Wednesday, 30 November 2016 17:51

Reporting from the 15th Architecture Biennale in Venice (Italy)

Written by researcher Paola Monachesi, Utrecht University

The 15th Venice Architecture Biennale, Reporting from the front, considered themes that are very much related to the GRAGE project: inequalities, sustainability, insecurity, traffic, pollution, waste and the house shortage among others.

More specifically, the focus was on those problems where basic needs and human rights are at stake and for which quality architecture can make a difference. The goal was to widen the issues to which architecture should provide an answer going beyond the cultural and artistic dimension and focussing instead on the social, political, economical and environmental aspects. At the same time, architecture should be able to integrate a variety of fields. At the Biennale the work of practitioners who are looking for new areas, in which different dimension are synthesized, were presented.

Topics that have been addressed in the works presented included the relation between local vs. global. An example could be the use of local material (i.e. bamboo or mud) or local traditions in combination with global technology. An example of the former is the struggle carried out by Simon Velez to be able to use bamboo in his projects because of its relevance to the place while experimenting with innovative techniques to improve its structural capacity. He has taken pains to show that new technologies and knowledge have made this material a viable alternative for the construction industry. In a similar vein, Anna Heringer is using mud in Bangladesh to show that new knowledge and technologies can guarantee its safe use and that legislation which still bans it, should be reconsidered. Mud is locally available and part of the context and it is a familiar material for the people. The work of Anupama Kundoo in India is on the same line since local materials and local culture are at the basis of the projects presented. On the other hand, an example of the relevance of local tradition can be found in the work of Francis Kere' in Burkina Faso, where his schools and his parliament are a synthesis of shared global standards (i.e structural knowledge, efficiency, environmental) and specific local values.

Local traditions are being rediscovered and adapted to new urban contexts (or to new situations) in an effort to preserve tradition as an important source of knowledge. Examples can be found in the work Wang Shu and Lu Wenyu (Amateur Architecture Studio) that accepted the commission of the Fuyang Museum in China under the condition that priority should be given to preserving the remaining villages. These architects are interested in learning from traditional buildings and country culture. These constructions were built with good quality and delicate craft and were perfectly integrated with nature. Through the preservation of the villages they experiment with materials and constructions for modern large-scale building. Similarly, Zhang Ke is looking for alternative ways of making cities based on local typologies such as that of the hutong. This is a structure grouped around a central courtyard that is not only a source of light and ventilation but also of social gathering and interaction. He believes that before building high-rise structures to maximise profit, it might make sense to reconsider local typologies that might be as effective and that might have the advantage of preserving traditions and cultural heritage people can recognize themselves with.

Several projects presented take inspiration from nature or the countryside to shape the city and the urbanization process. This is the case of the Open Outdoor classrooms
by Elton and Leniz in the Chilean Andes. They use nature as a way to introduce a different form of education into vulnerable children's experience. They have reconsidered the notion of classroom in order for children to experience nature as a healing space. While in the past, the city was envisaged as a safe place that protected people from a dangerous nature, now many people experience exactly the opposite.

Another relevant aspect behind the projects presented at the Biennale concerns the co-participation in urban planning by citizens. For example, in South Africa an art initiative, Cool Capital, aiming at creating new relationships between citizens and public space gave new impetus to Pretoria. The city was put in the hands of its creative community that was able to mobilize citizens in innovative projects, low in budget but high in innovation. Designers collaborated with residents in co-creating pop-up installations or in revitalize marginalized parts of the city. A comparable co-creation approach was taken in Cyprus to develop new urban imaginaries to overcome a conflict situation. It makes use of technology to encourage collectives across divides.

While these projects share with GRAGE several of its themes such as the importance of nature and green, sustainability, co-creation, relevance of heritage, the Irish pavilion was probably the one closest in scope to our project. Its focus was on ageing and on the experience in designing buildings for people with dementia (i.e. the Alzheimer Respite Centre in Dublin). It includes two complementary components: a website which includes material around the subject of dementia (www.losing and an installation that uses drawing as a medium to explore the occupation of the Alzheimer's centre.

Even though less related to the GRAGE project, two contributions are worth mentioning because of their visionary and innovative potential: the work in the Israel pavilion and the exhibition of Rahul Mehrotra on Ephemeral Urbanism. In the Israel pavilion practitioners were asked to create a connection between biology and architecture in order to identify new relations between human beings and the environment. Technology has a leading role while the basic concept the projects rely on is that of resilience which is a property of biological systems that are able to cope with trauma. On the other hand, the ephemeral urbanism exhibition focussed on situations in which important infrastructure needs to be created for an event as in the religious festival Kumbh Mela that occurs every 12 years in India, in which a temporary space is being created and occupied by a big number of people (19 million in flux/7 million simultaneously) for a limited period (3 months). The event ends with the monsoon washing away the whole settlement and leaving no trace behind also due to the material choice. Quite a lot can be learned from an analysis of this event: For cities to be sustainable, they need to facilitate active fluxes in motion rather than just static material configuration. Ephemeral seems to be the only constant and a fundamental condition of cities when they are analysed over time.

The theme of the Biennale was current and timely and presented many new innovative projects. However, it is interesting to note that the impact of Internet and social media in the way cities and building are changing because we communicate differently, that is the relation between physical and virtual space, was totally neglected.

Biennale Venice poster1ed

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