BY Carson Chan in Opinion | 17 JUN 16

Conditions of Living

Reflections on the 15th Venice Architecture Biennale

BY Carson Chan in Opinion | 17 JUN 16

Chilean architect and curator of the current Venice Architecture Biennale, Alejandro Aravena, chose a photograph of archaeologist Maria Reiche inspecting Nazca lines in the Peruvian desert atop an aluminium ladder as the emblem of his exhibition, ‘Reporting from the Front’. In his catalogue text, Aravena praised Reiche for her inventive solution for observing the massive line drawings with modest means, and the pertinence of her choice of tool: walking around with a ladder is cumbersome, but driving around in a car would have destroyed the lines. ‘Reporting from the Front,’ he wrote, ‘will be about listening to those who were able to gain some perspective and are consequently in the position to share knowledge and experience, inventiveness and pertinence with those of us standing on the ground.’ The photograph is reproduced everywhere – posters, invitations, websites, catalogues – and as I went through the Giardini, the Arsenale, and the exhibitions, hosted in seemingly innumerable venues spread through the city, the image of the specialist, barefoot, perched from on high, her back to us as she scans the endless horizon of her realm began to take on further significance. Alas, the architect remains a distant witness – an interlocutor with conditions – to the urgencies of human living.

All images courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia

‘Quality of life, inequalities, segregation, insecurity, peripheries, migration, informality, sanitation, waste, pollution, natural disasters, sustainability, traffic, communities, housing, mediocrity,’ and finally, ‘banality’ are the emancipatory issues that Aravena aimed to address in his Arsenale and Giardini exhibitions. And though he didn’t mandate parameters for the national participants, as Rem Koolhaas did in the previous edition, most followed suit. That architecture should be concerned with the conditions of living seems obvious, but some would claim that the concern for social ills, though virtuous and principled, is not one that can be directly attended to by architectural form, at least not with guaranteed results. It’s a confusion of the double meaning of ‘condition’ as a general state of existence and the particular circumstances affecting that state. Architects can and are routinely hired to shape our physical situations, but the larger cultural structures, it’s argued, lie beyond their ken. Indeed, no architecture school I know of requires its students to take classes in ethics, yet an unquestioned expectation to deliver on the ‘public good‘ looms over the profession. In a recent essay, Erik Swyngedouw writes that until architecture embarks on a ‘set of affective and sequential acts that require painstaking organization, careful thought, radical imagination, and – above all – the intellectual and political will to inaugurate an equal, solidarity-based and free socio-spatial order that abolishes what exists,’ it is bound to spatialize, reproduce and distribute the inequalities of capital.1 Until then, he claims, it cannot be an emancipatory project, and in fact Aravena’s biennale affirms this position, or at the very least, Aravena does. Well publicized is his 2003 social housing project in Iquique, in northern Chile . What is less known is that it was largely funded by Empresas Copec, the Chilean oil company controlled by the Angelini family, who have also commissioned several of Aravena’s other buildings. To what degree can a true critique emerge from a position of complicity? Can architecture support the ethical purity of an emancipatory agenda?

Architects have as much right to comment on social and political problems as any other profession that studies and considers the way we live.

In a video interview for Il Giornale dell’Architettura released shortly after the biennale opened on May 28, Patrik Schumacher, director of Zaha Hadid Architects, voiced his deep suspicion of the architecture profession’s ability to adequately attend to Aravena’s stated concerns. (Schumacher has petitioned to close the entire exhibition.) The issues proffered are ‘not issues that concern architects,‘ he says, and more importantly, architects ‘are not equipped to [address them]. It’s not the best value for our expertise.’ For Schumacher, addressing social ills renders the architect an ‘amateur commentator.’

