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Venice Biennale sees design virtuosity take a backseat to basic human needs

Venice Biennale 2016
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Jay Merrick reports from this year’s architecture biennale, where the theme Reporting From the Front has prompted a focus on housing and inequality

Jay Merrick

Jay Merrick

Jay Merrick

The most telling fact about the 15th Venice Architecture Biennale, sponsored by Rolex, is that of the 88 exhibitors in the Arsenale, only a dozen or so are well-known architectural practices. Design virtuosity is – with one or two peculiar exceptions – irrelevant to the director, Chilean architect and 2016 Pritzker Prize laureate Alejandro Aravena. He is using the event, titled Reporting From the Front, to highlight architectural responses to basic human issues such as inequality, sanitation, disasters, housing shortages and migration.

The Biennale’s president, Paulo Baratta, adds: ‘We are not interested in architecture as the manifestation of a formal style, but rather as an instrument of self-government, and as a demonstration of of the ability of humans to become masters of their own destinies.’

Destinies usually begin at home, and a significant number of exhibitors and national pavilions are dealing with this subject area. The German pavilion, for example, is focusing on immigrants with its Making Heimat exhibition, which has punched four big portals in its pavilion’s facades to make a bold metaphorical point about opening borders to incomers.

The Barcelona-based Indian architect Anupama Kundoo is exhibiting a full-scale house composed of handmade modules formed with panels of very precisely mixed cement with chicken mesh embedded in it. The durable mixtures are the product of her 15 years of research on ferrocement, via the inspirations of Frei Otto and Pier Luigi Nervi.

The cement and mesh modules are ultra-low tech and can be made by villagers, and either sold on or used to build their own homes. The ferrocement system can also be used to produce surprisingly elegant lightweight shell structures.

‘We’re not just talking about affordability,’ she says. ‘My work is to find alternative solutions to using significantly less materials, and action them.’ She also sees her housing system as a trigger for inclusive community education. Kundoo has used the same system to design a squatting lavatory – a response to the fact that about half of India’s 1.2 billion people defecate in the open.

A similar back-to-basics, and locally specific approach has been used by the Paraguayan practice, Gabinete de Arquitectura, led by Solano Benitez and Gloria Cabral. Bricks are very cheap in Paraguay, and the practice is developing a brick and metal rod structural system that Benitez claims can be used in tall buildings. The system has already been used successfully in small, architecturally expressive projects in Paraguay’s capital ,Asunción, which were visited by Peter Zumthor in 2015 while he was acting as a Rolex-sponsored mentor for Cabral.

There are equally ad-hoc projects exhibited by architects such as the South African, Andrew Makin, whose timber canopy for medicine traders in Durban is as usefully basic as it gets – a stark contrast to the few ‘Architecture with a big A’ projects in the Arsenale. Beautifully finessed as they are, one wonders what schemes such as Marte.Marte’s svelte Schanerloch Bridge in Dornbirn, and Barozzi Veiga’s Graubünden Museum of Fine Arts in Chur, have to do with Alejandro Aravena’s notions of architecture at the frontline.

The British Pavilion’s curators see the frontline for UK architecture as the housing crisis and the crisis of how we live

The Arsenale has become a vast narrative of raw materials, and a strong sense of hands-on fabrication and architectural and typological experimentation. Zhang Ke’s rough brick micro-hutong and tiny concrete library are strangely compelling; there are rough but materially intriguing structures from Rural Urban Framework of Mongolia; and a garbage walk-through by Hugon Kowalski, a Polish architect working in Mumbai.

The Republic of Macedonia produced a curving, mirrored tunnel filled with large ochre foam models of architectural icons. The title of the installation is No Man’s Land. Countering this totem-world are some wonderfully engrossing large-scale models, such as Bel Architects’ 20m², pale blue urban collage.

For NÍall McLaughlin, a recent frontline concerned his practice’s design of the Orchard centre for dementia sufferers in Dublin. The installation, designed with architect and Bartlett colleague Yeoryia Manolopoulou, is a field of 16 fibrillating video images showing the the hands of 16 of his architects drawing on A1 sheets in the centre.

In the British Pavilion, curators Jack Self, Shumi Bose, and Finn Williams are certainly on message. Selected and sponsored by the British Council, they have reacted decisively to what they see as the frontline for architecture in Britain: ‘the housing crisis, and the crisis of how we live’.

Their Home Economics exhibition sets out five polemical, pragmatically stripped down types of living space designed to suit specific periods of habitation: hours, days, months, years, decades.

Their exhibition is a series of high-res strikes against the prevailing socio-political and aspirational norms relating to housing. Home Economics recalls precedents such as Constant Nieuwenhuys’ 1959 New Babylon vision of permanently nomadic urban living, and the early co-operative living experiment in 1910 at Homesgarth in Letchworth.

