Thinking about human beings – and other species
29 October 2021, Paul Finch
Having just returned from a trip to Venice, the theme and exhibits at this year’s architecture biennale, curated by Hashim Sarkis, are still fresh in the mind. If you are thinking about a visit, the closing date is 21 November, so there is still enough time to plan a stay – or for teachers to organise a field trip.
In view of the COP 26 sustainability summit about to take place, the issues raised in Venice seem particularly pertinent. The title of the biennale, ‘How will we live together?’ is rather misleading, since it suggests someone is making a prediction, or issuing an instruction. Actually the point Harkis is making is the importance of the word ‘together’; can we actually do this? How might we go about it? How, to use the curator’s phrase, can architects help develop a new ‘spatial contract’ with the animal kingdom, with flora and fauna, and with the organisms essential to our well-being, let alone with each other?
As ever, the biennale is a curate’s (curator’s) egg, but there is enough good stuff to outweigh ubiquitous banal archi-speak verbiage. (A few years back, at a public biennale discussion, a student berated all present for putting up with nonsense language and flimsy philosophical meanderings. Peter Cook was on a panel and gave the appropriate response: ‘If you don’t like bullshit, you’re in the wrong town’!).
There are hits and misses, with attempts by architects to prove they are artists really, with varying degrees of success. Natural forms are emulated or deconstructed. Algae-like substances self-generate in plastic sheets. Green liquids in giant test tubes bubble away. Bees and insects take on the status of prophets and sages, sometimes being referred to as ‘more than human’, rather ignoring the fact, for better or worse, that the human species is the most successful in history, whatever harm we may be doing to the planet, although apparently ‘we are all cyborgs now’. Given the ongoing sight of porters trundling around baggage and rubbish across the city, this seems something of an exaggeration
Interesting speculations in the Estonian exhibit about the need to plan for shrinking cities, the UAU example of salt flats to generate fresh thinking about structural materials, and a hymn to the virtues of softwood construction (in the US Giardini pavilion) show the welcome range of thinking going on. The British pavilion is a rather tired retread of why the public can’t use private space, but at least fills the pavilion with stuff. Germany, next door, has managed to combine a deliberate misunderstanding of why you visit a pavilion with a repeat of the Caruso St John British pavilion a while back: there is nothing in the spaces themselves except QR codes which you have to download to see what the curators are on about. Anybody travelling abroad currently needs another QR code request like a hole in the head.
I made my excuses and left this rapidly, to be delighted by the Japanese pavilion, which featured a disassembled 1954 Tokyo house (with later additions), all the building elements being laid out for inspection with an explanation of what was used when and how. Some of the elements have ben repurposed as new objects, displayed at the pavilion base. This was a delight, attracting queues interested in a proposition about time, continuity, repurposing and the value of the existing, even if in a new form. This exhibition is going to Oslo and is clearly taking on a life of its own.
The Israeli pavilion featured an intriguing exhibition: ‘Land. Milk. Honey’, exploring the relationship between human history and that of the natural world – a perceptive take on the Harkis thematic. The Spanish pavilion, by contrast, explored the world of human ideas and initiatives, represented as a rather beautiful cloud of A4 sheets suspended artfully at large scale. Bahrain produced a beautiful exhibition about coral, pearl and mother of pearl, while by complete contrast, the relationship between architecture, finance and regulation in the context of Zurich was refreshing because of its difference – and a reminder that instead of multiple anthropomorphic please for help, the show could have done with more hard thinking in respect of what architects actually spend their time on, that is to say creating (or re-purposing) buildings and places.
Needless to say, it is impossible to do justice to the breadth of thinking which is represented at any Biennale –it is just about worth the detour. I must say, however, that I was left feeling that the design of a new relationship to the natural world, the curator’s ‘spatial contract’, is the latest justification for the modernist programme, replacing past validations such as health, mass housing provision, energy efficiency, functionalism, and community creation.
In general, the answer to the question posed in the exhibition title seems to be: more architecture. Of alternatively mere flights of fantasy, far removed from the messy business of creating a challenged new world.