The Global Left in Architecture

Alejandro Aravena and the critical significance of the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale for India.

By Ruturaj Parikh.

The theme and the selection of the curator for the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale is a testament to the shift in priorities of the discipline and the desperate need to steer the ‘euro-centric’ discussion on architecture towards new and less known territories where the profession has a real role to play.


Morality ?!

Recently, Patrik Schumacher [Director at Zaha Hadid Architects] seemed a little unsettled by the selection of Alejandro Aravena as the curator of the 15th Venice Architecture Biennale. He voiced his concern through a rather cynical, “I hope Alejandro’s Biennale is NOT going to be yet another Biennale driven by the curator’s left-leaning politics and political correctness”. Patrik’s concerns – as far as the issue of Biennales goes are real for the Biennales world over deal with abstract thought. They deal with experimentation in architecture and they are fertile grounds for academic conversations outside the school. They also represent a node where the profession can showcase the future of architectural production and thought.

Patrik goes on to say “. . . where moral concern trumps architectural excellence and innovation”. Patrik’s concerns are also valid since, in some way, Biennales have become ramps where you can walk buildings and ideas. But since buildings cannot walk, architects happily do. Paolo Baratta, the president of the Venice Architecture Biennale admits that the 2014 event curated by Rem Koolhaas was “dedicated entirely to the curators’ research”. The theme suggested a very playful exhibition with a lot of pavilions addressing the irony of the contemporary situation but sadly, it did not venture much beyond Koolhaas’s self-absorbed curatorial adventure alienating some and creating The Conflict Between the Global North and South.

In making the statement, Patrik ignorantly assumes that ‘excellence and innovation’ cannot be found in architecture that deals with ‘moral concern’ – an absurd idea that clearly comes from the global ‘right’. The selection of Alejandro Aravena represents more than just a leaning to the left – it represents the change in thought-currents globally. In the curator’s note, Aravena writes “We would like to learn from architectures that despite the scarcity of means intensify what is available instead of complaining about what is missing. We would like to understand what design tools are needed to subvert the forces that privilege the individual gain over the collective benefit, reducing we to just me. we would like to know about cases that resist reductionism and oversimplification and do not give up architecture’s mission to penetrate the mystery of the human condition. We are interested in how architecture can introduce a broader notion of gain: design as added value instead of an extra cost or architecture as a shortcut towards equality.

Inclusion and Exclusion

Since years, the Biennales world over have been an exclusive club of ‘global’ architects who feature on the first page of the Google search for architects from their country. With some exceptions (like Iwan Baan and Alfredo Brillembourg’s project on Torre David in 2012), the ideas showcased in international architecture congresses deal with abstract content and sometimes this content becomes so abstract and removed from reality that it starts assuming imaginary complexities for the sake of complexities: a dangerous preoccupation that sends a desperate message especially across schools of architecture world-wide. Pavilions compete for attention, architects ‘push’ the limits and the hangover from the after-party lasts a couple of weeks.

It is in this crucial moment – perhaps recognising the extreme ‘right’ positioning of the Venice Architecture Biennale and its Euro-centric dialogue, the curators may  have sensed a change in currents. Thus, enters Aravena. In this crucial moment, Aravena has a unique chance to move the debate from the ‘cutting edge’ to the ‘concerning edge’ and open the Biennale to real issues – where an incredible amount of ‘excellence and innovation’ is used to solve real problems and address real concerns.

These shifting priorities may make many practices which consider the global expos their conceptual playground rather uncomfortable. In this discomfort, we will find traces of insecurities originating from intellectual bankruptcy of an architecture that is desperate for justification. What Philip Johnson and Mark Wigley did to Postmodernism in 1988, Aravena has a chance to do to arbitrary fashion in 2016.

If Aravena successfully manages to create a Biennale of Inclusion, he will manage not just to ride the changing currents but to make them stronger. ‘The Global South’, as Rahul Mehrotra terms it, will have a representation and this can change things at the level of the very issues that form the core of academic content in schools and the fundamental concerns of a profession that is fast losing its proximity to the real world in search for the abstract.

Real Concerns

… and where the catching-up problems of backward arenas (who’s path forward is already traced out) are given more attention than the challenges and opportunities to push forward in the most advanced arenas (where we must venture into the unknown and where the discipline’s discourse as engine of innovation should rather recognize its true calling)” says Patrik. Patrik assumes that the ‘path forward’ is already traced out and that there are no more unknowns if one chooses to work in ‘catching-up’ problems of backward arenas. It is this very intellectual arrogance that has for years undermined the exhaustive work of the likes of TAMassociatti and Luyanda Mpahlwa.

The huge challenge of ‘reporting from the front’ lies in the many unknowns you deal with on the ground while making projects happen against many odds especially in backward arenas where there are no flexible budgets provided there is finance at all. This forces the discipline of architecture to venture out of a professional vacuum and engage in long-drawn dialogues and negotiations with many stake-holders thus enriching the process of design rather than taking away from it. The Global South does not have exclusive territories, nor does the Global Left. It is through working on the fringes that many designers have broken new grounds – clearly visible from the exhibition ‘Small Scale, Big Change’ by MoMA and the Pritzker jury citation for Shigeru Ban. The Aga Khan Award for Architecture was based on this fundamental idea – excellence against odds.

