Lisbon ideas fest concentrates on filling in urban gaps


Ireland is putting on an impressive show at the first Lisbon Architectural Triennale, writes Frank McDonald, Environment Editor

THE Portugal pavilion on Lisbon's 1998 Expo site beside the Tagus estuary caused quite a sensation when it was first unveiled. Designed by Álvaro Siza Vieira, the country's most renowned architect, its suspended concrete canopy - evocative of sailcloth - is 67 metres long by 50 metres wide and weighs 1,400 tonnes.

For the next six weeks, Siza's pavilion is the principal venue for Lisbon's first architectural triennale - a festival that aims to become an important global forum dedicated to reflection and debate about architecture, from individual buildings to the planning of cities; its theme for 2007 is also appropriate, focusing on "Urban Voids".

No city is without its voids, whether brownfield sites or useless green swards or SLOAP sites - the acronym for space left over after planning (often the residue left by roads engineers) - or long back gardens that could accommodate a mews building. Every city is a project in the making, and there are always gaps that could usefully be filled.

Eleven Irish architectural practices have responded to the theme with great enthusiasm and much evidence of lateral thinking with their exhibition Line to Surface: Urban Void/Extended City which was put together by Peter Carroll, of A2 Architects, and Peter Cody, of Boyd Cody Architects. It is one of the most impressive in the triennale.

Altogether, 12 countries are showing their architecture in Lisbon.

The quality is highly variable, ranging from the very large entry from the Netherlands to the minimalist response from Spain - just 10 boards illustrating "eco-barrios", not unlike what students would put up. Indeed, it seems almost insulting to the Portuguese hosts.

The enfilade of exhibitions starts with Slovenia, with projecting boxes of pictures of the country's very European-style architecture. Its centrepiece is a glass cylinder containing an image of Jan Plecnik's unbuilt plan for a parliament building in Ljubljana. No matter how you look at it, the holographic image follows you around like a spectre.

Ireland is next, with its very well-ordered exhibition flanked by stunning panoramic pictures of Dublin Bay and the Phoenix Park, taken by photographer Paul McCarthy. The focus is unapologetically on Dublin and is roughly arranged geographically, with Clontarf and Docklands at one end and Aughrim Street and Tymon Park at the other.

Beautifully lit, and with clear text in both English and Portuguese, the thought-provoking projects are illustrated by drawings, photographs and some exquisite balsawood models. As the two curators say, they include small and larger-scale interventions - "some already in place, others planned and the rest merely a part of an imagined future".

The most astonishing by far is a plan by the Dublin Docklands Development Authority (DDDA) to build in the River Liffey, alongside North Wall Quay between the East Link Bridge and the long-delayed suspension bridge by Spanish architect-engineer Santiago Calatrava; it marks a significant departure from the Docklands masterplan.

What's shown is a series of notional towers, some with extraordinary shapes, that would be built on stilts in the Liffey as a dramatic counterpoint to the generally low-rise nature of new buildings on the riverfront. A canal is proposed to the north of this high-rise cluster, along Mayor Street, turning it into a Manhattan-style island site.

This is a very radical proposal. Indeed, it is a direct challenge to the legacy of the great Duke of Ormonde, the viceroy who began laying out the Liffey quays (which is why such a long stretch is named after him). It was his vision to have buildings facing the river, instead of turning their backs on it, with a carriageway, footpaths and quay walls.

Less controversial are some of the other schemes shown, such as O'Donnell + Tuomey's community centre in East Wall. It will accommodate childcare, elderly daycare, sports and drama facilities in an integrated complex built on a cleared site previously occupied by a school and later by makeshift community welfare and sports facilities.

McCullough Mulvin's plan for Newmarket in the Liberties proposes to puncture the low-rise skyline of the area with point blocks not unlike the medieval towers of San Gimignano in Tuscany.

FKL has a similar idea in their cleverly titled "D-void" contribution, which has a picture of a horse and cart against the backdrop of their tower in Dolphin's Barn.

The most powerful images in the Irish exhibition are Ballymun Regeneration's pictures of a crane chewing away one of the 1960s tower blocks named after the 1916 Rising leaders, with the tattered evidence of human habitation at every level. It's not quite sic transit gloria mundi, but marks the end of an aberrant form of housing.

A joint project by A2 and Boyd Cody focuses on garden rooms, domestic extensions and the reclamation of backland areas for mews houses as a way of making Dublin more dense. Grafton Architects has also come up with an incredibly imaginative way of re-integrating the disused and forgotten Dunsink dump into the fabric of the city.

Tom de Paor has a large piece of really smooth pre-cast concrete - part of a raised planter for trees - to draw attention to his partially-realised project for the Clontarf promenade, while McGarry Ní Eanaigh has rendered the Liffey as an elaborate crevice (cnuas, in Irish), with a small image of their cable-car scheme for the river.

All of the projects, which also include schemes by the UCD School of Architecture for Belfield and Dermot Foley Landscape Architects for the M50, are illustrated in a pocket-sized brochure that visitors can take away with them. Though full of architects' jargon, it is a good souvenir for the Irish exhibition, which was chiefly sponsored by Culture Ireland.

Among the other countries showing in Lisbon, Japan's entry throws a witty spotlight on Tokyo's back streets, Germany's consists of a pair of projectors showing images of its latest buildings while the Dutch are pre-occupied with residual spaces in cities being filled in by buildings that have "swallowed all the openness like a black hole".

China is also focusing on urban infill, though the scale is immeasurably larger, while Mozambique - a former Portuguese colony - bills itself as a country where the urban void is larger than the "urban full". Mexico's exhibition even includes a doll's house, while the French claim to be showing "only architecture capable of enchanting reality".

Inevitably, Portugal has a huge presence. Its most entertaining exhibition is titled Eurovision and consists of a series of back-to- back flat-screen TV sets blasting out Portuguese entries for the song contest from 1958 to 1985, flanked by images of contemporaneous buildings, so you match the architecture with the hair styles.

Lisbon is a great city to visit, Triennale or not. Taxi fares start at €2, the food is very good (and cheap by Dublin standards), and the place is totally unpretentious. It has none of the swaggering style of Barcelona, but is nonetheless beguiling for that. It is a city that simply exists: - you can either take it or leave it.