Reactive Architecture

Reactive Architecture

Accessibility, sustainability and humanity take centre stage, pushing the literal and figurative boundaries of space through international participation.

“We owe it to the fields that our houses will not be the inferiors of the virgin land that they have replaced,” wrote the Swiss-born philosopher Alain de Botton (b. 1969) in The Architecture of Happiness. The work, published in 2006, is a brief but elegant meditation on the duty of architects to build respectfully, thoughtfully and virtuously – to create structures that set the stage for a more promising future.

In a contemporary society marred by political turmoil, social strife and environmental challenges, the need for responsible architecture, as described by de Botton, is perhaps more profound than ever before. It’s no wonder then that this year’s Venice Biennale exhibition, aptly titled FREESPACE, is dedicated to the many generous, considerate, and democratising ways in which contemporary architects push the boundaries of space, and in doing so help to create a more sustainable, prosperous and forward-thinking world. Grafton Architects Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, who were selected to curate this year’s programme, explain the concept: “FREESPACE encourages solutions for the well-being and dignity of each citizen of this fragile planet.”

To further emphasise the notion that contemporary architecture can function as a vehicle for social change, the curatorial duo penned a declaration of their guiding principles. “When we were writing the Manifesto,” the pair wrote, “we wanted primarily to include the word ‘space.’” They continue: “We also wanted a new use of everyday words, which could somehow cause us all to re-frame the additional component that we as a profession can contribute to humanity.”

Open to the public until 25 November in the Giardini and the Arsenale, and at smaller venues across Venice, this is the 16th edition of the Biennale, which, since its inception, has promoted both the social need and desire for architecture. “Talking about options for architecture,” says Biennale President Paolo Baratta, “means talking about our political and institutional systems, our laws, recognised rights, the ability to implement them, about vita activa, and about our culture.”

This year’s show features 71 projects and 29 special selections, incorporating proposals, built and un-built elements, as well as physical examples that respond to the overarching concept of interconnectedness outlined in the Manifesto. The event includes work by an international roster of names ranging from American practices Studio Gang, Michael Maltzan Architecture and Diller Scofidio + Renfro, to Australia’s John Wardle and Room11 to Toyo Ito & Associates of Japan.

Closer to home, the event’s host country is well represented by Francesca Torzo, Laura Peretti and Biennale veteran Cino Zucchi, amongst others. In recent years, Zucchi’s award-winning, Milan-based business has made headlines for its innovative creations that blend urban design, open space and structural integrity to create some of Europe’s finest mixed-use environments. Amongst Zucchi’s newest – and most noteworthy – opuses is the Pedrali automated warehouse that’s situated in the centre of the Lombardi countryside. Completed in 2016 and named Fili d’erba (which translates to “blades of grass”), the futuristic furniture-storage complex measures 7,000 square metres and boasts a sky train and self-steering shuttles. Holding the environment at its core, this project reflects the company’s ethos of contributing to the landscape through synergy.

Whilst Farrell and McNamara’s presentation looks toward the future of sustainability, social contribution and both functional and aesthetic design within the wider landscape, it also pays homage to significant milestones in history and celebrates Biennales past, bearing in mind the core values enumerated above by Baratta. The curators remark: “In architecture time is not linear. The practice brings past, present and future together … Within the overall exhibition, the past is reinvigorated from the viewpoint of contemporary architects.”

Indeed, history plays a particularly active role in one of the Biennale’s aforementioned special sections, Close Encounter. This strand shines a light on contemporary constructions that were heavily influenced by well-known buildings of the past. Amongst the 16 historical projects showcased are Auguste Perret’s mysterious Parisian concert hall Salle Cortot (from 1929) and the threshold of Milan’s Via Quadronno 24 designed by Angelo Mangiarotti and Bruno Morassotti which appears to envelope its visitors and inhabitants, welcoming them home from a day spent in the bustling city.

Looking forward, 63 countries from around the globe are participating by erecting national pavilions across the city. Many of these countries are using the Biennale as an opportunity to engage in a dialogue about the future by addressing the contemporary issues that mean the most to their citizens. Britain’s Island, for example, was designed by Adam Caruso, Peter St John and Marcus Taylor, and touches on themes of isolation, colonialism, climate change and Brexit. Poland’s transformational installation – the brainchild of curator Anna Ptak – changes in response to light rhythms, water level and visitor interaction, confronting the need for smart structures that consider the ever-evolving environment. And Denmark’s sustainability-focused Possible Spaces proposes its new OMA BLOX building as a paradigm for interdisciplinary and cross-cultural innovation. “At the core is the shared respect of the Earth as client,” state Farrell and McNamara.

