Air Porto, or, on the relevance of flying to Porto’s architecture

André Tavares        

In the air? Yes, in the air, on a regular flight connecting Porto to Basel, Zurich or Geneva, easyjet or TAP. Never before has Porto’s architecture been so close to Switzerland. Constant air traffic is maintained in both directions, eventually balanced for architectural tourism but effectively more intense for professors and students from Portugal to Switzerland. This closeness would seem to confirm similarities usually drawn between architecture from both countries. But nothing could be more misleading. Any parallel reveals how vague their similarities are: from the social conditions to political systems, from the geostrategic position to economic structures, from topography to climate, differences and distances underline the disparities between two different realities. We wonder if the apparent affinities are not lost in translation. We will not try to solve here the ambiguities of cross-country connections.(1) We will only sketch some hypotheses on the effects of increasing air traffic on Porto’s architecture. What does this traffic means and what is its consequence?

Since 2006, due to the regular increase of flights operated by low-cost airline companies, air traffic in Porto has increased dramatically. In 2010 it doubled to more than 5 millions passengers. Today, 49.7% of Porto’s airport passengers are handled by low-cost airlines.(2) A major effect of this dynamic is the growth of tourism. From the Port Wine to the European achievements of Futebol Clube do Porto, many factors contribute to Porto being a nice touristic destination. Álvaro Siza’s Serralves Museum and Rem Koolhaas’s Casa da Música are trying to place themselves in the European circuits of art and music, and offer tourists a contemporary counterpoint to the historic heritage downtown visit. Photographs are enriched by the colourful tiles and the hilly topography.

Travellers are quite surprised by the decay of the historical city. There are endless ruined buildings, and a nasty odour is exhaled by the humidity within the ruins. One can understand the abandon and deterioration of the medieval city, where the lack of contemporary urban qualities requires special protection measures to maintain it (Porto’s downtown has been classified as a world heritage site since 1996). However, the decay has spread throughout the city to the extent where one wonders if the city is still viable. At first sight the shrinking population might explain this tragic scenario. In 2011 after 30 years of constant loss, Porto’s population was 237,584 (in 1981 Porto had 328,368 inhabitants). This, though, conceals a more balanced demography overall in Porto’s metropolitan region, where the total population is around 1,300,000 million. The vibrant Porto’s downtown nightlife testifies to the health of the larger regional demography.

In the 1950s the shift of harbour activities to Leixões – definitively replacing the harbour activity in the Douro river – was a sign of the complex economic dynamics within the metropolitan region, with relatively strong industries and Porto working as both commercial and symbolical centre. The airport, a few kilometres north of Leixões, has strengthened the development of the north metropolitan axis and explains, together with the highway network, the attempts to relocate the city business district to Boavista, where Casa da Música was built. The Casa da Música polyhedron can only be understood in relation this metropolitan scale – not in picturesque contrast with the 20 cm large historical tiles but in accordance with the 6.5 km of Avenida da Boavista. One of the reasons that might help to explain the urban decay found by tourists – and which is overwhelmingly stressful for the local population – is the preference to understand Porto based on the scale of the tile instead of its metropolitan scale.

It is here that Porto’s aerial connections became relevant. In a recession and crisis scenario, when it is more and more visible that metropolitan area activity is not enough to sustain the economic and urban dynamics of its symbolic centre, the growth of air traffic offers alternatives to reverse this decay. Yet, it also offers delusions.

Since the works of Álvaro Siza and Eduardo Souto de Moura have been internationally acclaimed, one might imagine that Portuguese architects share a wide international network. This is not true. The exceptions confirm the rule: the work of Portuguese architects relies on local commissions. Even the academic circuit, under European Union’s pressure to match international scholarship standards, has been focusing on celebrating Portuguese specificity and its periphery conditions. This condition has been sustained both by the growth of the construction industry and the local recognition of architecture as a profession.

