of seven hydrogeography investigations. The waters of the Grand Canal of Venice stir in the background, serving as a reminder of the subject of our study – one that is both the focus of our dreams and future aspirations.

The Space Transcribers collective has developed a project inspired by the teachings of Álvaro Domingues. The project involves analysing the territory and utilizing new technologies, such as three-dimensional printing, to create a collective performance. The goal of the project is to deconstruct the Tâmega Basin and the various aspects related to water, including its chemical composition, its value as a commodity, and its importance as a living and breathing resource. The presented outcome is a comprehensive record of several months of research and collaboration with the local community. It provides a foundation for initiating discussions about water management practices.

The Douro International Laboratory, which was conducted by Dulcineia Santos Studio and based on João Pedro Matos Fernandes’ study on mudflats as reservoirs of water and futures, offers a glimpse into the intricate network of roots, mud, sediments, and sounds that make up the subsoil. The installation of tiles made from clay and ash roots creates a sense of order amidst the chaos of reality. This immersive and sensory experience is set to be the highlight of the exhibition.

During a conversation with Érica Castanheiro, Guida Marques created a significant manifesto dedicated to her village’s river. She filled the walls with thought-provoking questions and impactful slogans. Marques’ voices resonate closely between activism and the poetics of affection, alternating between elegy and outrage.

The studio Pedrêz has created a prototype that can regenerate the soil in the Alentejo region, which may face an arid future with scorching temperatures causing cracks on the land surface. The prototype aims to help the soil absorb and store water, which is crucial for the hydrogeography and landscape of Alqueva. This region has been “shaped by both natural and cultural dynamics”, as pointed out by Aurora Carapinha.

Corpo Atelier, in collaboration with Eglantina Monteiro, uses the aqueduct as a symbol of a past era when water was distributed more fairly in a region that is currently facing challenges of water scarcity due to intensive agriculture. Here, the aqueduct is celebrated as a secular symbol of human ingenuity. It towers over the landscape, creating a fictionalized representation of time that can be both confusing and captivating. This temporal spiral can lead us to regress or progress, adding to the intrigue of this remarkable structure.

Ilhéu Atelier’s proposal is grounded in João Mora Porteiro’s research, which highlights the negative impact of the monoculture of cows on the water quality of Lagoa das Sete Cidades. The studio employs irony as a crucial tool to reconsider matters of identity, the environment, grazing, and the ecological disruption caused by intensive agriculture.

The Madeiran creeks are home to the aftermath of floods and the challenges of inhabiting a territory that is both occupied and shaped by human activity, while also being subject to the unpredictable forces of nature. Ponto Atelier has developed a new water path strategy by utilizing Ana Salgueiro’s “Memória (crítica) da Água” to address the traumatic memory associated with the territory. The aim is to reconcile this memory with the current needs of the region.

There is a cultural flaw that hinders our ability to fully comprehend the depth of natural phenomena such as landscapes, bodies of water, and nature. Timothy Morton’s concept of the Romanticization of Nature is a topic of widespread discussion. It poses a challenge in our approach to dealing with nature. In A Água e os Sonhos, Gaston Bachelard experienced something similar. He was driven to explore beyond the superficial depictions of water that have been used by poets and dreamers for centuries, to comprehend its intricate material nature through imaginative and poetic imagery. To properly study water, it is important to recognize that it is not just a substance, “is also a kind of destiny […] – an essential destiny that incessantly metamorphoses the substance of being.” Water is not merely a tool for our use or a means of attraction. Water is not only essential for life. Death and suffering are also involved.

The Fertile Futures project demonstrates the concept of “heraclitism” inherent in water. Water is both “the organ of the world” and “the body of tears,” and only in this way “water will appear to us as a total being […], a full poetic reality”, beyond the “common, easy, abundant metaphors”[2].

In brief, we are not dealing with a simple territorial dispute. Fertile Futures was curated by Andreia Garcia, with Ana Neiva and Diogo Aguiar as deputy curators. The exhibition boldly proposed solutions to complex problems, highlighting the crucial role of architecture in mediating issues that involve a broad range of knowledge from various scientific disciplines.


The country of the “others”

Lesley Lokko’s vision of the Laboratory of the Future represents a victory of innovative thinking over rigid institutionalization, practical application over abstract theory, and collective collaboration over individualism. If I may express my opinion, this biennale primarily focuses on the countries of the Global South rather than the Global North. It showcases the works of those who do not have official representation, pavilions, or renowned architects to associate with. These participants project their unique perspectives from faraway lands, using architecture as a significant means of expression. This essay explores the concepts of de-formatting and informality, focusing on the positive aspects of good neighbourhoods and gestures. It also encourages a temporary suspension of judgment towards differences and things that may not be immediately obvious. The biennial showcases a diverse range of topics, including Afrofuturism, colonialism, post-colonialism, and neo-colonialism. It also explores themes such as extractive capitalism, new materialities, and the potential for technology to bring about emancipation. Additionally, the event delves into the rediscovery of ancestry and the experiences of those in the African diaspora, as well as those who choose to remain in fragmented and war-torn regions. Through its major exhibitions, the biennale offers a fresh perspective on life on Earth, challenging the dominant Western narratives portrayed in the media and encouraging critical reflection and new practices.

The curators of national representations loosely follow this motto by responding to changing times with radical experimentalism, surprising materialities, spatial practices, and constructions. The Belgian pavilion showcased wooden aggregates with mycelium, while the French featured sound and aural theatre architecture. The German Pavilion transformed itself into a work-in-progress, while Spain’s exhibit called for a rethinking of intensive agriculture and food. The Dutch Pavilion presented surprising dystopian etchings of the capitalist system. Overall, there were many proposals and reflections on display that aimed to construct a more just and egalitarian tomorrow, with an optimistic outlook.


* Fertile Futures can be visited until November 26, at Palazzo Franchetti, in Venice. Until then, the project has programmed a series of talks during the Assemblies of Thought to discuss several proposals and the wider landscape of hydrogeographies. Follow the website for further information, or the Instagram account.


[1] Fisher, Mark (2020). Fantasma da minha vida. Escritos sobre depressão, hantologia e futuros perdidos. VS. Editor e Verso. P. 35

[2] Bachelard, Gaston (2018). A água e os sonhos. Ensaio sobre a imaginação da matéria. São Paulo, Editora WMF Martins Fontes Lda. Pp. 6-17

José Rui Pardal Pina (n. 1988) has a master's degree in architecture from I.S.T. in 2012. In 2016 he joined the Postgraduate Course in Art Curation at FCSH-UNL and began to collaborate in the Umbigo magazine. Curator of Dialogues (2018-), an editorial project that draws a bridge between artists and museums or scientific and cultural institutions with no connection to contemporary art.

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