Reporting from Whose Front?

Teresa Fankhänel
15th Venice Architecture Biennial, 11.07.2016

Maria ReicheFig. 1

In 1940 the German mathematician and archaeologist Maria Reiche set out to study the famous Nazca lines in Peru. During several decades of work, she was unearthing something that had hardly been of interest to the local population, not least because of much more pressing issues such as the 1942 earthquake in the border region of the districts of Ica and Arequipa, close to the lines. As in the case of Reiche, outsiders often seem to have the great advantage of being able to appreciate things that those who are close to them can no longer see. What goes for stale old relationships is also true for cultural phenomena: the unfamiliar is often more appealing. The idea of the front or frontier that this year’s Biennale director Alejandro Aravena picked as the overarching theme in “Reporting from the Front” is closely linked to the idea of the unknown other, yet it simultaneously reveals as much about the explorer as it does about her self-defined front. Much like in Maria Reiche’s case, it is the edge of the known realm, the landscape that is yet to be conquered, that will in turn change the explorer inevitably.
  As Alejandro Aravena stated in a pugnacious tone early on during the planning of the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale, the quality of the built environment and of many people’s lives needs to improve. Defining the current frontiers in architecture and urban planning, Aravena calls attention to such important topics as migration, housing, sustainability, informality, and peripheries. Based on experiences over the previous decade of economic downturn that has hit architects and architecture especially hard—think only of countries such as Spain that have lost a significant percentage of an entire generation to enormous unemployment rates that forced many to emigrate—the exhibition is, rightly so, centered around terms such as scarcity and waste. Attempts at improvements in architecture are, according to Aravena, hard-won and marginal in comparison to the resistance from those following a more beaten path of shortsighted capitalist interventions for merely a financial gain. As such, Aravena suggests that even small achievements in the opposite direction are big successes. Choosing to show architecture in action to create a better social environment, what, then, should we expect of an event such as the Biennale that has traditionally focused on the big successes rather than the minute practices of everyday life?

Who defines the frontier?

The example of Maria Reiche, while being an incredibly rich life story of an exceptional explorer, may not be the best choice for this year’s Biennale. Like many of those participating in conceiving, designing, and making the exhibitions at the Biennale, as well as those visiting, studying, and writing about it, Maria Reiche was of a rather privileged (Western) background, immigrating to Peru in the early 1930s for personal and political reasons. While that did not disqualify her from being an interested, caring, and highly pro-active player in the field of geo-archaeology, she brought with her a distinctive view that separated her from those inhabiting what must have seemed like a frontier to her. This specific point of view was poignantly represented in the image of Reiche standing on top of a ladder viewing the Nazca lines in the Peruvian desert that Aravena chose as an analogy for the work of architects and curators at this year’s show (Fig. 1). The architects exhibiting their work, he said, have, similar to Maria Reiche standing on a ladder, “seen the whole picture.” They are translating their view from high above to all the others who are standing on the ground. I am not sure if there is a more patronizing way of phrasing the alleged superiority of architects when it comes to assessing such overall issues as quality of life, poverty, housing, or migration.


