learning from cities




by Francesco Garofalo and Richard Burdett

1. The Context of the 2006 Biennale

FG: What do we expect from the Venice Biennale International Exhibition? The first - “The presence of the past”, directed by Paolo Portoghesi in 1980, was a “manifesto” that also opened the doors to the Corderie in the Arsenale. The second important event was directed by Francesco Dal Co in 1991 - the first time that all of the national pavilions were used. All the same, with the passing of time, the exhibition has been transformed into a large collection of projects on display, something that I do not feel can be blamed solely on its past directors. It is increasingly more difficult to deal with such a large exhibition, based each time on the same format and held in the same spaces, the latter of which were created for the visual arts exhibition, which has access to more funding. From this point of view, the 2006 edition introduced a series of novelties and breaks with tradition, an approach that has met with no shortage of criticism.

RB: First of all we should remember that the Biennale di Venezia is a truly exceptional ‘cultural machine’. It still stands out today on the global stage for its originality and impact across several artistic disciplines. It is, after all, both an enormous risk and a significant investment by the Italian Government to put into the hands of a single individual the task of mounting a massive show on which the entire reputation of the Institution sits. In my case, I was able to exploit the extraordinary curatorial freedom afforded by the Biennale to make a show that builds on the extensive programme of interdisciplinary research that I have been carrying out on cities at the London School of Economics for the last seven years. This very act clearly constitutes a degree of discontinuity with past exhibitions which have been more ‘documentary’ or ‘celebratory’ in nature but sits well within the Biennale’s well established tradition of seeking to identify links between a cultural discipline (in this case architecture) and the complexities of the social world.

FG: The exhibition was entitled “City. Architecture and Society”. It begins with the observation that, for the first time in history, the urban population now represents the global majority. The exhibition thus focuses on old and new metropolises, where the consequences of this change can be better observed through more acute problems. In representing them for the exhibition, I believe that the choice was made to privilege a select number of readings and visual forms: the satellite photograph, portraits of spaces captured by a group of very talented photographers and diagrams emphasising density. This, in a certain sense, accounts for the use of the word “city” in the title. What remain to be defined are “architecture” and “society”. The first was already present, though in a different way, in previous shows. We had grown accustomed to seeing a particular group of architects presented as colossi, to be looked up at from below. This exhibition has re-defined their scale. Finally, the remaining novelty is society, understood as the urban ruling class, and programmes, taken here in their broadest definition (for transportation, housing, public space, etc.). However, I find myself wondering about the clarity of the boundaries between the documentation of these problems, the effectiveness of the answers provided and, finally, whether this decision is left to the exhibition’s visitors.

RB: The ambition of the exhibition was to act as a wake-up call to all those who are involved in making the built and urban environment: this clearly includes architects and urban designers, but also developers, politicians and policymakers. The core theme that lies behind the methodology of research and display is that there fundamental links between the physical and the social world, and these interactions need to be explained and understood. It was never my intention to treat this vast and complex subject in a simplistic way whereby one simply posits a ‘problem’ and then identifies a ‘solution’. In fact, it is this very paradigm of thinking and practice that today creates so much damage to our urban environments. The exhibition was therefore designed explicitly not to give a series of digestible and duplicable solutions to the issues I raise, but by opening up the eyes of visitors to the questions I hope that the social responsibility of architecture can be better understood. Some criticized the show for being anti—architecture. By reinforcing the profound importance of architecture, I hope to have done the opposite.

2. Learning from Cities Experience

FG: At the beginning we discussed the best possible workshop formula: the utopian idea of working with students in Venice. Utopian, at least at the time, and due to the limits imposed by the schedule. Should the decision be made in the future to involve universities in the Biennale, it would be worthwhile reconsidering the project: finding a space, defining a suitable programme and an agreement with the School of Architecture in Venice, which has adopted this didactic formula with great success.
In order to develop a large workshop and reach a truly critical mass, we decided to invite over twenty schools, half of which were Italian. The explanation for this symmetry is simple: based on the resources provided by the Biennale, and the involvement requested from foreign schools, this was the only possible approach. In the end there was no real imbalance, and the Italian schools acted as gracious hosts, establishing some interesting ties for future collaborations with foreign schools.
Finally, there was a geographic and global criteria adopted at the national and international level. Even while having to face up to the imbalanced resources provided by universities in different countries, the attempt was that of making that the workshop resemble the global exhibition.

