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Biennale report #2 – Social Sustainability

The potential for architecture to engage with the community

Architects Sigrún Sumarliðadóttir, Mark Smyth and Giambattista Zaccariotto, give us an insight into some of the highlights of the 15th Biennale of Architecture in Venice 2016.

Globalisation has separated the general public from the perceived architectural elite. The role of the architect, in some cases, needs to broaden to look beyond the object (building) to the economical and social interventions required to better serve a community. One of the main emphasis of the curator Aravena this year is a focus of architectures role in improving the quality of daily life by improving the quality of the built environment and reconnecting with the users/citizens (what Aravena calls “the civil society”) that are often excluded from the process of its making. Improving the quality of daily life of people is a complex affair and the solution or intervention required can be a new physical object in the landscape but not necessarily, in other cases slight changes in the existing can be enough or even just encouraging changes in behaviour, breaking the vicious circle of the status quo/business as usual. Below are two examples that do exactly this; breaking out of the traditional role of the architect and by acquiring a deep knowledge of the situations in question, are able to create something that stimulates the community and creates knowledge.

Example 1;

Atelier Bow Wow – “The Timber Network” combining agriculture and social welfare.

Japanese studio, Atelier Bow Wow is well known for the sensitivity and social aspect of their work – focussing less on the ‘object’/form and more on process and experimentation. At the 2016 Biennale they presented a project in the woodlands of Kurimoto in the landscape surrounding Tokyo. A former industrial area, where the forestry and timber industry once flourished, it was unable to compete with low priced timber from the USA and has become abandoned in its post-industrial state. Both the community and the landscape bear the scars. Globalisation has in this case separated the citizens from their own local resources, to use as building material for example.


Part of model from Atelier Bow Wow´s intervention ‘The Timber Network’ at the Biennale di Architettura 2016. Photo by StudioBua

What Atelier Bow Wow together with Tokyo Institute of Technology proposes is a new source of income and activity for the locality that will also act as a healing agent to the damaged landscape. Exploiting the existing structures in the woodland, they propose to create a firewood supply plant and farm with improved accessibility, safety and appropriate tools for a broad spectrum of society. There was a lack of opportunities in the community for the increasingly elderly population and disabled citizens to actively participate. This proposal aims to provide work for these groups and simultaneously manage the surrounding forest by using the products of thinning, which will eventually lead to the production of larger trees that can be used as building material. With 70% of Japan being covered in forest this is an important and highly relevant endeavour. In the process of this project a new concept of the “care-farm”, combining social welfare with agriculture, has been coined and is developing in other areas. Leisure is substituted with employment opportunities for a growing population of senior and less able citizens, so that they can have more possibilities to contribute to and enjoy society.


Picture taken from Assemble´s video installation ‘The Spirit of Play’ at the Biennale di Architettura 2016.

Example 2;

Assemble Studio-The Spirit of Play questioning authorship and authority in the city”

Another collective of practitioners in the field of art, design and architecture renowned for their community spirit are UK based ‘Assemble Studio’. Their work is aimed at closing the gap between citizens and the way the built landscape is produced. They represent a different role for the architect – engaging actively and often involving the broader community. They believe that the community should be key participants rather than at the receiving end of banal architectural production; ‘Authors of their own habitat’ – and they engage with a spirit of empowerment for the public.


Assemble´s video installation ‘The Spirit of Play’ at the Biennale di Architettura 2016

Assemble’s intervention at this years Biennale in Venice, entitled The Spirit of Play, present a current research project on play areas for children (commissioned by The New Art Trust, the Arnolfini gallery and the Bristol Children Scrap Shop) in a historical forest area in Bristol, Leigh Woods. The project was presented in the form of a video projection, and some beanbags on the floor for the, often exhausted, visitors of the arsenale to have a welcomed rest in. Assemble worked with the local rangers and National Trusts (NT) ecologists as well as local children to arrive at a proposal for how to better make use of the space in a sustainable way. This was done in the form of weekend workshops with all these actors on site. In this way they could understand how to create a balance between the children’s needs and those of the rather fragile surroundings. The aim being to bring forth and revalue the existing opportunities, that the children helped identify.


Picture taken from Assemble´s video installation ‘The Spirit of Play’ at the Biennale di Architettura 2016

Both of these examples engage the public in an active way to arrive at results that benefit the community in a profound way. Is this a model for a new role of practitioners in the community? How can we better equip the community to implement change? We know that the usual top down approach is often lacking in arriving at relevant end results. But it is easier said then done to achieve this direct relationship between the practitioners and the civic community. Both parties need to learn from the other to close the gap. But as these projects above demonstrate, when it is successful, it can help a society grow in a sustainable way.


About the authors; Sigrún Sumarliðadóttir is an architect working for LMR Arkitektur in Oslo. Mark Smyth is an architect working for Manser Practice Architects and Designers in London. Giambattista Zaccariotto is a PhD architect-urbanist working for Asplan Viak in Oslo as well as being a associate professor in the Oslo School of Architecture and Design AHO. Together they form the architecture and urbanism collective StudioBua.


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