Between discipline and creative generosity: Beatrice Leanza's idea of good design

Educator, curator, executive director at MAAT Lisbon and a judge at Dezeen awards, Leanza tells STIR that design works best when it withdraws from devising end-goals...

by Meghna Mehta Published on : Oct 17, 2020

Beatrice Leanza, currently the executive director at the Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology in Lisbon, is an Italian curator and critic with a diverse background in the fields of art, design and architecture. She has extensive experience, having previously worked as the creative director and co-founder of The Global School, China’s first independent institute dedicated to design and creative research. She has an MA in Asian studies from Ca’Foscari University, and began her early career working with Ai Weiwei as a curator at China Art Archives and Warehouse. Based in Beijing since 2002, Leanza founded creative studio BAO Atelier in 2006, and served as creative director of Beijing Design Week from 2012 to 2016.

The Community at the Across Chinese Cities in Beijing, curated by Beatrice Leanza| Beatrice Leanza |MAAT Lisbon | STIRworld
The Community at the Across Chinese Cities in Beijing, curated by Beatrice Leanza Image: DavideGalli

Leanza has also been the chief curator of the international research program "Across Chinese Cities", featured at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2014, 2016 and 2018, and is a member of the international advisory board of Design Trust (Hong Kong). She also setup B/Side Design, an organisation that developed strategies of urban and social impact in areas of socio-economic transformation in China. She published the book “Ideas in Action – Critical Design Practice in China” in 2016.

Exhibition in Beijing curated by Beatrice Leanza| Beatrice Leanza |MAAT Lisbon | STIRworld
Exhibition in Beijing curated by Beatrice Leanza Image: Courtesy of Beatrice Leanza

Here, STIR speaks with Beatrice Leanza on her journey in creative disciplines, her research program and working on projects that have urban and social impact.

Meghna Mehta (MM): Can you briefly summarise your journey and evolution in the arts, design and architecture?

Beatrice Leanza (BL): Prior to moving to Lisbon and taking up the direction of MAAT (the Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology), I had been based in Beijing for over 17 years. With a background in Asian studies in the field of art history and a dissertation themed on contemporary Chinese art, I started my career at 24 by working in the historical art space founded by Ai Weiwei in the late 1990s in Beijing, called China Art Archives and Warehouse.

The maat museum, Lisbon, Portugal| Beatrice Leanza |MAAT Lisbon | STIRworld
The MAAT museum, Lisbon, Portugal Image: Iwan Baan

As a curator, my research direction was deeply affected by the reality that surrounded me in those years, that is how urban change permeated disciplinary environments from the visual arts to spatial practice and design thinking. I co-founded an interdisciplinary studio back in 2006 called Bao Atelier with a Chinese architect, it was a laboratory of thought and practice engaged in the organisation of a variety of cultural and editorial projects both in China and internationally. At the end of 2012, I became the creative director of Beijing Design Week, and when I left in 2016, I founded another studio called B/Side Design which spearheaded the establishment of The Global School, a project devoted to alternative educational practices and disruptive pedagogies engaging at large in the field of design and architecture. It is still run by my partner between Beijing and Milan.

Beeline, presented by architecture and design firm SO-IL at maat museum, Lisbon, Portugal | Beatrice Leanza |MAAT Lisbon | STIRworld
Beeline, presented by architecture and design firm SO-IL at MAAT museum, Lisbon, Portugal Image: Iwan Baan

MM: As director, how do you perceive the spatial constitution and functional organisation of a museum?

BL: As someone that works on the operational aspect of a museum, I am very comfortable with spaces that in fact do not attempt imposing hierarchical and programmatic blueprints of use, but rather allow change and creative adaptation – an embodiment, if you want, of contemporaneity. The building of MAAT – designed by Amanda Levete is such a space, where relationships of thought and meaning can be recreated anew every time, lending the space to varied forms of appropriation by the creatives, be it individual practitioners or curators, that come to interact with it. The only rule that the space presents is a duality of light and darkness (a naturally lit area and a more prototypical black box at its heart) – I believe this is the best service architecture can do to cultural experience. A liberating one.

