João Mendes Ribeiro is a Portuguese architect, set designer, performance artist, theorist. The core of Ribeiro's work, according to Vasco Pinto whose essay on Ribeiro one can read in the usual bizarre translation provided by Google, is Uma Mala-Mesa, a table which packs itself in and out of a suitcase. This transformative action is minimal in form, going from motion to stasis, from parts to construction to object, from solidity to spatiality. The suitcase-table has been constructed many times for different locations from Morocco to Berlin to Prague with slight variations each time, and presented as installation, performance, film and dance. Inherent in the suitcase-table is its double referencing, which Ribeiro takes into his architecture.
Ribeiro came to my attention through a Portuguese architectural photographer, Fernando Guerro, FG+SG who regularly sends us portfolios of new projects. Ribeiro and Cristina Guedes collaborated on the 2009 Casa das Caldeiras, a new art studies building at the University of Coimbra which used an old steam plant and added a new building to house a cafeteria, bookstore, academic spaces for graduate studies. Exhibition space is in the old coal room.
Pinto, writing from within Portuguese culture sees the Casa das Caldeiras as about the primacy of form, and in the 100 or so photographs of this project you can see the theatricality of many of the spatial decisions: staircases are great wood sculptures in white-walled galleries, an outside deck is as narrow and precarious as a gangway over a stage.
If there are any double references it is in the elision of architecture and performance, the conceptual underpinning to Ribeiro's work. The sense of architecture here is not narrowly described as programme, or brand, or image, or budget, or context. If these five conditions circumscribe one's architecture, then that is the architecture that results. Last week I went to an absolutely numbing lecture by a well-known and respected Canadian architect who spoke only in these terms. When I wrote the other day about work being used merely as a trigger for topical critical discourse, it has to be understood that there must be something in the work to initially nourish the discourse, something more than a preoccupation with image and brand.
Why does new work from Europe often look so beautiful? I don't think it is my un-decolonised self asking this question, rather it is a recognition that the terms of reference we work under are not the only ones that contribute to the making of architecture.