Despite the unfortunate colonial undertones that the theme of the Biennale evokes, there are many valuable projects, exhibits, and ideas trying to give an answer to Aravena’s questions that are worth discussing. Refugees, migration, and the dire need for housing in many of our Western metropolises enjoy a special focus in this year’s exhibition—implying that the front is not in some far-off place but at our own doorsteps. The German, Austrian, Finnish, and Albanian contributions as well as more individual small-scale projects address these issues under headlines such as “Making Heimat,” “Places for People,” or “From Border to Home.” Each slightly different in their approach to accommodating potential immigrants, many of the architectural projects struggle with the political realities of what they are proposing. While the Finnish call for proposals sought for designs for short-term housing for asylum-seekers, it immediately acknowledged that the designs should also “support longer-term living arrangements” that have “a positive social impact”—meaning, in essence, social housing. Focusing on the adaptation of vacant buildings for refugees, the Austrian pavilion presents tent structures and other interim solutions, acknowledging that “everyone has the right to seek a safe place to live.” In documenting the need for fast interventions, however, the Austrians show how this right is sometimes crippled by slow official decision-making processes. On a grander scale, the German pavilion takes a more surveying look at the existing, un-designed “arrival cities” of the country, formulating and illustrating theses from Doug Saunder’s book by the same name. In a similar vein as Aravena, the Germans address ideas of accessibility, cheapness, informality, and DIY culture, taking an almost anti-architectural stance against excessive standards of designers and politicians alike. Similar to the Austrian pavilion that referred its underlying ideas back to the Austrian-American architect Bernard Rudofsky’s call for new relationships and forms of living rather than new buildings, the exhibition is almost disinterested in architectural design. By not asking for outstanding quality and rather showing the different solutions they collected in a database, the curators of the German Architecture Museum follow a more sober assessment of the current situation without pretending to know the cure. Yet, in a powerful political gesture, the German pavilion’s walls were punctured with new openings forming temporary doors that could be interpreted as a symbol for the openness of the country. Transforming the pavilion, by almost violently ripping holes into it, could thus be seen as a gesture of how the curators think to break or at least bypass insufficient laws—a hint at the fact that Germany as it is now, much like the listed building, is no longer fitting our needs?


Questions of dwelling and inhabitation are not limited only to short-term solutions. Equally as important in this year’s show is the dwindling amount of apartments in cities available at affordable prices. Most notably, this topic is addressed by the British pavilion under the suggestive title “Home Economics.” Looking at a considerably more fortunate group of residents than the exhibitions mentioned before, the British pavilion proposes five “new” models of habitation, ownership, and spatial diversity. Yet unfortunately, it has few new things to say. Among the proposed forms of living are such generic and over-used concepts as the importance of Wi-Fi and the comparatively short occupancy of shared living spaces due to the increased mobility of many in the Western world. Illustrated with sparsely designed rooms, an accompanying leaflet recounts each idea in suggestive writing that reminds more of Dave Eggers’ recent dystopian, Google-like corporate nightmare in The Circle than a description of why these ideas are or could be transformed into positive developments. A fact sheet accompanying each project’s description breaks down additional information into easily digestible bits but only adds to the uneasy feeling. Yet, more unsettling than the outdatedness of the ideas is the oblivious manner with which these problems are presented as a genuinely British phenomenon. The fact that living and working from home with flexible working hours is a part of only a very fortunate, albeit international population’s life is nowhere mentioned and makes the entire undertaking fail tragically in light of the Biennale’s theme and exhibitions as the ones mentioned before that are looking at those subjected to similar living circumstances involuntarily. To propose to those who have been marginalized for reasons of financial power, ethnicity, color, sex, or simple geography that individual ownership of such basic things as furniture or a living space other than the bedroom is undesirable is a slap in the face. Romanticizing an Airbnb vacation is not the same as renting from such a platform at much higher prices due to a shortage of housing as it exists in many metropolitan regions. Some of the proposed scenarios bring back memories of student dorms or house shares that just never turn out to be as good as promised, or worse, as in the case of refugee housing, fail to provide basic necessities such as privacy, the ability to relax in one’s home, and to escape a world that is already intruding wherever else possible. As appealing as the idea of shared living rooms, cars, furniture, and even clothes may sound to some, it is unclear how these “new” concepts can be made appealing to a wider audience. Leaving the homes up for grabs for economic reasons—as the British pavilion argues, in the future not everyone can own a house—and for the sake of an almost Orwellian inspired future does not seem a fitting answer for this exhibition, not just because it will not be desirable for the majority of people but because many of us are already living it.