RB: What strikes me about the Biennale is its potential to acts a as resource base. Having spent many days walking up and down the Arsenale and around the pavilions I was impressed by the number of people – children, students, professionals and non-professionals – who engaged with the displays, taking notes, using mobile phones to photograph images, models and captions. Much more could be made of this. In this respect the Biennale offers the potential of live research but the tight timing schedule (which I think is one of its strengths) makes it very difficult to use it as a didactic tool with educational establishments who need to plan ahead. The extremely positive and productive association of the ‘Learning from Cities’ initiative was made possible because of the availability of some robust research material in advance and the appetite for exchange by key individuals in the various schools of architecture around the world. At one level the openness of the subject made it easier for this exchange to happen and yield positive results, which certainly do not end with the exhibition itself.

FG: The kick-off seminar held during the inauguration was actually a large study tour. I must admit that we were wholly unprepared for the implications of such a vast discussion. We became aware of this during the meeting held in the theatre at the Arsenale, an enormous space, where the students filled the seats and the professors the stage. This caused us to reflect on the workshop as a collective experience. As much as we speak of the internet and blogs, the only real atmosphere is that of physical presence. The space of formalised discussion is difficult with such a mass of students, who become an audience, listening to their professors speak into the microphone. Even here it should have been necessary to invent a more molecular structure, breaking the presentations down into small groups, organised according to topics and aggregations of schools.
The development of the projects took place in the faculties and through the explorations of cities, evidence of which can be found in videos and photographs. This was also an opportunity to create a very interesting network of relationships (I could mention, as examples, Siracusa visiting Cairo, Venice going to Istanbul, or MIT to Turin).
The set up of the exhibition was both the riskiest and most exciting moment. It became evident that the space could not contain all of the installations, that the technical resources were insufficient and, above all, that the two rooms could not accommodate over one hundred people working simultaneously. These are the times when we discover the ingenuity of students and professors, demonstrating survival instinct possessed by those who make architecture.
The final seminar was also a considerable success: the unveiling of the critical spirit that fills the pages of this publication. Faced with the contexts of the cities studied in the exhibition, many sought to understand who the true interlocutors of architecture actually are; they critically asked questions about the definition of the programme, the instruments of analysis, the legitimacy of projects, the judgement of the informal city and cultural identity, all brought out into the open, and not without some moments of aggression. The presentation by Omar Nagati from Cairo was so lucid that I asked him to leave us something for the catalogue. What is more, Learning from Cities did not end in November 2006 with the jury’s awards. The following year the projects were presented in various faculties, from Patras to Turin to Ascoli and, in the future, China. There are also monographic publications of the work of the schools of Ascoli, Tsinghua, Siracusa and Bilgi, amongst others.

RB: As someone who believes passionately in the importance of public space and engagement, I am delighted you feel that the more interactive dimensions of the seminar and workshop worked well. Of course, more resources and space could have been given to the final show of the students work but the density of display and intensity of the experience reflects the very fact that the installations were meant as ‘think-pieces’ and not as hyper polished presentations. I know the Jury found the dynamics of the last few days exhilarating; in some cases they found the enthusiastic multi-lingual explanations of their work more enlightening than the panels or models on show. Of course, the subject matter itself – the city – allows people of different backgrounds to come together and exchange ideas in a far more open-minded way than a typical design studio about a specific building site on a specific site. I just hope that all those who took part, tutors and students, came away thinking that the Biennale offered them an interdisciplinary and multicultural experience that would be difficult to replicate – whatever level of resources would have been made available.

3. The Contribution of the Schools of Architecture

FG: I am privileged to be old enough to have worked on the “Venice Prize” exhibition coordinated by Pippo Ciorra for the Biennale directed by Francesco Dal Co in 1991. The central role of the exhibition allowed us to use the Corderie and invite 43 schools. With respect to this recent experience, what was missing at the time was the possibility to work on shared objectives. However, the 15 days during which the various groups were all present prior to the inauguration were very exciting. How different are schools nowadays from those of the past? The effects of globalisation can be seen, and I believe in a positive light, as long as the universities remain spaces of structured dialogue and conflict, without being suppressed. The dialectic of various disciplinary identities and positions evident in 1991 has given way to a significant level of uniformity in terms of attitude, working methods, the diffusion of skills and shared understanding that, without producing banality, allows us to confront one another on a higher plane.

RB: I am less convinced than you are that schools of architecture around the world operate at a higher level or with a more sophisticated eye than they did in the early 1990s. I think is there is a long way to go in reconnecting the architectural discourse to, say, the environmental and social agendas that are confronting future generations of architects.

