Telling new stories for the future of the planet, this year’s Oslo Architecture Triennale, Enough: The Architecture of Degrowth, peels back the skin of capitalism and finds hope in the hopeless
Capitalism often feels as solid and certain as the ground beneath our feet, as sure as day follows night and what goes up comes down. ‘We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable’, Ursula K Le Guin admitted in 2014. ‘So did the divine right of kings.’ As the world goes up in smoke around us, the ground has started to slip and rumble. What was once certain and steady, now appears ridiculous, indecent and fragile.
You must be brave to peel back the skin concealing the ugly ribcage of our economic system, its guts ingesting gas, coal, trees, animals, minerals, water and clean air and flatulently defecating an endless stream of clothes, plastic bags and neat packets of processed food. Cracking capitalism open, the intrepid curators of the Oslo Architecture Triennale 2019 (OAT) have spilled its entrails messily all over the clean Norwegian floor. Enough: The Architecture of Degrowth argues that architects are mistaken if they believe they can confront the climate crisis by merely rethinking the way they design buildings. Instead, it is the economy and the very armature of our civilisation that requires a rigorous redesign.
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Daunting, maybe, but necessary, hopeful and exciting. The curators – including Matthew Dalziel and Maria Smith from London-based Interrobang, deputy director at the Architecture Foundation Phineas Harper, and geographer Cecilie Sachs Olsen – call for degrowth: ‘a designed reduction of total energy and material use, to realign society with planetary limits while improving people’s lives and distributing resources fairly’.
Degrowth is a new word, one of many we now need in order to give shape and meaning to alternatives to capitalism. Gathered at The Architectural Review’s conversation Degrowing Pains, AR Editor Manon Mollard asked whether we need to create a new language to change the way we think. Have our words been ruined? ‘Degrowth is a difficult word’, writer and OAT assistant curator George Kafka concedes. ‘I wish there was a better one.’ But perhaps it is a distraction from the matter at hand, Harper suggests. ‘Words are important but to a point. There’s no point getting caught in these fiddly little semantic discussions.’ But then again, semantics are sometimes the difference between life and death, architect Alexander Eriksson Furunes reminds us – if people in the Philippines were told a typhoon was coming in 2013, rather than a ‘storm surge’, perhaps 7,000 people would not have perished.
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The power of Enough is through its words. ‘We need new stories,’ Harper proclaims. ‘The old 20th- century narrative of endless economic growth and industrial expansion is crumbling but the next chapter is still being written.’ Some of these chapters have been written in Gross Ideas, a book of short science fiction stories and poetry edited by Edwina Attlee alongside Smith and Harper, forming the triennale’s alternative to the staid exhibition catalogue. Each is a possible future: in Sophie Mackintosh’s Placation and Rachel Armstrong’s Bittersweet Building, bodies are surrendered to the wet earth; Lev Bratischenko proposes mass genocide as the answer to the climate emergency, Steve Webb advocates slowness and the banning of the wheel, and curator Maria Smith conjures a future of rationed rights to air, water and consciousness. Anna Mill and Luke Jones’ Exile’s Letter, an echo of Li Bai’s eighth-century poem, imagines a rewilded Earth, words and drawing entwined on the page in a short graphic novel. ‘Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings’, Le Guin continued. ‘Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art – the art of words.’
Rather than polemicise, declare a 10-point plan, or, worse, a manifesto, the triennale brings together a multitude of different interpretations and visions for what degrowth could look like, for you to peruse, pick up, put down, bring together, and take home with you. Gross Ideas is an anthology of possibilities contradicting each other, some optimistic, some dystopic, each a mirror inclined from a different angle, reflecting a different unseen facet of the unwieldy knot of possible futures. The Triennale Library is a physical repository for these ideas, collecting together books, toys, models, vacuum cleaners, foraging baskets and enormous solar-powered inflatable flight sculptures, assembled in a magpie’s nest for you to borrow if you like. German theatre company Rimini Protokoll take you on a journey around the building site of Society Under Construction to meet different characters, hear their contradictions and complaints, then make up your own mind. Through the collective walking and playing of Place Listening, you can choose the stories you hear as you journey around the city.
Oat2019 library architecture credit yujia bian
Source: Yujia Bian
We must be realistic. Get real. More realistic than our current course, which is to plunge, blind and hot, into mass extinction and financial collapse. These stories, fictions, offer a more realistic reality than that. As we thrust grasping hands into the darkness, feeling for new words among the burning forests and softly rising seas of plastic, our fingers fall hungrily on Enough and its collection of radical and huge ideas alongside playful small things, both solid and comforting. We must make it realistic, otherwise what do we have?