Taking this theme forward are seven national participants that are making their Biennale debut this year, including Saudi Arabia, the Holy See and Guatemala, whose presentation, Stigma, proposes a virtual and utopian city inspired by the archetypal crisis of language – or “confusio linguarum” – that transpired in the story of the Tower of Babel. Unlike in the aforementioned Biblical example, translating the ideas behind the FREESPACE programme into the many different languages of participants may prove to be an enriching task for curators, practitioners and visitors alike. As McNamara and Farrell explain: “It is our hope that the word ‘freespace’ allows us to burrow into the aspirations, ambitions, and generosity of architecture.” A de Botton-inspired reading of the multiplicity of languages represented in this Biennale would also take into account the lines of communication drawn not only between practitioner and project but also between project and public. “Arrangements of stone, steel, concrete, and glass,” the thinker writes, “seem able to express themselves – and can on rare occasions leave us under the impression that they are talking to us about significant and touching things.”

Stimulating a dialogue between a structure, its surroundings and its inhabitants is a task that has been mastered by the show’s two curators. Since establishing their award-winning outfit, Grafton Architects, 40 years ago in Dublin, Farrell and McNamara have become known for their ability to adroitly navigate both natural and urban elements to forge new and imaginative spaces that put people, and usability, first. The firm’s best-known projects include the towering, cliff-like Universidad de Ingeniería y Tecnología (UTEC) campus in Lima, Peru, which was inspired by the city’s dramatic natural landscape, and Milan’s futuristic Università Luigi Bocconi School of Economics, which boasts a suite of research offices suspended, as if by magic, over a sprawling undercroft. The former earned Farrell and McNamara a Silver Lion at the 2012 Biennale and was dubbed the world’s best new building by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) in 2016, whilst the latter was named the World Building of the Year at the 2008 World Architecture Festival.

Last year, the pair – who have held numerous prestigious positions in higher education, including the Kenzo Tange chair at Harvard GSD and the Louis Kahn chair at Yale University – received the Thomas Jefferson Medal in Architecture for their commitment to culture and education.

Accessibility is certainly at the forefront of the work of a number of Biennale participants, such as Michael Maltzan Architecture (MMA). Over the past two decades, the progressive Los Angeles-based firm has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to revitalising its home state through a variety of commercial and residential constructions. Chief amongst Maltzan’s California credits are Inner-City Arts – a Skid Row-adjacent community centre that provides arts education to thousands of at-risk youth from local public schools each year – and Crest Apartments, a 64-unit apartment building that caters to the complex needs of the formerly homeless veterans who reside there. In both of these instances, MMA established adaptable, functional, village-like environments that encourage indoor–outdoor mobility and nurture collaboration and interaction through spatial openness. Of these projects, the group’s principal and namesake has said: “If you believe that architecture has a fundamental role in shaping what an urban culture is, then architecture of course has a real and important role [in] projects which address social issues at the scale of a city. Architecture is one of few disciplines with the capacity and ability to take on these challenges.”

The community-driven ethos of MMA resounds in the work of fellow Biennale contributor Talli Architecture & Design, whose expertise lies in change-of-use commissions that aim to breathe new life into once-beloved structures. In the late 1990s, the Finnish company famously revived the deteriorating Lasipalatsi building – a functionalist icon of Helsinki.

These types of connections are rife within this year’s show. Through welcoming countries across borders, nationalities and identities, it aptly touches upon that which design, architecture and ultimately, art, can offer in terms of reminding us of our humanity. Though the overarching theme of FREESPACE encompasses a wide range of interpretations, the individual and national submissions to this Biennale are intertwined through a common thread: the idea that by testing, toying with and ultimately dismantling preconceived notions of space through architecture, it becomes possible to create environments that not only serve a basic structural function but also the greater good of the people and which affect positive change for the world of tomorrow. Here again, de Botton’s words on architecture ring true: “We owe it to the worms and the trees that the buildings we cover them with will stand as promises of the highest and most intelligent kinds of happiness. We look to our buildings to hold us, like a kind of psychological mould, to a helpful vision of ourselves.”

Stephanie Strasnick