Working at the Front
In the session Working at the Front, the discussion focussed on the various ways in which architects work in extreme conditions to address urgent issues that face our cities and to foster positive change. Marieke Kums (MAKS) showed the complexity of stakeholders within the urban lab of the Philippines: a collaboration between UNHabitat, municipality of Tacloban, the regional and national government, local inhabitants and the Creative Industries Fund. She shared her insights and experiences working in the post-disaster struck environment and elaborated on the contribution by the various parties setting the complex brief. Marieke articulated the challenging process to ensure that all stakeholders are part of the climate resilient development.
On and off site
Martin Sobota (Cityförster) is part of the UN-Habitat team that works in Gaza. He showed the arguably remarkable engagement of the local community and municipality in urban planning. His presentation also addressed the difficulties faced making a site visit or simply moving around in Gaza city in order to conduct work. In the Black Friday report, Forensic Architecture collaborated with Amnesty International to reconstruct the events in Rafah, Gaza, from 1 – 4 august in 2014. Since the team was denied access to Gaza, Forensic Architecture created a reconstruction of the events from images and videos recorded by professional and citizen-journalists. The team used its highly analytical spatial skills – and understanding of architecture and the city – to cross-reference different data and identify patterns.
During the discussion, it became clear that strong spatial compositions of evidence base material – models, proposals and strategies – can instil important changes. Although (cross-disciplinary) design is a good instrument to structure information, producing a plan or design does not necessarily deliver the impact desired. The urban labs and Forensic Architecture are both searching for ways to insure impact in different domains – politics, policy, human rights – through the logic of architecture and close collaborations.
Designing beyond the Nation State
Contributions to the Architecture Biennale in Venice show various reinterpretations of utopia. The session on desiging beyond the nation state explored how artistic-driven and speculative design research can contribute to building a new political, economic and social unity. Ali Karimi and Hamed Bukhamseen, curators of the Kuwaiti Pavilion, revealed their unlikely proposal for the piecemeal masterplan for the Gulf as a region. In their (speculative) plan for a united Gulf, it would be the first time in history for Persian and Arabic islands to create an archipelago beyond the nation states. Researchers of Behemoth Press delved deeper into a possible future of the region through a poetic manifesto for two islands: one reconnecting with the ancient ruins, the other cyber-tapping on the underwater data cable.
Stephan Petermann (AMO) pointed out how relevant and urgent it is to keep on thinking beyond nations and to reflect on it; to see how utopian thoughts can become operational or to learn from places that turned out to be dystopian. Stephan stated that architects should push their boundaries and enter the domain of politics. The discussion focussed on the possible role of the architect in co-creating new visions and on the way in which projects based on utopian thoughts can be realized. The speculative proposal for A Gulf saw the light of day at the Venice Biennial - a cultural manifestation. This made it possible to question issues and make proposals which otherwise, due to political tension, would be censored.
Learning from Makoko Floating School
Kunlé Adeyemi, founder of the architectural office NLÉ, reflected on the experiences of working on the Makoko Floating School (MFS) in a conversation with Afaina de Jong. They discussed the premise, process and the impact of the project and the possible next steps – considering the fact the structure collapsed recently. MFS is a prototype structure that was realized in 2013 in the context of responding to urgent situations due to a physical and social challenge. Physical in terms of urbanisation and climate change, social because of the status, existence and development of the Makoko floating community: a settlement on the Lagoon in the heart of Lagos. The project is an example on how to catalyse change.
First do it
To the question about how embedded Kunlé had to be to actually realize it, he explained that it took one and a half year of intense contact with the community to gain trust and knowledge. He explained that the purpose was to do it first, to start building it as a prototype. To do that takes a lot of effort and learning about the local logics and ways of living. In the 2 years after completion, the team monitored the structure and its usage to understand its function and possible impact. The impact of the project continues, also after the collapse. It left a certain mark and state of mind, gave a second life of impact to the situation and raised the question of responsibility and the way to move on. The team is committed to learn from this process and take it to the next level. Besides keeping in contact with relevant stakeholders, NLÉ took the Biennale as an opportunity to enhance the building structure. On the water at the Arsenale quayside, the team built a replica of the Makoko Floating School. The replica – MFS II - also stages an exhibition about the changing relationship between water and rapidly expanding cities.
Cultivating a new kind of architecture
To the question whether a building at the frontline needs to be photogenic to have an impact in this image driven world of fast media, Kunlé stated that it is more important to make it meaningful. Even so, if beauty is powerful and has an impact, then it should be employed. We should build our most beautiful buildings for the most needy in this world. In that sense, we should cultivate a new kind of architecture that is super sexy and super serious at the same time.
The Garden as Storyteller
'The Renaissance - as you will know - was a period of great transformation, with discoveries like the bookpress, perspective and an admiration of rediscovered classical history. Nature was considered the great teacher of the arts with man as its masterpiece. In garden architecture, nature was no longer feared but welcomed into the confined space of the garden. The natural landscape was represented in different states of wilderness, from the rugged to the clipped, translated into garden features like the bosco or the grotto. The landscape outside the garden became part of the garden panorama. Statues and symbols spread across the garden referred to classical mythology, turning the garden into a storytelling book.'
