Reporting From the Front addresses “issues of segregation, inequalities, peripheries, access to sanitation, natural disasters, housing shortage, migration, informality, crime, traffic, waste, pollution and participation of communities”, according to its director, Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena. Clearly, the commitment here is to the growing number of problems our planet is facing, and architecture’s possible role in alleviating them. Of course, Venice, a city increasingly stressed by tourism, gentrification, depopulation and rising sea levels, is not without its own problems, so Sergio Pirrone and I decided to look at how Venice is coping as the Biennale gets underway.
There’s no doubt: the 15th International Architecture Exhibition amounts to official recognition of a ‘turn’ that has been occurring in architecture; a turn from extravagance and exclusivity towards common sense and inclusivity. Except for the all-male panel discussion on opening day, this year’s Biennale is much more culturally diverse than previous editions, including many regions of the world that are normally ignored by the architectural establishment. There’s a visibly broader spectrum of materials, techniques, forms and colours than in previous Biennales. Several experiments involving vernacular building techniques and materials are present, including a droneport prototype for Africa designed by Norman Foster that uses Catalan vaults. At this Biennale, the voices of construction workers, building occupants, neighbours and other ‘stakeholders’ can be heard in addition to the usual ‘archispeak’ that prevails in these sorts of events. In addition to form-making, architectural practice at this Biennale is broadened to include, for example, forensic analysis of architecturally related evidence from crimes against humanity committed at Auschwitz or in Gaza, or the provision of better emergency shelters for refugees on Europe’s doorstep. Overall, this is the Biennale of process over product, evolution over revolution, and place over space. Interestingly, at the Aravena-curated main exhibition, just about every label is sub-titled “The Work of . . . in . . .”, putting place and authorship on an equal footing.
Upon entering Aravena’s exhibition, we are greeted by thick walls made of artfully stacked plasterboard fragments and, at the Arsenale venue, thousands of bent metal studs hanging from the ceiling. Apparently, these 100 tonnes of waste material came from the dismantling of the previous Biennale; 10,000 sheets of plasterboard and 14 km of metal studs, to be more precise. The installation really makes you wonder whether an ephemeral discursive event that is so wasteful is the most appropriate way to address social and environmental problems. While reduction, reuse and recycling are recurring themes within many of the exhibitions at the Biennale, almost everything on display – there are many full-scale constructions and prototypes – was shipped to Venice from all corners of the earth, which is also where most of the visitors come from. Seemingly, the message of ‘sustainability’ can only be transmitted to an information-saturated society by mounting the greatest architecture show on earth.
That the greatest architecture show on earth should take place in the fragile, over-touristified city of Venice is no small irony. While the sinking of the city has slowed significantly ever since groundwater extraction was halted in the 1970s, now it is the rising sea-level (due to climate change) that is damaging the city. The winter acqua alta floods complicate life greatly: objects on or near the ground floor have to be elevated, children have to be carried, hip-waders have to be worn at times, and every step on a fondamenta has to be taken with extreme care since the edge of the deep end is less visible. Although a public warning system using a scale of siren-like tones as well as mobile phone messages informs citizens when higher tides than normal are imminent, hope lies in the eventual completion of the ambitious MOSE flood barrier, which has suffered corruption scandals. Venetians seem to take acqua alta in stride, saying: ‘The show must go on.’ They refer, of course, to their daily life, not La Biennale.
The biggest problem faced by Venice is probably ‘us’, however. Venice’s native population is being driven out of the city by gentrification caused by tourism, the city’s only growing economic sector, not to say ‘industry’. As one of the biggest tourist attractions in Venice, The Biennale arguably forms part of the problem, even though it generates a lot of employment. Since the 1950s, the population of Venice has decreased by more than two-thirds. Meanwhile, the city often absorbs as many as 60 thousand tourists per day, outnumbering what remains of the citizen population by several thousand. The Venessia citizen movement displays the declining population of Venice by means of a ticker mounted outside a pharmacy near the Rialto Bridge, as well as on their website venessia.com. At the time of writing, the ticker indicates 55,777. Since its formation in 2000, Venessia has been fighting gentrification and the conversion of bakeries, butchers and other local businesses into tourist traps. It does so by staging elaborate public stunts: in 2009, when the population decreased to below 60 thousand, a public funeral was held for the city during which a coffin was ceremoniously floated along the Grand Canal. The following year it mounted the mock opening of a ‘Veniceland’ theme-park in a Disneyesque celebration that included activists in rat costumes handing out entrance tickets. It’s always worrisome when ‘architecture’ becomes a theme-park theme.
Of course, there are tourists and then there are tourists. As a favourite cruise ship destination, the port of Venice has seen a rise in both the number and size of these behemoths. The problem is that their waves and even, it is believed, vibrations from their engines damage fragile building foundations, while the less-refined diesel oil they are allowed to burn amounts to high levels of sulphur dioxide and particulates in the city’s air. The Comitato No Grandi Navi movement regularly organizes Greenpeace-like swarms of small-craft to halt cruise ships passing through the lagoon, while their anti-cruise ship protests at the port’s gates have resulted, at times, in violent clashes with riot police. Cruise-ship tourists, who sleep and eat on board their vessels, contribute very little to the local economy, so it is little wonder that Biennale tourists are tolerated much more gladly by Venetians than cruise-ship passengers. Half a million people – mostly foreigners – visited the last art biennale while nearly 300,000 visited the previous architecture Biennale (see Mark 51).
With its timely social and environmental bent, the latest Biennale portrays architecture more as a problem-solving discipline. Ideas and solutions are offered for dealing with everything from the current refugee crisis, fair and sustainable construction, working more meaningfully with existing buildings, to participation with local communities. The level of architectural creativity and bravura present at this event is no different; just the politics. Of course, Venice’s particular problems – tourism, the conservation of monuments and rising sea levels, among other things – are highly specific to its particular situation in time and space, as problems usually are. The Biennale’s exhibitions may offer little in the way of applicable solutions to the very city that is hosting this event, perhaps not even to most visitors’ countries. Architectural problem-solving is never without its own problems. Good thing, then, that the Biennale also happens to be entertaining and fun to visit. That way, we are at least offered a temporary escape from our own particular problems.