But there is nothing train-spottingly academic, metaphorical, or artistic going on inside Enrico Trevisana’s 1887 building. Instead, we find an oscillation of objections and solutions. The objections can be summarised by tweaking the iconic title of Richard Hamilton’s 1956 collage: Just what is it that makes today’s homes so existentially irrelevant, so economically mendacious?

‘Housing choices are intrinsic to capitalist conditions,’ says Self, who also suggests that ‘the failure of Occupy was a turning-point. Activism is less a method of change. Who is responsible for the housing crisis? Power is increasingly diffuse and obscure, too sophisticated for public processes.’

Meanwhile, there are 100,000 bedrooms in Britain you can’t fit a bed in; more than 53,000 properties are being rented on a daily rate; there were more than 170 tenant evictions per day in 2015, the highest figure since records began; the average age of a first-time mortgage applicant is now 39; private renters in Britain spend almost 40 per cent of their income on rent, compared to the European average of 28 per cent; and 20 per cent of housebuilders’ profits are made on internal fixtures and fittings.

Bose speaks of the disconnect between architectural production and new housing formats, and emphasises that the five housing models in the exhibition were developed in collaboration with advisers including housing associations, developers, economists and estate agents, ‘so the proposals could be rooted in reality’.

Williams adds: ‘We need to understand how real estate impacts on architectural production. Radical changes are connected to quotidian things.’ And to occult things.  Self was surprised to learn that the Royal Bank of Scotland ran an internal think-tank to develop housing related financial products for the 2020s and 30s.

The five stay-time determined living spaces were designed by different curatorial teams. Self, Bose and Williams produced the Hours space (‘own nothing, share everything’); art collective Åyr delivered Days (‘home is where the WiFi is’); Months (‘a house without housework’) was the work of Dogma and Black Square; Years (‘space for living, not speculation’) was produced by Julia King; and Decades (‘a room without functions’) by Hesselbrand.

The design responses share a ruthless clarity, and only one – the inhabitable, charmingly vivid balloon for Days – seems retro: The Prisoner meets David Greene’s 1966 Living Pod, complete with inadvertently satirical supporting text: ‘To feel at home here, you only need a Wi-Fi connection, which you use to flit between your social media feeds, entertainment, virtual and commercial consumption … Your personalised spheres offer a new type of space that responds to the transience of your global mobility and is just as unique as you.’ Pass the Huxleyan soma, virtual dude! And top up the balloon with amniotic fluid while you’re at it.

There are one or two teasing ambiguities. For example, Self notes that ‘there’s nothing natural about the home’, and Julia King’s Decades living space is supported by this statement: ’‘Rationalism is the design of space through abstract or universal ratios. In 18th-century Georgian Britain, terraced houses used Classical proportions and harmonic dimensions to create adaptable, useful and timeless spaces.’ However Golden Ratio they are, are those qualities experienced as unnatural, or humane?

But, in general, Home Economics manages to articulate potential living conditions with remarkable clarity and directness; there are no blurry or bumptious analyses. And for the first time, the pavilion’s containing volumes have been rendered almost invisible.

The descriptive texts set out the concepts briefly and directly. Here’s part of the explanatory text for the Hours room-set, which would probably be found in tower-blocks: ‘You share a number of common objects with your neighbours – from practical things that are infrequently used (like power tools) to objects you can better afford together (like clothes). You keep these objects in a large transparent ‘garderobe’, or communal wardrobe. Even though you live in the centre of the city, your rent is not expensive. You use your savings to invest in shares of the company that owns and manages your building.’

Self likens the garderobe to Jeff Koons’ framed domestic objects – ‘a link to revealing ourselves digitally. What objects are we prepared to share with neighbours? How far can you go? Would we be prepared to share socks and shirts?’

The Months room-set, based on the boarding house model (and supported with two superbly produced research books) proposes a bathroom and kitchen surmounted with a bedroom, supported by co-living and co-working spaces; boarding house as the domestic equivalent of office co-working milieux, with individual cells as ‘pure temples for living’ – which is an unfeasible and strange description.

The Years interior sets out a brilliantly simple possibility that would surely be resisted by most of the housing development lobby for the foreseeable future: one buys nothing more than a basically functional domestic shell – roof, walls, floor, running water, electricity, lavatory, washbasin. By installing everything else themselves, homeowners add, and retain, property value on their own terms.

The Hours and Decades spaces are probably the most challenging and interesting proposals – the former for the stark functional originality of its approach to always sudden communalities; and the latter for its idea of space as something that cannot be demarcated – a kind of temporal tabula rasa whose boundaries are always ambiguous, always leaking away, always evolving into perhaps nothing more, or less, than an atmosphere of place and existence.

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