Architecture Can Bring about a Change in Values

Susanna Koeberle
28. May 2021
Hashim Sarkis provokes a new perspective on architecture with How will we live together? (Photo: Flavia Rossi

Those who want to know the answer to “How will we live together?” do not have to travel to Venice. And architects looking for a parade of the best buildings by their colleagues should not visit the 17th Architecture Biennale either. They run the risk of a serious narcissistic insult. Hashim Sarkis’s Biennale is decidedly interdisciplinary and calls on architects to expand the context and practice of their discipline. Architecture is a multidisciplinary affair per se, but the question of what architecture can do for and in the world is often met with skepticism. Moreover, the fact that Sarkis phrases the Biennale motto as a question may seem suspicious to any architects who tend to expect answers from such an event. Rarely, however, has an architecture biennial had such an explicit manifesto character.

Questions can also lead to demands. And in the case of the Biennale, one of them is: “We need a new spatial contract!” In 1762, Jean-Jacques Rousseau formulated his “Social Contract” focusing on the common good. According to the philosopher, writer, and researcher from Geneva, the inequality of people is not a natural one. His work is still considered a fundamental text of democracy. And now Sarkis, the American-Lebanese architect and dean of the renowned School of Architecture and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), turns up and demands the same for architecture? Yes, and that is not at all far-fetched. For globally, inequality may have decreased, but it is manifesting itself again in a very pronounced way, especially in times of the coronavirus pandemic and the climate crisis. After all, it is the poorest and most vulnerable people who suffer the most from the effects of these scourges. With his motto, Sarkis focuses on “together,” because we only have this one planet and we have to share this space to live. What fields of action are available to architecture? Is it even the right discipline for change? Can it contribute to solving problems?

The installation “Interwoven” by Alexia León and Lucho Marcial (leonmarcial arquitectos, Peru) at the Arsenale can stand for the transformative processes in architecture. (Photo: Flavia Rossi) 
From the individual to the planet

Sarkis contributes to “his” Biennale primarily as a thinker, less as an architect with concrete proposals for solutions. He creates, as it were, a mental grid that uncovers the relationship between man and the built and natural environments. One hundred twelve positions from different disciplines (besides architecture, design, biology, robotics, sociology, and art are also represented) and from 46 countries are presented at the Arsenale and in the Central Pavilion at the Giardini. There is a great diversity of ideas, which can be confusing at first, because the exhibition is not just an accumulation of architectural models. His curatorial concept unfolds across five scales — from the individual living being to the planet — each with its own exhibition title. 

Sarkis’s selection may seem arbitrary to some critics, but one cannot reproach him for his Biennale not having a clear structure. The thematic strands show great stringency. The curator believes in the power of imagination and is therefore optimistic; whether these creative impulses originate in architecture or in related fields is unimportant to him. “How will we live together?” is about something as basic and banal as life — and that means all the creatures on this earth. It is probably no coincidence that the performing arts are also increasingly taking this comprehensive look at our coexistence, as demonstrated, for example, by the exhibition Life by Olafur Eliasson at Fondation Beyeler. That is the most spectacular example; there are also quieter ones — such as the tree installation “The Listener” by Italian artist Giuseppe Penone, which is on display at the Arsenale.

In the “Living with Other Beings” section: “Alive: A New Spatial Contract for Multispecies Architecture” by David Benjamin (The Living, USA). (Photo: Flavia Rossi) 

The question of living together is actually not new, but we have now come to a point where rapid action is necessary. Sarkis puts forward a different worldview that does not wait for action on the part of politicians, but rather seeks to create the basis for grassroots change. The projects shown neither celebrate blind faith in technical solutions nor paint a picture of horror. They call for a change in thinking. Architecture as a form of activism? Not quite, because the actions of everyone are called for; architects alone will certainly not save the world. Is Hashim Sarkis’ optimism naïve, or is he avoiding the fundamental issues of his profession? Neither, because the only way to cope with the current ecocide is a new complex narrative; the economic order of the free market has largely failed. Tentacular, that is, connective thinking or “string figures,” as Donna Haraway calls those figures in her book, Staying with the Trouble, are needed to produce new narratives. 

“Research as Architecture: A Laboratory for Houses, Homes and Robots” by Gramazio Kohler and the National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) Digital Fabrication in der “Inhabiting New Tectonics” section. (Photo: Flavia Rossi)

These can be very diverse, as some examples from the Arsenale show. With the seemingly artistic installation, “Social Contracts: Choreographing Interactions,” Allan and Ellen Wexler analyze the influence of spaces on our behavior. “Variations on a Bird Cage” by Studio Ossidiana is an exploration of the bird cage as an object that people use to represent their encounters with birds. Designer Tomáš Libertíny’s “Beehive Architecture” suggests that bees could help design architectural structures. “Alive: A New Spatial Contract for Multispecies Architecture” by David Benjamin imagines new materials where microbial communities can form architectural structures through a calibration of light and air circulation. And even the reference to the complex knowledge and creative work of fungi is not missing at this Biennale. 

Additionally, there are concrete architectural projects on display that showcase new forms of living together in urban space, such as “The Multistory Residential Block as Social Platform” by Farshid Moussavi Architecture or several projects by raumlaborberlin. The cooperative as an economic model in Switzerland is also represented, by Anne Kockelkorn and Susanne Schindler. New production methods and materials are featured as well — for example in the form of Gramazio Kohler’s research work at the ETH Zurich. In general, there are several projects to be seen at this Biennale that have originated from this research institute.

“Variations on a Bird Cage” by Studio Ossidiana (Giovanni Bellotti and Alessandra Covini) in the “Living with Other Beings” section. Another installation by the duo is on display in the outdoor area. (Photo: Flavia Rossi)

The “As Emerging Communities” section is dedicated to social infrastructures such as schools, community centers, and public spaces. These examples also highlight the possibility of public participation. In the main pavilion, some projects explore life in the countryside as a potential alternative to life in big cities, without pitting these two forms against each other. And last but not least, Sarkis turns the spotlight on global challenges such as the refugee crisis and climate change. 

What may sound like a potpourri is in fact a deliberate attempt to give the issue of living together a polyphony that shows the range of possible fields of action. This Biennale shows us that we do not need new buildings, but first and foremost a change in values. Architecture can become the catalyst for this.

Several outdoor installations complement the presentations at the Arsenale and the main pavilion. Here, a structure by Elemental (Chile) dedicated to the dialogue between Chileans and the ethnic group of the Mapuche. (Photo: Flavia Rossi)

The article originally appeared as "Architektur kann einen Wertewandel herbeiführen" on Swiss-Architects. Translation by Bianca Murphy.

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