The Sea as Symbol of Hope

From Portugal to the world on the ocean

Words: Patrícia Barnabé

The design of the future and the sustainability of our planet depend on the ocean. The brand-new Bauhaus of the Seas project is a European Union initiative led by Portugal, with eyes and heart set firmly on the coastal horizon. We talked to one of its great advocates, Nuno Jardim Nunes.

Inspired by the famous German art school and catalyst for change the Bauhaus, founded in 1919, the European Commission challenged its member countries to be open to embracing, with that very same passion and desire to dream, a movement dedicated to the ambitious European Green Deal/Climate Pact, in favour of sustainability and social inclusion. With more than 2000 contributions from the 27 countries of the Union set on ushering in a new way of life built on sustainability and design, Portugal has tapped into its lore of sailors and explorers, fishermen and poets to come up with the Bauhaus of the Seas: a movement that is cultural, ethical and aesthetic, intent on being “a research lab for reflection and action of all kinds, to speed up the transformation of various economic sectors in the transition towards sustainable innovation”. The seas, once again, as an instigator for change, and the foundation of European culture, from Classical Antiquity to the New World, in a world gone global. The same seas that determine our climate, that capture heat and carbon and produce 50% of the oxygen needed for the planet, a source of food and work, with great potential for tourism as well as for renewable energies, close to which almost half of the European population lives. The greatest, most beaten-back and mysterious of natural environments remains a place of hope.

Q: How did the Bauhaus of the Seas come to be, and how did Nuno, a computer engineer and professor at the Instituto Superior Técnico, come to sustainability in a project named after an arts school?

A: It came to be as an initiative of the European Union itself and its president Ursula von der Leyen, who laid the foundations for this idea that Europe needed, in order to recover from the pandemic, a new movement that married a brand-new aesthetic, inclusive and sustainable, to the policy of the Green Deal — which intends to make Europe the first carbon-neutral continent by 2030. When I saw this, I contacted minister Manuel Artur and told him: “Portugal cannot miss out on this championship”. And so an inter-ministerial commission was set up between the Ministries of Science and Culture, and later the Environment, with several people brainstorming what could be Portugal’s response to a new European Bauhaus. It was then that I met Mariana Pestana, Frederico Duarte, Miguel Figueira, Heitor Alvelos from the University of Porto, and this idea arose that, in theory, there were five European places associated with the European Bauhaus, and it could be an interesting, and maybe quirky idea for Portugal to connect the Bauhaus to the sea, and it ended up resulting in this proposal, which later got funding. It is the only European project coordinated by a southern European country.

This idea of the Bauhaus of the Seas took some time. As Pessoa says: “First it dazes you, and then it amazes you”, right? On the one hand, it really caught people’s attention thanks to the fantastic visuals by José Albergaria, also co-designer of the Bauhaus of the Seas manifesto, and one of the best Portuguese graphic designers [based in Paris]. The government itself didn’t really understand the concept, so we had to get together and organise our first conference at MAAT, which really made us stand out and which, all of a sudden, got Europe talking about us. Even Von der Leyen’s cabinet adviser on this issue was very impressed, and Commissioner Elisa Ferreira, who from the get-go was very keen, for obvious political reasons, to involve Matosinhos with its new refinery project, which just like the European project, we’d just “nabbed” for ourselves. It’s a very romantic idea, isn’t it? It’s completely out-of-the-box thinking that ended up pulling one over all the lobbies and people’s set ideas.

Q: The Bauhaus of the Seas brings together the Técnico university, Lisbon council, the Gulbenkian and the Magellan Circle, in a consortium of 18 international partners (municipalities, universities and cultural institutions) to carry out pilot projects in seven European cities between 2023 and 2025: Lisbon was joined by Oeiras, Venice, Genoa, Hamburg, Malmö and Rotterdam…

