Archive Politics

Pedro Baía and Carlos Machado e Moura

The following text is an excerpt from ‘Archive Politics: Reflections based on Flashback / Carrilho da Graça’, a longer review published in Jornal Arquitectos 262 of ‘Flashback: Carrilho da Graça’, an exhibition of ten projects by João Luís Carrilho da Graça at Casa da Arquitectura, Matosinhos, (8 April 2022 – 29 January 2023), curated by Marta Sequeira.

Max Protetch backing boards and labels removed from drawings now in Drawing Matter’s collection.

1. Archive fever 

Interest in architecture archives took off at the end of the 1980s following the surge in museum spaces dedicated to architecture. Although the first venues for exhibiting architectural material date back to the late 19th century within art museums with architecture collections—such as the Department of Architecture at MoMA, established in 1932, and the Centre Georges Pompidou/CCI, which opened in 1977—they became more independent with the foundation of the Deutsches Architekturmuseum (DAM) in Frankfurt and the Canadian Center for Architecture (CCA) in Montreal, both in 1979. The phenomenon was liked to the commercial valorisation of architectural designs, very much in line with ‘paper architecture’, and the emergence of specialised galleries, such as the Leo Castelli and Max Protetch galleries in New York.

In the Portuguese context, archives and estates were gradually associated with existing institutions: municipal archives, university collections and museums, or foundations and museums dedicated to the field of art, such as the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. For a long time, the process was carried out a little prosaically and archives were only partially processed. The Sacavém Fort, transformed in 1998 to house the archive and inventory of the Directorate-General for National Buildings and Monuments (DGEMN), was the first space designed that offered the technical conditions for effective processing, cataloguing, and preservation necessary for an architectural archive. Today, it holds the largest documentary collection in the country, despite struggling with chronic operating difficulties and a lack of staff. 

The pivotal point in the media coverage of architecture archives in Portugal came with the controversy surrounding Álvaro Siza’s decision to donate his practice archive to a foreign institution, the CCA, in 2014. The decision was the direct result of the cancellation, due to funding shortages, of Siza’s project to design the Casa da Arquitectura (CdA) headquarters in Matosinhos. [1] In February 2009, a contract had been signed promising the delivery of collections by various architects, including Siza, Eduardo Souto de Moura, Paulo Mendes da Rocha, Manuel Aires Mateus, Alcino Soutinho, João Álvaro Rocha, and the studio ARX, among others. The contract relied on the construction of the new headquarters, designed by Siza. [2] The abandonment of the project led the Matosinhos City Council to proceed instead with the remodelling of the former Real Vinícola company’s premises to house the CdA, without the support of the Central State, but also to Siza deciding to donate a considerable part of his archive outside Portugal. 

Prior to Siza’s donation to the CCA, the Centre Pompidou had already acquired several of Siza’s drawings and, in 2012, MoMA purchased drawings and models from three of his projects. [3] At the same time that the CdA headquarters project was abandoned, the British collector Niall Hobhouse, from Drawing Matter, acquired material relating to Siza’s social housing projects of the 1970s, including the SAAL operations and Quinta da Malagueira. With this part of the archive, which in thematic and chronological terms was more independent, now excluded, Siza decided to donate the rest of his archive to three different institutions, with the largest section going to the CCA, and two smaller parts to Portuguese institutions—the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and the Serralves Foundation. Siza thus managed to calm the nerves of those who saw the departure of the archive to Canada as a loss for the country and the Portuguese government was able to congratulate itself on a ‘solution that serves the national interests’. [4] At the time, Siza stated that ‘for the archives I wanted independent institutions that had autonomy’, [5] something that he did not recognise at the time in the Marques da Silva Foundation (FMS) or in the CdA, which he argued had given up or not shown enough interest in his design projects. ‘It’s what you might call a dead archive,’ he lamented. [6] 

Over time, both the CdA and the FMS have shown signs of vitality and have grown to become stronger; they have also proved that they now possess the best material and technical knowledge to organise, maintain, and operate architecture archives. The FMS began by receiving archives that were directly linked to Porto, but it has in recent years expanded its geographic scope, and can today count amongst its more than 60 archives those of authors such as Manuel Graça Dias, Raúl Hestnes Ferreira, and Grupo de Planeamento e Arquitectura. It even plans to expand its premises with the construction of a new documentation centre designed by Siza. The CdA, now installed at the Real Vinícola, has received donations from important Portuguese architects, and has also achieved an international prominence, especially in Brazil. Today it is home to the archives of Paulo Mendes da Rocha and Lúcio Costa, which has generated enthusiasm but also fierce criticism of neo-colonialism by some Brazilian journalists and architects. [7]

With this competitive strategy, it is interesting to note the way in which the archive occupies a prominent place in the CdA, becoming a ‘mediatized archive’ visible directly from the ticket office through a large glass window, displaying, scenographically, the models from Eduardo Souto de Moura’s archive. It is equally interesting to understand how the very construction of exhibitions serves to attract archives.