  • Exhibition by SO-IL in MAAT museum, Lisbon, Portugal| Beatrice Leanza |MAAT Lisbon | STIRworld
    Exhibition by SO-IL in MAAT museum, Lisbon, Portugal Image: Iwan Baan
  • Beeline by SO-IL at MAAT museum, Lisbon, Portugal curated under Beatrice Leanza as director| Beatrice Leanza |MAAT Lisbon | STIRworld
    Beeline by SO-IL at MAAT museum, Lisbon, Portugal curated under Beatrice Leanza as director Image: Iwan Baan

MM: Could you tell us a bit about your approach towards the research program 'Across Chinese Cities'?

BL: ACC was an initiative we launched during my first year as creative director of Beijing Design Week. It intended to provide an expanded platform on the international stage of the Venice Architecture Biennale to deepen the understanding of what was happening in China’s rapid-fire urban development and what cultural, political, social and economic factors were at play and thus informing its transformative process. Each edition – we did three in 2014, 2016 and 2018 – focused on topics of that would resonate as urgent or pertinent to architecture globally, for example the first year we delved into regenerative and socially driven practices, in 2018 we looked into processes of community-making and the emergence of material and methodological applications of traditional building canons and know-how in contexts both urban and rural across various Chinese regions.

  • The Community - Across Chinese Cities exhibition held in 2018 | Beatrice Leanza |MAAT Lisbon | STIRworld
    The Community - Across Chinese Cities exhibition held in 2018 Image: David Galli
  • The Global School exhibition and architecture intervention by Remix Studio, Beijing Design Week 2016| Beatrice Leanza |MAAT Lisbon | STIRworld
    The Global School exhibition and architecture intervention by Remix Studio, Beijing Design Week 2016 Image: Courtesy of Beatrice Leanza

MM: You have extensively worked on the development of projects and programs that have an urban and social impact. What have been the learnings so far?

BL: Design works at its best when it withdraws from devising end-goals but rather applies adaptive capacity to the transfer of methodologies – the biggest reward of “good design” is acknowledging it exists in an interstitial place between discipline and creative generosity. So between the top-down and the bottom-up.

  • Micro Hutong by Standard Architecture at the Beijing Design Week 2016| Beatrice Leanza |MAAT Lisbon | STIRworld
    Micro Hutong by Standard Architecture at the Beijing Design Week 2016 Image: Courtesy of Beatrice Leanza
  • Plugin House by People Architecture Office at Beijing Design Week 2014| Beatrice Leanza |MAAT Lisbon | STIRworld
    Plugin House by People Architecture Office at Beijing Design Week 2014 Image: Courtesy of Beatrice Leanza

MM: What are the exciting roles and challenges you face as the executive director at MAAT in Lisbon?

BL: Having taken over an institution in 2020 has clearly posed the biggest challenge! This said, I believe the impact of this pandemic over institutional practice must be taken as an opportunity rather than a liability. While we have all been hit by the same phenomenon (pandemic), not one solution will ever fit all. It is productive time to set priorities anew, rethink business models and set forth honest strategies that can truly emplace long-lasting beneficial effects for the inclusivity and open-endedness that museums worldwide aim to achieve. I foresee a form of “meaningful provincialism” to become a new territory for cultural agency to be rethought in concept and practice.

  • Beeline by SO-IL at the maatmuseum, Lisbon, Portugal in 2020 | Beatrice Leanza |MAAT Lisbon | STIRworld
    Beeline by SO-IL at the MAAT museum, Lisbon, Portugal in 2020 Image: Iwan Baan
  • Plugin House by People Architecture Office at Beijing Design Week 2014| Beatrice Leanza |MAAT Lisbon | STIRworld
    Across Chinese Cities 2014 – The publication accompanying the exhibition Image: Courtesy of Beatrice Leanza

MM: What are your upcoming projects?

BL: Too many to tell and some I cannot really yet disclose, as due to COVID-19 we had to partially reschedule our programs. Nonetheless, March 2021 will be a very important moment for MAAT as phase two of my directorship.

But in the closer timeframe, we recently launched a brand new online content platform dubbed maat ext. (read extended), which opens up a novel dimension of action, dialogue, research and outreach for the museum. Check ext.maat.pt!

maat.ext , the new website launched for the maat museum | Beatrice Leanza |MAAT Lisbon | STIRworld
maat.ext , the new website launched for the MAAT museum Image: Courtesy of Beatrice Leanza

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