2016 Architecture Biennial | An enabling exhibition

2016 Architecture Biennial

An enabling exhibition

17. August 2016 | Words: Carmen Wolf, Photography: La Biennale
Estimated reading time: 3 minutes, 55 seconds

Sustainability is the leitmotif of Alejandro Aravena’s main exhibition entitled “Reporting from the Front”. All works being shown in the Arsenale and the Central Pavilion at this year’s Architecture Biennial address facets of the sustainability debate in architecture – though in very different and often surprising ways.

Deliberations on sustainability invariably centre on ecological, economic and social aspects. “The basic idea derives (…) from simply realising that a system is sustainable if it survives and endures long-term.” (Peter Carnau, quoted in German in Lexikon der Nachhaltigkeit). Whilst Alejandro Aravena’s interpretation operates on several levels and is subtly diversified, he, too, nevertheless takes this fundamental notion as his point of departure. he points up a great many ways forward and illustrates how varied are the ways in which sustainability can take effect in architecture. The spectrum ranges from major projects such as the museum building by architects Christ and Gantenbein in Basle to strategy concepts for entire regions such as the work of Chilean architects Grupo Talca for Pinohuacho; ranges from research on optimising load-bearing structures through the recyclability of diverse waste products as additives or reinforcements for building materials to the natural pigmentation of a tile – that is the essence of “building knowledge” as propagated by Indian architect Anupama Kundoo. She is likewise running a presentation in the Arsenale.

Christ and Gantenbein are exhibiting a large-format picture book on their Basle museum project in the Arsenale. The volume narrates how the architects broached the question as to the design engineering and materials required to produce a building which, though not built for all eternity, ought to be sufficiently robust to remain standing for a good many decades. Serving as one of their prototypes is the Pantheon in Rome. The museum is a massive block of concrete and clinker with finishings in galvanised steel, plaster, timber and marble. It is impressive to see how the various materials have been wrought and interact with one another. Wherever one looks, the structure comes across as being tough and indestructible, but nonetheless fresh and, in the best sense of the word, modern. This impression is engendered by astute marshalling by colour, texture and proportion of the materials used. The stairway is a notable case in point: the generously dimensioned stairs inclusive of the inner and upper faces of their balustrades are in finest marble. Pleasing points of contrast are created by rather coarse looking scraped-stucco walls and by handrails in galvanised steel. The overall impact is a surprisingly balanced mixture of urbane elegance and functionalist pragmatism.

Christ and Gantenbein are well known for their striking design ideas. They are fond of adopting older style elements and proven building products and combining them with newer materials and shapes. The resultant buildings have an earthed, sensuous feel. Vorarlberg architects Marte.Marte adopt a comparable, though somewhat less emotional approach. Their projects likewise exude strength, staying power and value, qualities designed to outlive the passing of the decades. The two brothers’ Arsenale show involves five cast concrete cubes out of which elements from one or other of their projects have been cut so as to create models, with a film additionally being shown on each project.

The ZAO/standardarchitecture company under Zhang Ke, by turn, is represented in the Corderie with annexes and extensions for a da za yuan or “big messy courtyard” in Beijing in the form of full-scale recreations and models. The architectural entities fill an entire space and, tailored towards specific requirements, augment a neighbourhood’s courtyard and residential structures. Shape is lent to new correlations that effectively re-order and restructure the make-up of the locality. Zhang Ke hopes with his project to open people’s eyes to the urban fabric of ancient Beijing. The Beijing population needs to grasp surviving areas of the old city as forming part of their cultural heritage if the districts in question are not to fall victim to the raging building craze. Our architects act with great commitment and idealism, offering good quality and a compelling strategy as alternatives to building mania.

The nice thing about this year’s Biennial is the way each work tells a story that lingers in the mind for a long time afterwards. I was particularly moved by the entry by the Grupo Talca architects’ collective. A little over ten years ago Grupo Talca developed an ecologically focused tourism plan for the Pinohuacho region in Chile. The story of timber builder Pedro Vasquez is just one example of how successful the project has been. His land had been devastated by a volcanic eruption and uncontrolled tree clearance, the basis for sustaining his life destroyed. The region’s lack of perspective had already driven his sons into the city. Their father similarly toyed with the idea of leaving and following them. For over two years Grupo Talca joined with the community in judiciously drawing up strategies designed to guarantee stabilisation of the ecosystem and the region’s revival. Vasquez never actually got to leave his village in the end. Today he lives and works in Pinohuacho with his sons. A touching short film shown in the Arsenale tells the story of the old timber builder. The project is represented by the “Viewpoint”, a viewing and rest platform made from the wood of the Chilean southern beech that stands by the canal outside the Arsenale. Working with the architects caused both Vasquez and the community as a whole to rediscover the worth and potential inherent in the unique natural landscape of Pinohuacho.

Aravena’s exhibition does not necessarily offer concrete solutions for an architect’s day-to-day professional life. Rather, it acts as a source of inspiration and encouragement to break out of accustomed patterns of thinking and, instead, – just as Aravena would wish – make the effort to view things from radically different angles as a means of being enabled.