This story begins with a simple question: Why? This isn’t a nihilistic attempt to provide context to some bigger picture. It is more specific than that. In a material sense, it is actually about concrete, steel and wood. We are talking about architecture. The “Biennale meets ROMA” exhibition has fostered a debate on the role of architecture in developing functioning, sustainable and socioeconomically sound infrastructure for the future. The very premise of both the exhibition and this text is:
“Living together: The future of communities.”
However, before you feel the need to brush up your Italian, the ROMA referred to here is a manufacturer of venetian blinds, roller shutters and textile screens. The accompanying images are of pieces on display at the ROMA headquarters in Burgau near Augsburg after they returned from the 2021 Venice Architecture Biennale. The company assembled them in 2022 as a visual, intellectual and philosophical response to the question of how we will live in the future. On closer examination of the exhibits, it is clear beyond doubt that architecture is an art form. However, unlike a writer or a painter, the architect cannot be tethered to his or her art. Whereas prose, poetry or a painting can be a thing of beauty capable of articulating an artistic message, a building has to convey more than this. While that same beauty and meaning are central to the appeal of any edifice, an architect is constrained by their means of expression and literally bound by “earthly“ parameters. A building requires space and consumes materials. As we need to become more efficient and frugal with precious resources, our consumption should be both justifiable and reflect our circumstances.
Architecture should not only not provoke hopelessness
Architecture (with notable exceptions such as the work of Hadid or Libeskind) can never be art for its own sake. On the one hand, architects – and therefore their buildings – need to, as Le Corbusier once put it, “restore something very special to the inhabitants of the cities – the joy of life.” On the other hand, architecture should not only not provoke hopelessness – as a lot of contemporary buildings in urban areas unfortunately do – but enhance people’s sense of well-being.
It is a fact however, that the challenges facing mankind have increased dramatically since the heyday of Le Corbusier. Population growth with a concurrent rise in personal mobility requirements, have contributed significantly to severe climate change leaving the realms of dystopian science fiction. Architecture today needs to do more than just look and feel good. It has to find ways to make do with what is available while desisting from treating nature as a builder’s yard and still figuring out ways to make our lives as joyous as can be – and all this in worsening conditions. The models on display at the “Biennale meets ROMA” exhibition presented a range of proposals addressing the diverse issues of modern-day existence.
By returning to the question underlying the debate we ask ourselves what we can learn from looking at how we will live together in the future. What needs to be improved?”
The key word is “together”. Transport infrastructure must not only be supremely efficient and fast; Rather than just moving people from A to B while making the mistake of forgetting the areas left and right of much-frequented highways, architecture should embrace marginalised communities thereby promoting a broader distribution of socioeconomic wealth outside of urban centres.
The best example of such architecture has already been successfully transposed into real-life. The sixth street viaduct in Los Angeles, reconstructed by Michael Maltzan Architects, connecting the historical community of Boyle Heights with the expanding LA Arts District, shows how it can be done, literally providing a means of interaction and exchange between two communities that are demographically very different – thus empowering the development of a more diverse community. Inducing a paradigm shift in infrastructure – with its main objective changing from clear areal separation to inter-municipal inclusion – by (re-)integrating formerly fragmented city-quarters, is key to counteracting the growing alienation in urban areas and to enforcing the idea of equal opportunities for all.
We need to be nicer to each other and to our planet
Without wanting to sound naive, people need to learn to be nicer to each other again. Infrastructure can play its part in making that happen, but we also need to be nicer to our planet.
Constructed entirely out of plastic bottles, the Cape Verdean project group “Storia na Lugar” piece “Hacking (The Resort)”, symbolises the pollution and predatory exploitation of natural resources on the island of Cape Verde in the name of tourism and its effect on the Cape Verdean community and ecosystem. More prudent use of finite natural resources goes hand in hand with the acceptance that architecture cannot only be hedonistic – such as building oversized swimming pools in holiday resorts, while clean drinking water is scarce.
Based on the presumption that well thought out infrastructure and architectural concepts have huge potential to improve the condition of our society and planet, architects – as well as western society per se – need to discard their tendency towards exuberance and go back to basics.
For the architect this conundrum begs the question: Is a new building even required? The room for interpretation is enormous and the question can only be answered when architects begin to view their work in a global context. How can this next project contribute to larger-scale socioeconomic improvement? How can it be as efficient and environmentally sustainable as possible? How can it last as long as possible? In order to answer these crucial questions architects can fall back on a whole encyclopaedia – or better a kaleidoscope – of ideas, theories and best practice examples in the field of urbanism. The real task facing us is to utilise what the finest minds of the past have left us as building blocks for an innovative approach to a better future.
In short, the message of “Biennale meets ROMA” is that as architecture goes forward, it needs to promote social unification by creating infrastructural bridges to address socio- economic discrepancies. It needs to be sustainable in its use – and re-use – of materials and innovative in the execution of its craft. The ideas are there. What is needed now, is the courage and foresight of investors.
About the Cover Photo
Hacking (The Resort) Storia Na Lugar
This piece by Cape Verdean activist group Storia Na Lugar uses only water bottles to visualise the increasing pressure put on the environment of Cape Verde by mass tourism and lavish hotel buildings. © Fotodesign Buhl