Reporting from Venice: Ten projects that aspire to make a difference

Barbed wire, bomb clouds, drone ports, and the reconstruction of a Nazi gas chamber signal immediately that the 15th International Architecture Biennale in Venice is different from its predecessors.

The 2016 Biennale, Reporting from the Front, explores the ways in which architecture can motivate positive social change in the world. As Artistic Director Alejandro Aravena explains, the goal is “sharing success stories and exemplary cases where architecture made, is making, and will continue to make a difference.”[1] A photograph of an anthropologist standing atop a ladder surveying a South American desert represents the essence and aims of the 15th Biennale. Just as the anthropologist used her slightly elevated perspective to gain a better understanding of the landscape, Aravena uses the format of the Biennale as a means to assess the ways in which architecture is being utilized around the world to effect positive change.

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Archaeologist Maria Reiche photographed by Bruce Chatwin.

Yet, to the question, “what does the lady on the ladder see?” Biennale Director Paolo Baratta answers:

I think she mostly sees a wasteland made up of immense areas inhabited by human beings, which no human can be proud of; she sees great disappointments representing a sad and endless number of missed opportunities for human civilization to show its intelligence and take action.[2]

The search for exceptions to this grim reality—places where the constructed landscape is making positive change—defines the challenge of the 2016 Biennale.

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Details of the Arsenale Entry designed by Elemental

How can architects use their agency in constructing the built environment to effect change in ways large and small? The Arsenale entry space Aravena and his firm Elemental designed serves as an illustration of one way of answering this question. Keenly aware of the amount of waste generated by the Biennale exhibitions, Elemental designed the entry space to be constructed from the material waste of last year’s Art Biennale. The walls are made from stacked horizontal layers of used gypsum board, while the main volume of the cubic space overhead is packed full of used metal studs. The result demonstrates that dazzling and memorable designs may be born out of scarcity, constraints, and consciousness.

The 2016 Architecture Biennale includes projects from over 60 different nations as well as 88 exhibitions of the work of architects, engineers, planners, artists and activists from around the world. Additionally, collateral events are spread throughout the city with dozens more installations. In what follows, I’ve selected ten installations (in no particular order) that engage Aravena’s premise by bringing to light inventive means through which architecture has made or can make a difference.

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Left: A walkway through a proposed bamboo forest in the DMZ. Right: barbed wire from the DMZ.

1. Dreaming of Earth by Shigeru Ban and Jaeeun-Choi

The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating North and South Korea, a 148-mile long strip of land enclosed by barbed wire and patrolled day and night by soldiers armed with assault rifles, is the focus of Shigeru Ban’s collaboration with Korean artist Jaeeun-Choi. As Tom O’Neill reminds us, “In a world full of scary places—Kashmir, Chechnya, the West Bank—the DMZ is perhaps the scariest of all, considering the massive fire-power deployed on both sides and the brinkmanship practiced by the rival camps.”[3]

The architect and artist’s sublime proposal, “Dreaming of Earth,” imagines the DMZ as a park filled with bamboo and bisected by a raised pathway constructed of bamboo. The team first documents the history of the present site through official maps and artifacts including the aforementioned barbed wire. In place of this frightening reality, they re-envision the DMZ as a place for the people of North and South Korea to come together, for as the designers explain, “No borders existing in nature.” Amidst the ever-present threats of terrorist violence and war, it is easy to become enamored with this dreamy and peaceful landscape for the DMZ.

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Left: The exterior of the Netherlands Pavilion wrapped in blue mesh. Right: Personal objects of Dutch UN Peacekeepers and the people of Mali. 

2. Blue: Architecture of UN Peacekeeping Missions

The Netherlands Pavilion also draws our attention to militarized zones by proposing ways to re-imagine the thousands of UN military encampments around the world. “Blue: Architecture of UN Peacekeeping Missions” highlights the connection between the blue uniforms of Dutch troops on UN missions and the indigo clothing of local people in the Tuareg region of Mali. The entire pavilion is wrapped in blue and inside blue lights give the space an otherworldly atmosphere.

