Moving forward implies looking back. When we started this research engine called VOLUME in 2005, economic, political, and social conditions were very different to how they are today. The intention to rethink the agency of ‘beyond’ as driver for change inevitably means historicizing the trajectory of the VOLUME project so far. That said, we really didn’t want to turn VOLUME itself into the subject of reflection. So we’ll instead talk about the present and, in so doing, find history creeping its way in whether we like it or not.
With the rise of computational networks and power, cognitive models developed and debated over in the postwar decades have finally been able to be put to work. Back then, there was a philosophical debate raging alongside the burgeoning field of computer science theory on the nature of consciousness. Yet with the proliferation of data and the centralization of its archives, theoretical practice moved from conceptual experiments to empirical tests.
It’s not the latest Hollywood production, the ultimate sound experience, or Apple’s next level consumer lock-in product line. And despite its ominous ring, it isn’t the enemy either, like how the NSA is framed as one. THE SYSTEM* indicates the complex interaction of the economy, professional practice and personal choice. The asterisk draws attention to the ambiguity of such a term while hinting at an intention to change ‘it’, whatever it is.
It’s still one of the world’s major concerns: shelter. Last year saw a sad record in the number of people seeking shelter: fleeing violence or hopeless poverty, looking for safety, stability and perspective. This year won’t be any better. And despite its complexities, public and political discussion reduced it to the all too simple question who will be sheltered, where, and who will provide for this.
In 2000, the so-called ‘Millennium Development Goals’ were adopted by the UN, one of which was primary education for all. This was in the wake of the post-historical years that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall, in which a ‘Yes, we can!’ mentality was present (long before we had even heard of America’s first black president). Poverty, famine, malaria, and more – all problems that we can and should solve as global community; that was the spirit. In light of the program, this year’s results have been evaluated. Some goals prove to be tough, but education scores rather well. Not yet 100%, but if we can believe UN statistics, today 93% of all children between 6 and 12 receive primary school education.
One of the more recent phenomena in a city’s public space is the ‘wrap’. Passing through the city, all of a sudden a familiar face is hidden from view, covered by a mesh of steel tubes and fine-grained nets. This all has to do with scaffoldings’ safety regulations, erected for a building façade’s maintenance. The nets hung around the temporary structure hide the building from view, making one wonder what it’ll look like when the job is done.
Recently, I learned about a new research program at Utrecht University focused on cycling. It is not part of their health department, as one might expect, but of a department specialized in modeling data. The researchers want to investigate cycling in the city as a complex system and produce a model to describe its dynamics. My first response was: people take their bike and move from A to B. How complex can that be? But with a little more information I started to understand that the bicycle has a dynamic relation with its surroundings. We take it for granted that an airport is a logistically complex system and has become a city on its own. We know that the car and the highway produce new functions and organize the distribution of them. We see that gas stations turn into super markets, that football stadiums are built next to or even across motorways, and so on. But the bicycle seems to escape such interactive relations. It is a faster way of walking, not a producer of space and program. But it is. With the ongoing growth of inner-city bicycle use to the detriment of the car, a kindergarten or daycare can be located in a street without parking facilities and yet be commercially viable. A small supermarket or baker will locate itself next door, taking advantage of the flow of potential customers bringing their children. If we see the bike as the producer of such arrangements, and not just as the means to reach them, we start to understand that to promote bicycle use and eventually even to exchange cars for bicycles in the city has far-reaching implications. There is more to it than constructing bike lanes and bike sheds. It’s changing the city’s systems.
Once upon a time, not so long ago and also not that far from where we are now there lived an architect. He, because it was a he, had the ambition to build big, real big impressive projects. He had a vision, or actually he had several. But something was preventing him to execute his ideas. He couldn’t find an investor or a developer who would support his plans. It made him miserable. But he wasn’t the kind of guy that gives up easily. So on a sunny day, it must have been November, he said to his wife and children and to some neighbors that visited his house: “I have a dream, I have a dream that one day I will be able to create what I envision. That one day, I will be able to make this place a better world.” That’s what he said. And everyone in the room applauded and was impressed. Everyone? Not his eleven year old daughter. She walk over to him, pulled his sleeve and asked with her sweetest little voice: “But why don’t you do it yourself, daddy?” The little rascal. She obviously had hit a sweet spot, because he burst out in tears. “Because”, he stuttered between his sobs, “my fellow architects won’t let me”.
This year’s Venice Architecture Biennale breaks with two mechanisms that defined its presence over the last fifteen to twenty years. First is the setting of a grand, though conveniently abstract theme that suggests a connection between current development and the state of architecture. The ethics of architecture (or of the architect?), the architect as seismograph, architecture is for people, that kind of stuff. These past themes suggested a critical position of the curator on duty, but hardly succeeded in influencing the debate, let alone affairs. At best they added flavor to the core element of the Biennale: a presentation of who matters in architecture. And that brings us to the second mechanism: no matter the main curatorial theme, every pavilion was totally at liberty to present their best architecture and architects. Some pavilions succeeded in selling an idea more than products and some (rarely) attempted to raise an issue, but the ‘who’s doing what’ element was dominant.
The busier this globe gets, the more impact disturbances have. Take the recently published UNHCR figures on refugees. An all time record – for as far as these statistics date back to (1986) – of over fifty million refugees worldwide. This is a massive stream of people on the run, mainly caused by violence. More than the entire population of South Korea, or South Africa, or Spain. It is a disturbing and sad figure of course, but why did we pay attention, why did it hit the news? Because the exceptional attracts attention, not a condition per se.