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“Reporting from the Front”

Conversation on the Venice Biennale 2016

Text by Mark Smyth (MS), Sigrún Sumarliðadóttir (SS) and Giambattista Zaccariotto (GZ)


GZ: In the press conference and introduction of the Biennale in Venice 2016 it was stated that it has been organized around the statements that the built environment is key for the quality of life of the majority and that it is there implicitly for the common good. A common good, which is threatened by a number of existing problems that are ongoing, such as natural disasters (mostly man made) and purely economically driven construction. These spatial conditions are reducing the possibilities for humanity, in terms of our rights, physical and psychological needs. This has been called the built environment of banality or mediocracy and there are inherent drivers that produce and reproduce it. One of the drivers that has been considered key, is the use of the built environment as an economical tool rather then a social one or a goal for a welfare infrastructure, this is a key theme in Aravena’s biennale.

Fig 1

Alejandro Aravena and Paolo Baratta at the press conference at the Biennale di Architettura 2016

SS: Keeping this in mind, Aravena organised the biennale around the contributions of diverse invited practitioners that have a reputation for tackling difficult themes and repeatedly ending up with an outcome of a certain quality and also by allowing spontaneous submissions – people from all over the world sent in proposals that the curator went through and chose a number of projects that he and his collaborators (Elemental Studio) felt were relevant in this context.

And then the question is how do we think that Aravena tackles these themes with the exhibitions this year?

MS: When we attended the press conference with president Baratta and Aravena they outlined their goals outside the themes. One of the goals they clearly highlighted was to dissolve the divide between the civil society and architecture. And create a sort of rediscovery of architecture for the majority. One of the ways that Aravena said that he wanted to achieve this was by creating an exhibition that would say in a very clear way – and in his words without losing any richness – what the point is, why we should care about these issues and why these particular actors been invited to participate.

GZ: In the introduction Baratta stated that we live in an immense urban landscape, the scale of it is global, but in our daily lives we live on a local scale. The local scale is built, physically – made by materials and goods that have a global circulation and therefore when looking for possible actions to improve the quality of the built environment we first need to understand what the local problems are, but we also need to consider the problems on a global scale. This was one of the themes of the Canadian pavilions concerning mining, understanding and illustrating how Canada is responsible for 75% of mining activities globally, which has been at the base of the construction of prosperity but also the dispossession of the wealth and land. The challenge for the architect-urbanist is to understand the diverse local situations and suggest a hypotesis of modification in the framework of a comprehensive idea for a future city and territory that needs to obtain the consensus of a multeplicity of subjects. This implies, as Bernardo Secchi, used to say a great efford of immagination and precision. An example of this approach is the Project of the Horizontal Metropolis, curated by Paola Vigano`, Martina Barcelloni Corte e Chiara Cavallieri, for the Swiss territory. This is a concept that reveals the disperse condition over an immense urban landscapes as a “potential asset, rather than a limit, to the construction of a sustainable and innovative urban dimension”

Fig 2

From the exhibition Horizontal Metropolis at the Biennale di Architettura 2016

SS: In order to understand our locality, the global scale is of course relevant because with globalization everyone affects everyone. In order to create a good (sustainable) quality of life, you need to go in deep to understand and to react to and meet the needs of the local conditions. An understanding of culture and history of the area are crucial in order to create a more sustainable quality of life for the many. A tabula rasa approach has proven to be problematic in many parts of the world, for example in China. Zhang Ke dealt with this subject in a very convincing manner. He introduced new housing typologies based on a traditional model that are able to compete with the now more common stacked high rise that is exclusively modeled after an economical equation (a profitable and economical solution for housing), but not necessarily more dense than the traditional typologies. If you look closer you find that there are a number of methods and ways of life, that came before, that we are now losing because of a lack of education. Often nowadays people are unaware of how we built in the past, knowledge that could be a great resource for solving contemporary problems in a more sustainable way. The importance of education is one of the key themes in this biennale.

