Inhabiting the Shore: lessons from the past to rethink a possible future

Critical review

Susana Ventura

In the curators’ words, Our Land is the Sea: the sensitive construction of the coastline challenges and reverses the usual point of view of our relationship with the territory, revealing an opportunity to look to the sea from its habitability, in the way it shapes our sense of being in the world and how we inhabit it: the sea beyond the romanticised act of contemplation, but rather as a critical space wherein our relationship with the land at its fringes is being negotiated.  

This change of perspective has currently been claimed by several artistic and architectural research-based exhibitions, attesting the increasing interest and awareness on the subject of the sea and the ocean, shifting the focus from land to water. Commonly there are preoccupations about the effects of Anthropocene on the ocean, such as the rising sea levels due to ice melting and harsh climate changes, the disappearance and eradication of large areas of coastline endangering established human communities, and the impacts of pollution, deep-sea mining, overfishing and maritime transportation on ground, water and ecosystems. Exhibitions currently on view such as Critical Zones. Observatories for Earthly Politics,1 curated by Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel (which includes a part dedicated to the ocean), or, more specifically, Territorial Agency: Oceans in Transformation,2 curated by Daniela Zyman, are among the examples.

The approaches are, however, different. Some exhibitions try to render visible the invisible threats on the ocean recurring to scientifically collected data and highly technological software to map the flows and impacts of those threats (highlighting the economic and political interests as well) while others display futuristic and utopic forms of waterfront urbanism. Our Land is the Sea resorts mainly to history to understand how the space of the ocean has been mapped, transformed and inhabited through time, leaving it up to each one of us the questioning on the pertinence and effectiveness of the displayed contents.

Focusing mainly on the forces that act on and define the boundary between land and water (including the difference between rocky and sandy coasts, and the effects of the Azores High), this limit is understood as a place of encounter and confrontation in continuous definition (thus sensitive), being disputed by different agents and modes of appropriation (such as surf, fishing, and respective communities) which give it different configurations (counteracted with projects of ports and piers), and where the openness, the atmospheric and the volatility of the ocean collide with the solid and stratified earth (including State strata - one of the sections is dedicated to the legislation that protects specific waves on the Portuguese coast).

The historical approach is not exempt from a critical selection, privileging modes of use and transformation that reveal a balance between the natural and the artificial (or built). For instance, most of the examples of buildings present an ephemeral quality due to the natural materials used, easily found in coastal areas. Sometimes, we are even able to discover analogies between boats and houses/buildings or between boats and surfboards, not only because of the used materials, structure and forms but also in the ways they understand and recall the sea, its movements and oscillations (including of its ground), magnifying the symbiosis between natural forces, shaped land and built structures. The equilibrium between natural and artificial is continually put into question at several moments along the exhibition. Constructed ports and piers are balanced with mobile and lightness infrastructures using non-invasive construction and transformation methods respecting the natural forces. Artificial methods to define and control the coast are (again) counterbalanced with respectful approaches (as in the case of the Leiria wood or the construction of primary dunes).

A particular example links some of these different issues. One of the sections is dedicated to varar, a Portuguese word with no equivalence in English to which “shore” might be the closest translation. “Varar” designates a singular way of pulling the boat out of the water, but, at the same time, it also refers to cross the sea breaking the waves, whose knowledge is essential for a Portuguese art of fishing named arte-xávega, when the boat enters the sea directly through the sand (and not from a port, usually built on rocky coasts and associated with high-sea navigation - another section of the exhibition). The boats, using this method, have a half-moon shape (of which we find some technical drawings on display) that we also recognise in Tom Blake’s surfboard structure of 1931 (whose reconstruction is on display as well) establishing an important analogy between surf and fishing that goes beyond the similar form. Both activities develop a sensible reading of the rhythm, oscillations, fluxes and forces of the sea to get better performance and both depend on the invisible moulding of the sandy ground. This type of fishing (which is mainly of small fish such as sardines) uses a net dropped into the sea and then dragged ashore with the fish. Thus the bottom cannot have rock obstacles that would damage the net. For surfing, particularly in the area preserved by Portuguese law, the waves have singular features that depend on the subaqueous dunes and sandbanks fed by the coastal drifts determined in part by the winds and climatic conditions generated by the Azores High. Changing this subaqueous ground, as it happens with the construction of ports and piers, has severe consequences on the life of ecosystems and the shape of the waves and the practice of surfing. In the coastal area protected by the Portuguese law, there are specific regulations for constructions along the coast, but we may also learn from Furadouro’s Palheiros, a type of small wood buildings built along the sandy coast over the dunes, mainly through the XIX and early XX centuries, of modular structures and variations of typology according to family dimensions and requirements with room (space in-between) for the boat. Also in Newfoundland, an island to the north of the American continent (and one of the two examples outside Portugal in the exhibition), which has a rocky and very indented coast, the fishing community (dedicated to cod fishing) uses lightweight wood infrastructures with simple foundations along the coast to support the fishing activity that could be reused and easily moved and transformed. Even houses could be dislocated by the sea understood as the main infrastructure.

Speculation is only reserved to a project for Figueira da Foz of a sand transport bypass (again non-invasive) that would restore the natural balance between sediments, sand and the frontier line, thus replacing the former relation of proximity between the city and the sea, ensuring the navigability fo the Mondego’s bar and the good practice of surfing. And yet it is based on a project implemented at the Tweed River in Australia. This proposal is complemented with a series of boats anchored on the beach that could be used as facilities, such as a pool, a casino, some bars, etc., based on the casas de fato that once used obsolete boats as storehouses or modest shelters. Simultaneously, it recalls the abandoned hulls of ecological disasters.

Probably due to the fragmentary organisation, division between sections (even if we can reconstruct the whole picture uniting the pieces and establishing the links between them) and respective display, we end up missing the vitality, the fluidity, the immensity, the force and the incommensurability of the sea though listening to the violent roaring of the waves immediately after stepping in, only to discover the correspondent visual image at the end of the exhibition. This composed image - a two-channel video with surfer Sebastian Steudtner dropping the gigantic wave of Nazaré’s Canyon and Furadouro fishermen breaking the waves at the shore towards the sea from the 1966 film Mudar de Vida (Change One’s Life) by Paulo Rocha - shows us how life depends on the sea and the ocean and, sometimes, we just miss it.

Susana Venturais an architect (graduated from Coimbra University in 2003), curator and researcher in Theory of Architecture and Aesthetics based in Lisbon. She holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the Faculty of Social and Human Sciences of Nova University Lisbon (2013) with the thesis Architecture’s Body without Organs.

1 On display until October 4, 2020at ZKM | Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe, in Karlsruhe.
2 On display until November 29, 2020 at Ocean Space, in Venice. Within the context of this exhibition, the digital platform e-flux architecture is publishing several essays about Oceans in Transformation, available here: