Venice Biennale: Sustainability In The Sinking City
Words by Monique Webber
Photos courtesy of Rory Gardiner, Linda Tegg & Louise Wright
The Venice Architecture Biennale showcases the latest innovations in architecture, in one of the world’s most endangered urban environments. This year the Australian Pavilion and a UK Special Project are uniting the two.
Venice is sinking. But at this year’s Architecture Biennale, Australian and UK creative practitioners are turning this lament into a call for positive action. In 'Repair', a team lead by architects Mauro Baracco and Louise Wright, in collaboration with the artist Linda Tegg, have filled the Australian Pavilion with over ten thousand Australian indigenous grassland seedlings (fig. 1-3). Accompanied by visual and textual explorations, the installation recalls architectural sites before human intervention. And in 'Robin Hood Gardens: A Ruin in Reverse', the V&A Museum relocates a three-storey fragment of recently demolished social housing to question socially effective structure. Sustainability clearly remains at the forefront of international design discourse. In a biennale context, it becomes a catalyst for wider social impact.
Founded in 1873 as an art exhibition, with architecture added in 1980, the Venice Biennale is the paradigm for a worldwide proliferation of bi- and triennials. It also (largely) avoids the criticism increasingly levelled at the format. Where Documenta and Frieze Art Fair are often accused of creating unrealistic vacuums, Venice – and particularly its Architecture Biennale - remains respected. It is, as Louise Wright of Baracco+Wright and one of the 2018 Australian Biennale Creative Directors describes, “a moment of reflection and intensity.”
Situated in one of the world’s most visually overwhelming and heavily-touristed cities, the Biennale wisely does not compete with its location. Instead, the environmentally fragile location becomes a converging point for considering the contemporary world to which it belongs. Last year, the monumental hands of Lorenzo Quinn’s 'Support' rose eerily from the Grand Canal to apparently prop up the rosy facade and arched windows of the Ca’ Sagredo Hotel. Ca’ Sagredo exemplifies the Venetian Gothic created especially for the city, whose buildings are now crumbling victims of climate change and human activity. Quinn’s straining hands, expressing “the two sides of human nature, the creative and the destructive…”, made Venice an international symbol of design’s interaction with sustainability. This year, Australia and the UK are extending this discourse. There is a lot of room for creativity in 'Freespace', the 2018 Architecture Biennale’s theme. Although the brief does not prescribe – or even directly mention – sustainability, both 'Repair' and 'Robin Hood Gardens' interpret 'Freespace' as architectural interventions into impact and accountability patterns.
Design has had an apparently irrevocable impact on the Australian landscape. In Victoria alone, little more than two hundred years of European settlement has eradicated ninety-nine percent of grasslands. Like Quinn’s 'Support', 'Repair' acknowledges the tragedy of Australia’s landscape. However, it does not see this as an irreversible state of being. Creating a seemingly natural grassland in the monolithic Australian Pavilion suggests that design can reconcile built form with the environment. The two channel video 'Ground' by Linda Tegg (in collaboration with Baracco+Wright and David Fox) takes this inquiry beyond the limited Biennale space. The video installation reorients our perspective to natural grasslands over cities (fig. 4); and emphasises the incoherence of urban infrastructure against the inherent structure of the landscape it replaces (fig. 5). Louise Wright explains that the Australian pavilion as a whole shows “something that is typically undervalued in that provides value.” By reorienting our prespective 'Repair' acknowledges what we have done and, at the same time, our potential to remedy the situation.
London’s Robin Hood Gardens (RHG) was equally a response to destruction. In turn, the Biennale's 'Robin Hood Gardens' explores its obliteration. Constructed in 1972, the Brutalist multi-level housing estate finally realised Alison and Peter Smithson’s utopian post-war vision. Its shared walkways should have created "streets in the sky", embracing an internal area that turned construction waste into a gently mounded green space for communal activities. This soon became a dystopian post-modern reality as the estate became synonymous with crime, social inequality, and unsustainable building practices. Following a drawn-out debate that pitted heritage against social actuality, RHG was deemed an unfit environment. Demolition began in 2017. 'Robin Hood Gardens' relocates a skeletal fragment of the estate, accompanied by video narratives of the building and its inhabitants, into Venice’s Applied Arts Pavilion. Incongruously deposited alongside a canal, what was once someone’s home and a vision for the future looks unnervingly like a dissected specimen. As 'Repair' looks towards a mindful partnership with the landscape, 'Robin Hood Gardens' forces us to question what we value in the urban environment and the impact of our choices. Looking across these two exhibitions, accountability is a global concern with local specificity, demanding an equally multi-directional response. And Venice is the ideal platform for it to begin.
Venice does not claim to change the world. But it does present an intensely observed space for discussion. As multidisciplinary practitioners involved in education – each of Australia’s ten collaborators teaches; and the V&A is a leading museum – the creators of 'Repair' and 'Robin Hood Gardens' are ideally situated to inspire change in their own contexts. At Venice, a city defined by fragility at the hands of its creators, this becomes a universal discussion. Importantly, it is not a static one. 'Repair' and 'Robin Hood Gardens' show living transformations of our environment. What their outcomes will be is undefined; and perhaps that is the point. These are provocations, and we need to engage equally with design and the environment to find the way forward from where we are now. After all, “sustainability is about keeping things in a sort of status quo…we need to do more than that. Repair is active,” says Wright.