Fig 3

Model from Zhang Ke and Standard Architecture´s intervention at the Biennale di Architettura 2016

GZ: Another important theme is limited resources; to give a response, of time, of physical resources and so on.

MS:I think that reexamining traditional ways of building was a reoccurring theme. We saw lots of examples of practitioners looking back to traditional architectural gestures and structural methods and re-questioning todays methods – for example ETH Zurich contribution Beyond Bending compression structures. Their starting point was traditional brick structures, tile structures and compression. It wasn’t anything new but it was an interesting way to look at it in a new light. And you’ve got different pavilions showing similar things, the Chinese seem to be fascinated by it this year, looking at traditional timber construction, sustainable forms of construction, local construction. Not just mass industrialized construction.

Fig 4

Study models from Amateur Architecture´s intervention at the Biennale di Architettura 2016

SS: Local constructions are based on materials that are found in the area, and at the same time they are imbedded in the local history and so help validate and strengthen local culture. Using local materials for constructing creates local sustainable job opportunities as demonstrated clearly in Atelier Bow Wow´s contribution.

Fig 5

A model from Atelier Bow Wow´s contribution at the Biennale di Architettura 2016

GZ:This also applies to local techniques that represent a knowledge that is still existing locally. So that the technical ways of constructing are not only in the hands of some big construction company, which can empower the local citizen.

MS: The French pavilion was quite interesting. Last time around they had examples of prefabrication from Prouvé and those kind of great modernist protagonists of prefab. But this year they were focusing on local interventions on a small scale. Looking at these small projects that chip away on this before-mentioned banality through intelligent works in and for the local community. There were some great models showing the explorations of techniques at full scale.

Fig 6

1:1 study model of a stone and concrete wall in the french pavilion at the Biennale di Architettura 2016

SS: At this point we can go back to the three main actors in architecture mentioned by the curator Aravena; the practitioners, the decision makers and the users/citizens. And questions such as; How to make architecture more relevant to the other two groups (decision makers and civil society)? In general how to make architecture not just as a formal fancy but a relevant theme in peoples lives. How to really anchor it in daily life and the daily quality of life through tradition, history, local materials. It’s all connected in the built environment by architecture.

MS: What was interesting, going back to those three key players, is just to understand how Aravena sees them and how he sees this biennale being for them. When he described the part practitioners play, he was saying that he wanted us to go away with more tools and ideas and enthusiasm, which is what the biennale is generally about. For the decision makers he wanted to broaden their gamut of reference (it may be questionable how many decision makers are visiting but that’s another question). And for the citizens, he wanted to make them aware of how to demand quality in architecture and to understand what quality means. Rather then just a visual quality it has to do with locality, response to context and use of materials.

Fig 7

Pezo von Ellrichausen´s installation at the Biennale di Architettura 2016

GZ: In this respect Atelier Bow Wow’s work is again relevant. Aspects of this kind can also be found in the case illustrated by Sejima. Even though in Sejima’s case there is a little contradiction with regards the materiality. Because if on one side this is a project that is made of small step-by-step interventions that can make a difference within a small community, the language and the materials of Sejima constructions are still on a level of sophistication that cannot be managed and controlled by locals. This can be a conflict or an incomplete solution.

SS: But on the other hand in Atelier Bow Wow´s & Assemble’s work you can see the architect intervening not just with an object or a building but with a solution to a situation.

MS: …it’s more like a community intervention rather then just a building.

SS: In the Bow Wow case they are intervening even on the economical front, stimulating a new way of working with local resources in a disused timber mill, using it in another way and providing work and housing in a very sustainable way and in an area that is very problematic because of abandoned industries. This is a very common problem across the world so tackling it by inventing new ways of using resources that are more sustainable and providing housing and work in each others proximity is a very timely topic.