Energy of Change
'Wandering these gardens on my personal Grand Tour, I marvel at how well they are designed; the spaces are pleasant with clear transitions from one space to another, the villa and the garden have a strong relation without becoming stuck in symmetry and the gardens are filled with allegories and meaning. What sticks to me the most however: I still feel this spirit of the Renaissance, the enthusiasm of new possibilities, the joy of discovering your ancestors knowledge. The gardens exhume the energy of change.'
'Walking through the 2016 Architecture Biennale Reporting from the front, looking at the work presented, I feel this same energy, I see projects trying to cope with the changing times, treading unknown paths, finding new ways. And not just in architecture. It’s the same energy as for example the Lomboxnet initiative in Utrecht, turning solar powered cars into miniature power plants for the residents of the neighbourhood. Or blockchain, democratising information via distributed databases like a contemporary book press. Or as an individual like Daan Roosegaarde, morphing landscape, nature, art and technology into new spatial experiences.'
Age of discovery
'Recently I read an article about the book Age of Discovery, Navigating the Risks and Rewards of Our New Renaissance by Ian Goldin and Chris Kutarna. The authors state we are experiencing a transition similar to that of the Renaissance and are living in "an ideal habitat for ideas and genius to flourish".'
'I’d like to look at the Biennale from this perspective, trying to read the signs of a new Renaissance in the avalanche of material from all over the world. Four signs I’ve found:'
1. Delving into history
'Like the rediscovery of classical history in the Renaissance, today to we are delving into cultural history. Using modern day techniques as well as the good old plaster cast, we try to learn from our predecessors. At the lower level of the Russian pavilion for example, the destruction of detail and the whole craft industry along with it in communist architecture is shown, suggesting we can revive this art through thorough research of the remaining artefacts. The exhibition A world of Fragile Parts discusses the value of the ‘original’ when you can just 3D scan it, store it and print a new one.'
2. Studying culture
'There are lots of big models throughout the Biennale, scale 1: 10, 1:5, 1:1 even. These models are very precise and incorporate furniture, plants, books, pets. Some models you can almost enter, other ones are so huge you have to stand on a ladder just to be able to oversee them. Photos of the owners on the wall tells us who lives where in the model, to whom they are married and what their profession is. Because of their sheer size these models don’t tell us a lot about the architecture, but more about how the people live within these buildings, how they choose to organise their life, about their culture, and how the building reacts to this.'
3. New aesthetics
'New energy calls for new images. Already present for a few years in design and graphical design, a few pavilions have a new form of aesthetic which is very hard to my modernist trained eye. A sort of well chosen roughness or abundance, not relating to any architecture I know, more similar to inverted caves. It’s is difficult to appreciate for me, but at the same time gives me a great sense of freedom. In the Swiss pavilion this is done in a Swiss way: clean and precise and without color. In the USA pavilion they go all out in shapes and colours.'
4. Just do it
'There are lots of new names and smaller offices present at the Biennale. A lot of the work shown proves that you don’t need to be a big office or or a government to make a difference, just start and do it. Aravena draws a parallel with mosquitoes. A lot of tiny mosquitoes can kill a rhinoceros.'
Turning over Maslow’s pyramid
'In the Nordic pavilion - the shared pavilion of Norway, Sweden and Finland - I visit the exhibition ‘In Therapy’. In the beautiful building by Sverre Fehn a huge wooden pyramid, built using traditional construction techniques. The pyramid organisation is based on Abraham Maslow’s 1954 Hierarchy of Needs; a model consisting of five layers, representing the progress of an individual based on their needs. Each layer builds on top of the other; basic human needs like food, water and shelter form the base, on top to that come safety and security, the third layer is love, the fourth self-esteem and at the top of the pyramid self actualisation. This model relies strongly on thinking in advancing, in fulfilling your potential, in making progress with self actualisation as the ultimate goal. In Western world architecture all layers are accounted for and therefore we are trapped in the top of the pyramid, always aiming for new, further, better, bigger.'
'But this change, this Renaissance, just like the former, is turning over the table, transforming the pyramid into a grid, or a Rubix cube if you want, opening up whole new fields for architects. Architecture not only as a spatial practice at the top op the pyramid, but also as a social and a cultural practice. Architecture that wants to make a difference. Not just through our buildings, but through our specific way of thinking, architecture as an instrument.'
Shutting down the Biennale
'According to Patrick Schumacher, the director of Zaha Hadid Architects, the Biennale should be shut down, because it is too confusing and is not about the tasks of contemporary architecture. For me personally the work presented at the Biennale is very much about these tasks. The work presented captures the energy of this modern day Renaissance we are living: studying the lives of our designs inhabitants, taking action even without an assignment, rediscovering history, inventing new ways of building and working. it makes me want to be a part of it, be a Renaissance man.'
'To conclude, writing this column, pondering about the Biennale, I found myself mumbling the words to a song. I’m not going to sing this, but I’d like to quote The Jacksons.'
Can you feel it? Can you feel it? Can you feel it?
If you look around,
The whole world is coming together now.
Feel it in the air,
The wind is taking it everywhere.
Now tell me,
Can you feel it? Can you feel it? Can you feel it?
'Thank you for your attention.'
Joost Emmerik is an architect and an urbanist, working in landscape architecture design and research for the past ten years. He is focussing on the cultural meaning of the garden to society and the representation of larger landscapes within the confined space of the garden.
Images by Joost Emmerik