'BLUE: Architecture of UN Peacekeeping Missions', 15th International Architecture Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia; photograph: Francesco Galli

It is not necessarily so. Architects have as much right to comment on social and political problems as any other profession that studies and considers the way we live. What we see in Venice is not amateurism, or perhaps not only amateurism, but too often we find exhibitions positioned at such removed, analytical distances from the issues they seek to examine that any real-world obstacles become almost fantasy scenarios. This biennale is a spectacle organized by an architect, for an elite community of international architects and their advocates (myself included). Realistically, those devoting their lives to the social issues on Aravena’s list, those currently at the front writing legislation, lobbying for justice, and galvanizing communities, probably won’t make it to Venice to see the show.

The Dutch pavilion’s exhibition, titled ‘BLUE: Architecture of UN Peacekeeping Missions’, is a study of the so-called 3D Comprehensive Approach to the UN’s counterinsurgency missions around the world. To the three ‘D’s in operation here – diplomacy, defense, and development – Malkit Shoshan, the pavilion’s curator, proposes another: design. According to Shoshan, the UN has been installing military bases since 1948, first on the outskirts of urban areas and more recently directly within cities, to ‘reduce armed conflicts and the devastation of war’. ‘However’, she continues, ‘the spaces produced by the UN only pay tribute to one element: defense. […] Comprehensive design can be used to mitigate between [sic] the 3Ds, integrating development and diplomacy too.’

'The Architectural Imagination', 15th International Architecture Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia; photograph: Francesco Galli

The interior of the pavilion is bathed in blue light, underscoring a chromatic alliance between the blue garments of the Tuareg from Gao, Mali, and the blue helmets of the Dutch peacekeeping troops stationed there. Four models on a plinth demonstrate how design intelligence could transform military bases, incredibly, into places of ‘economic exchange,’ areas of infrastructural ‘interface,’ and ‘shared space’ for culture and community building. Finally, ‘at the end of the mission, the base should be handed over to the local community and become an integral part of the city.’ Unless abstracted to the point of fiction, architecture and design cannot simply ‘respond to’ or ‘mitigate’ the UN’s military presence without enrolling itself into the lethal, oppressive brutality that allowed its occupation in the first place. Design is deployed here to minimize violence, justifying it as the least possible means. Yet suppressing violence is not the same as promoting peace. The moderation of violence, as architect and activist Eyal Weizman would say, is still part of the logic of violence. 

The problem here is the architecture discipline’s age-old inability to discern between learning from a condition and intervening in it – between its intelligence as an analytic tool, and its separate role as an agent of design.

As evident in the accompanying texts, much research has been invested in Shoshan’s project, but conclusions aside, good research does not immediately produce a good exhibition. The problem here is the architecture discipline’s age-old inability to discern between learning from a condition and intervening in it – between its intelligence as an analytic tool, and its separate role as an agent of design. At the American pavilion, selected architects proposed ‘programmatic ideas’ for four sites in Detroit, chosen by a group of local advisors. Called ‘The Architectural Imagination,’ its conceit was to recognize Detroit’s history of invention and innovation (the city gave us the automobile industry, free-span concrete factories, Motown, and techno) through speculative architectural projects that aimed to ‘spark the collective imagination, to launch conversations about design, and to position Detroit as a model postindustrial city, one that is more equitable and prosperous in entirely new ways.’ If the resulting proposals spark our collective imagination, they also draw a stark, heartbreaking comparison to the fallen city and the human suffering it perpetuates. In the imaginary Detroit of the exhibition, giant air-purification tanks sit atop an array of bubbles; colossal ribbons of metal representing a ‘remedia center’ and ‘sky room’ unfurl above ‘Mexicantown.’ Great puffs of inhabitable praline-swirls erupt within a former post office, and viscera-like blobs on the roof of an abandoned factory constitute a new ‘Center for Fullfillment, Knowledge, and Innovation.’ Soon after the pavilion’s mission was released earlier this year, Detroit Resists – a coalition of activists, artists, architects, and community members working to make the city more inclusive and equitable – thanked the curators for their ambition, but chastised their concept for what they saw as its indifference to political, racial, economic, and ideological realities. Systematic inequalities in Detroit have created an urban situation where tens of thousands of families live without running water, where the largest municipal tax foreclosure in US history has left as many homeless, and where properties deemed ‘blighted’ are flattened to the ground. On 26 May, during the preview of the biennale’s opening, the group digitally ‘occupied’ the pavilion by modelling it online and installing their own exhibition.

