Fertile Futures: Itinerant Laboratory, the official Portuguese representation at the 18th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia 2023, at Lisbon’s Palácio Sinel de Cordes

The laboratory built over a year, as a result of Portugal’s official representation at the 18th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia 2023, is on show in its entirety for the first time at Palácio Sinel de Cordes in Lisbon. The idea to reflect on the future centred on the scarcity of fresh water is presented in a lab format, responding to Lesley Lokko’s invitation “The Laboratory of the Future”, the Biennale’s curator for this edition.

Fertile Futures: Itinerant Laboratory includes, as well as the proposals and reflections of seven cross-disciplinary teams about anthropocentric action on seven Portuguese hydrogeographies presented at Venice’s Palazzo Franchetti last year, entries from the International Summer Seminar in Fundão in July 2023, critical essays arising from the five Thinking Assemblies held over the last year, and the documentary Contemporary Dialogues directed by Canal 180.

The opening was attended by more than five hundred visitors. Following speeches by Américo Rodrigues, head of the Directorate-General for the Arts, project curator Andreia Garcia and Manuel Henriques, executive director of the Lisbon Architecture Triennale, a guided tour by the curatorial and artistic teams took place, as well as the closing Thinking Assembly, where the second volume of Fertile Futures was released – the first having been launched at the opening of the Venice exhibition.

Unlike the latter, where each case study was given its own room, singling it out from the rest, Palácio Sinel de Cordes allows for a dialogue between the varied proposals, some of which are arranged side by side in the same space or in adjoining rooms. Together, the different speculative propositions on the seven hydrographical territories spread from the north to the south of the country, including the Madeira and Azores archipelagos, provide for much more wide-ranging reflections on a global scale, based on political, economic, social or environmental matters that are circumscribed by the theme put forward.

As a vehicle for envisioning the future, architecture transcends its object nature, associating itself with emerging issues in an effort to tackle urgent problems, such as, in this case, managing an essential natural resource: water. The programme envisaged by curator Andreia Garcia and assistant curators Ana Neiva and Diogo Aguiar is precisely built on this laboratory approach to architectural design and the architectural practice in its socio-political realm, calling for an open and collaborative way of doing things between different disciplines.

The teams comprise Space Transcribers and Álvaro Domingues, Dulcineia Santos Studio and João Pedro Matos Fernandes, Guida Marques and Érica Castanheira, Oficina Pedrêz and Aurora Carapinha, Corpo Atelier and Eglantina Monteiro, Ilhéu Atelier and João Mora Porteiro and Ponto Atelier and Ana Salgueiro Rodrigues, proposing methods of coordinating different times and scales in an attempt to alleviate the impact of the metamorphosis of the territory, flora, fauna and human life in the Tâmega Basin; the recovery and relearning of traditional techniques and natural systems to fight desertification in the Douro International; a process-manifesto of recovery, decontamination and progressive re-naturalisation of the landscape changed by the mining industry in the Médio Tejo region; devices to decontaminate and restore contaminated and overexploited soils in the Alqueva reservoir; the denouncement of situations of overexploitation and overlapping in the Mira River irrigation perimeter, alerting us to the absence of regulation within this system; the utopian (re)imagination of the Azorean lagoons’ future, tackling their main polluting source due to farming activities; and scenarios for revitalising Madeira’s waterways, which are now artificialised, regaining the resilience they have lost in the meantime, a critical reflection on the trauma associated with the alluvial floods in the Madeiran Ribeiras.

There are suggestions for building fertile futures, or at least more fertile futures, concepts that would not be feasible without crossing different fields and areas of knowledge. An attempt to remedy or contradict the worrying scenarios we have caused, through our own collaborative action, is brought forward here through architecture. This horizontal approach, free of any hierarchies, brings together multiple visions and stances, sometimes even opposed. The possible future paths mooted were charted through an extensive consultation and discussion process between the different stakeholders and their reflection is rounded off by all the activities, events and publications comprising the Fertile Futures project.

A knowledge-building platform to promote an urgent and needed public discussion in times of transition, climate change and globalisation. Appealing to build a fertile, sustainable, equitable and collaborative future, based on an extensive and complex exploratory laboratory programme. The speculative nature of Fertile Futures prompts deep reflection on the past, present and future not only of water management, but also of natural resources, of humanity as a collective entity – distancing it from an anthropocentric notion – and of architecture as a discipline and practice. As Andreia Garcia said, “a sustainable fertiliser of hope”.

The exhibition Fertile Futures: Itinerant Laboratory can be seen at Palácio Sinel de Cordes in Lisbon until April 27, 2024.

Joana Duarte (Lisbon, 1988), architect and curator, lives and works in Lisbon. She concluded her master in architecture at Faculdade de Arquitectura of Universidade de Lisboa in 2011, she attended the Technical University of Eindhoven in the Netherlands and did her professional internship in Shanghai, China. She collaborated with several national and international architects and artists developing a practice between architecture and art. In 2018 she founds her own studio, concludes the postgraduate degree in curatorial studies at Faculdade de Ciências Sociais e Humanas of Universidade Nova de Lisboa and starts collaborating with Umbigo magazine.

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