Thanks to the work of the executive director, Nuno Sampaio, and the role played by the two Brazilian curators of the ‘Infinite Span’ exhibition, Guilherme Wisnik and Fernando Serapião, the CdA managed to bring together an unparalleled collection of Brazilian architecture and the estates of two of its most important representatives. As Sampaio points out, ‘the Brazil collection was an example of this, it was 90 years of Brazilian architecture selected by two curators chosen by the CdA, of whom we asked not to have more than two works by each architect in the show. We ended up having more than 60 architects represented by 90 works. The strategy aimed at the conception of archive collections related to specific territories.’ [8] 

The distance between the territories of origin and the location of the archives can be rendered of secondary importance when institutions, in addition to guaranteeing the preservation, recovery, and restoration of documents and archival processing ensure their online availability for the whole world, creating what the CdA calls ‘universal access to architecture’ with its new ‘digital building’ [9] and policies to support research. [10] A different route has been taken by institutions like the CCA, which, instead of digitising all archived documents, has opted to provide selections made by specific curators and architects, such as Kenneth Frampton in the case of the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies (IAUS) and Peter Testa in the Siza archive. Nevertheless, there remain important issues on the table, one of them being the policy on selecting authors. On what basis is it decided whose archives are of interest (or not) to process, preserve, and catalogue? Who validates the choices in each institution? Is there a decisive choice that can potentially legitimise certain narratives over other alternatives ones, meaning it can never be neutral, consensual, or innocent?

Maarten Delbeke’s pin-up, with his team, in the Drawing Matter archive while curating material for ‘The Hidden Horizontal: Cornices in Art and Architecture’ at the Graphische Sammlung ETH Zürich.

2. Dead archive / living archive 

At the formal ceremony for the donation of the Eduardo Souto de Moura archive at the CdA, the question was raised as to the suggested uselessness of architecture archives. In his speech at the ceremony, Souto de Moura said that he initially had thought that the donation of his models and drawings to the CdA could be seen as a form of interment: ‘this day could be a sad day for me, a sort of interment of 40 years of work that are placed in a coffin, a kind of resting place. But it is not. It is a particularly happy day because it is one of acknowledgment and satisfaction at having one’s life’s work recognised.’ [11] While Souto de Moura initially linked the idea of an archive and that of death and an ending, he quickly corrected that view to one of the proof and manifestation of life. The organisation of the exhibition ‘Souto Moura: Memória, Projectos, Obras’, curated by Francesco Dal Co and Nuno Graça Moura, confirmed that idea with the celebration of a 40-year career portrayed over hundreds of models, drawings and photographs. The Souto de Moura archive was on show for a year at the CdA for contemplation by the enthusiast and analysis by the more attentive visitor.

In architecture firm jargon the term ‘dead archive’ signifies graphic, procedural, and study-based elements that no longer serve a functional purpose. In normal cases, these elements are kept, complied, and stored until they become so obsolete that their next designation is probably the rubbish bin. In recent years, various archives and the estates of architects with a recognised body of work have been identified, brought back from the brink, recovered, and given new value. In many cases, the documents in question were dispersed in closed-down offices, lost in storage, abandoned in cellars or in piles in garages, thus running high risk of deterioration. Institutions that have received the archives and estates of these architects, such as the CdA and the FMS, have sought to transform these ‘dead archives’ into ‘living archives’.

However, for an archive to be truly ‘living’ and useful to those who consult it, it is fundamental that an exhaustive and rigorous process of cataloguing, cleaning, and preservation of all drawings, models, photographs, and written documents takes place. Only after this work is carried out can an archive be made available for consultation by a more specialised public consisting of researchers. From that moment on, an archive can be studied, dissected, and presented in exhibitions to make it known and better understood by a wider audience. These exhibitions go much further than the initial showing of an archive and can be worked and presented in accordance with whatever curatorial strategies are adopted. A ‘living archive’ is also an archive in permanent construction. [12] Accordingly, an archive should be seen as a research platform for architectural history, theory, and criticism, taking the form of the most varied curatorial and editorial possibilities, from the more monographic and centred around the work of a specific architect to the group-based or themed, with experiments and areas of intersection between various archives.

There is still, however, an even more operative utility to the idea of a ‘living archive’, where the archive is seen as a source of reference for the renovation of a given building. In the brochure for the exhibition ‘Bartolomeu Costa Cabral / an archive under construction’, the curators highlighted the current collaboration between Rui Mendes and Bartolomeu Costa Cabral in the restoration processes of the Bloco das Águas Livres (1953 – 1956), Escola do Castelo (1959 – 1970), and the EPUL Building in Martim Moniz Square in Lisbon (1973), highlighting how the original details and building solutions were recovered from the drawings archived at the FMS for design projects that are still in progress: ‘(t)his possibility of use as an operational element in the design project is what distinguishes a dead archive from a living one.’

