The Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology (MAAT), whose swooping form hugs the bank of the Tagus River in Lisbon, Portugal, welcomed 22,000 visitors on its opening day in early October. Designed by British architect Amanda Levete and commissioned by the EDP Foundation, the cultural wing of gas and electric corporation Energias de Portugal, the museum is the latest addition to the foundation’s historic campus, which includes the renovated Central Tejo power station, whose main building and old boiler and turbine halls have been converted into galleries and art spaces.
MAAT will introduce a global array of art and architecture to Lisbon. But it will also provide an important platform for contemporary Portuguese artists and designers. The museum’s director, Pedro Gadanho, was hired a year ago after leaving the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where he was the curator of architecture and design. Gadanho’s inaugural exhibition, “Utopia/Dystopia,” features Pynchon Park, a site-specific work by French artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster. Drawing inspiration from the novelist Thomas Pynchon, the work blends sculpture, sound, light, and science fiction to evoke a playful yet eerie scenario that questions the future of our own humanity. In March, a second installment of the exhibition will follow, marking the 500-year anniversary of the publication of Sir Thomas More’s political philosophy treatise Utopia. The show will feature some 60 international artists and architects, including OMA, Yona Friedman, Superstudio, and media artists Hito Steyerl and Cao Fei.
Elsewhere on the foundation’s campus, “The World of Charles and Ray Eames,” an exhibition that MAAT organized in partnership with the Barbican Centre in London, is on display (until Jan. 9) at the Central Tejo building. And “The Form of Form,” a pavilion designed for the fourth annual Lisbon Architecture Triennial by Los Angeles–based Johnston Marklee, local firm Brandão Costa Arquitectos, and Office Kersten Geers David Van Severen occupies the power station’s courtyard until Dec. 12.
All in all, it’s quite a moment for MAAT. The afternoon I interviewed Gadanho—a day after the opening—he was hastily pulling together a pop-up exhibition drawn from the foundation’s permanent collection of Portuguese artists. The overwhelming success of the museum’s first day meant that more art was needed to fill the new building once a few temporary new media installations concluded later that week. Gadanho had just a few days to assemble the show—a sign of how his new role offers a freedom and flexibility that he never enjoyed at MoMA. We met in his office to discuss his vision for the museum.
The design of the new building by Levete was already in the works when you signed on as director. How does it support your programming?
As soon as I came in, it was evident that the special qualities of that building will [influence how we] display exhibitions. The galleries are organic with no straight walls, which make things very difficult for hanging. So, I started thinking about how the existing power station, which has more traditional gallery spaces, could complement the new galleries. The architectural language of the new building gives us the freedom to be as flexible as possible, given that the building was without a clear brief at the very start.
What do you mean by that?
I mean that [with the initial brief] the architect had almost carte blanche to do what she felt was adequate, considering that the foundation had an art collection and was into new technology. So, the design was more of an open space, like a kunsthalle. When I came in, the building was already pretty advanced, which meant I could not think of changing things too much.
Still, the architects and I both agreed to scrap the “multimedia room”—a volume inside a volume that had its own architectural language and would have been very expensive to produce. It didn’t allow for the kind of flexibility [we needed], and it left spaces around it that were unusable. By scrapping that we managed to create the Project Room, a more stable gallery that has a very different proportion from the main gallery, which is a long oval and that you circulate around. This one is more cube-ish, although it has rounded corners.
Crowds of people waited hours to get in on opening day. Was this response anticipated?
We expected a crowd, but not at that scale. Even though Lisbon is attractive and its tourism is growing, it still takes an effort to come here. It’s not like passing through London and seeing the Tate Modern on your way to somewhere else. And so we never anticipated such an international buzz, and especially not such a large national audience.
How do you see MAAT in relation to global museum buildings like the Tate Modern or even the original precedent of the icon of a city on a river, the Guggenheim Bilbao?
One difference here for sure is the relationship to the site. Amanda was very aware that this is a place where contextualism is always considered important. This is not just a signature building that is indifferent to its city, that could be either in L.A. or Bilbao; it’s a building that really tries to adapt to the condition. And it creates a lot of public space rather than just showing off the forms of the building (as in the worst case of Frank Gehry’s Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, which is absolutely obscene). Although it’s architecturally bold, MAAT is discreet in terms of the landscape of the city—it doesn’t totally block the view, and, in fact, offers a new view of the city from the roof.
I must be fair and say that Bilbao is a great building by Gehry in the sense that it uses the river, it embraces the bridge, and it creates a contextual connection to the urban tissue. But then with Louis Vuitton, he was only doing flamboyant useless stuff, which is almost a commentary on luxury itself: total obscene, empty, no need for it and in that sense, very shocking. However, Gehry’s importance is that he represents openness to progressive architecture. That’s the most important aspect, to create an experimental situation here in terms of architecture.
And that’s new for Portugal?
Yes, if we had invited a Portuguese architect, it would be more of the same—boxy, conservative, contextual.
The museum was still under construction—the details a little unfinished—as we did the press tour the other day.
I must say that it’s not very well received by architects. They look at details and they say, “Oh, bad detail.”
As an architect, I know the feeling of looking at every detail and seeing everything that is wrong. But maybe because I’ve distanced myself from architecture more and more, I’m more interested in ample, generous gestures than if a detail is perfectly finished or not, because that you can correct anytime, the gesture you cannot.
The museum is interdisciplinary in nature. What does it mean to bring art, architecture, and technology together?
I had already experimented with this intersection of art and architecture with my previous work at MoMA. That for sure was one thing I wanted to continue—the aspect of technology related to the institution’s past as an electricity museum and the fact that we have a large industrial heritage that is also part of the museum’s program. We have a building that expresses a precise historical technological condition. But of course, I’m interested in the impact digital culture is having on us. Artists are the ones that are first to react and show us the problems and the issues of these transformations within culture and the city.
So, you’re using the artist as a way into these different subjects instead of commissioning architects?
I don’t believe in architects doing art installations. I think they are very bad at it, and everybody recognizes it except for architects themselves. Of course, the upcoming “Utopia/Dystopia” exhibition will show architects and artists at the same intellectual level, since both contribute historically and contemporarily towards the generation of ideas.
I’m interested in the contribution of these disciplines towards a broader cultural discourse rather than showing them in the typical way—art for art’s sake or architecture only presented for the sake of architects. I intend to bring architecture into the mix a lot more through MAAT’s education program and by organizing debates, conversations, and discussions. I’m planning on a big debate here about the whole transformation the Lisbon waterfront. These discussions could generate a lot more impact than a monographic show by a single architect.