A: Other cities came forward, and when these and the universities started falling into place, we got approached by Italy, which had its own Venice project, but which ended up coming on board with ours. And we’ve also incorporated Europe’s most characteristic ecosystems: the Antwerp-Rotterdam delta, logistically one of the most important European hubs and connected to the sea; the northern region of Europe, with Malmö and Hamburg, which is very important culturally and one of the few German coastal cities, and last but not the least Genoa. It’s a massive undertaking, the project started on January 1st, it has 5 million Euros in funding and we’re having a great time. It kicked off in Lisbon — where else — the different initiatives are rolling out and it is very challenging because it is based on an idea of participation and inclusion, something which many cities are not used to. Beyond budgets, there is hardly any kind of participatory culture. On top of that, we’re going even further, wanting to include the voices of non-humans — this idea that a sustainable future can only happen if we “listen” to the other sea creatures, to the beaches, the waves… And if listening to people is complicated enough for most policymakers, listening to the fish, waves, and the non-human or more-than-human players, is too radical for some. But that is why it is a research project, and I think and hope that it will be outstanding at a European level.

Q: Give us examples of projects that have already started or been planned.

A: In this first year, assemblies of cultural, artistic, and municipal agents are being rallied together in each of the seven cities, and it is a very co-creative process. Here in Lisbon, for example, two important ideas stand out. One of the main changes, in coastal cities in particular, is to create new habits of consumption that are much more sustainable. This may seem to have nothing to do with architecture and urbanism, but it has everything to do with it, and as a matter of fact one of the people affiliated with this project is André Tavares, he of the concept of Codfish Architecture [& Other Species, a book written with Diego Inglez de Sousa, A Critical Reading of the Landscape Built by Portuguese Fisheries]. Fish have always made architecture. We’re here at Beato, where all the architecture of the neighbourhood was dictated by the dietary needs of the Portuguese army during the period of the Colonial War. There is a vast movement that wants to integrate shellfish more and more into our diet, not least because bivalves have a regenerative effect on ecosystems. It’s right here, and you don’t have to import Argentinian meat from the other side of the planet. This forces people to go back to their old habits, which were much more sustainable. It’s a project we’re going to work on with communities, chefs and students.

Another project is called Blue Maker Space, and it has to do with our areas of design, architecture and engineering expertise: this question of 3D printing ended up creating an unexpected, and unnecessary, plastic industry. The idea is to try to rethink this idea of experimenting with on-site printing, and for the sake of habits of consumption and exportation, make us use, once again, materials from the sea. Such as, for example, seaweed for 3D printing, in more ways that are ever more sophisticated, and create a new aesthetic, objects different from the ones we’re used to in plastic, and print out, I don’t know, whatever, urban furniture. And here at Braço de Prata, we want to make, in the next few years, a kind of test stand where you can print out objects made from sea-based materials and this way make change happen. We’re also going to do an experiment with recycled plastic from the sea to print new kinds of objects. They are more concrete ideas that, in our opinion, have to be designed with input from the public, and that we want to test and see if we can inspire them and get them adopted at parish level, which would already create an enormous impact.

Q: This synergy with the arts and architecture is not obvious, not least because the visual aesthetics is still considered of secondary importance, for many…

A: There is still a certain extremism that gets us nowhere. The solution for cities is not for us all to be driving electric cars. As one of my colleagues said: there is no need to reinvent the bicycle, it already exists and we already know it is a much more sustainable means of transport. What we have to do is rethink our habits and our habits condition the cities in which we live. If more people want to ride bicycles, the city will change accordingly and there will be fewer cars and the public space will be lived differently. The new Bauhaus was very controversial for this reason, because the original happened at a historic moment of change and of reconstruction in a Europe destroyed by the First World War following a recession. Europe does not need more construction, nor more cars, motorways or infrastructures, it needs to reinvent itself in a more sustainable way around what has already been built. And that’s hard because we’re used to a consumer society, where it’s always more, more and more. And that’s also what aesthetics is about. Why aesthetics and art and culture? Because that’s how you inspire people, not with ordered planning and contract specifications.

Q: The Bauhaus of the Seas project is one of the six winners of this New European Bauhaus and wants to rethink our relationship with water, thereby changing our lifestyle. By water we mean the seas, but also the rivers, lakes and streams; it is such a vast world, about which we know so little, while at the same time one of the most affected by human pollution.