Gabinete de Arquitectura, 'Breaking the siege', 15th International Architecture Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia; photograph: Francesco Galli

Indeed, how does one make an architecture exhibition? Unlike an art exhibition, which shows actual artworks, most architecture exhibitions are in fact exhibitions of architectural representations: drawings, models, photos, texts, and so on. Buildings are difficult to get into museums and galleries, of course, and full-scale temporary pavilions, like those of the World Expos or the ones that the Serpentine Gallery in London commissions each summer, are exorbitant. For his edition of the Venice Biennale in 2008, Aaron Betsky asked architects to make installations. The results varied: installation is a genre that few architects had any prior experience with. Furthermore, as I’ve argued in my reviews of previous editions of the same biennale, Venice is probably the worst place to host an architecture exhibition.2 The chief curator of the biennale is often appointed little more than a year before the opening, and individual exhibitors are lucky to have more than a few months to prepare. Unlike artists, architects are not accustomed to creating completed works in such a short interval. Whatever display architects can muster in this time will inevitably pale, architecturally, in comparison to the splendour of Venice’s winding canals, elaborate facades, photogenic bridges, and storied interiors. Venice is already the best architecture exhibition in the world.

This is not to say that the architecture biennale at large, or even one like Aravena’s that is aimed at addressing justice, is a wholly fruitless endeavour, à la Schumacher. Attested by the streams of sightseers who arrive in Venice every hour, the allure of architecture is the immediacy and discovery of new experiences. (The soaring, humbling, triple-height brick-lattice arch in the central pavilion by Paraguayan firm Gabinete de Arquitectura won a Gold Lion.) The experience of space, more than the reading of texts or the viewing of images, is the means by which architecture communicates. Just as walking the length of the long rope-making halls in the Corderie of the Arsenale can evoke reflections on the city’s seafaring past and the global changes it brought about to transform the same room into an attraction for contemporary cultural tourism, so too the best exhibitions in ‘Reporting from the Front’ made their point by offering singular, coherent experiences.

'Making Heimat. Germany, Arrival Country.', 15th International Architecture Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia; photograph: © Felix Torkar

Germany took in a million refugees in 2015. ‘Making Heimat. Germany, Arrival Country,’ at the German pavilion, adapts some of the theses that journalist Doug Saunders presented about mass migration in his 2010 book Arrival City, in order to probe the architectural and urban conditions most suitable to integrate new immigrants in Germany. Images, slogans, charts, and texts cover the interior of the pavilion, a building from 1909 that was renovated in Nazi vernacular by Ernst Haiger in 1938. In an unprecedented gesture, Berlin-based architects Something Fantastic cut new openings into several of the building’s walls – leaving them doorless, the interior open to the elements. The cuts translate Angela Merkel’s ‘open door’ policy into architecture. Views to the lagoon are punched through the back; a cross breeze brings the sea air in. From inside, borderless, unimpeded views of the neighboring Canadian and South Korean pavilions are revealed. To break open a wall is a work of architecture that has deep ideological resonance for Germans: It’s an emancipatory gesture that connects the country’s current moment with the breaking down of the Berlin Wall. Of course, the openness brings new problems. To open the door to refugees seeking to enter Germany is to invite the merging of vast cultural and economic disparities that with time are bound to harden emotions. When it rains in Venice, the interior of the pavilion gets wet. Vulnerable to theft, valuables like laptops and catalogues need to be hung from the ceiling.

Whatever display architects can muster in this time will inevitably pale, architecturally, in comparison to the splendour of Venice’s winding canals, elaborate facades, photogenic bridges, and storied interiors. Venice is already the best architecture exhibition in the world.