Craftsmanship has been one of the major claims of Portuguese architects. Design was understood as a practice emerging from the mastery of its instruments and the intuitive handling of disciplinary tools, among which drawing was crucial as a device to analyse and apprehend the physical realm and constructive systems. This tendency, like the tendenza that took place across the Alps in the 1970s, was positioned politically left and it understood architecture as a cultural form as opposed to a commercially driven profession. With rare exceptions, which were driven towards a commercially oriented practice, the lack of public commissions and a quarrelsome political scenario have pushed architects towards very fragile professional structures, their ateliers reduced to the architect persona, a draughtsman and some occasional collaborators.

From the 1990s onwards, Álvaro Siza’s public recognition together with Portuguese political openness and European investments made us believe that craftsmanship would be a viable way within the new political and economic scenario. With the number of architects growing daily the small ateliers got used to welcoming internships as an underpaid labour force while many open competitions gave access to relatively well-paid commissions. Ateliers grew, but the craftsman practices prevailed together with labour informality while architecture was progressively detaching from the instrumental mastery of drawing – which gave sense to craftsmanship – and got closer to some formal models with more or less conceptual arguments to legitimize the chosen forms. Although sharing many aspects with regular construction practice, form or a certain design flavour would allow architectural production to distinguish itself.

Craftsmanship was very effective to architectural teaching. Porto’s architectural school was a model for other Portuguese schools; hundreds of architects were trained on the basis of an instrumental response to emulations of atelier practice. The valued skills – apart from drawing mastery – were the student’s capacity to deliver a large amount of work maintaining rigour and precision while responding to the brief. Although the project was said to be the moment of synthesis between knowledge acquired from different fields, theoretical issues were kept to satellite courses. Without the ambition to challenge architectural conceptions, project courses were essentially a time for instrumental exercise.

The easyjet effect, preceded by the Erasmus effect, means that Portuguese students gained experience and managed to skilfully reply in very different contexts, as some kind of off-road architects. In Portuguese ateliers the young architects were cheap labour force allowing the continuance of the precarious conditions of architectural commissions. In foreign offices, to which the young architects applied after their international experience acquired during Erasmus, the young Portuguese architects discovered different practices of office management and architectural production, with appropriate incomes and labour conditions hardly obtainable in Portugal.

In Portugal, from the beginning of the 21st century, an overcrowded profession and new regulation systems have created increasing difficulties for young architects to have access to public commissions. Nevertheless, the ateliers based on craftsmanship did not change to structures capable of offering reasonable professional expectations. Facing precarious work in shrinking ateliers and powerless to create their own ateliers, emigration has become one of the best options for Portuguese architects. Instrumental abilities acquired by architects during the school years have granted success to this practice.

Essentially, the easyjet effect on Portuguese architecture has drained the country of their most qualified labour force on which large sums have been invested over recent years. This offers central-European countries qualified labour force with no need to increase costs in their educational structures. Being escape valves to labour pressure in Portugal, other European countries, like Switzerland, allow for the resilience of a weakened and fragile professional structure without the proper capacity to compete in an international arena.

With the lack of investment on serious regional infra-structures, such as the successful construction of the Metro do Porto that had Souto de Moura as leading architect, one wonders what can give new breath to Porto’s architecture. The increasing air traffic will certainly be part of this future; hence a renewed vision on architectural practice and professional structures is urgently needed to escape the trap of being overcrowded by tourists and exhausted of resources.

(1) For a critical essay on the subject see Ákos MORAVÁNSZKY, “The City of the Captive South. Álvaro Siza, Peter Märkli and Eduardo Souto de Moura on the Novartis Campus” and Diogo Seixas LOPES, “South of no North” in Let’s Talk About Houses. Between North and South, Lisbon, Athena, 2010, pp. 256-XXX. For an historical account on how tuberculosis stressed this connection in the 1920s, including the construction in Porto of a nursery designed by the Lausanne architect Georges Épitaux, see André TAVARES, Arquitectura Antituberculose, trocas e tráficos na construção terapêutica entre Portugal e Suiça, Porto, Faup-publicações, 2005.

(2) TAP is still the major airline operating in Porto, with 33.7% of the passengers, Ryanair is challenging its position with 32.9% of the share, and easyjet is by far the third major operator, with 12.9%.