Six battlefronts at the Venice Architectural Biennale 2016

Tony Mulhall MRICS

Associate Director Land Professional Group (RICS)

Every two years the great and the good of the architectural world gather in Venice to address a challenging theme set by one of their number. This year's theme is styled "reporting from the front", and here we explore the exhibits of six countries and their variation on the theme which reflects their respective efforts and difficulties in this area.

The latest to take up the curatorial baton is Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, Pritzker Prize winner for Architecture and probably best known for his partially completed ‘half-houses’ and the pursuit of social equity through architecture.

The 2016 theme is styled ‘Reporting from the front’. The battlefront to which Aravenna refers is the frontline between the forces of convention perpetuating a menu of jaded options and the architecture of resistance championing disruptive and transformative solutions to some of the world’s most intractable problems.

The theme is partly a response to architecture mainly being placed at the service at the corporate world at a time when the real need is elsewhere. More and more people on the planet are in search of a decent place to live and the conditions to achieve it are becoming tougher and tougher.

The exhibition with 88 artists from 37 countries takes place from the end of May to the end of November 2016. There is a great deal of relevance to engage with in this exhibition focused on the pragmatics of delivery an area of particular expertise for surveyors.

The following pavilions give a flavour of the international pre-occupations some of which are provoked by a sense that the institutional frameworks of economic life are generating dysfunctional and inequitable outcomes.

Others address specific aspects of this challenge. But the bigger issue is, to what extent are questions of political economy susceptible to an architectural solution?

We focus on six countries:

Spain   |   UK   |   Ireland   |   Israel   |   South Korea   |   USA

Spain: The frontline of 'over-construction'

At a time when many parts of the world are experiencing acute shortages of housing, Spain has been suffering from a surplus of development the residue of the excessive market stimulation during the boom.

It was the Spanish Pavilion’s response to the overbuilding in pre-crash Spain that won it the Golden Lion award for the best exhibition. Titled ‘Unfinished’, the curators set out to address the challenge of dealing with such a large number of unwanted buildings, built in such a short period of time.

How is this stock of unfinished buildings to be assimilated at a time of paralysis in the real estate sector?

A bigger issue is what happened to permit this explosion of development in the first place and whether anything has changed to prevent it from happening again – questions which may go well beyond the scope of architecture but critical to restoring a sense of equilibrium in the sector.

UK: The frontline of 'under construction'

At the other extremity the team at the British Pavilion sought to address the failure of the housebuilding sector in the UK to build enough and appropriate types of  accommodation for an increasing population.

Re-imagining the housing needs of the younger generation through ‘home economics’, the challenge was interrogated through addressing time scales rather than spatial typologies.

They considered that the greatest pressures and changes within contemporary life can be better understood through time and explored proposals for homes in incremental units of time: hours, days, months, years and decades. This approach pushed their collaborators to challenge their own preconceptions of how we live today.

This is a novel approach to dissecting the changing role and performance requirements of housing space but whether realising the exhibition at 1:1 scale reveals the provocative ideas embedded in it easily and clearly to the visitor is questionable. Part of the thinking behind this grows out of concepts of the ‘sharing’ economy, but if our institutions privilege the ‘owning’ economy is there built-in disadvantage for sharers from the start?

Ireland: The frontline of 'aging populations'

People are living longer and therefore falling prey in greater numbers to so-called aging diseases. Identifying this specific sector of accommodation the Irish Pavilion through the theme ‘Losing myself’ chose to address one of the fastest growing challenges in aging populations - the point where people move from being totally self-sufficient to one where dementia renders them completely disoriented and in need of constant support.

The exhibition is based on the experience with a commission to build a home for residents with Alzheimers and plots their movements throughout a single day onto the architectural plan.

"Dementia erodes the ability to remember where you have come from and to plan where you would like to go. it becomes progressively harder to situate yourself and to navigate your way in the world: two capacities central to the experience of architecture"

Buildings and their spaces help to orient people in the world, but for sufferers of dementia whose ability to recognise these features has been eroded they provide no such compass. Since orientation is one of the key organising strategies of architecture how can it contribute to the everyday experience of the occupants if key properties are unrecognisable to the users?

Israel: The frontline of 'resilience'

The Israeli exhibition's conceptual foundation is 'resilience'. It refers to the capacity of biological systems  to cope with shock or trauma. ‘LifeObject’ is an exploration of the relationships between the artificial and the natural in the future built environment.

Its starting point is one of nature’s original models of a home - the bird’s nest; an assembly of weak and light found materials with no additional joints or glue, out of which emerges a free-form complex structure that is extremely light, robust and highly resilient.

Through an experimental process of scientific analysis, coding, material research and design, ‘LifeObject’ transposes the resilient properties of a bird’s nest into an architectural form.

At the centre of the exhibition is the physical “Life Object”, a research installation that integrates artificial and natural elements into an organic system; composite, smart, and biological materials are combined to form a “living structure” that responds to its environment.

It proposes a new way of thinking about systems of architectural production that operate simultaneously according to coded and random principles; a cross product of advanced technology and crafted fabrication.

Self organisation, adaptivity, variation, redundancy and low-energy synthesis present alternative design paradigms to the mechanistic architectural approach of strength and control.

South Korea: The frontline of 'regulation'

In the main pavilion reference was made to the institutional structures of legislation and regulation as powerful determinants of the shape of the city.

Elsewhere the German Pavilion was being surprisingly subversive with a slogan referring to ‘arrival cities’ which suggested that ‘semi-legal practices can make sense’.  

But the most forensic investigation of the impact of regulation came from the Korean pavilion which looked at the impact of Floor Area Ratio (FAR) in determining the shape of our cities through a theme entitled the ‘FAR Game in Seoul’.

The challenge for the architectural profession is to find space between regulation and asset enhancement strategies to act creatively. The FAR stands for Floor Area Ratio — the amount of floor space a building can offer in relation to the size of land it is built upon.

It’s a hot topic in Seoul, where architects are driven by the market to optimize their use of space, and struggle to balance this with considerations of quality of life.

USA: The frontline of 'regeneration'

When talking about intractable global problems, regenerating cities that have lost their reason for being is one of those. Detroit, a rust-belt city which has been in industrial decline for decades and has just emerged from bankruptcy stands out.

It contains block after block of what we now refer to as brownfield land right at its centre while its citizens have fled to the suburbs.

To try and re-imagine what could be, the American curators commissioned designs from twelve practices on four sites in Detroit including the 40 acre site of the long abandoned Packard Plant so emblematic of the boom time ‘motor city’.

The building (3.5 million sq.ft.) which remains on this site was one of the ground breaking structures of the twentieth century with its concrete beams enabling a vast uninterrupted span to be created.

The entire site was recently bought for $405,000 or 12 cents per sq. ft. and therein lies the problem. There may be architectural solutions aplenty but where is the business case to implement any of them? With such a weak urban economy and a parlous city administration what can architecture do?

Federal Government also seems to have given up on many of these cities with industrial scale regeneration problems.

Although the task is monumental there is the risk that cities will fall back on monumental type solutions to address the problem. Massive architectural creations setting high rise developments in vast urban wastelands seem like solutions for another place and another time. This exhibition looked just like the kind of projects Aravenna’s ‘front’ was intended to resist.

Conclusion

Architecture tends to draw attention to itself and its practitioners through the work of star-architects and their projects, making people question whether there is still a role for architecture in the service of its social obligations i.e. satisfying the mundane requirements of everyday life for billions around the world.

Aravenna’s theme provides a welcome attempt to position architecture as an instrument for improving the living conditions for society’s least privileged members.


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