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Europe: Post-coffeehouse, post-museum, into the unknown

Jorge Figueira

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Index de mots-clés :

identité, migration, tourisme, réfugié

Index by keyword :

identity, migration, tourism, refugee

Indice de palabras clave :

identitad, emigración, refugiado

Index géographique :


Index chronologique :

XXe siècle
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Texte intégral

Coffeehouses and Museums

1One might say that, like a teenager, Europe has been experiencing identity issues, but in fact it suffers from old age. Culturally, Europe is a name without a place because it is everywhere; administratively, it is in a limbo because it is a structure of post-sovereign states which is not federal. When it discovered itself as an institution, as it did in 1957, and as a peace project, it lived in a state of grace; but this ended abruptly when the cold war was over.

  • 1 Paul Hazard quoted in Vasco Graça Moura, A Identidade Cultural Europeia, Lisbon: Fundação Francisc (...)
  • 2 Vasco Graça Moura, A Identidade Cultural Europeia, op. cit. (note 1), p. 23.

2Europe is fiercely self-critical or, as Paul Hazard says, it is “a thought that is never satisfied, without any self-pity.”1 According to Vasco Graça Moura, Europe is thus “everything and its contrary.”2 The inventions of perspective and cubism are precisely that: the ingeniously created horizon, then shattered in Avignon.

  • 3 George Steiner, A Ideia de Europa, Lisbon: Gradiva, 2005, p. 26.

3To prevent an omnipresent Euroscepticism, I would like to imagine myself at the beginning of the twentieth century. George Steiner defines Europe as being “made of coffee houses, of cafés.” From Fernando Pessoa’s favourite café in Lisbon to the coffee houses of Odessa, Copenhagen, or Palermo (but neither in Moscow nor in England), “the café,” in Steiner’s view “is a place for assignation and conspiracy, for intellectual debate and gossip.”3

4The voices which at the beginning of the twentieth century could be heard in the cafés, at the end of the century murmur quietly in the museums. At the end of the twentieth century, the museum is the place that redefines Europe in a post-modern, reflexive and popular way, supplanting the avant-garde and volatile features of the café. From the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art in Helsinki, by Steven Holl, or the Serralves Museum in Porto, by Álvaro Siza, to the thousands of institutions large and small across Europe, the museum space has overtaken the café space, thus placing all the artistic forms of Europe’s long history into perspective (or into cubism).

5My point is that what defines Europe today, more than the café as a saturated, informal space, or the museum as a refined, institutional space, is the movement, without “architecture,” of the masses, wether in the form of tourism or in the form of migrations. We are thus going from an identity that is established in buildings and stable structures, either informal or institutionalized, to spaces of mobility that are unstable and can only be read through statistics and diagrams.

6The contemporary definition of Europe, following the intellectual debate of the cafés and their institutionalization in museums, has now acquired a spatial dimension that either has no architecture (just flows) or is defined as an architecture of the memory (in the guesthouse) and of despair (in the refugee camp).

The Sound of Europe

7Let’s return to cafés. The walls of the “idyllic” medieval cities that made Europe fall with the Industrial Revolution and modern life erupts. Neoclassicism is the last wave of the classicisms; Art Nouveau sets the stage for the avant-garde, in a fertile intermission; futurism, expressionism, neoplasticism, and constructivism are the sound of Europe for the twentieth century. In the cafés, or in equivalent spaces, the avant-garde produces a glorious noise that will reach the museums and become silent. Modern life goes from the wild sound of the café to the stifled sound of the museum. The range of differences in Europe was more visible in the variety of types of cafés than in the types of present-day museums.

8The problem is that in Europe there are many languages, many different words to describe the same object. And that many languages produce a constant echo and a permanent flux of memories, from the café to the museum, from the museum to the café. Therein resides the problem of Europe’s “decadence”: the dispersion of sound in times of uniformity and an excess of criticism in times of commentary. The European sound is always cacophonic and belligerent, be it open, in the café, or muffled, in the museum.

9Globalization pushes towards simplification but in Europe that process is hindered by the excess of languages and prevented by the excess of memories.

10Europe is divided into very small parts and into the languages of what can be very small groups of people. But even then, each person can think of his language as universal. In each old café, each European speaks his own local language, as if it were universal and practical. In the museum the silence is deeper but the languages are still overflowing. If there were no interruptions, migrations, or refugees, one could imagine that Europe would evolve in such a way that the museums would be as many as the cafés once were.