If we take architecture to be any spatial practice informed by a body of knowledge shaped from social, political, economic, geographic, cultural, and aesthetic qualities, ‘I Have Left You the Mountain,’ the Albanian pavilion curated by Simon Battisti, Leah Whitman-Salkin, and graphic design collective Åbäke, stands out as an affecting work, lingering in one’s thoughts long after visiting. The exhibition is about ‘the architecture of displacement.’ Unlike the Finnish or Austrian pavilions, which display documentation of proposed and existing solutions to asylum-seekers’ plight in Europe, or the V&A’s display of Sam Jacob’s full-sized, CNC-milled synthetic stone replica of a makeshift shelter from the Calais refugee camp, which monumentalizes the legal instability and structural frangibility of the temporary home, the Albanian exhibition is intangible. Short texts and poems about migration and displacement were commissioned, including contributions from artist and writer Etel Adnan, architect Yona Friedman, Greek economist and former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, anthropologist Michael Taussig, and novelist Ornela Vorpsi, with each text then set to music and sung by some of Albania’s last remaining traditional iso-polyphonic singers. The unaccompanied voices fill the small space like ghosts through a number of surround speakers. As Varoufakis’s song began, I was sitting on a lumpy, odd-shaped stool (created by Max Lamb), and I became acutely conscious of my physical position, my placed-ness. As the curators noted, 43 percent of Albanian nationals lived outside of the country in 2013, with a large number having relocated to Greece since World War II. In the past year, Greece has become the front line of a surge of refugees to Europe. Varoufakis’s contribution (which is available below) is an intimate impression about being away from home and separated from his daughter. Translated into Albanian, a language unfamiliar to most of the pavilion’s visitors, the inaccessibility of the lyrics about longing for home only heightened the meaning of the music. ‘For sociologist Abdelmalek Sayad, migration produces a “double absence” in the social universe of the migrant,’ the curators wrote. ‘In the host country, the migrant is an unaccepted outsider, while back home, the experience of the outside has brought a worldliness, and perhaps a new wealth, that put them all at odds with those they left behind.’ Reading about migration is one thing, but listening to words that have moved from one language to another, and then transformed into melodies that remained with me as I reemerged from the exhibition into a city of travellers, assembles both the concept and sentiment of displacement.

Architecture, and architecture exhibitions, can and do contribute to social and political discourse. The Russian pavilion is entirely devoted to the VDNH, the yearly World-Expo-style showcase exhibition for Soviet achievement that spreads across three square-kilometers in Moscow. The Western Sahara was given a pavilion in the Giardini next to the central pavilion obliquely legitimized it as a sovereign state amongst other nations represented at the biennale. Moreover, Yemen’s modest presentation was a statement on the importance of its cultural presence amidst US-backed Saudi Arabian-led invasions in its ongoing civil war. Called, ‘Tribute to the Identity and Culture of the Yemeni People through Their Architecture,’ the displays ultimately mattered less than the symbolism of the exhibition’s presence. To experience the Yemeni show, to encounter it in Venice, was more powerful than the texts and photos it presented. Architecture exhibitions that seek to communicate only by proxy, forgetting that architectural knowledge is conveyed over space and time through firsthand experience, will ultimately situate themselves, like Reiche, on the ladder – a distant observer, an indirect commentator of our lived reality.

  1. Swyngedouw, Erik, 'On the Impossibility of an Emancipatory Architecture: The Deadlock of Critical Theory, Insurgent Architects, and the Beginning of Politics', in Can Architecture Be an Emancipatory Project, ed. By Nadir Z. Lahji, Winchester: Zero Books, 2016
  2. Chan, Carson, 'Diary from Venice: Another Biennale', LOG 21, Winter 2011

Carson Chan is the inaugural director of the Emilio Ambasz Institute for the Joint Study of the Built and the Natural Environment at MoMA, where he has a joint appointment as a curator in the museum’s Architecture and Design department. Chan is also co-founder of Current, a scholarly collective for architecture history and environment. His academic work focuses on the architecture of postwar public aquariums built during the rise of environmentalism.