Can architecture help us to solve real world issues?

Olivia Butcher examines the key exhibits at The Venice Architecture Biennale 2016

The Venice architecture biennale is a global exhibition of contemporary architecture, held every two years across the city. This year’s theme challenges architects to push the boundaries of what architecture can achieve, confronting some of today’s greatest social, political and environmental challenges. But does Alejandro Aravena’s biennale succeed in producing real world solutions for real world issues, and if so, how?

As an institution, the biennale has long acted as an experimental platform for architects and artists to explore radical ideas and suggestions of the global future of our visual world. It has stood as a barometer for stylistic trends and technological experimentation. The theme for the 15th architecture biennale ‘Reporting from the front’, selected by creative director Alejandro Aravena, introduces us to a side of architecture that in previous years has been widely neglected. Aravena comments in the exhibition catalogue that ‘we are interested in architecture as the instrument of a humanistic civilisation, not as the result of a formal style’ – perhaps a subtle swipe at the 2014 director Rem Koolhaas, whose exhibition theme ‘Absorbing Modernity’ examined world famous structures through a distillation of the successful elements of their design and style, glossing over any explicit suggestions of the social responsibility of architecture.  In contrast, the 2016 biennale attempts to suggest ways in which good design practices and innovative thinking can help the world cope with tangible issues that affect us all: inequality, migration, climate change and creating sustainable solutions.

It may seem a little ambitious, arrogant even to suggest that architects may succeed where numerous governments, charities and international organisations have often struggled. There is always the danger with projects driven by an intention to address moral responsibility that architects risk indulging themselves to satisfy their own consciences. There needs to be evidence that architects are pursuing something beyond a ‘humanistic’ design trend. What is needed are ideas that offer truly viable solutions. Yet there is a legitimate sense with this biennale that good intentions have been translated into effective results.

Most importantly, the theme of the exhibition appears to centre on architecture as a conversation, a dialogue of ideas and potential solutions. The curator’s statement room, which introduces the exhibition and its theme, reflects such discussion aesthetically. The trialling of ideas, the conversations between exhibition co-coordinators, is conveyed to us through a series of video screens detailing the conception of the overall exhibition; alongside exposed wiring, stacked plaster boards pinned with discarded plans and jagged steel brackets suspended from the ceiling. There is a raw beauty here, a sense of incompleteness but also progress. Aravena highlights the cyclical process of design and the need to engage in discussion, trial and error to cultivate good ideas.  This unpretentious approach to architectural design characterises the exhibition as a whole and paves the way for a stripped back and open minded attitude to problem solving.

The responses of the individual exhibits to the biennale theme are equally compelling. The work of Rural Urban Framework (RUF) in Mongolia, focuses on managing of the huge influx of rural to urban migration in Ulaanbaatar (the coldest capital city in the world). The dialogue with resident’s, which has been intrinsic to the design process, is presented through video interviews. RUF looks at ways to adapt the thousands of existing structures that have already sprung up on the fringes of the city, known as Ger districts. These areas have been left out of mainstream urbanization processes, so the likelihood of newly built mass housing developments as a solution is unlikely. Instead, RUF have identified through extensive discussion with local people, the key problems the districts face and have helped generate solutions whereby both social and environmental issues can be targeted effectively, using local skills and knowledge. Gers are basic wooden structures that are difficult to heat, with residents spending around 33% of their income on heating their homes with coal, which is also highly polluting. RUF helps to develop individual Gers to confront these key problems and to adapt to the needs of resident, allowing a rapid improvement in living standards. This individual development of lots is a method of building known as ‘Incremental Urbanism’, a viable alternative to mass housing developments.

A similar strategy is employed by the BeL architects in their proposal for the redevelopment of German cities in response to population growth. Their giant blue foam model illuminated with bright neon signs and miniature replicas of the envisaged neighbourhoods, is definitely hard to miss and the ideas behind the display are just as intriguing. BeL predicts that Germany’s housing shortage will stand at around four million by 2026. It’s response- simply structured ‘Domino houses’ that can be built by residents.  Because of their simplicity, they are again, adaptable to the needs of the individual, meaning residents can adapt the layout of their home to befit how they use the space. The concept of self-build structures allows not only for greater efficiency in building, as large numbers of houses can be built much more quickly, but establishes a direct point of contact with architects and the people inhabiting the buildings they have designed.

These examples alone indicate a change in the tone of contemporary architecture, pushing  for a shift in approaches to urban development; and architecture as a whole. Architect’s responses to ‘Reporting from the front’ demonstrate overwhelmingly that adaptability and the sharing of ideas and knowledge are fast becoming the most important tools for the sustainable development of our future. Whilst ‘Reporting from the front’s’ intentions are clearly ambitious, the drive towards the use of architecture for social purpose is a positive indication for the global development of building practices. The creativity and innovation of this year’s contributions to the exhibition goes a long way towards supporting Aravena’s belief that ‘architecture made, is making and will continue to make a difference’.

Olivia Butcher is a third year History student currently on a term abroad in Venice

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