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.
It’s rare that a city’s birth certificate survives, but here it is: a map of Hong Kong full of marks and notes. It is an intriguing document, but our attention should go to the upper left corner, where in the ‘white space’ of mainland China the Shekou peninsula is encircled as the new harbor and industrial location of what was to become the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone; conveniently situated and easy to control. The map with personal marks and handwritten notes makes history tangible. It all started with an idea and a location.
Let’s talk about law and faith. The law requires a certain faith – faith that it will perform in our collective best interest. Last year in particular, it was easy to lose that faith. Several high-profile cases brought to light incongruities in our judicial systems that unduly exonerated some, while persecuting others. Take the case of Wall Street. Following the 2008 crash, the US government put together its best legal team to root out what went wrong and who were the culprits. In a case where rapacious greed and gross misconduct were clearly at play, the government failed to prosecute a single major banker. Or look to the cold-blooded murder of Trayvon Martin by neighborhood vigilante George Zimmerman. Using Florida’s ‘Stand Your Ground’ law, lawyers were able to justify the racially-charged murder of a defenseless boy. Then there’s Guantanamo Bay, a prison run by the ‘most democratic nation’ in the world, still holding people stripped of their rights. All of this is technically legal.
Architecture relies on machines. They make the structures of our cities livable. In their absence, buildings would lack basic services like water and power. There would be no heating, cooling, lighting, fire safety, and elevators. Repairs and maintenance would be impossible; digital and communication technology also out of the question. The capacity to support life would be severely diminished. Architecture would be reduced to basic shelter.
Volume likes to think of itself as a critical magazine. Not in that it reviews and criticizes production, but in that it has a critical relation with architecture as practice and as notion. No problem up to now. Different worlds, different attitudes, the twain shall never meet, and they lived apart happily ever after…
In architecture a rat race is going on. Not another record-breaking tower – that wouldn’t be new(s). The race is about the application of a fairly new technology in the building industry. What at first seemed a cute and somewhat clumsy machine to produce architectural models and small objects, is now being tested to ‘go live’. I’m talking 3D printing of course and the ambition of at least two architecture offices, in Holland alone, to be the first to print a full-scale building. One is pursuing a pavilion, the other an Amsterdam canal house, complete with gabled roof.
It took awhile before Western design firms could believe that the building and design market in Asia was serious business, and also to come to grips with the ambition, scale and speed of development. By now they understand and are trying to pick some cherries from that trillion dollar tree; the more so now their home markets are slowing down or worse. ‘Going East Asia’ these days is not ´only´ about delivering housing quarters, railway stations, airports, fiber networks, waste water treatment plants and what not; it extends to the delivery of complete cities. It’s already been a long time that the West has been confronting the ‘building a new town’ theme, but today it is a business opportunity.
Less than sixty years ago, the battle for emancipation and class education was fought on private territory: inside the apartment. Today one’s house is supposed to be an expression of one’s individuality, but in those days the interior was subject to ideology and class struggle. During the first phase of the industrial city, newcomers in Western European cities had to be educated to behave like citizens: clean the house, manage waste, mind the children, in short conform to urban social rules. The right to live in a social rental apartment would be the reward for disciplined and confirmative behavior. After the Second World War, the focus of attention shifted to how to live a modern life: clean, healthy, and therefore happy, with simple, well-designed modern products in spartan, light, efficient spaces. One of Archis’ predecessors was dedicated to this very task. Inspired by social-democrat and modernist ideals, monthly magazine Goed Wonen [Good Living] showed what a good interior should look like as part of a program of education and emancipation.
‘Where is the center?’ must be the most commonly asked question when tourists enter a city. The center is where the action is supposed to be, where life is vibrant and interesting, where there’s lots to see, where you simply want to go. It is a matter of gravity and (functional) density that attracts visitors to ‘the center’. This tourist gaze is defining for our understanding of the city, any city.