‘May you live in interesting times’
This phrase, often repeated, is supposedly a translation of an ancient Chinese curse (although there is no actual record that is so, according to the research I did). Its meaning is ambivalent. If it’s apparently attractive to live in interesting times, it’s also expected to be more difficult, at least compared to less troubled times. An interesting time for some may not be so for everyone. And usually it’s not.
At my age, in the midst of thousands of doubts and questions that fill my head, and without making major futurology, I know several things: I know I'm not going to win the Pritzker Prize1, that I have even less chance of winning the lottery and that I won't solve the problems of the world or, decisively and completely, change it for the better. I know that when I'm dead (hopefully many years from now) the trace of my passage through the world will fade until some day no one remembers me, not even the descendants of my descendants.
But I also know that while I'm here, I can influence and even change the lives of some people, obviously apart from those that are close to me. It’s in my power to inspire and improve the lives of people who enjoy what I do best – to think and change the space in which they live. That's what I do for a living and that's how I would like to end my days. An architect does not reform. Partly because, with few exceptions, he doesn’t earn enough money to do so, partly because that’s what he likes to do and can’t imagine doing anything else. And also because it is a profession on which one gains with age. One gains experience, consistency and maturity. One can lose physical freshness, wit and fail to be always on the cutting edge, but our works gain depth and thickness and have certainly fewer mistakes.
In architecture, while there is clear thinking, age is an asset. Much of the most acclaimed architectural production of my most famous colleagues is from a time when they had already entered the so-called maturity. And there are examples like Brazilian Oscar Niemeyer that, with 102 years, continues to exercise the profession.
We are probably living the more complicated economic crisis that those of us who are in working age have ever known. We have studied the great crises in history that our country and even the world had, but have no notion of what is to live them. They seem us to be remote events, always evaluated by a distanced perspective, either by time or space.
Architecture, like many other activities, is suffering with these hard times. Orders declined, customers are retracted, the credit which they usually use dramatically complicated, own home buying almost stagnated and we await decisions to move forward with projects that were already seemingly guaranteed.
I think there are some keywords that we should keep in mind to survive these times: flexibility, persistence, imagination, determination and hope.
Adaptability because we can’t continue to think like we have done until now. We have to look for the opportunities that exist and are necessarily different from what we have known. With the changes that new technologies have brought to the way we live, work and communicate, much of what we were taught or take for granted is obsolete. We must adapt to the new reality, look for our space, find our audience. Also because there is evidence that in times of great crisis there are always great opportunities. The problem is "only" to find them.
Persistence because the path is not easy and not without disappointments. We can't let a timely disappointment to become a permanent failure.
Imagination to the extent we must seek inspired, different solutions to counter the adversity. In everyday life or in the projects we do, we actually must able to make more with less.
Determination because in addition to being persistent we have to define goals and fight hard to get to their achievement. Making the impossible possible and try to get our dreams materialized. And be prepared to work, work, work.
Hope because we must realize that what we experience is necessarily transitory. Portugal has almost 900 years of existence and survived to much worse crisis, after all. And yet here we are after so many problems. And because if we lose hope, the ability to dream, everything becomes more difficult, dark and painful. And boring.
Because, for better or for worse, we actually live in interesting times.
Note 1: The Pritzker Prize is the most important award that an architect can aspire, often called "the Nobel of architecture." It has been attributed to the Portuguese architects Alvaro Siza Vieira (1992) and Eduardo Souto de Moura (2011).