Building with humanism

It has been a quiet joy to spend so much time in the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation’s facilities in the past two weeks. I discovered this place seven years ago, when I began working with the Foundation on what became A Restless Art, and I have been under its spell ever since. The buildings—museum, galleries, concert halls, a library, convention rooms and offices, with their associated cafés and services—are integrated with a perfect garden so that spaces and paths flow naturally together. Each storey of the main block is a terrace overflowing with plants, while pools, streams and a small central lake bring freshness and reflections to the tranquil space.

But my love of this place is not simply aesthetic. It evokes the period of European reconstruction, when cautious optimism was tempered by a commitment to protect people from a return to the catastrophe of total war, the age of a democratic humanism expressed in the Welfare State, social solidarity and community. Portugal’s mid-century history was very different from the rest of Europe: it had avoided being drawn into the Second World War and, like its Iberian neighbour, was still run by a dictator. But culture and ideas cross borders and knowing that this place was the creation of young Portuguese architects and designers during that dark time is part of why the result shines so brightly. This place and I are about the same age, and we were shaped by similar ideals.

These photos offer just a glimpse of the buildings and gardens, taken as I worked there in recent days. I took them when something caught my eye, rather than to say anything in particular. Nevertheless, they give a sense of why this is such a good space in which to work. When I compare it with some of the consumerist, egocentric, look-at-me cultural venues flung up by the neoliberal age, I appreciate the subtlety of a building that serves, rather than dominates, the people who use it and the cultural work they do here.

It may be an ideal—I know it is—but human beings need inspiration and this is a vision I can believe, care about and work towards.

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