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Learning from Venice: Alejandro Aravena’s Biennale from 2016

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Now that we’ve scraped the Giardini dust from our shoes and scrubbed the Aperol from our party frocks, can anything practical be taken from Aravena’s Biennale?

This year’s biennale might be summed up as a tale of two lagoons: in Lagos, a tangled wreck of rotting posts and blue plastic drums is all that remains of the vaunted Makoko floating school, now just more flotsam bobbing in the filthy water. Meanwhile in Venice, a pristine copy of the same structure is tethered to the docks of the Arsenale – untouched by children, a self-awarded trophy for ineffectual good will.

Admittedly, this goes too far with regards to both Kunlé Adeyemi’s school and Alejandro Aravena’s Biennale. After all, the former managed to stand up (if not really to function) for three years before its recent collapse. But the question of how the good intentions gathered here translate into action is a reasonable one, and becomes more pressing the deeper one delves into the exhibition.

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Source: Luke Hayes

By the time I got to the room full of garden gnomes and placards fulminating against asthma, Aravena had begun to seem like the Bob Geldof of architecture, and this Biennale his Band Aid. The spectacle of so many familiar figures donning the architectural equivalent of slogan t-shirts to sing a chorus of kumbaya makes it hard to resist thumbing your nose, especially when several simply took the opportunity for self-aggrandisement (Renzo Piano was a particularly egregious example, with a prominent room dedicated to his own achievements as an Italian senator).

‘Aravena’s famous half-houses made for effective visual rhetoric but compounded the problem they set out to solve’

Aravena’s curation didn’t help much either. His breathless admiration for some dubious exercises in iconomania failed to consolidate his theme of ‘reporting from the front’, and tended to undermine his ostensible aim of championing architecture with a social conscience. For instance, what front was Tadao Ando reporting from when he chose to return to the frustrating episode of his unbuilt 2009 project for two concrete columns in Venice – that of mid-life crisis? As well as frequently being unenlightening, Aravena’s texts were occasionally impossible to read – a minor complaint, perhaps, but a bad omen for someone who wants to design a better world.

Nevertheless, one should resist impatiently dismissing the entire project, which is at least superficially admirable in its general drift if somewhat soggy around the edges. To do so would put one in the company of those professional contrarians who want to get to hell in their hand carts as quickly as possible and seem suspiciously as if they are enjoying the crack of bones as they trundle over the bodies of the downtrodden along the way.

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Source: Luke Hayes

The question of course is not whether architects should try to change the world for the better, but whether this exhibition contributes much to the endeavour. As with all such grab-bags, it’s rather hard to say – so much is going on here, and so much of it is either banal, bad, or irrelevant. There are also many gems, the most highly polished of which attain the elusive goal of exhibiting architecture with aplomb – the Swiss pavilion, for instance, which consists of a huge, hollow rock formation that you can clamber inside.

This essentially depends on a spatial transformation of the gallery, something that many exhibitors failed to do, offering instead reams of factsheets, undigested data, and sub-theoretical guff, which is certainly unreadable by the harrassed hack scooting around the Giardini in two days, but also, and rather more problematically, likely to be equally off-putting to the normal observer. How can you change the world if you can’t communicate your ideas?

‘Belgium was beautifully curated, juxtaposing 1:1 models of details from the selected projects with photographs by Filip Dujardin’

Admittedly, Aravena set a near impossible task. For all its engagingness, the Swiss rock was mute regarding the Biennale’s nebulous theme. Trying to do both was a challenge taken up only by a few. The curators of the British exhibition, for instance, successfully disrupted the usually intractable spaces of their pavilion using the economical media of green MDF and bathroom fittings while attempting to convey ideas about the disruption of living conditions in Western society. Means of making a virtue of precarity were suggested in a series of mini-exhibitions that reframed the home, not as a dwelling replete with no-longer-fulfillable bourgeois ideals of permanency, but as a place for occupancy over hours, days, weeks, months, years or decades. These incorporated features such as Koons-style vitrines devoted to shared vacuum cleaners and large inflatable balls to be crawled inside – but the eloquence of zorbs is questionable. Over in the central pavilion, Eyal Weizman was more focused. His team presented a riveting report from the front line of global warfare, transforming the allotted space to demonstrate the effect of drone strikes on concrete and human flesh.