The collaboration between two architects, from different generations, Bartolomeu Costa Cabral (b.1929) and Rui Mendes (b.1973), is a persuasive case for better understanding of the operational potential of architecture archives. Rui Mendes’ visits to the FMS archives and to Sacavém Fort are not the visits of a researcher working on a thesis or a scientific essay, nor are they those of a curator before mounting and exhibition, or of a book editor about to publish a book. They are visits that are important for an architect who has the responsibility of later intervening in a work of modern architecture from the 20th century and seeks to better understand the original design approaches.

A ‘living archive’ can thus be a fundamental tool for the exercise of contemporary design that intervenes in already existing modern buildings, proving the unquestionable importance and operationality of the saving of architecture archives for a responsible and informed design practice, as well as for a policy of maintenance and renovation of the modern architectural heritage of the 20th century.

Two urbanisms: collages from Fernando Barroso and Mário Ramos’s ‘The Insurrectional Organization of Space’, 1976, and a perspective sketch of Álvaro Siza’s Bouça housing estate, 1972.

3. The archive is not enough 

The debate around architecture archives is today undergoing a process of redefinition. It is not just a question of asserting the importance of an archive and its relevance for architectural culture, nor underlining its singular operationality as a ‘living archive’ with the capacity to inform research and assist in contemporary design, or to promote architecture through the exposure of its designers and designs. The archive today is a tool for thinking.

A book published in 2016, The Archive as a Productive Space of Conflict, sought to find out what processes make an archive productive. In contrast to the conventional model of a preservation archive, the hallmark of which is the aesthetic accumulation of contents shaped by a single, stabilised narrative, the idea of an archive as a driver of conflict seeks to unbalance and transform its own structure, allowing for the emergence of unexpected relationships in a process of overlapping and crossed narratives.

In this context, one should, perhaps, recall the case of Pedro Bandeira’s investigation in ‘Escola do Porto: Lado B’, a project that, in the words of Nuno Faria, ‘revisited, in the form of oral history, a number of non-conformist designs, from outside the discipline of architecture, which, between 1968 and 1978, radically called into question the prevailling model at the core of the Porto School of Architecture.’ [13] This work made it possible to complement the seemingly stable history of the Porto School with experiences and lesser-known anecdotes, shining a light on other figures, references, images, and discourses: ‘this exhibition made it clear that the school’s narrative was more complex and contradictory, which shows very well the wealth and interest of the narrated object.’ [14]

Curiously enough, in 2021 Drawing Matter purchased the collection of academic drawings by Fernando Barroso and Mário Ramos, included in the ‘Escola do Porto: Lado B’ exhibition, namely the ‘Insurrectional Organization of Space’ project (1975) and the São Victor Project (1976). One should note that the drawings were purchased by a British institution and not a Portuguese one. This acquisition is a good illustration of the archive policy at Drawing Matter, which is based on a curatorial strategy that is sensitive to the notion of a space of conflict and is open to accommodating and promoting different registers of architectural drawing. For this reason, it has been very interesting to follow the work of Drawing Matter, an organisation that promotes its archives through the exhibition curatorship, the organisation of workshops, and the production of essays on elements of its collection, reflecting on the extended field of representation in architecture on the basis of drawings from the 16th or the 19th centuries, the sketches by figures such as Siza and Aldo Rossi, the axonometric drawings of James Gowan, and the Superstudio collages.

In this context one should also focus on the example of the CCA, with a view to better understanding its contributions to the ongoing debate. Through the book The Museum is not Enough, the CCA speaks in the first person—‘Hello, this is me’—along nine lines of thought and in a self-analytical discourse revealing its main ideas and raison d’être. The self-reflection developed in the book questions the role and relevance of the museum, but also of the archive and architecture: ‘For me, architecture is not only buildings.’ One of the main ideas of the book is the notion of grey areas that one encounters outside our shared beliefs, and which reveal the preconceptions in our culture and the consequences thereof in terms of how architecture is practised today. These grey areas are difficult, tense, and non-normative spaces without evident obvious solutions that take one out of one’s defined comfort zone.

