the pictures generation

kersten geers

2g #80, 2019

The ‘social media’ revolution happened without me noticing it. Virtual reality got solidified through collage-like images; snapshots of possible worlds. When I was confronted with some of these pictures, scooped up from a parallel digital universe, I had no real opinion about them. I guess their immediate recognizability provoked only some kind of mild indifference. The ingredients looked familiar, the compositions sophisticated; an accumulation of tropes of good painterly taste. Was there any space, beyond the plants and the cool figures? Was there any architecture? I guess raising the question implied knowing the answer. Still, undeniably the social networking had overthrown the conventions of relevance and reached even the otherwise conservative firmament of architecture.

A few years ago fala’s perspectives appeared among the similar visual multitude on the internet—suddenly: confident, complete. There were some reasons to doubt both the coherence and the depth of the message, let alone the profundity or even the “intentions” of the messengers. What were they selling us: a hypothetical good universe constructed from fragments of “good” objects? Life with objects after a few decades without?

Radical architectural positions often find refuge in the two-dimensional world of flat representation. The view, the perspective, is traditionally used as a window to a hypothetical world: a projection. Images travel fast and are a powerful means of communication. This is an old idea. This was already true during the last century (and in fact many centuries before). Pamphlet and poster-like messages presented a possible architecture, shortcutting the need to detail the proposal and even the urge to build (often for good).

However, judging fala’s images from that perspective—which I initially did—gets you nowhere. Despite their appeal, the purpose of the images is much less clear. What do the pictures reveal? Where is the provocation in this celebration of immaculate good taste? As radical architectures they fail to convince. fala makes pictures not to communicate, but to exist. The medium is the message. They realize (I believe consciously) that perspectives are perspectives, images in their own right; a pitch for a possible architectural experience, not some sort of announcement of a revolution.

In 1979, the New York art critic Douglas Crimp republished an essay called “Pictures” in the journal October. The revised text was a simplified and slightly altered version of a catalogue entry that had accompanied an exhibition at Artists Space in 1977, showing six young artists who were loosely working with similar reproductive techniques. In the second edition of the text, the group of artists in focus had significantly altered. The new group thus presented a generation of artists able to confront the then omnipresent literal minimalists: they became the picture generation. The initial show was visited by few. The text, and thus the collection of artists, acquired relevance in its second incarnation. Crimp seemed to argue that post-Donald Judd, and post-Michael Fried’s criticism of both the literal and the theatrical, a new art was emerging that celebrated the (film) still as an unfinished picture “whose existence never exceeds the fragment,” and thus embraced a certain theatricality, but avoided the potential pitfalls with its pseudo-casualness. The “picture” as a still of a non-existent film is incomplete, fragmentary. In Cindy Sherman, Robert Longo and Sherrie Levine’s work, the incomplete, the fragmented and the appropriated all played a role in equal parts. Looming over each of them was the great formal conceptualist John Baldessari, who was in hindsight their biggest influence and trailblazer. Sherman, Longo and Levine presented a generational shift in the way the “picture” was valued. All of a sudden the picture itself was considered a direct conceptual image: in flux, yet autonomous. In Crimp’s thinking, these art practices introduced a “postmodern” art, self-ironical, aware of its own artifice and inability for closure. The art was then radically contemporary, and the incomplete artifice more successful in representing the issues and ambiguities in society than any earlier literal and complete attempt (of making art) was able to. That was 40 years ago.

The artifice runs deep in the practice of fala. In strict terms, the office often makes an architecture that seems completely unnecessary. The space they transform is often already there, the transformation is seemingly cosmetic. In this ambiguity, perhaps, there lies an important quality of their work. Making the existing more beautiful is a strategy. It makes the space “exist.” Visiting many of the transformed properties in Porto provoked an exchange about the dynamics of buying and selling in relation to the places fala transforms. The added graphic quality of the transformed spaces often acts as a memory clue in the commercial transaction. After having visited several real-estate opportunities possible buyers simply remember the spaces fala transformed better. As a result several investors gave increased freedom to the architects to pursue their graphic and spatial experiments. Architectural success here miraculously follows commercial success, or vice versa. Apart from freedom the architects gain little, however; budgets are small, fees are low. Still, the heated market seems ironically to create a niche that is intelligently abused by fala for an architecture that only exists because, or in parallel to, its
own image. The photographs of their work, taken with just as much care as their collages, play a similar ambiguous and decisive role. They present a ghost of spaces that due to a quick change of ownership often become quickly inaccessible.

In the last decade, in the aftermath of the financial crisis in Portugal, thousands
of affluent foreign people have been lured to the capital and its vicinities through
a cunning—yet in the long term destructive—tax proposal. This “citizenship for money” scheme created an instant surge in property, first in Lisbon and now, in its wake, in Porto too. French money ran smoothly into the country, with the promise of no more taxes for those who take up citizenship. In no time at all a wealth of foreign investment transformed both cities. Houses that were forever dilapidated suddenly became hot property. Garages could become flats. Small workers’ row houses could be worth a fresh look and an intelligent investment. An architectural boom never happens without an economic opportunity, and Porto is no exception to that rule. In the slipstream of an abundance of terrible projects for money, either for people who move in, or those who simply invest and sell, a few smart practices try to make the best of it and tweak this tricky condition into an opportunity. In order to do so, however, one has to rethink what architecture could be about. Or better yet, what it could still be about when its primary necessities are economy and visual persuasion. Is there still a project, after these themes are seriously considered? Or are they the project proper?

