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Where is the Architecture? – Appraisal of the Venice Architecture Biennale 2016
Patrik Schumacher, June 2016
Published in: ICON magazine, issue 158, August 2016
We must rescue the Venice Architecture Biennale from pseudo-politicisation!
The Biennale is meant to be a global architectural forum for internal discourse about contemporary architecture as well as a forum to test the public's reaction to contemporary design. How can this happen without architectural designs on display? Where is the work of the architects? Why should architects become amateur documentary artists and amateur politicians?
Of course there are exceptions to this overall verdict, but this Biennale fails once more to display and discuss world architecture’s current most advanced/ambitious works and thus fails to discuss and critique architecture’s real responsibility to world society in light of its current productions. This Biennale abandons architecture’s real, specific, manifest agendas and substitutes for it vague, non-specific allusions to topical issues like the refugee crisis and perennial issues like underdevelopment and poverty.
At the very moment when we should step up into a public arena to present, defend and debate our work, we are asked to abandon our professional competency and responsibility, and revert to amateur dabbling in serious issues we know nothing about and no one has appointed us about. This self-appointment is preposterous and signals confusion about our genuine societal task.
Aravena and many national curators (e.g. the German and the Austrian Pavilion) are pandering to perceived pressures to signal awareness of urgent social issues and to gesture concern. Gesturing is indeed all the protagonists of our discipline can do with respect to these issues. This accomplishes nothing, except perhaps the alleviation of bad conscience or the vague feeling of being relevant, for a few days. Then we all must go back to our real work, unfortunately without having had the opportunity to use our gathering in Venice to debate, critique and discursively advance our work. At the heart of this misguided effort is a fundamental misunderstanding of architecture’s specific contribution to society.
The Arsenale, the International Pavilion, as well as most of the national pavilions have been given over to the vague artistic documentation of above mentioned social, economic, and political problems! In my view this is an irresponsible squandering of specifically allocated resources. Our precious communicative spaces are being given over to one-liner-slogans and gesture politics, squandering this unique global debating opportunity we urgently need to facilitate our discourse about how to upgrade and adapt our built environments to the challenges and opportunities of our rapidly evolving civilization. We should be confident enough about the societal relevance of our discipline and our real work and resist the temptation to bow to the pressure of topical issues like the refugee crisis we see unfolding daily on our TV screens, no matter how urgent these issues are. These are not our issues. We must think historically, in terms of decades, in terms of long term technological and socio-economic trends and opportunities. The Biennale is meant to showcase progressive (built and un-built) design projects and debate the innovation frontier of our discipline, where we explore the next stage, in the most advanced, central, high-density, high-productivity, high-value arenas of world civilization, where path-breaking creativity and superior sophistication is indeed called for, in contrast to emergency provisions for self-build huts. It is with the former rather than with the latter task that we can add serious value and effectively contribute to world prosperity. My stance is thus as much motivated by promoting architecture’s mission to progress society as is Aravena’s.
In order to demonstrate the ultimately constructive spirit of my (unfortunately by necessity very negative) critique, I would like to posit here how I would curate the Venice Biennale on the basis of three crucial points that must in my view be observed to host a truly relevant and vital architecture biennial.
Point 1: Since the Biennale must above all be a global gathering of all striving architects and their works, a thoroughly inclusive approach is called for. Therefore I would allocate the Arsenale to an unbiased survey of architectural design works (built or unbuilt) on the basis of architectural media citations, with exhibition space being allocated in direct quantitative proportion to these citations in the discipline’s specific media. This reflects the fact that I see the Biennale as an opportunity for the discipline’s face to face self-selection, self-critique and autopoietic, discursive self-advancement. The mechanism of selection/allocation intends to be meritocratic and avoids the curator’s inevitable myopia.
Point 2: The Biennale must be the architects’ and architecture’s Biennale. Therefore my directive to the national pavilions would be to address all topics and themes via the selection of contemporary architectural projects. Usually this would imply each time to show the work of the preceding 2 years. However, since the display of architectural projects has been neglected for several Biennales the next Biennale would have to recuperate the lost ground and select the best and most important works of the whole decade, built or unbuilt, according to a theme or without particular thematic selection.
Point 3: A strong Biennale should posit a strong thesis and leadership bid to galvanize a frank and focussed debate that can help to forge the discipline’s convergence towards a shared paradigm and with the eventual chance to achieve global best practice standards. As inclusiveness for the sake of a comprehensive overview and for the sake of facilitating the most inclusive face to face get-together would be taken care of by the Arsenale, I would dedicate the International Pavilion to a highly selective, strong, programmatic show, that would confidently and self-critically present the most accomplished protagonists of Parametricism as participants in the only truly innovative (=non-retro), cumulative, convergent movement within contemporary architecture, a movement that is congenial to the prosperity engines of our post-fordist network society and that operates on the basis of computationally empowered methodologies that are also upgrading all other fields and professions. Parametricism would here be critically probed with respect to its societal relevance, performance, generalizability and historical pertinence.
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