Trienal de Arquitectura de Lisboa

On time

20 APR 2024 - 06 MAY 2024
Johanna Musch, Tatuli Japoshvili and Giga Tsikarishvili
LINA, Creative Europe

Observations on time-sensitive strategies of care collected across Europe

By Johanna Musch

In April 2024, Johanna Musch embarked on the Periple Duet, a traveling residency across Europe whose sole guideline was to take any transportation means but the plane. On the invitation of the Lisbon Architecture Triennale, this journey took her to the cities of Bordeaux, Barcelona, Madrid, Lisboa, Stuttgart and Krvavica, and to meet ‘witnesses of care’, people who, within their daily practice (personal or professional), perform ‘long-term actions of care’. This article is a compilation of her observations and the conversations she had along the way.

In his essay ‘Speed and Politics’, the philosopher and urbanist Paul Virilio was one of the first to draw a parallel between velocity and domination over what is slower. Several years later, Hartmut Rosa harnesses the concept of speed, this time through the lens of acceleration. For Rosa, modern society has witnessed an increasing pace of life, disrupting our traditional temporal structures and creating a sense of instability.

New threats, long healing journey

With the Anthropocene, this instability goes beyond human societies and starts to alter the Earth’s surface, climate, and ecosystems, leading to a new regime of uncertainties.

In recent years, climate change and human activities have tremendously increased dramatic events such as megafires or desertification.

In July 2022, 12 500 acres (approximately 9000 football fields) of forestry in Landes, south of Bordeaux (southwestern France), went up in smoke in unprecedented megafires following severe heat waves, drought, and forest mismanagement. The Landes Forest is one of the largest European manmade woodlands planted with maritime pines in the 18th century to drain marshy ground. Very yielding in terms of wood production, the Landes Forest is a real matchbox:

  • Grounded on peatlands, some parcels are still burning underground almost two years after the megafire, the so-called ‘zombie fires’.

  • Pine trees contain high resin content which is extremely flammable, and their needles can contribute to the spread of fire through the forest canopy.

As forests and natural landscapes in general are part of our visual heritage and commonly seen as wild, public opinion tends to refuse any human intervention as underlined by Eric Paillassa, forester from Bordeaux:

‘The trend we're seeing now is that people don't want to cut down any more trees. Trees don't last forever either, there are storms and after a while they fall because the root system ages. In the 80’s, there were parks in Brittany with trees several hundred years old. We didn't touch them because they were the biggest and most beautiful. But with the storm of 1987, they all fell. So, it's a mistake to want to preserve a heritage of trees under a bell jar and prevent a new generation from taking over. When foresters have old trees, they need to prepare for the future by starting to replace them with younger ones. It's like human population, you can't rely on the elderly alone to keep society going.”

The Landes Forest is not the only landscape facing the acceleration of climate change and its effects. Spanish rural areas are also heavily affected.

With 50,5 million acres of land, 20,6 million acres are cultivated in Spain. According to the UN, up to 74% of Spanish territory is at risk of desertification due to ongoing droughts and over-exploitation of land. The soil has degraded over the years, leading to erosion: the water and organic matter are no longer retained. In February 2024, Catalonia declared its first-ever drought emergency, setting a some of measures for its inhabitants but not its tourist industry.

“Due to the drought and water restrictions, we can’t water our community garden. However, there are new bed sheets washed in every hotel in the city every day.” explains Clément Rames, co-founder of aquí, urban research and practice cooperative based in Barcelona.

While the habitability of the country is at stake, the sustainability of the mass tourism model and intensive agriculture industry are at the centre of Spain’s efforts. In a highly anthropized environment like Landes forests or yet-to-be desertified Spanish lands, the flora evolves slowly.

Two years after the megafires, pioneer species like ferns and mosses are already taking over calcined tree trunks while the future of Spanish flora is still uncertain.

“Nature always finds its way to regenerate itself if given time. Even so, what we are losing here is its productive capacity”, says Eric Paillassa.

His remark calls into question our vision of nature as an abundant productive resource for humans and to take a step aside from our extractivist logic.

Illustrative collage © Inês Santos

Can we or should we fix it?

Developed by French researcher Alexandre Monnin, the notion of ‘negative commons’ refers to ‘ ‘resources’, material or immaterial, that are ‘negative’, either visibly, such as wastes, abandoned nuclear power plants, polluted soils or some toxic or contested cultural legacies, or less visibly and more ambiguously (some economic and managerial models, supply chains, ICT, etc.)”. Monnin asks the capital question of how do we, collectively, take care of these Anthropocene wastes we inherited. Can we repair, restore, and regenerate our damaged environment? Beyond undesirable legacies, the question of our relationship to built (desirable) heritage arises.

‘When it comes to heritage, I've not yet decided what I think of it because ultimately architecture is also a very functional activity. So, if it doesn't serve a purpose, shall we keep it? It's difficult to say why we should, or if we should. When buildings are demolished, there's a kind of natural outburst of nostalgia. Today, there were news that famous Hollywood actor Chris Pratt, married to the daughter of Mr. Schwarzenegger, purchased a beautiful house by Craig Ellwood in Los Angeles only to demolish it. The house was a marvel of modern design, and emotionally you think ‘this is horrible, what’s happened?’. But then you think, why do we think this way? Why are we so attached to a built environment, where in other fields we have no problem whatsoever to throw away a cell phone after a few years if it's obsolete? In certain circumstances, heritage can be very conservative and very damaging to the process’ argues Fabrizio Gallanti, architect and director of arc en rêve, architecture center in Bordeaux.