A: There was a tactical aspect: Portugal, if there’s anything it has in common it’s water… Lisbon was the Atlantic European capital; there was London, but even London is not Atlantic-facing, so there’s a natural connection based on having the largest exclusive economic zone. And then, the co-authors of the project are from the islands, me from Madeira and Zé from the Azores, and we have a very different relationship with the sea, a vision from above looking down, as in Madeira where we don’t imagine ourselves walking from the beach into the sea but rather throw ourselves into it, which may seem not to have a great impact, but does. People develop a strong relationship, involving great respect and courage. Then there is a fundamental fact: no sustainable solution stands a chance in the future if we don’t take the sea into account. The oceans are responsible for absorbing much of the CO2 and that’s where a great many of our problems are going to arise, as they already are, what with desertification, waste… And then, with the scarcity of resources on land, the same society that used up everything in this frenzy to dig things up ends up turning to the sea. And are we going to mine at the bottom of the sea? Implement aquaculture? Are we going to make all the same mistakes we’ve made on land now in the sea, and end up destroying what little there is left on the planet? Furthermore, 40% of the European population lives in coastal areas. There is no such thing technically as an interior in Portugal, as all cities, even Bragança, are coastal. On any continent, a city that is 30 or 40 kilometres from the coast is not an inland city. We are a coastal and island country, and so we wanted to make use of its symbolic capital to try to avoid making the same mistakes in our relationship with the sea that was made on land, which is going to be very difficult to overcome afterwards.

Q: We in Europe, and Portugal in particular, have an obvious, historical connection with the sea that is economic, philosophical and even poetic. Is there a part of our nature as Portuguese that is reflected in our poetry and literature, in our cuisine, but also in our temperament?

A: Our history as a country is forged from the sea, our choices were Spain or the sea, and we took to the seas, having no other option. And I’ll tell you again, our best assets come from the sea: Douro wine exists because of it and the humidity that has created this microclimate. Historically and culturally, we are a country of the sea and that makes all the difference. Unfortunately, we are losing many of our cultural traditions, and we are going to lose even more of our sustainable practices, having given up on artisanal fishing because it was not economically viable. Perhaps many of these activities, which are extractive but which do not cause stocks to run out, need to be brought back. It is about creating a new relationship with the sea, but also with agriculture. That is how we see it. Miguel Figueira, for example, is a great champion of our waves; we need to preserve our beaches that cannot be piled up with construction, because they are our greatest heritage, even for tourism’s-sake. I’d say there’s poetic inspiration for this, but in my case it’s so much a part of me that the truth is, if I don’t see the ocean for two or three days I start messing up, and I have to get to the sea.

Q: You have created a one-off project that is the Escola do Mar [School of the Sea]?

A: Within the ambit of the European Bauhaus, there’s space for small pilot projects, and we are academics from a school of engineering, and my aim is to open a school with a new training programme that the Técnico university can develop and bring with it a more artistic, culturally critical spirit, to open up engineering to this kind of inspiration. We are proposing a new Master’s programme precisely in new aesthetic design that will be done in collaboration with the University of Delft and the Polytechnic of Milan, which are also two other major universities specialising in this area. We are still looking for European funds to get this off the ground. But our idea is to create a school, and we’re cherry-picking 12 people to do their PhDs and some postdocs based on this new paradigm. This project is three years old, things are over before you know it, but what has to be here to stay is a new way of thinking about problems, a new generation of people, whether it be designers or historians, curators or architects or psychologists, and not just engineers. The problems nowadays have to be solved with a range of skills that we want to train people up for. This is what the Escola do Mar is all about, Miguel really wanted it to actually be on the ocean and that’s more difficult, but who knows, if it becomes reality, there could be a semester or some activity at sea.

Q: It’s beautiful and important that, in a multidisciplinary way, different people come together to change the state of things.

A: That’s the only way. We’re bringing over, starting in September, this first wave of PhD students at the Técnico, an incredible range of people, most of whom are from abroad. That’s often the way it is, isn’t it, with good ideas? “The shoemaker’s son always goes barefoot”. It’s always the foreigners who get it first. And we have a young generation who, attracted by the project, come here to do their PhD with us so the future we think we deserve becomes a reality. The idea is to ask the right questions, and there’s a growing movement that’s bigger than the project itself. There are a number of things that are difficult to fix and solve, some of them complex, but maybe we can start somewhere, and this project is as good a start as any.

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