Australia's pool

Australia’s pool

Source: Luke Hayes

Others at least put on a good show. Belgium was beautifully curated, juxtaposing 1:1 models of details from the selected projects with photographs by Filip Dujardin; Australia’s celebration of pool culture was fun while also having something serious to say about the importance of social spaces; and the V&A exhibition on copies was fascinating – but although Sam Jacob’s migrant tent in stone made a valiant leap between the themes of copies and migration, it was a rather perilous one. The Spanish deservedly won the Golden Lion for their exhibition ‘Unfinished’, which collected architectural projects built in the wake of the crash. The quality of the work on show was universally high, demonstrating the resilience of architectural intelligence in the face of crushing austerity, and one can imagine the jurors heaving a collective sigh of relief: we do still have a purpose, even in these straitened times. My only reservation is that the steel framework from which the images hung had only superficial thematic resonance.

‘Indeed, not only is incrementalism toothless when faced with mass movements of peoples, climate change, structural racism and inequality, it can also be counterproductive’

For all these high points, it quickly became clear that if you’d gone to Venice looking for big ideas transferable to the real world, you were going to leave empty handed. This is a lot to ask under the most favourable circumstances, and one that Koolhaas made easier for himself in 2014 by promising little more than technical fireworks. Aravena is at once both more and less ambitious, promising to change the world with little ideas. He is also rather less capable than his predecessor. Nevertheless, some of his collaborators’ contributions did have something to offer.

These generally proposed interventions of the incremental sort, in accordance with Aravena’s own practice – there were few calls for revolution, whether political or architectural. One of the few contributors to take a global view was the LSE, which is currently involved in preparing a new version of the Athens Charter for the UN. An undertaking of almost bonkers ambition, one might think, but grand propositions were markedly absent even here: instead we got a survey of urbanisation around the world, and the observation that in the majority of cases, despite the growth of cities, density is falling – a rather too subtle hint that densification is the key to future success.

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Source: Luke Hayes

Indeed, the only pavilion to suggest solutions on a larger scale – even obliquely – was the Russian one. This involved a collection of casts of statuary from the VDNH exhibition in Moscow, a permanent expo opened in 1939 to demonstrate the advanced conditions of production in the Soviet Bloc; enjoyable in a kitsch sort of way, but also rather sad. The grand ambitions of youth can only be laughed at embarrassedly by an old age grown mean and myopic.

Elsewhere the increment was king. Rural Urban Framework’s video-filled tents told the story of upgraded informal settlements outside Ulaanbaatar. This was one of the themes of the biennale, tackled in this instance with impressive clarity. It also referred to another recurring theme, migration, and the attempts – or failures – of states to respond to it adequately. The Germans conveyed their nation’s erstwhile spirit of openness with exceptional force by opening their pavilion to all comers, blasting holes in its walls that meant it would be accessible 24/7 for the duration of the show, and within the perforated building there were many interesting architectural responses to the problem of migration. But Merkel has now reneged upon her promise, and the open hand of friendship becomes a slap in the face. Eyal Weizman’s investigation of the sinking of a migrant boat – no mere gesture, but a demonstration of the real contributions that can be made by design professionals – reminds us of the consequences of political inaction, and that incrementality isn’t enough.

Indeed, not only is incrementalism toothless when faced with mass movements of peoples, climate change, structural racism and inequality, it can also be counterproductive. The USA pavilion, for instance, which proposes various ‘playful’ ideas for improving parts of Detroit, has been rubbished by a campaign group called Detroit Resists which argues that it is simply the vanity project of a profession that has contributed more to urban blight than to its remedy, and continues to do so under the guise of good intentions.

