What is the role of the architect in contemporary society? As the gap between the very rich and the very poor cracks wider, so do the emerging poles of architectural practice. At one end is the cult of the celebrity designer; at the other, architecture as an act of collaboration, community organizing, and activism.
The 11th Venice Architectural Biennial, Out There: Architecture Beyond Building, makes it clear that most architects can agree on one thing: it doesn’t have to include actually building anything.
Into the Open: Positioning Practice, which runs at the Parsons School of Design through May 1, exhibits the work of the American Pavilion from the Venice Biennial. This includes the work of 16 different groups or individuals: Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP), Teddy Cruz, international Center for Urban Ecology (iCUE), Laura Kurgen, Rebar, Project Row Houses, Rural Studio, Design Corps, Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI), Detroit Collaborative Design Center, Jonathan Kirschenfeld Associates, Gans Studio, Smith and Others, Heidelberg Project, Firebreak Project, Edible Schoolyard/Yale Sustainable Food Project, and Studio 804.
Each one of these projects represents a different approach to the problem of “the city.” Some provide infrastructure and amenities to under-served communities, such as the Jonathan Kirschenfeld Associates’ “floating pool” which docks in Brooklyn and hosts over 50,000 swimmers in the summer. Others, such as the Center for Urban Pedagogy and Center for Land Use Interpretation position themselves as educational tools for the community. CUP’s project, The Subsidized Landscape, diagrams the financial make-up of the New York landscape in terms of models and photomontage, which it then mobilizes as educational tools in its Affordable Housing Workshops.
The curators of the show William Menking, Aaron Levy, and Andrew Sturm are confronted with the difficult task of working with ideas rather than objects. Many of the projects in the show no longer exist; others do not have a built manifestation at all. The Project Row Houses, which addressed the mysterious conflagration of nearly 25 homes in the Northern Third Ward in Houston, TX shows two photographs, commanding in their simplicity: a house on fire, and a row of newly constructed homes. The walls and furniture of the gallery are painted dark-green, chalk is available at the front door, and visitors are encouraged to write on the walls. Walking by the display for the Design Corps’ Migrant Housing and Bath House, one sees written on the wall: “Fascinating—But doesn’t this perpetuate what is already an unfortunate situation?” Closely followed by: “STRAWBERRY FIELDS 4 EVER.” The green paint on the walls makes the whole space feel rather dark, and ultimately comes off as a somewhat superficial nod to “interactivity.”
However, the curators successfully raise the question: need the end product be a building? More importantly, they ask: need the end be a product?
In our video, we’ve highlighted the work of Teddy Cruz, Laura Kurgen, and Rural Studio. Cruz’s project, Radicalizing the Local: 60 Linear Miles of Transborder Urban Conflict maps the collision between wealth and poverty, the formal and informal city and many other disparities apparent along the 60 miles north and south of the Mexican border at Tijuana and San Diego. Kurgan organizes city data on poverty, infrastructure, criminal activity and prison displacement to ask: what if more resources were spent on investment in housing and infrastructure rather than sending people to prison? Rural Studio’s Animal Shelter is a project carried out by students earning their degrees by assisting the structural development of Hale County, Alabama.
Although the work at the Biennial didn’t include actual structures, it did not necessarily question the need of the structure in terms of its context, socially or politically. Instead, the drawings, renderings, installations or models of individual architects or firms seemed to simply swap places with “the structure”; displacing the glorification of one object to another. Into the Open: Positioning Practice proposes truly new solutions and an expanded, exciting way of looking at architecture in America and elsewhere.
To download this video as a podcast go here.
ARTICLE: Maren Miller
VIDEO: Alexandra Lerman, Michael Cervieri, Tami Meir, Maren Miller
MUSIC: Tad Piecka