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A sandbox from a UN base recreated in the pavilion.

How, asks the pavilion’s curator, Malkit Shoshan, might UN Peacekeeping bases be redesigned to add something to the lives of the local people? The exhibition documents the evolution and history of the “Architecture of UN Peacekeeping Missions” highlighting the increasing number of UN missions and the types of infrastructure and buildings they typically create. In the center of the pavilion stands a notable exception to these typical spaces: a replica of a sandbox built on one of the bases for local children. Taking Camp Castor in Mali as a case study, the designers detail a four-step process through which military bases could be gradually adapted to community needs and political developments over time. Here design thinking is deployed to imagine how the massive investment and infrastructure constructed by UN missions around the world could be purposefully designed for an afterlife in which UN bases serve local communities.

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Left: Reconstruction of a bombing site. Right: Bomb cloud reconstruction.

3. Forensic Architecture

In a few cases, Biennale exhibitions highlight the way skilled architects rather than architecture per se, use their expertise to promote social change. “Forensic Architecture: Tracing Wrongdoing Back Through Architectural Design Logic,” stands out as the best of such examples. It features the investigative analyses of Eyal Weizman at three different scales: the body, the city, and geography. Through detailed forensic analysis of bombing sites, Weizman has been able to prove drone strikes were responsible for the deaths of civilians in Pakistan in 2012. The room in which the civilians were killed is hauntingly reconstructed in the Biennale with shrapnel mapped onto the walls. The location of the huddled civilians inside is made evident through the eerie absence of shrapnel in a back corner.

At the city scale, Weizman created three-dimensional city models, and analyzed photographs and videos taken by witnesses, as well as satellite imagery in order to reconstruct an Israeli military attack that killed over 100 people. The physical evidence collected was used to reconstruct the forms of the bomb clouds and thus demonstrate how events unfolded and what types of bombs were deployed.

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Map of the Mediterranean Sea detailing migrant boats and rescue operations.

At the geographic scale, mapping, and public records were used to reconstruct “the lethal effects of the EU’s policies of non-assistance in the central Mediterranean 2014-2015.” Led by the Italian Navy, Operation Mare Nostrum, which ended in 2014, was responsible for safely rescuing approximately 150,000 migrants in one year.

It was replaced by Frontex Operation Triton, which focuses on border control rather than rescue and which has consequently led to a sharp increase in deaths at sea as refugees attempt to flee war torn areas in the Middle East and North Africa for Europe. The tragic consequences of the end of Operation Mare Nostrum are by now well known: in just one week alone 1,200 people died at sea. What Weizman shows us through archival research and careful reading of meeting minutes is that European politicians and bureaucrats knew all too well what the consequences of the shift in policy would mean: a dramatic increase in the number deaths at sea.

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The Evidence Room: A reconstructed Nazi gas chamber.

4. The Evidence Room

“The Evidence Room” provides yet another unforgettable example of how the skills of architectural analysis can be used to highlight injustice and, in this case, disprove attempts to rewrite history. Designed by the Waterloo School of Architecture, the installation is inspired by the work of Art Historian Robert Jan van Pelt, who served as an expert witness in a trial pertaining to Holocaust denial by historian David Irving. Van Pelt used his formal analysis and research skills to prove that the buildings constructed by the Nazis were in fact used as gas chambers contrary to Irving’s claims. The Waterloo installation is a reconstruction of a Nazi gas chamber used in the Holocaust completely bathed in white paint as if to render it sacred space.

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Left: “Start with a roof” by Satoshi Ohtaki. Right: Migration patterns throughout history.

5. From Border to Home: The Finnish Pavilion

Housing for refugees in Europe is the subject of a number of pavilions and installations. Among these Finland’s “From Border to Home: Housing Solutions for Asylum Seekers” stands out. The Finnish used the immediacy of the problem to challenge architects through a design competition organized by the Museum of Finnish Architecture and the Finnish Association of Architects. The 7 best competition entries form the content of the Finnish Pavilion.