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Source: Luke Hayes

Aravena has been accused of the same deficiency. His famous half-houses made for effective visual rhetoric but compounded the problem they set out to solve, stoking the financialisation of property by leaving ownership unreformed while making it more widely available – rather like the help-to-buy initiatives of the current British government. Little surprise then that he should preside over a collection of similarly self-defeating projects. In the end, this biennale is a depressing reminder of the limited power of architecture in the faced of political antagonism, and a dose of wild utopianism would have been more salutary than these hundred versions of ‘keep calm and carry on.’

But if we must make do and mend, there were some promising examples of how this might be done in a genuinely transformative way. These had little to do with design, but related instead to another key professional competency of architects: law. Berlin architect Arno Brandlhuber, known for his own skillful circumventions of German building codes, presented a film comparing the legal systems of various countries, such as Switzerland, the UK, Germany and Italy, and the tactics architects employ to operate within and around them, using and bending legislation, even changing it, in order to create more favourable conditions for themselves.

‘Aravena had begun to seem like the Bob Geldof of architecture, and this Biennale his Band Aid’

One of the architects to appear in Brandlhuber’s film, Luigi Snozzi, also exhibited in the Arsenale, where a display related the decades-long story of his work in Monte Carasso in the Swiss canton of Ticino. Snozzi was originally invited to design a school there in 1978 but rejected the commission, opting instead to redraft the local building codes to allow him to reshape the village as a whole. The resulting architectural transformation has been incremental – and visually very impressive – but significantly these increments rest on a foundation of systemic change.

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Source: Luke Hayes

However, as is pointed out in the film, such legislatory opportunities are rarely available to architects, especially outside the peculiar democracy of Switzerland. Under other systems, different methods present themselves. The Seville-based practice of Santiago Cirugeda offers a collection of Recetas Urbanas, ‘urban prescriptions’, that can be taken up by laypeople in order to transform the city themselves. These include such tricks as exploiting laws that allow skips to be parked in the street in order to install amenities – a mini park, a play area, a flamenco stage – by stealth. This is playful and like all playful interventions fairly useless but it is emblematic of Cirugeda’s ducking and diving, which has extended to more substantial improvements such as the construction of semi-legal dwellings for migrants.

‘Incremental change of the system is a better approach than incremental work around it’

These three architects work on the border of law and ‘alegality’, as Cirugeda terms it, and as such they operate in the anarchist tradition of which Aravena is also arguably a part. But while anarchism, when applied top-down by figures such as John Turner and his patron Robert MacNamara at the World Bank, has been used to normalise slums and to privatise the housing obligations of states, when it is used by actors on the ground it can take the form of tactical resistance, even becoming transformatory.

It is necessary to make clear distinctions here, even – or especially – in this grey area. Anarchism from below can backfire, as in the case of Cedric Price’s provocative attempt to rezone Buckingham Palace as a children’s hospital, which led to a tightening of planning laws (Price, who could be called a patrician anarchist, could afford to disregard the consequences of his interventions, and was later involved in anarchy from above, in the form of the Non-Plan episode – which led to Docklands).

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Source: Luke Hayes

Furthermore, anarchism that does not transform legislation can merely import informality into the west, undermining the necessary rule of law in an analogue of neoliberalism’s shrinkage of the state (as in the current ‘streamlining’ of British planning processes), thus aiding and abetting anarchism from above. After all, what distinguishes Cirugeda’s interventions from ‘beds in sheds’, the re-slumification of London’s fringes?

Instead what is required is a non-gestural, serious and careful transformation of law through engagement with it, not against it. This may not seem especially revolutionary since architects constantly work in this way, seeking paths of least resistance through tangled byelaws and planning regulations, but what these figures suggest is that such everyday practices should be consciously transformed into a tactical approach. Incremental change of the system is a better approach than incremental work around it, which works its limiting logic right down into the fringes of architectural practice and possibility.