Technology and Craft

Aside from the frontiers in the West, the Biennale does address solutions for more remote areas. Technological devices such as cell phones have a long history in defining the home, most famously in Reyner Banham’s seminal text “A Home is not a House” that defined the home through its technology and not the design of its outer shell. Updating Banham’s text, many of the Biennale presentations show how today much of the essential technologies are brought into the home by the tenants themselves, especially in low-cost housing. Cell phones, AC unites, radiators, and other appliances are individual responsibilities. That leaves us with the crucial question, as in the case of Norman Foster’s drone port in Africa, whether it matters in a time of scarcity how well-designed and aesthetic a shed for a novel technology looks like if it provides the basic shelter required? Some of the technologically inspired solutions as the “Cloud” in the Swiss pavilion seem tragically unaware of how futile their work is to most of the world when looked at through the lens of this year’s theme. As an experiential space, the Cloud is certainly attractive as an exhibit for visitors who are tired of reading wall panels and walking around the Giardini. As an answer to this year’s theme, the cloud does not have much to offer. In contrast, by fostering individual yet local identity through a take on low-tech crafts, the contributions of the Belgian, Spanish and Chinese pavilions give a different answer to the problem of scarcity. In order to avoid both unnecessary, over-designed spaces and cheapness in the architecture and ideas presented, they rely heavily on ideas of craft, inventiveness, adaptation, and updates of local cultural heritage. Similarly, the use of unskilled labor and waste materials are glorified by Gabinete de Arquitectura for their wooden structures inside and outside the Arsenale and by Kunlé Adeyemi’s design for a floating school in Lagos. Here, short-term usage and minimal expenditure is foregrounded over costly flagship projects. Interestingly, it was reported just days after the opening of the Biennale that Adeyemi’s original school in Lagos had collapsed after the building’s lifespan of less than three years was over. Built with cheap offcuts from a local sawmill, the structure had faced similar problems as some of its European counterparts: Devised as a short-term solution and prototype showing how to provide necessary public amenities and how to deal with rising sea levels, it had been declared illegal by the government.

Our Frontiers

The social turn that is conjured up again in the theme of the Biennale is linked to a large number of real-life building projects and those inhabiting them. Even if some of them seem at odds with the overall theme, Aravena definitely achieved one goal: This year’s edition is much more political than previous Biennales and could give more than just insiders a reason to look at an architecture exhibition. Yet, it seems that there is still a bias in the treatment of different frontiers. While we often celebrate cheap, low-tech approaches when it comes to mending our own problems with overpopulation and socially disadvantaged groups, some still seem to believe that exporting expensive design is a valid way of bringing culture to remote or disadvantaged places. This could partly be due to the fact that we, still, have double standards and immoderate expectations of the designer’s role. Luckily, as some of the projects prove, another good news of this Biennale is that people will always keep defining new frontiers for themselves and, as Frederick Jackson Turner had once reported in his famously defining Frontier Thesis, no government or laws will keep them from pushing for a better life. Architectural professions can help in finding solutions for these new desires, if we are ready to accept that they might be minor and less creatively appealing. BeL Architekten have internalized this approach by proposing a co-production of new housing blocks between planners and inhabitants on a large scale with their “City of Assembly,” presented at the Arsenale in a blue Styrofoam model that looks more like a working model than a finished presentation.

BeL Architekten, City of AssemblyFig. 2

In a mix of provided structural parts and individual labor, the inhabitants are empowered to finish their homes the way they like and can afford. By allowing individuals with widely diverse backgrounds to choose the design of the outer skin of their homes, their diversity, individual taste, and ownership are made visible. Taking Aravena’s image of Maria Reiche literally, here, the architects installed a ladder from which the visitor can oversee the entire model—a ladder that opens up the view for everyone, not just the privileged few. In accepting that the frontiers may not be in some far-off arcadian landscape but in our own backyard, we should take our appreciation of Maria Reiche seriously. The same way we glorify her for defining a new front in the Peruvian desert, should we not allow others their outsiders’ perspective when it comes to our very own frontiers?

Reporting from the Front
Mai 28 to November 27, 2016, the 15th International Architecture Exhibition, Venice

Fig. 1
Maria Reiche atop one of the ladders she used to study and map the Nazca lines in Peru.
Photo: Bruce Chatwin

Fig. 2
BeL – Sozietät für Architektur, NEUBAU, Arsenale, 15th Venice Architecture Biennial
© Photo: Haupt & Binder

Teresa Fankhänel is a writer, exhibition maker and researcher. She recently finished her PhD about the postwar boom in architectural models in the United States.