In “Start with a roof”, for example, architect Satoshi Ohtaki designed a prefabricated triangular shelter that can serve in the short term as provisional refugee housing but can also be used in the long term for more permanent rooftop structures. A proposal by D.A.T., Pangea + Quatore turns NIMBYism (not in my backyard) on its head. Entitled “IMBY:In my backyard” the designers envision affordable housing units for refugees, which could be quickly constructed in backyards throughout the country. Finland’s decaying school buildings form the basis for another ingenious solution: Alt Architects proposes constructing temporary housing for refugees that can be turned into schools later. In the end, the clarity of a well-defined problem combined with the competition method of selecting participants led to a collection of original and inventive answers to Aravena’s call.

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Left: the USA pavilion. Right proposals for Detroit by Zago Architecture.

6. The Architectural Imagination

On the other side of the Atlantic, the depopulation of industrial cities like Detroit presents both a challenge and an opportunity for architects. The University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning organized the USA pavilion around the challenges of Detroit. Curators Cynthia Davidson and former Michigan Dean Monica Ponce de Leon called on twelve teams of architects to create proposals for specific sites in Detroit such as the long-abandoned Packard Motors Factory. Rooms full of dazzling models and drawings display projects that are in some cases so speculative as to border on science-fiction, reflecting the fact that the architects selected are not known for pragmatism or social engagement but rather dramatic form making.

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Greg Lynn FORM proposal for Detroit.

The gap between the very real problems faced in Detroit and the fanciful nature of the proposals has sparked controversy: the group Detroit Resists staged a sit-in and a virtual occupation of the pavilion in protest. Detroit Resist’s critique is centered on the political indifference of the proposals and the lack of serious attention to the poverty, urban decay, and political disenfranchisement of residents. Critic Aaron Betsky characterized the proposals as “puzzling” and noted the lack of serious analysis or attention to Detroit’s history. In a city that is home to John Portman’s Renaissance Center it is hard to believe that the solution to Detroit’s challenges lies in megastructures that dwarf the existing urban context such as Greg Lynn FORM’s proposal.

But looking past the breathtaking models and drawings on display and reading more carefully into the proposals, one finds some compelling ideas for addressing Detroit’s underlying political, economic, and environmental problems. A team led by Andrew Zago, for example, proposed to connect the refugee crisis shaking Europe with the depopulation of Detroit. Zago’s team advocates for repopulating the post-industrial city with refugees in need of basic housing.

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Rice University proposal for Detroit.

Rice University’s team, in contrast, proposed to re-densify Detroit not just with people but also with trees. This densification would lower energy consumption by re-creating a city that could support mass transit. The forests or “carbon plantations” would help offset the carbon footprint of the city.

What makes the USA pavilion most compelling, however, is the way in which it reflects the current debate over the value and purpose of architecture. The awkward if dazzling attempt by some of the most well known starchitects and form makers to turn their attention towards the post-industrial challenges of Detroit highlights what may be an irreconcilable division for some. As Tim Love has detailed, although fantastic form generation has dominated architectural education and practice for the last thirty years, a new generation of designers is increasingly more interested in using their skills to address global issues like affordable housing and climate change. Whether or not the fantastic form makers can adapt their extravagant solutions to address such pragmatic issues is yet to be seen.

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Left: Models of traditional structures in the Mexico Pavilion. Right: A participatory design and building kit.

7. Unfoldings and Assemblages

The Mexico pavilion, “Unfoldings and Assemblages” embraced the reality that out of necessity many Mexicans build their own dwellings out of haystacks, seashells, bottles, and more. Given this, the designers asked how architects could better assist self-builders through design and construction manuals, and even participatory design and building kits. They began by studying vernacular architecture to understand systems of construction employed by builders in Mexico. This helped them recognize principles of design, available materials that could be used by unskilled laborers and realities such as the incremental nature of most Mexican housing. The organizers proposed means for architects and design students to use their skills to improve processes that could be replicated by self-builders. A series of projects built and under construction illustrate how the lessons learned are being put into practice across Mexico.

