Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Poverty, Homelessness, and War: Architechture at the Venice Biennale

by B. Lana Guggenheim, Staff Writer

The Venice Biennale is getting a lot of airtime, but what is it? As might be implied from its name, it is a biennial festival held in Venice concerning art, architecture, and film. The first was held in 1895, when the Venetian City Council set up an art exhibit to celebrate the silver anniversary of King Umberto I and Margherita of Savoy. As the event grew and gained prestige, more nations began presenting their art in national pavilions. Every festival has a name and theme. The 2015 Art festival was named “All the World’s Futures,” and the exhibits naturally concerned the dire state of the world itself, including issues surrounding colonialism, immigration, and multiculturalism. This year is the 15th Architecture biennale, and the theme is “Reporting From the Front.” (The art and architecture shows alternate, so that there is a biennale annually.)

The director and curator for this year’s Architecture Biennale is Alejandro Aravena, a highly accomplished architect who won the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2016 for his design of the Siamese Towers at the Catholic University in his home country of Chile. He also won the Silver Lion at the 11th Architecture Biennale, and received a Global Award for Sustainable Architecture in 2008, and a Holcim Awards Silver for Sustainable Construction. As one can might be able to tell from the nature of his past work, it due to his direction that the theme of this year’s show focuses on what architecture can do to aid the ills of others, rather than examining the ills of the profession, as was done in 2014. As Robert Landon reported from ArchDaily, Aravena stated in his opening remarks that  "We believe that the advancement of architecture is not a goal in itself but a way to improve people’s quality of life." In other words, his biennale does not ask what architecture ought, yet often fails, to be, but rather what it could, yet often forgets, to do.

In the central pavilion, Aravena notes that over a billion rural people will move to the cities, and often their homes will be built without the input of an architect. As a result, the display of simple, reusable templates, designs featuring simple materials, and the ability to be reproduced by non-professionals is both pointed and horizon-broadening. It also recalls Aravena’s downloadable, open-source urban housing project, designed to encourage participatory building and slash costs, with an eye towards infrastructure for the urban poor.

The exhibits here focus on how architecture can improve and otherwise impact lives, and they have a decidedly political bent, showing both success stories and celebrating innovation as well as highlighting where there is desperate need. The sum result is an expansion of horizons, as architecture is called upon to answer environmental, political, social, and economic needs, in profoundly regional and local terms, rather than just (sometimes highly sanitized) cultural, artistic, and functional demands to which the field so often limits itself.

Different pavilions highlight different things, to come together to form a cohesive response to Aravena’s theme. Spain’s pavilion, “Unfinished,” took the prestigious Golden Lion award this year. The recent economic crisis has proven especially hard for the country, and their architectural exhibit relays this struggle, especially for their architects. When the crisis hit, many projects were left unfinished and abandoned as they were no longer economically feasible, and half-completed and ill-maintained projects litter the cityscapes as a result.  Photographs of these buildings present them as an opportunity for the present, with uncertainty and evolution as part of the nature of architecture, and especially poignant for Spain at the current day.

Gabinete de Arquitectura also took a Golden Lion for their exhibit, which was entitled “Breaking the Siege.” Solano Benitez’s studio is focused on bricks, a versatile, easy to make material that is accessible to all walks of life all over the world, and thus uses it almost exclusively. The light, airy structure is a statement on structural ingenuity, simple materials, and unskilled labor to make architecture accessible to underserved communities.

Britain’s pavilion, “Home Economics,” takes a look at their acute housing crisis, thanks in part to Thatcher’s Right to Buy program, which promoted private gain over common prosperity, and helped engineer a housing shortage that gave way to “Generation Rent.” But the nature of the home has also changed over the generations, including mass migration and global interconnectedness along with growing wage disparity and lack of economic mobility. The models on display here therefore show how shared living can be a luxury rather than mere economic necessity, and avoiding the common problems of speculation and predation in the real estate market. The result is very pragmatic and directly applicable.

