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The Symphony of the Unknown

Wolf Guenter Thiel

What is there to be seen now, when we look at the built utopias of yesterday and yesteryear? How can there be any trace of the utopia left, once it’s been delivered, if the erosion of its ideal and unattainability is evident in the mundane process of a building’s gradual dilapidation? Is utopia more than the design for a fictitious social order, itself seen as unfeasible, conceptual and visionary? If so, it is declared by a self-annointed avant-garde, at the vanguard of contemporary modernist discourse. How avant-garde can an avant-garde remain, once some of its claims are later incorporated into the progress of a wider current social debate, depending on their applicability? Can the term avant-garde function beyond the terminology of aesthetics? Is classic modernism the relic of a lost avant-garde? Should there be an archaeology of modernism? How would it work? It could hardly function analytically, as that could not account for the euphoria and satisfaction of those, who had been able to execute their vision. So that archaeology would have to be a poetic one! One that would seek out visions and a venture into the unknown, in order to be able to re-experience and re-interpret the original visionary forces, and comprehend them as they were: as a manifestation of an ideological and humanist utopia. The temporal distance from that utopia could serve as the key for today’s social discourse. Providing brackets as tools to locate utopian content in a sphere of the unknown as a matter-of-course.

When Florian Heilmeyer raves about London’s Barbican Centre as an Arcadia while acknowledging its indebtedness to the cult visions and tenets of Archigram, his fascination lies less with how the buildings have adapted to everyday use today. Rather, his euphoria stems from the fact that someone actually managed to build such a huge bit of lofty architecture, a metaphor for space travel and the machine age. It is his enthusiasm for that euphoria which lets his description wax lyrical and seem a bit optimistic. His fascination with the belief in salvation by the idea of modernism is nevertheless conclusive, if not without flaws. The post-modernists around Jean-Franc?ois Lyotard envisaged and predicted the inevitable failure of grand solutions. Still, the yearning for salvation and a solution to all problems has never been greater than today. But the experience with the grand utopias and social reform models has necessarily been dialectic, as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer remind us in their epochal Dialectic of Enlightenment. We might even define the experience as de-constructivist today, and its de constructivist force as forever mutable.

An early example of postmodern architecture, Les Espaces d’Abraxas is a monumental creation in Noisy-le-Grand in France. The pathos of it! It unites the motifs for three building types and functions: palace, theatre, and triumphal arch. These symbolic attributions are owed to their original purpose. The aim was to create a new town centre, and a landmark visible from as far away as the centre of Paris. The arts were intended to animate the centre, and public space be given prime attention. Nuno Cera does not analyse if and how it succeeded, nor which of these utopian concepts actually de ne the residents’ daily lives. What fascinates him is the grand design of the scheme, the scope of the original vision. From the post- modernist view it is a success, from a de-constructivist perspective the built manifestation of the idea stands in stark contrast to the mundane reality of life there.

The Portuguese architect A?lvaro Siza Vieira was commissioned in 1974 to build the social housing estate Bouc?a, in his native city of Porto. It illustrates his version of modernism: devising contemporary housing modelled on local tradition and with regard to the existing built environment and the surrounding landscape. Siza’s activities on the Quinta da Malagueira estate in E?vora have been a continuous work-in-progress for nearly four decades now. They are a monumental example of the belief in the strength of modern architecture. A?lvaro Siza Vieira relies on vernacular processes for his designs and solutions. They focus on human beings and their cultural, historical, and natural background. Malagueira succeeds where the two other utopias appear to fail. Man and his needs are at the centre of attention. Is this based on a modern, or a neo-modern approach? The question is superuous. We are looking at an avant-garde that includes our grandfathers, our future grand children, modernism and neo-modernism simultaneously.

Symphony of the Unknown is a video installation consisting of three co-ordinated films in a parallel screening. They are accompanied by spoken commentary, with ex- cerpts from text by Barry Bergdoll, Florian Heilmeyer, Jose? Anto?nio Bandeirinha and Ste?phane Degoutin. Each lm presents an architectural utopia of the post-war years: the Barbican, in London (UK); Les Espaces d’Abraxas, in Noisy-le-Grand (France); and the Quinta da Malagueira, in E?vora (Portugal). It is a poetic rendition of the utopian potential of each specific era, not an analytical one. The expression of the visionary force of these designs seems whimsical, almost anarchic against the prospect of today’s discourses. Each building complex is still in use today. Nuno Cera’s research concentrates less on political and economic conditions, instead he examines the aesthetic and ethical vision. He is not concerned with an analysis of late, post or neo- modernist architectural design. Rather he is dealing with the poetics of these build- ing ensembles. The sheer size of each chosen project bears testimony to the unbroken belief in grand solutions, grand designs, across all national barriers, political affiliations and legislative periods. They are an expression of the lasting appeal of a utopia and the potential for social change. These buildings represent a stance which attests to the lasting appeal of modernity and the vestiges of humanism that it builds on.

Nuno Cera applies a kind of discursive analysis, loosely in the vein of what Michel Foucault introduced in 1966 in his work Les Mots et les choses. Une arche?ologie des sciences humaines (The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences). Foucault presented an epistemology and a discursive theory that investigates con- temporary phenomena from various scientific perspectives simultaneously. In the case of this video installation three utopian architectural ensembles are shown side by side in three synchronised visual suites. Here the artist presents his personal view and visual perspective. His concern is with the validity of the utopia when faced with the reality of its own perpetuity. Nuno Cera de-constructs the built utopia, when he confronts it with itself, and when submitting it to the scrutiny of his own, contemporary gaze. Other than Foucault, his means are poetic rather than scientific and analytical. Emphatic poetry replaces cold analysis. The artist’s poetic sensibility derives from from his kaleidoscope-like gaze, honed on his own artistic output. The point is the search for the seemingly lost value of Utopia.

Poet and artist Nuno Cera lives and works in Lisbon. In his work he has always compiled images that deal in architectural, urbanist and planning concerns. He re- cords the results of his research in serial images and films. His perspective is usually a personal one, derived from current discourse. Cera is neither a reporter, nor a scientific researcher. His observations are neither journalistic, nor analytical. Instead he is driven by his own poetic sensibility and his subjective visual approach. This yields experimental arrangements such as his series A room with a view, a series of images taken from a hotel room of a city view. Added up they merge into an observation that fills hours. What happens in the privacy of the room is confronted with the public sphere. The observer, however, will project his or her own visions taken from current affairs into an image taken in Cairo, not what he imagines to happen in the hotel room. Visual perceptions are derived from the observation of both the private and the public sphere, or of the specific and the general. It is this poetic or literary moment, an illustration of the contrast between opposing conceptual pairs, which triggers the fascination with the visual instance. A moment which contains an entire narrative thread, as a pars pro toto.

To my mind Cera has always been more of a poet. He is a writer, rather than a photographer, writing narratives of the instant as he is recording it in photography or lm. He literally grabs hold of images. So, does he capture the image? But what does he note? He captures his own gaze, his personal impression, a splinter o the cross of reality. As he experiences and recounts it. And it is his own poetry, developed for himself and for us, his audience, which leads him. He devises his own visual empirics and perception of capturing something in the image.