This year, few places are better than Venice to track the changes in the Western architectural discourse. Not only because of the inherent prestige of the Biennale institution. But also for the particular mark under which this event was born in 1980. In fact, the very first edition of the Architectural exhibition – the Paolo-Portoghesi-curated The Presence of the Past – put forward a series of powerful statements contributing to the historical acknowledgement of the Postmodern (PoMo) condition in the design field.
TEXT: Daniele Belleri
IMAGES: Courtesy of Venice Architecture Biennale
In a sense, no edition of the mostra internazionale has dared to fully challenge that approach since than. For more than 35 years, the Architecture Biennale has remained an offspring of the Postmodern mood, with its relative disillusioned, ironical stance on the capacity of politics to counter market forces. One might even say that the Architectural Biennale has advocated Francis Fukuyama’s theories well before – and long after – the American philosopher wrote his famous pages on the end of history.
For all these reasons, the 2016 exhibition, curated by the Chilean architect-and-activist Alejandro Aravena, seems to mark a gear shift. “Reporting from the front” tells us about a diffuse climate of commitment and a general lack of cynicism: as if “Postmodern values” (shouldn’t be such an expression an oxymoron?) were becoming an increasingly outdated thing. Still, there is no longing for the old certainties of Modernism: the practitioners in the Lagoon seem not to be interested in spending time perfecting apparatuses of utopian visions. Rather, they choose to privilege a hands-on, local-issues attitude. What is displayed, then, is a sequence of projects (many of them from South America or peripheral European corners) whose attention points to brick-and-mortar matters such as materials or construction techniques as well as to the day-to-day relationship between communities and the build environment.
Ephemeral Urbanism. Cities in constant flux (within the “Reporting from the front” exhibition)
Kumbh Mela is one of those cases in which reality leapfrogs fantasy. At any recurrence of this Hindu pilgrimage, tens of millions people travel on the shores of the Ganges in the span of a few weeks – and a temporary metropolis is built to host them. Together with a series of other examples of “Ephemeral Urbanism”, such as the Burning Man festival in the US, the Kumbh Mela is the subject of a compelling research by the Harvard Graduate School of Design. It is upon these spectacular functionalist experiences that designers will build the refugees camps of the future.
German Pavilion: “Making Heimat. Germany, Arrival Country”
Since Autumn 2015, bucking the trend in Europe, Germany has decided to open its frontiers to refugees coming from Middle East and Africa. This exhibition envisions the near future of German metropolis, drawing on the concept of “Arrival City”. That is, the prototypical neighbourhood where migrants happens to gather, whose traits – from small-entrepreneurial zeal to inter-ethnical solidarity – tend to recur at any time and place. Within the pavilion, whose doors and internal partitions have been torn down in a gesture that matches memories of the Berlin wall with the current open-borders policy, you can read slogans encouraging a positive observation of the social-and-design features of the “Arrival City”. Among the battle cries of the inclusive polis: “Tolerating semi-legal practices can make sense”. Will Berlin increasingly look like a Mediterranean city?
United States Pavilion: “The Architectural imagination”
American architects in Venice have come to report from a unique front: the former industrial capital of Detroit, whose process of depopulation has been so dramatic in the last decades to turn the city into a surreal landscape of rubble and vacant urban lots reconquered by nature. “The Architectural imagination” puts together twelve proposals to revitalise the Michigan metropolis. The show abundantly flirts with ruin porn, adding up chemical material experiments, apocalyptic collages, and a curious abundance of fluorescent colours. It is perhaps the most fashionable and visually daring installation of the whole Biennale. People queue to wear augmented-reality glasses to explore one of the designs.
NLÉ di Kunlé Adeyemi. Makoko Floating School (within the “Reporting from the front” exhibition”)
The history of the floating school in Makoko – one of the poorest areas of Lagos – speaks at the same time of admiration and embarrassment. Admiration, because this wooden structure, reproduced in one-to-one scale for the Arsenale’s calm waters, is the tool with which tens of children in a Nigerian slum were given an instruction. Embarrassing, because immediately after the project was awarded with the Silver Lion by the Biennale jury, the whole world discovered that the original structure in Lagos had been abandoned since months and months, due to fundamental security issues. This latter revelation cast a bad light on the superficial ways in which architectural achievements in developing countries are often treated on Western media.
Dianarchitecture – Casal di Principe (within the Italian pavilion)
The deprived southern Italian town of Casal di Principe, not far from Naples, is described in Roberto Saviano’s Gomorrah as one of the centres of the Camorra crime syndicate. As the Italian State managed to arrest an important local boss, the mafioso’s gaudy residence was seized and converted into a cultural venue opened to the local community. To celebrate the event, an exhibition of art masterpieces coming from Florence’s Uffizi gallery was organised at the villa in 2015. Dianarchitecture, the local design studio asked to realise the repurposing of the building, took a bold decision: wrapping the entire building within a thick net of scaffolding and red barrier mesh. By hiding the villa’s kitschy friezes and fake Roman columns, the architects compared the return to legality in this beleaguered Italian region to a slow, always-in-progress construction site.
Visitors of the British pavilion cannot but notice that this exhibition, which looked so fresh at the Biennale inauguration, in late May, seems now to lag behind the challenges of a country which after Brexit appears deeply fractured. The architectural front individuated by curators Shumi Bose, Jack Self and Finn Williams – that is, the impossible rise of real estate prices in London, with its consequences on the life of metropolitan dwellers – seems to be a likely emblem of a divided nation.
The theme of “Home economics”, with its sharing-economy scenarios and the proposal for new co-living designs based on incremental amounts of time (from a “Hours room” to “Days room” and “Years room”), is surely relevant for many of the world’s metropolis. Yet, it completely ignores the plights of those who live out of the main cities in the United Kingdom. These are the same people that on the last 23rd June voted to leave the European Union, in a desperate attempt to reject the forces of globalisation. Notably, the regions where the “Leave” campaigners prevailed are often those where real estate markets are more depressed, and rent prices less expensive – hence, where “Home Economics” appears marginally relevant.
What can we infer from such a sequence of projects? A possible conclusion is that architects, under the loose yet charismatic guidance of Aravena, might have re-found a faith in their ability to condition history. However, what history are we really talking about? Possibly the provincial history, or national history at best, as the limited-scale of the majority of the endeavours on show attests. No supranational interpretation is on sight around Venice – not even when dealing with the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, a topic which by contrast attracted many memorable, visionary statements in the recent past (such as Domus magazine 2011’s Project Heracles).
One might recognise that architects at the 2016 Biennale are embracing political actions with honesty, almost with humility – as if saying: what we need are practical interventions, not the umpteenth manifesto or fanciful universal declaration. However, especially when confronted with that particular sentence repeated several times across the Arsenale and the Giardini – “The scarcest resource in a city is not money but coordination” – you cannot but wonder whether what we are seeing might also hint at something different, and much more worrying: a self-inflicted restriction of architects’ ambitions at the micro-scale.
The very fact that history still has some work to do is “not a cheering prospect”, as the great historian John Pocock presciently wrote in his “Deconstructing Europe”, in 1994 (a time of infatuation for Fukuyama’s thought). All in all, isn’t this one of the fundamental lessons we can take from the refugee crisis, Brexit, the surge of Islamic terrorism, and the democratic retreats of Russia or Turkey? If the world is a mess, “Reporting from the front” suggests us that there’s only way for architect to fix it: brick by brick, nail by nail.
Daniele Belleri is a design journalist and consultant. He is a regular contributor to Domus and Wired Italia, and a lecturer at the Strelka Institute in Moscow.