‘Architects and decision-makers must reconsider the conventional approach to heritage preservation. Rather than freezing buildings in an idealized condition, they should be repurposed and renovated to improve living conditions for families and communities. (…) By embracing renovation and repurposing, we can create more sustainable and functional living spaces while preserving our cultural heritage’, continues Fabrizio Gallanti.

While repairing emerges as the ultimate action of care, repurposing, recycling, and reusing resonate as strong alternative ways while recognizing our material resource limitations. Historically, it was very common, even sacred, to repurpose building materials for the domestic uses of the time. Medieval architecture in Rome is the perfect example of late antiquity material spoliation and reuse.

Ode to maintenance and lo-fi adaptations

The actions of care towards the built environment and its occupants can take more discreet forms. Repurposing an object or a whole house can become necessary when your senses and capacities are impaired. Southern European countries including Italy, Portugal, Greece and Spain are among those with the oldest population in Europe. And Portugal becomes the fastest aging country in the EU with 182 senior citizens (aged 65 years and above) for every 100 young people (aged up to 14 years). With a rampant housing crisis, elders tend to stay in houses and apartments not suited to their new needs resulting in low mobility and isolation.

Arminda, over 80 years old, hasn't been out of her house in years, affirms her caretaker, Rute. Too afraid to fall, she’s avoiding the steep streets of Graça, her neighborhood in Lisbon. With the help of a contractor, Rute has modestly adapted Arminda’s flat to stimulate her mobility: a banister in the corridor made with a curtain pole, several support devices in the bathroom…

These lo-fi adaptations contribute to maintain the livability of a space for the newly found needs of its dwellers and challenge the idea of ‘single use’ spaces. In their essay ‘Le soin des choses: Politiques de la maintenance’ [The Care of Things: politics of maintenance], sociologists Jérôme Denis and David Pontille invite us to shift our perspective on maintenance and on those who perform it in the forefront. At the core of the concept of maintenance, attention is paid to how we can take care of our material environment so it will keep being useful in the long term and so that it can adapt to our changing lifestyle. 

Regenerating “climates of care”

Restoring our relationship to our material world implies considering how we lead our actions of care. The actions of care for man-made commons can be redirected towards community and environmental well-being - while identifying and understanding the potential vulnerabilities of commons - rather than artificially conserving them at all costs:

‘Many of the most forward-thinking museums are having trouble with this idea of how to care for collections. Care is no longer considered keeping something as pristine as possible, behind glass and in perfect climate-controlled conditions forever so that, you know, someone in two thousand years can have the exact same boring experience of standing in front of a glass box and reading the wall text’, suggests Laura Osorio Sunnucks, Head of Research and Collection at Linden Museum, Stuttgart, Germany.

By extending our understanding of what ‘care’ can be and redefining the role of communities in these actions, we can renegotiate the terms to cultivate ‘climates of care’. Defined by the philosopher Cynthia Fleury and the designer Antoine Fenoglio, ‘climate of care’ consolidates the common goods necessary for a “good life”.

In the Anthropocene era, this consolidation may involve regenerating altered commons, leading to an investment in time-consuming care efforts:

‘What we always try to do is not only to build a community but to sustain it - and that’s actually the hardest part. Building a community takes a lot of effort but how do you sustain it, how do you nurture and cultivate it so that it keeps bearing fruits? It has been a challenge but it’s also something we are proud of. (…) With the ‘massa caliente’ of CALOR, folks are meeting over a distinct identity but same affinity towards the impacts of climate change in our city and so forth. This shared reality united people who took part in that purpose and kept grouping for leading actions together. (...) It’s taking so much time, care, and trust building. But we think it’s only by giving time to this very natural process that we can come to a positive outcome.” Clément Rames and Léa Karrasch, co-founders of aquí, urban research and practice cooperative based in Barcelona.

Here, time is a key metric and a common to consider. Even though the right to rest is recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, late capitalism and neoliberalism are constantly challenging it, leading to a ‘burnout society’ as conceptualized by the philosopher Byung-Chul Han. In this context, adopting the train as a mode of travel across Europe or napping in the park appears as an act of resistance: making the deliberate choice of slowness, trusting in the virtues of boredom and idleness.

All over Europe, informal or organised groups emerge with a set of delightful new strategies of care including reconnecting with the Living world, acknowledging the interdependencies, introducing new temporalities and rhythms in a long-term thinking system, or reviving the power of kinship among humans.

‘Who cares?’ shouted Ana Dana Beroš, architect and curator, as part of a performative exercise in the pre-summer school Architecture of Cure in Krvavica, Croatia, and the answer might be ‘more people than you would actually think’.

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5. Fleury-Perkins, Cynthia, and Antoine Fenoglio. ‘Ce qui ne peut être volé: charte du Verstohlen.’ (2022).
6. Han, Byung-Chul. The burnout society. Stanford University Press, 2015.