Lab Project

Guabuliga – Well by the Thorn Tree

Gerald Bast

“Architecture is about giving form to the places where we live. It is not more complicated than that, but also not easier than that. Those places include houses, schools, offices, shops and retail areas in general, museums, palaces and government buildings, bus stops, subway stations, squares, parks, streets, trees along the streets (or not), sidewalks, parking, and the whole range of programs and pieces that constitute our built environment. The form of those places is defined not just by the aesthetic trend of the moment or the talent of a given designer; they are the consequence of regulations, interests, economies, and policies, or perhaps even of the lack of coordination, indifference, and simple chance. The forms these places assume may improve or ruin people’s lives.”1

With this explanation of the architectural concept underlying the 15th Venice Architecture Biennale 2016, artistic director Alejandro Aravena points out a future beyond capital- or power-dominated "signature architecture", but also roughly echoes a radical claim from Hans Hollein in 1968: "Limited and traditional definitions of architecture and its resources have mostly lost their validity. The environment as a whole is regarded as the effort we put into it and all the media that determines it. The expansion of the human realm and the means of defining the environment goes far beyond a structural determination. Today, everything is architecture, in a way. Architects have to stop thinking only in terms of buildings."2              

The radical utopian designs and manifests of the 1968 era with which one now differentiates itself from the mainstream no longer - or perhaps don’t yet - exist, but perhaps the strategic placement of realizable counterpoints to the common [building] cultural sector is at least as radical and courageous... “We are interested in architecture as a yearned instrument of self-government, as the instrument of a humanistic civilization, not as a result of a formal style but as the evidence of the ability of human beings to be the masters of their own destinies. Architecture in action as an instrument of social and political life...”3 says Paolo Baratta regarding the goals of the 15th Venice Architecture Biennale. This indicates nothing less than a paradigm shift in the understanding of architecture. Even if some who persist in defiant ignorance still argue and explain: “…The problem of urban concentration delivering belts of slums, these are issues, of course they are issues of concern, but they are not the issues that concern architects in the world working. They are working on other things. They are working on the metropolis, on the most advanced arenas. The problem is in this biennale we have to forget what we all working on, in our real life and suddenly become amateur commentators on social processes which we are unequipped to comment on…..“4

Indeed, the conjuncture of technological revolutions with social changes that alter large parts of people's private and professional lives on a dramatic scale with historically unprecedented speed, almost provokes uncertainty. We live in a world characterized by extreme complexity and the effects of this complexity are global. Everything somehow depends on everything else, without us always being able to see through the modes of action behind it. Quantum theorists - at least on the theoretical level – can perhaps become more comfortable with this phenomenon. We others, who have been strictly socialized through discipline-oriented education and profession, must painfully acknowledge that specialized expertise only gains power through synergistic coupling with other disciplines. Furthermore, a kind of study of the connection between the disciplines is required.

In the same way in which art and architecture have turned again and again to the latest technological developments and incorporated them into their systems, thereby expanding, transforming, and interconnecting their dimensions, these disciplines must also be applied to the complex social challenges as spheres of activity. "Signature architecture" will also act as cross-disciplinary support for social processes, as punctuation for social change. Not least due to the interaction between the force fields of digitization, globalization, migration, and urbanization, the political and economic conditions that affect the potential of art and architecture will inevitably be shifted. Thus, in this context, there is also the question of to whom and what art and architecture has relevance. Ultimately, it is always about interests of artistic, economic, and political natures. What would happen if large parts of the world were heading towards a situation in which it made both economical and political sense to make as much money available for interdisciplinary architectural and artistic contributions to the solutions for social problems in megacities, as that for the construction of shopping malls, conference centers, or grand representative political and cultural buildings? If the term innovation is no longer only understood as a technological-economic phenomenon, but also in its socio-cultural dimension, as a part of the process of civilization? What consequences would it have for architecture and art when focusing on the often cited "grand societal challenges" became mainstream? Not because it forces a revolution to happen, but because the societal constellations of power that also have an effect on the cultural sector have political and economic interests in using all the parameters of influence that contribute to the preservation of a positive social process. History has born witness to the fact that art and architecture have the potential to affect social impact.

Claire Bishop’s 'social turn'5, which she first mentioned 10 years ago, is gaining momentum - not only under the pressure of economic and political developments, but also through the increasing interest in cross-disciplinary work between the fields of art, architecture, design, technology, humanities, natural sciences, and economics. There is no doubt that this dynamic will serve the development of society just as much as it will the development of art and architecture, if one acknowledges, like Edward Wilson6, the most famous evolutionary biologist of our time, that art was and is a necessary element of human evolution.

1 Alejandro Aravena, in: Reporting from the Front, p.23, Catalogue of the 15th  Architecture Biennale Venice, Marsilio Editori, Vence 2016

2 Hans Hollein, ALLES IST ARCHITEKTUR, «Bau» Schrift für Architektur und Städtebau, 23. Jahrgang, Heft 1/2, Wien 1968, Herausgegeben mit der Zentralvereinigung der Architekten Österreichs

3 Paolo Baratta, in: Reporting from the Front, p. 18, Catalogue of the 15th  Architecture Biennale Venice, Marsilio Editori, Vence 2016

4 Patrik Schumacher,

5 Claire Bishop, The Social Turn: Collaboration and Its Discontents, Artforum February 2006

6 Edward O. Wilson, Die Soziale Eroberung der Welt, C.H. Beck Verlag, München 2013 – The Social Conquest of Earth, Liveright Publishing Corporation, New York – London 2012