On the Waterfront, report from the Biennale of Architecture 2021

On the Waterfront, report from the Biennale of Architecture 2021, published in Form 2021
Anja Meixner’s art at Fiorella Gallery, Campo Santo Stefano gained new meaning during the pandemic

How are we to live together on an overpopulated planet? Which solutions can architecture offer? Leo Gullbring reports from the seventeenth annual international Venice Biennale of Architecture.

Uncertaintly is the theme of the Spanish pavilion.

What is one to expect when travelling to Venice in the midst of the pandemic? Will I meet up with the usual roster of architects at the 17th edition of the Biennale of Architecture? Might I listen in, criticise and chat with strangers about the present state of architecture, ”the most psychological of all art forms” according to the artist Joseph Kosuth? Has my favourite mask maker Mario Belloni, founder of Ca’ Macana, made a Venetian mask of the plague doctor with an integrated filter? Will there be parties with spritz and prosecco all night long?

Walking through an almost empty Piazza San Marco under a hesitatingly grey sky, the sun seems on the verge of breaking through. Arriving at the Arsenale, the theme issued by Biennale General Hashim Sarkis is kind of blandly stated: ”How will we live together?” Nevertheless, this is our challenge on an overpopulated earth with unequally distributed wealth, a humanity unable to cope with the approaching climate catastrophe, and an on-going urbanisation ravaging the planet. My first impression of the Corderie, the former rope-making part of the Venetian naval yard, is both up-beat and familiar. A facemask with bulging pods resembles Homer Simpson.

SleepSnackers and RemWake promise to enhance napping and wake the runners of the gig economy with a sparkle of salt and other intravenous infusions. I’m not alone in asking if the kit for microdosing the morning coffee, tea or LSD is for sale. ”Oh, no, it’s a criticism!” says Jessica Charlesworth about her and Tim Parson’s Catalog for the Post-Human, ”This is about how we will work in the future and all this algorithmic surveillance. We live in these organic meat sacks, and we are losing DNA by the second. We think we are able to compete with the things that we have created, but beware, they are better than us!” I can’t but reflect on the fact that to augment our bodies with technology is a dream of the past now being realised. This project resembles the Raba Hiff Bonk project presented at the Triennale in 1991, a fabulously intriguing machine unable to do anything but induce semiotic desire. There is undoubtedly a class aspect to the fast-forward integration of our bodies in the IoT world (the internet of things), but we are already living in it. I myself am definitely looking forward to Neri Oxman’s 3D printed extra organs needed to explore Venus and other celestial bodies while escaping the post-anthropocene.

SOM, one of the more dubious acronyms in the architectural business, presents a vision for life on the moon.

Just past a robotic arm managing a back garden of soil, I find a reminiscence from the 2010 edition of the Canadian pavilion: Philip Beesley’s Hylozoic Ground now renamed Grove. I’d love to have this titillating artificial pergola at home. A diffuse, elastic, trembling leaf-like solar capturing canopy presenting architecture that mimics and integrates with nature. This time Beesley has done away with the syringes and the messy, eschatological and grotesque already has the upper hand against the clean, pure and durable Vitruvian aesthetics of Western culture. Ain’t we all nowadays into a non-Cartesian architecture that is alive and changing by the minute? Further on, there is another example of bio-mimicry, Maison Fiber, a more down-to-earth approach with 23 kilometres of fiberglass and 20 kilometres of carbon fibre (possibly replaced by bio-based fibres): the world’s first inhabitable multi-storey fibrous structure. Achim Menges, Jan Knippers et al are proposing these extremely light structures as readily buildable challenges to traditional rectangular architecture. A promise of gothic forms, naturally intertwined, almost as simple as Minecraft castles, and definitely more interesting than exhibited biotech and moss. The United Arab Emirates’ Wetland by curators Wael Al Awar and Kenichi Teramoto stays with the theme of new materials, and deplores the country topping the list of the world’s CO2 emissions, not least by the use of Portland cement. Applying the ideas of anthropogenic metabolism, they mine existing resources like minerals, salt and other substances found in the sabkha, and come up with raw star-like interlocking forms made out of extracted brine, which they claim captures CO2.

Benedetta Tagliabue’s master plan and building in Clichy-Montfermeil, Paris aims to improve our cities with streetscapes drawn down to the smallest detail: you just want to walk right in for a coffee. And then these Metro station designs seemingly made out of coloured paper birds, ”Oh, we forgot to put up a sign that these are actually being built right now in Paris!” says Tagliabue with a broad smile, happy to see another face in the almost deserted exhibition spaces. ”No, alas they won’t be made of paper, wouldn’t it have been wonderful! We have to look for sturdier materials to appease the authorities.” A lot of projects in the Corderie address the community aspect of architecture at present like Alison Brooks’s Home Ground where the juxtaposition of ephemeral veils hover over grounded halls and forums, creating reciprocity between private and public. Or La Palomera that engages with the fact that half the population of Caracas lives in the barrios, not being acknowledged as part of the city: how can the dynamic cultural spatial aspect be enhanced? There is a longing to discard the usual architectural drawings from above for inclusive, open and changeable presentations.

