A Maker Community
Written by Ivan Carvalho
Photography by Stefan Jermann
HOUSED IN A FORMER SLAUGHTERHOUSE, THE BIRTH OF LISBON’S FABLAB IS ONE OF THE UPBEAT STORIES TO EMERGE FROM THE ECONOMIC CRISIS THAT HIT THE COUNTRY. FABLAB ATTRACTS YOUNG AND OLD TO EXPERIMENT AND TO TURN THEIR SKETCHES INTO REALITY. HERE, INVENTORS, DREAMERS AND EVEN HUMBLE CRAFTSMEN CAN TURN THEIR 3-D PROTOTYPE INTO A SUCCESS STORY. MIRUS MET UP WITH FABLAB’S ENTHUSIASTIC DIRECTOR, BERNARDO GAEIRAS, TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THIS HUB OF CREATION.
Astute observers who walk around Lisbon are bound to notice before long that the city is still home to a substantial community of artisans making things, be it elegant leather gloves or handmade dress shoes. Yet the Portuguese capital’s traditional makers are being challenged as investors from abroad and within the country are putting pressure on Lisbon’s tiny workshops to make way for new businesses, chain stores and the like.
Fortunately, the powers that be in Lisbon’s city hall were aware of the dilemma and understood that it was in their best interest not to lose the city’s rich network of craftsmen. They sought ways to maintain a skilled base and so they decided to fund a FabLab, those small-scale workshops that have popped up in cities worldwide and which allow inventors, tinkerers and artisans a space where they can work on 3D-printers to make prototypes and use CNC machines, laser cutters and other specialty manufacturing tools to become micro entrepreneurs.
The thinking of Lisbon’s city hall was that it is important to promote lots of economic activities, big and small, and a FabLab can help with the latter. Otherwise, the risk, many argue, is that too much specialization towards one industry – say, for example, tourism in the case of Lisbon – will in the long run prove to be detrimental to a city’s economy. Too much emphasis on consumption, in the form of the city’s already well-established oversized shopping malls, and not enough of production can snuff out diversity as a city begins to attract only well-to-do types looking for expensive apartments in downtown.
One ardent believer in making space for makers and entrepreneurs from all walks of life is FabLab Lisboa director Bernardo Gaeiras. The bespectacled Gaeiras has long been a disciple of the FabLab philosophy and the maker movement that has seen workshops sprout up in cities to assist aspiring entrepreneurs with a do-it-yourself streak make prototypes for things ranging from motorcycles to chairs. A designer by training, Gaeiras spent eight years abroad in Amsterdam where he helped to establish the first Dutch FabLab. Upon his return to Portugal he did a residency at Vista Alegre, the famed Portuguese porcelain manufacturer. Two years ago he was tapped to set up Lisbon’s first FabLab.
His goal in Lisbon is to promote a FabLab that supports tinkerers and inventors from all parts of the community. “FabLab belongs to city hall, so it is a public service. We have two open days of the week where we help out the public versus other FabLabs around the world that aren’t so focused on this. The idea is to help the creative economy of the city. After all, the city is the epicenter of creativity.”
Through word of mouth locals have popped in to try out the tools on offer. During the visit by Mirus, there’s a gentleman in a business suit discreetly pouring over schematics on his laptop for a small drone he is trying to get off the ground. Besides high-tech dreamers, Gaeiras says they have helped traditional craftsmen squeezed out during the recession.
“There was a carpenter that had lost his space in the Baixa in downtown,” recalls Gaeiras. “His family had been for more than a hundred years in the city center and when the economic crisis hit he and others in the building where he was working got kicked out so they could build a hotel. There was a group of architects doing research about carpenters and they heard about his story and got in contact with me.”
The 65-year-old carpenter, who was thinking about retiring, came to FabLab and now works alongside a younger generation of makers. It has helped create a mix of old and new techniques that is healthy for everyone argues Gaeiras. “Old technologies aren’t necessarily less valuable than new technologies. On the contrary, they’ve proven themselves through time. We work with craftsmen to give them a second chance. People are curious to see if they can make a new life with is. They learn a new skill, interact with other users and give their feedback on things. It’s very organic and sometimes you don’t know who are the newbies here and who are the experts.”
Among the people with a new direction thanks to FabLab is Maria Boavida. Having studied law and international relations and worked at the International Herald Tribune newspaper and the UN in Paris and New York, she ended up moving 14 times in 15 years. She finally realized that she needed something new in her life that would ground her. At that moment, Boavida says, she discovered FabLab and knew that this was her true calling. “It felt natural,” she says, as she dons her blue work overalls and picks up a power drill.
Boavida is focusing on aspects of “up-cycling”, essentially taking an item that is most likely destined for the trash bin to create something new that will increase its value. She has done this by transforming old wooden wine boxes, commonly used for packaging the country’s popular port wines, and turning them into beautiful light-fixtures. While she sees FabLab as her playground where she can experiment and learn, Boavida would like to set up her own FabLab workshop in the future, perhaps applying the knowledge she has acquired here and investing in a mobile FabLab in Africa. "Applying this knowledge locally," she says with a smile, knowing that local communities, like Intendente, will benefit in the long run.