With The Form of Form, the 4th edition of the Lisbon Triennale goes back to the essence of an architect’s profession. “It’s through form that people connect with architecture. They discuss a new tower, for instance, which is the result of a long architectural process, influenced by several aspects of reality. This edition of the Lisbon Triennale focuses exactly on that”, says José Mateus, initiator of the event. The Triennale aims to explore the ways in which architecture transforms the world. All this at a time when, in the Portuguese capital, major urban and architectural changes are taking place, driven among other things by large foreign investments in real estate, a still insufficiently controlled gentrification process, and an unprecedented boom in mass tourism.

Mateus started the Triennale in 2005. “We have excellent architects in this country, among them two Pritzker prize-winners, and many acclaimed architecture schools.” In short, a context that was crying-out for such an event. For this 4th edition, two sharp-minded architecture critics were commissioned as the Triennale’s chief curators, André Tavares and the late Diogo Seixas Lopes. A strong programme structured around four core exhibitions highlights the challenges that architects face today. “Via the internet we have access to a huge amount of information, which is fantastic, but it also pushes us into a superficial new world. We have to think deeper to understand everything we see. This is the context in which the theme of this Triennale was chosen. Compared with previous editions, the Form of Form is more linked to the reality of construction and the everyday activities of architects.”

Seeing the Triennale as a powerful moment for communication, Mateus says, “There is a specialised (inter)national audience, but there are also citizens and politicians. People might be exigent when it comes to buying a new phone, but at the same time they invest their money in lousy architecture... Likewise, the government that decides on urban development is often not sufficiently informed about architecture.” Quite pertinent, at a time when the signature sound of traditional Portuguese Fado music is being overruled by the sound of construction. Mass tourism is rapidly transforming the city into a place where historic buildings are being made into hotels, shops, and restaurants, and the Airbnb-isation of the city is a fact.

Apart from the social aspect (locals can’t afford the massively increased rents anymore), Lisbon risks destroying what made it attractive in the first place, for no less than the call of easy money. This is understandable in a country that suffered greatly during the 2008 crisis and where tourism and foreign investment enhance the GDP, but sadly, the government doesn’t seem to have learned from the mistakes of other cities, like nearby Barcelona. But Mateus begs to nuance the point: “This is an important moment for Lisbon. A couple of years ago, Portugal was among the European countries with the lowest investment in restoration, 3%. We mainly invested in new construction projects outside the city. Meanwhile, Lisbon was losing its inhabitants and many neighbourhoods were falling apart. Honestly, I didn’t enjoy the widespread ‘charm of decadence’ we used to have in Lisbon. Now we have lots of cranes in the old district, symbolic of the renovation of historic buildings.

I also find it very interesting that the Town Hall invests so much in renovating avenues, squares, etc. Of course, when in the popular areas most of the inhabitants speak French, this means gentrification is spreading it wings. And it’s true that the city is losing some of its authenticity. That’s the other side of the picture. Investment is great for the economy but we have to control it.” And therein lies the problem: both the local and national government are reluctant to interfere.

Luckily, there is also some good news: makers from all over the world are currently finding their way to Lisbon. Designers like Philippe Starck and Emmanuel Babled, as well as architects, journalists, artists, and other creatives, are happily relocating their HQs to the Portuguese capital. Lisbon might be a peripheral location on the world map, but the creative class that is looking for a better quality of life might just change the city into a new Berlin (but with nice weather). And for this reason, the Architecture Triennale and other ‘deep’ cultural events are playing an important role in providing a counterweight.

The Lisbon Triennale is at several locations in the city and runs until 11 December 2016.