FG: The margins that we left the various faculties in choosing a topic and a city tells us something about the interests for architecture in different schools. Mumbai was the most popular, evidence of an interest for the challenges presented by informal settlement; the second most popular was Istanbul, now seen as a modern metropolis, where density and cultural differentiation force us to overcome the traditional instruments of intervention. Perhaps the least incisive contributions were those not directly related to a specific context, even if they did produce research of great beauty.

RB: The great strength of architecture is that is does have an impact on people and place. That is the key point of the overall exhibition and why the more focussed projects were more successful. I am not surprised that Mumbai and Istanbul proved so attractive. With their informal patterns of development and global dynamics of fast-moving economies, they epitomise the essence of a world metropolis – with their extremes of wealth and poverty; grandeur and squalor; density and complexity, challenges and potentials. Just being able to capture these differences and speculate on how to intervene seems to be a profoundly worthwhile academic exercise.

4. Assessing the Projects

FG: Prior to concluding, I would like to talk briefly about Italy, in pursuit of optimism set against a backdrop of pessimism. The optimism lies in the fact that Italy is perfectly capable of facing up to international confrontation, and faring well. This is entirely the merit of students and professors. However, the Italian schools demonstrate such a profound separation between the elite and the masses that the faculties are devoid of any real identity if looked at as a whole. When inviting the various foreign schools we were able to contact the Dean, usually with relative ease. In Italy, instead, we dealt only with the coordinating professor. Another item of note is the vast generational gap: the counterparts to the Italian coordinators - in terms of age and biography - were already Deans in foreign schools. This has a strange effect, even on the best Italian professors who (with a few exceptions) were unable to see the workshop as anything other than a personal project, rather than the result of the collective intelligence of their students.

RB: As with everything else in life, things are better when they are not in the hand of bureaucrats and Italian public institutions have suffered far too long from this predicament. But, as you say, the intellectual and formal potential of staff and students is second to none and therefore I share your optimism but remain concerned by the over-politicization of academia where ownership becomes more important than content.

FG: As reductive as it may seem, we were able to define three approaches to group the projects together and organise the discussions during the seminars:
1. Understanding Cities - for those who sought primarily to understand phenomena and offer a definition. The title derives from a discussion held in September between Rem Koolhaas and Jacques Herzog during which the former attempted to demonstrate that his “Understanding” (Dubai) was entirely different than “Learning from” (Las Vegas).
2. Defining Urban Strategies - for those who continued to explore the forms of urban design through models or prototypes.
3. Architecture Has the Last Word - for those who used the design of a specific site, based on a specific– even if self-generated – programme to resolve their desire to offer a contribution.

RB: Given what I have said elsewhere, I don’t think you can do anyone of the above without understanding the other. The strongest contributions to the workshop were the ones that travelled vertically across all three themes. From this point of view, the project on Mumbay presented by Turin Polytechnic was exemplary. This is why the Jury composed by myself and Zaha Hadid, Anthony Gormley, his Highness Amin Aga Kahn, Richard Sennett, was unanimous in awarding it.

FG: In conclusion, the last word should be left to the projects; the quality of the work was nothing short of extraordinary. There were no examples of a simple collection of didactic documents, all the contributions were specimen of well researched and well coordinated work, based on very different, though highly original premises.
I would like to mention four projects that allow us to understand that irreverence and concreteness are equally indispensable tools, possessed by groups located in very different parts of the world. What is more, each of the four projects maintain the cultural attitude of their country of origin. The realism of the Venetian project for Istanbul can be compared to the exhilarating soap opera prepared by the Royal College of Art for San Paolo; their shared taste for the well made makes them similar, notwithstanding their notable differences. The playful approach adopted by the Tsinghua University in their unabashed redesign of New York, rooted in the philosophy and paradigms of Chinese culture was as captivating as the work presented by the University of Siracusa that revealed Cairo as a site of urban reparation that has many useful applications for the richer, though often equally informal cities of Italy.

RB: Your summary of why these projects are interesting, in many ways, says it all. Learning from Cities is an exemplary learning and didactic model that justifies its title. I think the ability for students to engage in real research (factual, statistical, experiential and personal) as a pre-condition of the development of spatial solutions has helped create greater clarity as what problems they are trying to solve through their architecture: a message which I hope stays with them throughout their careers as city-makers, architects and superstars.


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