In the context of this problematisation, we can recall the words of Martien De Vletter, Associate director of the CCA collection, in the ‘Challenges of the Digital Archives’ debate, organised by the CdA, to emphasise the notion of architecture as an ideal and a process, and to underline that architecture can be many things, not just the built result. The CCA’s fundamental position presupposes a distancing from the authorial point of view and from the obsession with the original document, directing the institution’s programme and focus towards the field of contemporary ideas and themes related with climate, energy, health, and migration issues, amongst other critical issues that arise of out society and our current condition: ‘By questioning what architecture is, we are also questioning the importance of the original document. In an exhibition context, an original document from a collection was always an important thing. However, it also raises the question of authorship.’ The debate around the question of authorship in architecture is indeed one of the keys to understanding the complexity of the problems today facing research, archive management, curatorship, publishing and teaching in architecture. If architecture is understood as something more encompassing than mere construction of buildings, then interpreting, processing and translating that understanding must be reflected in all intervention aspects.

In the same line of thought as Martien De Vletter, in a recent conference on a new definition of authorship in architecture, Tom Avermaete has pointed out, citing the idea of a ‘contact zone’, that architecture is a negotiation between different practices, processes, and authors, and between the diverse interests and ambitions at stake. However, he went on to observe that negotiated and participated-in reality had a certain difficulty in encountering correspondence when transposed to the areas of research, publishing, exhibition, and academic programmes, which all tend to focus only on the figure of a heroic single author.

Dropping the narrow author-based viewpoint can, therefore, enable the discussion of ideas that are not limited to a specific geographic or national area. The essential issue is knowing whether architecture can meet the major challenges facing the world today, using knowledge as a mechanism for interpreting and understanding a series of phenomena—be they economic, social, political or environmental, etc.—to give concrete tips to society. In this sense, it is also up to the institutions themselves, specifically how they deal with archives and organise events and exhibitions, to be aware of how to provoke debate by anticipating questions, generating ideas and supporting research and discussion.


  1. The design project was abandoned as it proved impossible to raise the €40 million required for the design, construction, and equipping of the building. Following attempts by the local council and the CdA to secure funding from the government, it became clear that the project was not going to receive any state funding and it was blocked from apply for EU funding to match what was being put up by the council. Inês Moreira, ‘Starring: The revitalization of the industrial quarter of the Real Vinícola by Guilherme Machado Vaz’, J–A 256, January 2018. 
  2. Nuno Sampaio at the contract signing ceremony for the donation of Eduardo Souto de Moura’s archive to the Casa da Arquitetura, 6 May 2019. Watch here.
  3. Ana Duarte Carmo, ‘MoMA acquires work by Siza Vieira’, Diário de Notícias, 9 May 2012.
  4. Jorge Barreto Xavier, then Undersecretary of State, cited in: ‘Álvaro Siza donates collection to Gulbenkian, Serralves and the Canadian Center for Architecture’, Público, 23 July 2014. 
  5. Álvaro Siza, interviewed by Sérgio C. Andrade, ‘Álvaro Siza: “For the archives, I wanted independent institutions, with autonomy”‘, Público, 5 August 2014.
  6. Álvaro Siza, quoted in Sérgio C. Andrade, ‘Álvaro Siza’s archive may end up in Canada’, Público, 17 July 2014.
  7. See, for example: Fábio Zanini, ‘Paulo Mendes da Rocha will donate collection to Portuguese institution and fellow architects regret the decision’, Folha de São Paulo, 9 September 2020; Jorge Lira, ‘Architecture, collections and barbarism’, Folha de São Paulo, 9 December 2020; Nahima Maciel, Samara Schwingel, ‘Transfer of Lucio Costa’s collection from RJ to Portugal generates controversy’, Correio Braziliense, 21 October 2021; Gian Amato, ‘Casa da Arquitetura de Matosinhos responds to criticism for maintaining a collection of Lúcio Costa and Paulo Mendes da Rocha: “We are stealing nothing from Brazil”’, O Globo, 3 November 2021
  8. Nuno Sampaio, interviewed by Victor Neves, arq.a 143, 4th quarter (2021), p.19. 
  9. The name used for the site and all digital content available at  
  10. Particularly the new Study and Documentation Centre, which is operated together with FCT and a far-reaching dissemination policy. 
  11. Eduardo Souto de Moura at the contract signing ceremony for the donation of his archives to the Casa da Arquitetura’, 6 May 2019. Watch here.
  12. The exhibition ‘Bartolomeu Costa Cabral: An Archive Under Construction’, 2021 – 2022, curated by Paulo Providência, Pedro Baía and Mariana Couto, was the first archive-based show on Bartolomeu Costa Cabral collection at the FMS. The title suggested by the curators underlined the idea of an ‘archive under construction’ as an initial step that opened up possibilities for development and interpretation. 
  13. Pedro Bandeira, Nuno Faria, Escola do Porto: Lado B 1968 – 1978 (Uma História Oral) (Lisbon: Documenta, 2014). The book was published on the occasion of the exhibition with the same name at the Centro Internacional das Artes José de Guimarães, in Guimarães, October 2014 – January 2015.
  14. Pedro Baía, ‘What does the Porto School Represent Today?’, Público, 29 January 2018.