Lieu de mémoire

11The architects of Porto met at the Majestic Café, the most celebrated Portuguese example of Art Nouveau, whereas the architects of Lisbon met at the Brasileira, a space which was also an art gallery and where mythical figures of modernism, such as Fernando Pessoa, Almada Negreiros and Santa Rita Pintor were regular visitors. “Tertúlia” is the key word that described those gatherings, as in the Parisian manner. But now the “vernissage” and the “round table” are the theatrical way of making conversation flow. From the 1990s onwards, with the growing number of museums, Europe assumes its role as a lieu de mémoire.

  • 4 Ibid., p. 35.

12Steiner writes that “a cultured European is caught in the spiderweb of a simultaneously luminous and suffocating in memoriam.4 The place where one pays his respects to this condition is the museum, be it in the small structure that celebrates the painter-architect Nadir Afonso in the northern city of Chaves, designed by Siza, or through a global brand such as the Guggenheim in Bilbao, designed by Frank Gehry.

13In Europe, museums are lighthouses in the absence of fog, burning in the daylight. But they also have alternative functions. From the Tate Modern we can watch the ups and downs of London’s skyline, which reflect the ups and downs of the Stock Exchange. In Madrid’s Reina Sofia, between Picasso’s Guernica and Constant’s New Babylon, we enter the European underworld, under the aerial structure of Jean Nouvel. In the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris, designed by Gehry, we can find “sails” which capture an eternal wind, perhaps alluding to the memory of a missing sea. In the Acropolis Museum, in Athens, designed by Bernard Tschumi, the memory of the “Elgin marbles” that are housed in the British Museum supports the whole project.

Finding Europe (a small parenthesis)

14In order to feel Europe, one needs only to visit the house and studio of Victor Horta, in Brussels. Not only because Art Nouveau is a profoundly European language with its several regional ramifications, but also because here one can feel the fullness of confidence and prosperity (that will be soon contradicted). But modernity radiates and so does medievalism, in this projection of a picturesque past into a new art which means a profound alliance between memory and the future.

15We also intensely feel Europe in the Villa “Le Lac” in Corseaux, Switzerland, by Le Corbusier, in front of Lake Geneva. The small machine à habiter facing the colossal European landscape is a new sign of confidence and prosperity that will be interrupted again. But the cubist way of cutting through the architectural tradition, and the humanism combined with a “scientific” approach, before such a strong setting, surely leaves an impression. Although they are not cafés, there is much talk in these two buildings; they can hardly be museums because the noise they produce is too loud.


16Nowadays, cafés are used by tourists, or have been transformed into a McDonald’s or a Starbucks. Many museums have nothing to display, or have been transformed into convenience art stores. The present-day European paradigm is one of mass movements, be it of tourists, migrants or refugees.

  • 5 Ibid., p. 28.

17With armies or pilgrims, Europe has always seen mass movements. Steiner writes that one can walk in Europe because distances are short.5 In the 1960s, thousands of Portuguese migrants crossed the border on foot, over the hills, leaving their homes for the promise of a future in France or Germany. Paris then became the second-largest Portuguese city. In 1974-1975, Portugal received one million retornados or refugees, following the independence of African countries such as Angola and Mozambique, which up to that point had been under Portuguese colonial administration.

18But today the new communication technologies and the rise of the “low cost” culture has boosted the mass transit of tourists and migrants. The wars in the Middle East and terrorism have created a migratory crisis of devastating proportions. The “Jungle,” the “official” refugee camp in the periphery of Calais is now dismantled, but there are many refugee camps across Europe. This is the cartography that will mark our time.

19The tent and the guesthouse are the current paradigms of European architecture. It is rather cruel, this crossing between the distracted tourist looking for his souvenir, the migrant in search of work or his family, and the refugee struggling to find a new place and a new life. This is Europe now; something that fundamentally is beyond the noise of the old cafés and the curatorship of museums.

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1 Paul Hazard quoted in Vasco Graça Moura, A Identidade Cultural Europeia, Lisbon: Fundação Francisco Manuel dos Santos, 2013, p. 61.

2 Vasco Graça Moura, A Identidade Cultural Europeia, op. cit. (note 1), p. 23.

3 George Steiner, A Ideia de Europa, Lisbon: Gradiva, 2005, p. 26.

4 Ibid., p. 35.

5 Ibid., p. 28.

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Référence électronique

Jorge Figueira, « Europe: Post-coffeehouse, post-museum, into the unknown », ABE Journal [En ligne], 11 | 2017, mis en ligne le 05 octobre 2017, consulté le 13 juillet 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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Jorge Figueira

Professor, CES, Department of Architecture, University of Coimbra, Coimbra, Portugal

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La revue ABE Journal est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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