The projects of fala were initially born in the context defined by the popular house-sharing apps. In the shadow of the big financial takeover of Lisbon, people with a bit more ambition and less money started to buy, transform and sell simple properties in central Porto. The spaces that are found and finally bought are unusual. They are urban leftovers: half-plots, garages, semi-buildings, quasi-cellars. These unusual spaces require unusual spatial solutions. If you transform a garage into a residence it does not become a conventional house with three separate bedrooms. fala somehow realized that the only way to transform these spaces into something interesting is to accept their spatial principle and to idealize. To project on each of them a fragment of a spatial type, without being too preoccupied with the spatial purity of each of these. Type is here approached from a perspectival point of view, and thus replaced by an image of a type: a picture. With wit and bravura they transformed a tunnel garage into a tunnel-like “houses” with side rooms behind a meandering wall. The main space is long and weird and photogenic. The small spaces are dark but still practical. The whole is a radical spatial constellation where the standard spatial quality norms do not apply and are therefore exciting. Economy and enticement bring about spatial invention. The seemingly impossible spatial constellation of the original place is unconditionally embraced and turned into its advantage. It somehow helps that these residences are often sold as secondary homes. Homes with little or no rules, spaces to experience and convince. Through fala’s cunning, speculation is tweaked into an engine for an architectural project. This curious association between economy and unusual spatiality has a particular ancestor in Japanese housing architecture of the late 1980s and early 90s. It is an association eagerly made by fala themselves. It makes you see the unusual nature of the rooms of their projects as a belated offspring of Itsuko Hasegawa’s economical formalisms or Toyo Ito’s early private houses. Each of them in their own right sought formal and spatial freedom, away from the traditional Japanese house, towards three-dimensional spatial experiments, by means of two-dimensional figuration. Considering these architects tried to deconstruct the traditional house in the period of exceptional economic prosperity, one cannot help but see an odd parallel in fala’s contemporary mannerism. As portrayals of the Portuguese boom their projects measure the possible in a context sickened by commercial imperatives.

During my visit to some of the fala buildings and buildings in the making, we drove to the city of Marco de Canaveses. There were a few reasons for this: one of the partners grew up in the vicinity, a square house with a curious plan, the House for Three Generations, was about to be finished in a neighboring village, and Álvaro Siza’s church in the old town was worth a visit. The road from the square house to the church made us pass by a traditional barn with a pitched roof and the ruin of a baroque palazzo; a gigantic facade that was never finished. Both buildings were located a few hundred meters from each other. There they were, as the improbable ancestors of fala’s architecture: a decorative front, a display of “architectural intentions” and a simple spatial type, compact and ideal but inaccessible. One surface-only, one volume-only.

After Siza’s church we went to see a second house, the House under a Big Roof, under construction. A massive beam on top of the long side of the building seemed to keep a pitched roof in place. Although the house looked a bit like a clumsy emulation of a house, it was the surreal façade composition—a highly inventive window-door constellation sharply off-center, a pilaster-like column left, the beam on top—that took all the attention. The House for Three Generations we visited earlier that day was a masterpiece of spatial economy: no form, only volume, barn-like. As a square container with a slightly pitched roof, the figure of the building revealed little of the spatial complexity inside. The plan was simple yet effective. The square plan (inside) was mutilated by individual cells (like micro-houses) located in three of the four opposite corners. Each cell had a particular formal identity. Their geometry defined a shared collective space through subtraction. In this shared space a “fake” column was added slightly off-center for spatial effect. It provided the place with a point of gravity, a reference point. With a few gestures another world, slightly disconnected from the actual place, emerged.

While we were leaving the house, waiting for the architects caught up in a complex discussion with both the contractor and the parents of the clients, a Portuguese couple that lives and works in Switzerland, I noticed the railing circumventing the full perimeter of the site, like a fence. It felt as if the village had to be protected against the presence of the house itself, a job the railing did with conviction. The house thus remained foreign to its own current location. To me it read like a metaphor for fala’s actual operation, that of often making architecture in the heart of Portugal with foreign money and radically simple spatial ideas and a certain ambivalence towards its actual context: Fremdkörper in the heartland of the Portuguese school.

Back in the office in Porto we looked at a cardboard model of a collective housing block in a small village, away from Porto, on which construction was soon to begin. Buildings and sites have recently become so expensive in the city of Porto that investors have started to seek other opportunities away from the city. They hope to develop housing projects with other users in mind.

The project for the collective housing is deceivingly simple. A rectangular volume with more or less regular windows, balconies where needed, porte-fenêtres where affordable:
a building as the purest incarnation of an economy of means. Inside the volume, the architects designed a relatively complex spatiality, defining the separate units in a way reminiscent of the spatiality “found” in the urban transformation projects in central Porto. These unfinished spatial types were simply internalized in the housing volume and created a set of geometrically complex units that together added up to the simple housing volume. Technically, the scheme was simple. The outer envelope was the main structure; internally the walls created a set of distinct apartment plans. The only other frivolity the architects allowed themselves was a frieze made of triangles, semi-circles and circles, painted on the outer walls of the building volume. It gave a strange illusion of a semi-coherent, quasi-systematic abstract façade: a picture on a big box.