November 20th, 2012

Architects Who Understand

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The Venice Biennale of Architecture closes this week, which has given me opportunity to think back to its opening days in late August. I was there to cover the Hong Kong exhibition, but I had a bit of time to soak up the rest of the show. It was big, unruly and dramatically uneven, but it was clear enough that this year’s curator, British architect David Chipperfield, was eager to capture the zeitgeist of grassroots urbanism and do-it-yourself architecture. The theme, “Common Ground,” was meant to reflect the importance of everyday urban environments, which are “created in collaboration with every citizen,” according to Chipperfield.

But Venice is not a city that embraces change, and neither does its biennale. Big names and established players still dominated the event. This year’s show “mostly just glides over issues like public housing and health, the environment, informal settlements, economic decline and protest,” wrote New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman. “It suggests above all an uncertainty about how to unpack, evaluate, present and tame the messy, multilayered social, political, economic and architectural processes that go into making good buildings and places today.”

Austrian architect Wolf Prix went even further than Kimmelman and savaged this year’s biennale for promoting “compromise” with authorities instead of outright resistance to the status quo. “It is no longer about lively discussion and criticism of topics in contemporary architecture, but rather about empty, conservative and perhaps populist shells that are charged with feigned meaning,” he wrote.

But as Kimmelman noted, there were some real triumphs scattered amongst the ruins of hubris, not the least of which was “Torre David/Gran Horizonte,” a collaboration between the Urban Think Tank, photographer Iwan Bann and architecture critic Justin McGuirk that won the Golden Lion for best project. It was an electrifying look at the Torre David in Caracas, a 45-storey unfinished bank tower whose construction was abandoned in 1994 when the Venezuelan economy crashed. The tower now serves as a self-sustaining squatter’s community home to more than 750 families. Urban Think Tank documented the tower’s daily life through photos and videos, which were displayed in a recreated arepas stall where biennale visitors could sit, eat and chat.

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The Torre David is hardly obscure, but you get the sense that it has mostly been treated as a novelty — just another slum that happens to have taken root in the shell of an abandoned office tower. After the Venice installation won the Golden Lion, it became a lightning rod for critics from across the spectrum. It was attacked for being apolitical, for not providing a solution to the problems wrought by Hugo Chavez, for being an aloof intervention by out-of-touch foreigners. The comments section of this Dezeen article is a microcosm of the broader debate. “This building is a disaster,” writes one commenter. “A good celebration of this project would be to actually architecturalize some solutions to the problem, rather than relying on the sick fascination of privileged eyes into a world unbeknownst to them.”

To me, it seems absurd that an architectural biennale must only present solutions to problems, rather serving as a platform to document and discuss the urban condition. Architectural history is littered with attempts to solve problems that failed because their authors were ignorant or contemptuous of the way that people actually live. Urban Think Tank’s work succeeds brilliantly as a fine-grained investigation of a phenomenon that is unique in its circumstances but universal in its condition; understanding how the Torre David works is essential for building a more equitable city. It’s a journalistic exercise as much as an architectural one — and as any journalist knows, there’s far more potential for change in a well-researched investigation than in even the most eloquent editorial.


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