The Dutch Blue pavilion is particularly interesting, as it addresses the role of architecture in urban conflict. Increasingly, conflicts and the security apparatus and infrastructure supporting it both are in cities. The exhibit looks at the UN outpost at Gao, Mali, with the title of the exhibit in reference to both the UN Peacekeepers’ blue helmets, and the indigo garb of the Tuareg, the desert people who live on the edge of the Sahara. The project proposes that architecture be part of the planning process of UN peacekeeping bases, in order to leave behind a stronger city with better infrastructure and resources that will aid local populations long after the mission has departed.

Ukraine’s exhibition is a live report from the warfront, and Venice’s is dedicated to Marghera, a polluted and abandoned port. Germany’s talks about immigration in the wake of the Syrian influx of refugees, and looks at “problem zones” as opportunities. Scotland’s virtual reality exhibit is both playful and hopeful, using horse masks as the interface to talk about their history and near extinction of their Gaelic culture, depopulation, and re-orientation towards the Nordic and opening Arctic in the wake of climate change and development.

It’s impossible to describe every pavilion, and the regional takes on the Aravena’s global theme. But perhaps most poignant is not what is at the Biennale, but what was inspired by it: one group of Yale students proposed pop-up religious structures to sustain community and culture in refugee camps, where the transient nature normally prevents such structures from being built. This focus on how architecture can address moral and community needs bereft of resources, materials, and expertise, heeding the sacred in a profoundly unsanctioned environment. It shows that Aravena’s call to broaden architecture’s horizons has been heeded.

Works Cited

"Biography: Alejandro Aravena." The Pritzker Architecture Prize. The Hyatt Foundation, Jan. 2016. Web. 15 June 2016.

"BLUE: Architecture of UN Peacekeeping Missions: Inside the Netherlands' Pavilion at the 2016 Venice Biennale." ArchDaily. ArchDaily, 31 May 2016. Web. 15 June 2016.

Carnicero, Iñaqui, and Carlos Quintáns. "Spain's "Unfinished" - Winner of the Golden Lion at the 2016 Venice Biennale." ArchDaily. ArchDaily, 28 May 2016. Web. 15 June 2016.

Doroteo, Jan. "Yale Students Propose a Series of Pop-Up Religious Buildings to Sustain Culture in Refugee Camps." ArchDaily. ArchDaily, 10 June 2016. Web. 15 June 2016.

"First Look: "Reporting from the Front" Arsenale Exhibition." ArchDaily. ArchDaily, 26 May 2016. Web. 15 June 2016.

Landon, Robert. "Aravena's "Reporting From The Front" Is Nothing Like Koolhaas' 2014 Biennale-But It's Equally as Good." ArchDaily. ArchDaily, 14 June 2016. Web. 15 June 2016.

"Prospect North: Inside Scotland's Pavilion at the 2016 Venice Biennale." ArchDaily. ArchDaily, 07 June 2016. Web. 15 June 2016.

Russeth, Andrew. "The 2015 Venice Biennale’s Central Show, Focused on Strife, Is Uneasy, Uneven." ARTnews. ARTnews, 05 June 2015. Web. 15 June 2016.

Self, Jack. "Home Economics: Inside the British Pavilion at the 2016 Venice Biennale." ArchDaily. ArchDaily, 14 June 2016. Web. 15 June 2016.

Smith, Roberta. "Review: Art for the Planet’s Sake at the Venice Biennale." The New York Times. The New York Times, 15 May 2015. Web. 15 June 2016.

Valencia, Nicolás. "Malkit Shoshan on How the City Is a Shared Ground for the Instruments of War and Peace." ArchDaily. ArchDaily, 17 May 2016. Web. 15 June 2016.

Watkins, Katie. "Gabinete De Arquitectura's." ArchDaily. ArchDaily, 31 May 2016. Web. 15 June 2016.


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