Charles Correa used to express that the advantage of working in a country like India lies in the fact that as an architect or a planner, the issues you face are huge and thus they challenge you. He further observes that even though one is not always in position to solve things, the enormity of situation makes one grow and this growth enriches the profession; keeps it relevant. It is evident that in the absence of real issues or in absence of intent to deal with them, we can easily begin building a theoretical cocoon thus creating complexities where the concerns of ‘form’ precede those of ‘content’ and where hermit dictatorships commission trophy buildings to starchitects in order to attract investment to their fiefdoms. Often gift-wrapped as ‘Global Competitions’ functional democracies have vehemently rejected winning entries that their governments have tried to tempt them into buying. Winds are changing direction.

The Other Half

… we are very aware that the battle for a better built environment is a collective effort that will require everybody’s force and knowledge.” says Aravena. ‘Collective effort’ seemingly goes against the objectivist grain but look carefully – some of the best projects that have gained global attention on a long term are collaborative projects to the core. Although they do not appeal to a media that heavily depends on the daily visual fix, these projects reflect ‘the other half’ of the profession that is slowly gaining ground as students globally have begun to reject structured complexities and schools have started to look for territories of work where the problems of the real precede the concerns of the abstract.

This, in no way, undermines the wonderful potential of architecture to venture into the unknowns and use technology, social media and parametric systems (to count a few) to create exciting and un-conventional methods of reading and doing projects. ‘Problems of the backward arenas’ are seldom boring and are definately more challenging than the trophiest of buildings and the urgency of architecture and planning to address these areas is critical. That is perhaps why ‘reporting from the front’ is important. That is perhaps why it is important now.

We cannot afford to have more architects who can tell the price of everything. This Venice Architecture Biennale has a potential to flip the globe upside-down and put India, Africa, Latin America and the new economies of the South on the map of modern architecture and its pressing concerns. This Biennale will happen in the shadow of one of the worst human migrant crisis Europe has known. Architects and Planners must be invited to the discussion. To put architecture back at the core of our cultural production, tough questions have to be asked. The tougher the questions we will pose the richer our dialogue with the world will become and this dialogue has the potential of creating an unprecedented content “where the discipline’s discourse as engine of innovation should rather recognize its true calling”.


Original Facebook Post by Patrik Schumacher:

“I hope Alejandro’s biennale is NOT going to be yet another biennale primarily driven by curator’s left-leaning politics and political correctness … where moral concern trumps architectural excellence and innovation and where housing for the poor trumps all other urgent architectural concerns (especially those at the frontier of innovation), … and where the catching-up problems of backward arenas (who’s path forward is already traced out) are given more attention than the challenges and opportunities to push forward in the most advanced arenas (where we must venture into the unknown and where the discipline’s discourse as engine of innovation should rather recognize its true calling)”

Original Theme Text by Alejandro Aravena:

There are several battles that need to be won and several frontiers that need to be expanded in order to improve the quality of the built environment and consequently people’s quality of life. More and more people in the planet are in search for a decent place to live and the conditions to achieve it are becoming tougher and tougher by the hour. Any attempt to go beyond business as usual encounters huge resistance in the inertia of reality and any effort to tackle relevant issues has to overcome the increasing complexity of the world.

But unlike military wars where nobody wins and there is a prevailing sense of defeat, on the frontlines of the built environment, there is a sense of vitality because architecture is about looking at reality in a proposal key.

This is what we would like people to come and see at the 15th international architecture exhibition: success stories worth to be told and exemplary cases worth to be shared where architecture did, is and will make a difference in winning those battles and expanding those frontiers.

‘Reporting From the Front’ will be about bringing to a broader audience, what is it like to improve the quality of life while working on the margins, under tough circumstances, facing pressing challenges. or what does it take to be on the cutting edge trying to conquer new fields.

We would like to learn from architectures that despite the scarcity of means intensify what is available instead of complaining about what is missing. We would like to understand what design tools are needed to subvert the forces that privilege the individual gain over the collective benefit, reducing we to just me. We would like to know about cases that resist reductionism and oversimplification and do not give up architecture’s mission to penetrate the mystery of the human condition. We are interested in how architecture can introduce a broader notion of gain: design as added value instead of an extra cost or architecture as a shortcut towards equality.

We would like this ‘report from the front’ not to be just the chronicle of a passive witness but a testimony of people that actually walk their talk. We would like to balance hope and rigour. The battle for a better built environment is neither a tantrum nor a romantic crusade. So, this report won’t be a mere denounce or complaint nor a harangue or an inspirational locker room speech.

We will present cases and practices where creativity was used to take the risk to go even for a tiny victory because when the problem is big, just a one-millimeter improvement is relevant; what may be required is to adjust our notion of success, because achievements on the frontlines are relative, not absolute.

We are very aware that the battle for a better built environment is a collective effort that will require everybody’s force and knowledge. That is why we would like this Biennale to be inclusive, listening to stories, thoughts and experiences coming from different backgrounds: the architects, the civil society, the leaders, the national pavilions.

So, the 15th International Architecture Exhibition will be about focusing and learning from architectures that by balancing intelligence and intuition are able to escape the status quo. We would like to present cases that despite the difficulties (or maybe because of them), instead of resignation or bitterness, propose and do something. We would like to show that in the permanent debate about the quality of the built environment, there is not only need but also room for action.


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