MS: What I thought was really successful about their exhibition was that it wasn’t only aimed at architects. It was completely understandable for everyone, but in a way I could see people walking straight past it, namely the architects, perhaps because it wasn’t showy. It had simple boards that you can imagine showing to a community and them completely understanding, it had illustrations of how things are made, why they were made, it wasn’t wordy, it wasn’t worthy, it just explained how they’d come to that conclusion. And I think that should be a model of how this exhibition is created going forward. Because that sort of easily understandable and engaging presentation is more use then an extremely wordy one, which only an urbanist or architect will understand, like reading a thesis, that’s not what the Biennale should be for.

SS: It´s impossible to go through all these theses on the wall, when you have to go through hundreds of exhibitions.

Fig. 8 A view into the Brittish Pavilion at the Biennale di Architettura 2016

MS: There’s nothing wrong with the works that raise questions, or pique interest without necessarily providing clear answers, like those wonderful ceramics models from Cecilia Puga. They didn’t really give much of a clue to how she answered the question but there was a little description which sparked our interest and of course it was beautiful to look at – it was small and self contained. I think there’s always space for that sort of thing in the Biennale.

Fig 9.2

Cecilia Puga at the Biennale di Architettura 2016

Fig 10

Installation by Christian Kerez at the Swiss Pavilion at the Biennale di Architettura 2016

GZ: But back to the issue of recovering more simple techniques of construction closer to a local knowledge. This goes hand in hand with the possibility of empowering the locals. This is illustrated in the 1:1 models of parts of buildings in the Belgian pavilion in which also the photos make it almost difficult to understand what has been added to a previously existing context. Whether it is a courtyard or an existing building. This doesn’t mean to be a mimetic approach but is simply offering elements of architecture, and in this respect maybe it’s also a response to the previous Biennale, but it is relevant in the conceptual framework of this year’s Biennale.

Fig 11.1

Belgian Pavilion at the Biennale di Architettura 2016

Fig 11.2

Belgian Pavilion at the Biennale di Architettura 2016

When we take a zoom out and step away from those small objects of architecture and see the entire territory, an interesting contribution was the Horizontal Metropolis. That is an attempt, collecting different voices that historically have paved the way to a new way of looking at vast territories of inhabitation, to understand and try to think differently about the immense territories where we live today. Moving away from the nostalgic myth of the ancient compact cities and finding in the huge deposit of infrastructures, building and also agricultural landscapes a way of combining things differently to offer new opportunities were people already live and work.

SS:I think that is directly related to what you said about the Belgian pavilion, because it is a way of looking at the existing situation whatever scale (the house, the territory) and improving it where you can. Making it possible and sustainable for people to continue to inhabit it and have a good life.

Fig 12_fix

Horizontal Metropolis at the Biennale di Architettura 2016

MS:I think that was one area where Aravena was really successful was in whom he chose to present across the whole of the exhibition. You did get a feeling of this incremental change. I didn’t see as many examples of these huge interventions, even on the urban scale or in the built landscape. You kind of see this theme of small-scale interventions or large scale but within the existing fabric.


Fig 13_fix

Model by Alvaro Siza in the central Pavilion at the Biennale di Architettura 2016

Fig 14_fix

Model from Renato Rizzi for the Gdansk Shakespear Theatre in Poland at the Biennale di Architettura 2016

SS: the last time was more focused on the elements, the components of architecture, trying to dissect it and so coming to the core meaning. While now the focus is more on the social aspect, on the people.

GZ: Nevertheless I also see continuity when it comes to the legacy of modernism. Which has been a clear response from Rem Koolhaas to the same issue of the built environment for the majority, responding to the needs of the less empowered. Which is in fact the attempt of modernism – to offer a good built environment for the many, creating welfare through architecture.

But Koolhaas was interested in how the values of modernism and its legacy could still resonate in the present. A lesson that could still be valuable. Here this idea of a modernism that is still a source of inspiration vanished in favour of a plurality, a bit cacophonous and not clearly defined. Why that and not the other?

SS: There is still a resonance, which is this; creating welfare for the many. This is one of the main themes in this exhibition, which coincides with the big ideal of the modernist project.