Studio Ossiana.

The Irish are definitely over the top with a dirty, growling, pulsating tower of rusty steel, ventilators, nests of cables and bea- ming screens. ”This is what the internet looks like for real”, says Donal Lally who, along with Clare Lyster and Sven Anderson of the design and research collective Annex, comments on how thermal energy has been tied to technology since the Stone Age. ”The cloud is a dirty hot mess of cables, ventilators: a real estate that consumes lots of energy. It’s an extractive process that will make the data centres in Ireland consume 30-40 per cent of our energy in a couple of years.” The screens are filled with data extracted from techni- cal literature analysed and spit out by algorithms. I’m just wondering why the whole contraption is not making Bitcoins? Nonetheless, this is just another comment. Where is the real implementation of change? When Massimiliano Fuksas was in charge in 1996, we met a 30-metre video screen at the entrance to the Arsenale – all traffic chaos, despairing favelas, waves of migration, burning nature – the challenge was set: this is the world of today, what will the architects do? Create beautiful forms or engage as connectors, mediators, inspiring and shaping the future of the planet? 25 years later with political polarisation, BLM and a pandemic, architects have hardly woken up to the task while the world has been urbanised to the limits of all possibility.

Plodding along to the Giardini, passing a suspiciously abandoned Chinese pavilion, Olafur Eliasson and Sebastian Behmann’s Other Spaces has assembled some 50 participants to illustrate UN’s call to action. But which of all these ideas will actually bear fruit in the future? Entering the German pavilion, I want to leave right away like Dezeen’s Marcus Fairs: it is completely empty except for QR-codes. But I stop. I have to try it. A filmscape with 120 tales from the future invades the space. ”We made it! We mastered the crises. It was pretty close, but technology and big data helped to turn new and old ideas into a new reality!” Arno Brandlhuber, one of the curators explains that by choosing the year 2038, also the 100th anniversary of the Nazi pavilion, they could look back in time instead of forward. ”By exploring which seeds of 2020 and 2021 grew into the future, we found that the idea that architects should make more beautiful buildings wasn’t helpful at all. All this talk about sustainability didn’t really catch on in the building industry. There was an economic model of linear growth tearing down buildings to make way for new ones, but then came exponential growth that forced architects to engage with economics.” One of the seeds brought forward is how Taiwan managed the Covid crises, according to Brandlhuber. Instead of big data harvesting our data, in the future it will be personalised, we’ll own it ourselves. This is definitely my favourite take on the theme: instead of looking into individual solutions, we make a reverse engineered analysis of the present.

Installation by Lucy McRae

The usually so provocative Austrian pavilion, scrutinises the mushrooming networks of platform urbanism using our cities both for data mining by Amazon, Airbnb, Uber, WeWork et al, and proliferating their markets by invading and changing the physically built. Curators Peter Mörtenböck and Helge Mooshammer seem to deplore a city on demand and a collapse of scale that turns urbanism into a com- modity rather than a common good. The pavilion is studded with photos of an invaded cityscape. The concept of smart cities would be more to the core of how big data appropriates the physically built, and right up the alley for the bloggers in residence like Saskia Sassen, Slutty Urbanism and others. Isn’t this is a bit like Plato arguing that all commerce should be cleared out of the agora because it is meant for debate and philosophy? Poland, usually a revelation, did miss out along with Hungary on staging the theme reclaiming democracy. The most beautiful pavilion in the Biennale, the Nordic one by Sverre Fehn, is for once a surprise. Instead of the usual tired and lame exhibitions shunning the theme, this time Helen & Hard showcase a full scale co-living home: splendid wood work where private and public areas intermingle in a habitat being built in Stavanger. They propose an architecture of contemporary challenges: countering loneliness among singles with intertwined communal living, all in order to integrate regardless of age, class, ethnicity, and so forth is direly welcome instead of the usual Nordic variations on the formal qualities of modernism. Wood is equally present in the US pavilion, curated by Paul Andersen and Paul Preissner, no skyscrapers this time but traditional timber framing as a basic ingredient in American barns and homes.

A light rain accompanies my walk back into the city. Pleasantly free of the usual mass tourism, the giant cruise ships are replaced by dolphins. The Venetians have reclaimed their city and drink spritz while the kids see yet another ball splashing down in a canal to be picked up almost immediately by a passing barge. The campi are truly like the outside of the inside of palaces and all kinds of dwellings. Nevertheless, it will be back to crazy normal once the pandemic is past. Historical Venice nowadays counts some 50,000 inhabitants (200,000 in the 1970s) and is swamped by some 25 million day visitors a year. Why isn’t the city visiting tax related to the current state of a tourist’s hometown: terribly expensive if their cities are both inhuman and an affront to nature. Why is Venice the world heritage exception and not the planning rule for all new cities? Would it be possible to build anything like Venice with the regulations and economics of today? Would creating town squares out of reading Greek philosophers and Amanda Gorman be possible?