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The Polish Pavilion.

8. Fair Building

While the Mexico pavilion embraced building, the Poland pavilion celebrated the people who build. The installation served as a call for designers to embrace “Fair Building.” The entire pavilion was filled with construction scaffolding giving visitors the immediate and palpable sense of being on a construction site, of being among the builders we might otherwise take for granted—particularly at the Biennale, an event filled with art and architecture elites from around the world. Video interviews with construction workers placed at eye level throughout allow visitors a nearly personal experience with those who construct. Info graphics document typical labor conditions and challenge each of us to consider our role and what we might do collectively to improve labor conditions for builders whether skilled or unskilled.

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Left: A display of socially engaged design projects by Italian architects. Right: Environmental Monitoring Unit designed by ARCO’ – Societa’ Cooperative.

9. Taking Care

The Italy pavilion elegantly showcases both what Italian architects are already doing to engage social issues and proposals for future projects. Entitled “Taking Care: Designing for the Common Good,” the exhibition was one of the most comprehensive and detailed engagements with Aravena’s call to share experiences and proposals. A series of panels illustrate how Italian architects are already making a difference through their design projects around the world. In Jerusalem, for example, DAAR designed a school for children in a refugee camp that reflects progressive educational philosophies translated into built form. Complementing this built evidence are five proposals for future interventions in communities. An Environmental Monitoring Unit designed by ARCO’ – Societa’ Cooperative, for example, is envisioned as a mobile device for the environmental organization Legambiente, which can measure and monitor environmental conditions. The exquisitely designed yellow mobile units have operable panels allowing them to be configured in different ways.

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Left: A droneport on display at the Biennale. Right: the shipping container and scaffolding that support the construction of droneports.

10. Droneport

Lord Norman Foster’s visionary proposal for a drone delivery port imagines how resources such as medical supplies, electronics and blood can be delivered to sites in Africa that lack the traditional delivery infrastructure of highways and ports. Delivery by air through drones would allow undeveloped regions of Africa to have access to global goods without the costly investment in roads, bridges, and tunnels. “It is the equivalent of the old telephone lines compared to the cellular network.”[4] The Droneport design is, however, more than simple infrastructure. The simple but elegant vaulted structures are designed to be constructed from materials dropped by drones combined with local materials. The structures can also serve as market places or community spaces. A Droneport might begin as a single vault and be added to over time.

The Droneport design responds to an urgent need by combining an understanding of the logics of infrastructure design, and the construction process brilliantly. It shows how design thinking can be successfully applied to global resource and infrastructure challenges by engaging emerging technology, infrastructure, and the construction process. It is an exemplary response to Aravena’s premise and gives one hope that eventually the anthropologist on the ladder might see less wasteland and more humane, conscientious and resourceful ways for humans to dwell on planet earth. The project illustrates how an architect known for his exquisite and expensive designs has been able to utilize his design expertise and fame to the benefit of those in need. The first Droneports are slated for construction in Rwanda in 2016. Perhaps the divide between starchitects and social issues is not irreconcilable after all.

 

[1] Alejandro Aravena, “Introduction” in Reporting from the Front: Biennale Architettura 2016 (Marsilio 2016): 21.

[2] Paolo Baratta, “Introduction” in Reporting from the Front: Biennale Architettura 2016, (Venice: Marsilio, 2016): 14.

[3] Tom O’Neill, “Korea’s DMZ: Dangerous Divide” National Geographic, July 2003. Web, accessed July 2016. http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/features/world/asia/north-korea/dmz-text/1

[4] Reporting from the Front: Biennale Architettura 2016 (Marsilio 2016): 194.

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