GZ: but still there is not one modernist project presented.

SS: It is more about how we deal with the same issues today. There are other ways to examine this topic than analyzing the typologies from that period. As Aravena says, through fresh eyes, assessing the status quo, seeing how can we achieve the goal of welfare for the many today.

GZ:But the point is how you evaluate things, how you frame things, how you define a conceptual framework of the exhibition. It’s not true completely what I said before, because I remember that in the Arsenale there was a huge model of the german housing project from BeL Sozietat fur Architektur from the 30´s.

Fig 15

Neubau Model by BeL Sozietat fur Architektur at the Biennale di Architettura 2016

MS: They were looking at different typologies from the modernist era that can be reused or reassessed.

GZ: This was in fact done with some success.

MS: In order to round off our conversation, I think we should ask ourselves the question of not how successful it was but did it answer the questions it set out to ask? In the initial press conference president Barratta thanked Aravena for the clarity of the exhibition. And I think that was one of the key goals; to make something that was easily understood, not just for the practitioners. Do we think that was achieved and that this kind of broad spectrum of questions perhaps could have been narrowed?

SS: I definitely think that it could have been narrowed and been more precise, because this very general quest for addressing these issues produces a very broad and varied result, which you see in this exhibition

MS: which is interesting…

Fig 16

A view into the German Pavilion at the Biennale di Architettura 2016

GZ: But it makes it less accessible to the majority, in order to see those relationships, spatially within the biennale and across the cases exhibited, you need to be intellectually equipped. And this is not reaching the ambition of reaching the citizens for instance

SS: there are so many different ways of presenting here, the projects are so varied, really a lot of different things to see. It demands a lot of time to go through everything and find things for each level of understanding

Fig 17

A view into the Nordic Pavilion at the Biennale di Architettura 2016

MS: from my prospective, I don´t have an issue with the list of themes; inequality, sustainability, segregation, waste, migration, I think actually keeping this really broad range of problems to address was a good idea. Where I think it lost clarity was not focussing these questions within one realm. For example focusing on something, which at the minute is really pertinent – the housing issues. Which I think is an issue everywhere, it´s not a specific local question. It may seem a bit banal to some of the architects involved, but it would have created something that everybody visiting understands. It´s on the political agenda in every country participating.

SS:This approach would have given you examples you could compare…

MS: that wouldn’t have killed variety, there still would have been thousands of ways of representing that. But if you have one constant it just makes it easier to understand.

GZ: I agree and another thing; the biennale this year was focused on the object again, looking at those objects in a broader sense but still the majority of the examples there were on those objects.

If architecture is not only about the object but the entire fabricated environment, as was mentioned in the introduction, then there is a huge issue when it comes to infrastructure, traffic and water infrastructure as a long term carrying structure of the built environment. How do we conceive, how do we build them today in order to support a built environment of quality. This is also a core question for architects and architecture.

Fig 18

A model from the Japanese Pavilion at the Biennale di Architettura 2016

Fig 19

A particular from a model of Aires Mateus & Associados in the Central Pavilion at the Biennale di Architettura 2016

MS: We’ve been quite critical about the presentation of the biennale; that it’s not easily understood by the public and the decision makers. It has however been quite successful for the practitioners. I think it did exactly what he set out to do there, it has certainly provided us with a few extra tools that we didn’t have before the exhibition. I have come away with ideas, inspiration, and enthused by some of the pavilions I´ve seen. As a biennale for architects, I think it’s a success.

SS: Yes definitely, and in that sense a certain variety and even chaos can be positive, because there is something for everyone. It seems like getting all these ideas and inspiration from the biennale gives you a certain responsibility; to go out and engage with communities to create great architecture. Creating wellfare through the built environment is something that is done by many, every little and large project realized contributes to the whole.

Fig 20_fix

Models from Renato Rizzi for the Gdansk Shakespear Theatre in Poland at the Biennale di Architettura 2016


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