There isn’t a Venetian mask in sight, even though they were worn daily some 500 years ago in a city where appearance was a never-ending play. At Joseph Grima and Space Caviar’s V-A-C at Palazzo delle Zattere, my first impression is just one more ivory tower of endless work shopping and comments. But I’m wrong. The debates capture and take on this year’s Biennale theme. Grima is perfectly right when he says it’s enough with talk, we need to implement all ideas and the role of the architect needs a total makeover for sure. ”Minerals, rocks, loggings, oil, everything is extracted from our forest”, says Nina Gualinga, environmental rights activist form Ecuadorian Amazon, ”We indigenous people amount to some 4 per cent of the world population, and we protect more than 80 per cent of the remaining biodiversity in the world. It’s not economically feasible to just plan and profit for some years ahead, we need to look out for our children, our grandchildren, to look at least 150 years into the future.” Joseph Kosuth bellows that ”our cultural ecology is as endangered as nature, corporate greed is grinding and consuming our heritage, eradicating our memory, all for short term profits”. Tech entrepreneur Alexander Voigt, founder of Lumenion, says we have been burning things since humans tamed fire, and now we have to in order to survive. Grima claims that we as a species have become extremely specialised in living in tight cities, a vulnerability we must leave behind in order to embrace nature: ”It’s a paradox that we consider ourselves an advanced society when we are completely unable to understand the consequences of our actions 150 years into the future.” Nina Guiling asks rhetorically if humans are an alien species on the planet, and had Sinéad O’Connor been present she would have added, ”It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society”. Mikolaj Sekutowicz, who together with Grima is in charge, stresses their theme of non-extractive architecture pounding the perfectly polished table, asking how we can have an emotional relationship with the environment when architecture and design exclude us from it. Simon Schäfer-Stradowsky from IKEM says everything is down to economics: we do have to leave the space of guilt, we need to come to a new definition on how to live together all in order to define new habitats for humans that are pro-human and pro-nature.

QR codes in the German pavilion

While this is the Biennale, I miss in the official version. I do sense even here a growing unease that the big players are not present. Where is China, where are smart city developers like Alphabet and Samsung, where is the building industry, the banks, the realtors? And then suddenly, a unicorn appears, seemingly right out of the last Burning Man festival, at least fashionwise, and with a Byronesque flair (yes, he will declaim some verses at lunch later!). Joel Dietz, one of the front figures of cryptoeconomics, a serial entrepreneur and a connection science fellow at MIT, promises digital system efficiency and economic power that will teach us to cope with nature through blockchain networks and swarm intelligence. ”We have full-scale highly digital representations in virtual reality that invite shared experiences, we can assess pollution as well as manipulate parameters of the built urban fabric through simulations.” One can create digital art galleries, sell digital art, there is even a digital Stonehenge to visit, all of it in a parallel universe where Dietz is happy to finally see Schinkel’s visionary architecture erected down to the smallest detail. It can spill out in the real world through investing in digital tokens saving parts of the Amazon or Zanzibar. Totally unregulated and unlawful of course, the changes are implemented almost instantly, an order of magnitude far more radical than when MVRDV came up with a scheme for Almeria years ago: forget about any building codes, just respect the percentage for public areas, parks and such and just make it work. Here is a parallel advanced society that could uproot and totally transform how we build and manage our cities. When one of the speakers raises the idea about giving trees the right to vote, a continuation of Animal Rights Law, I muse on the idea that Singapore proposed eleven years ago at the Biennale. Just build 1,000 copies to house all of the world’s population on a footprint not larger than Texas, leave the rest of the world at peace (and as a tourist destination). Isn’t it time for a revolution in the spirit of the French one at the end of the 18th century: why not let indigenous populations and animals, trees et al decide the fate of a nature that humans can only respect but not create? And then the rest of us can vote on what we can actually produce, i.e. our cities regardless if they are real or virtual.

My last stop, after a solitary bath at Lido, is Fondazione Vedova. Georg Baselitz has the best comment so far, albeit unintentional. At first, the black and white paintings look like hazy maps, but there are figures resting, chatting, running, a flow in all directions. This is the real soul of the city at its most beautiful. This should be the lesson for architects, to go beyond plans, abstract drawings, the usual construction process, the usual economics. This is about building for life. And that’s the question that Venice prompts: how can you build something as mesmerising today? A mirage on the water, almost totally in sync with nature and as non- extractive as possible.

Published in Form 2021

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