Does landscape matter?

Robert Schäfer /

Landscape architecture is always underrepresented in architecture exhibitions – this article re-examines the landscape front in Venice.

After the Campanile of San Marco collapsed in 1902, the building rubble was used in the Giardini to form a hill, modest in height, but impressive in the flat laguna context. This is why the German pavilion, built on top of this hill, is able to offer unknown unexpected views during this year’s Architecture Exhibition. The curators broke openings through the walls, which they will close afterwards, so that, in a typical German way, that which was undone will then be faithfully rebuilt. While it is not a new idea to sharpen the view into a landscape by narrowing it, critics appreciate this symbol for its openness, the creation of a „Heimat“ for refugees.

© Robert Schäfer

The German pavilion – demonstrating openness / photo: Robert Schäfer

Alejandro Aravena, chief curator and this year’s Pritzker Award winner created the Biennale motto „Reporting from the Front“ in order „to present complex issues in a simple way without banalizing it“. For Aravena, „architecture is about giving form to the places where we live. There are many battles that need to be won in order to improve the quality of built environments and, consequently, people’s quality of life.“ Meanwhile, frontline reports prove that more and more people will have to leave their home due to the effects of climate change. Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, climate researcher at Potsdam Institute, asked the architects at a conference in Venice if they believe that millions of people in Africa or Asia will wait to die of hunger before moving north.

Because building and maintaining housing are the greatest contributors to carbon emissions, construction with concrete and burning fossil resources should be banned. In light of these facts, the German architect Werner Sobek presented a covered Abaton, a cube with an edge of 4,66920 meters, which refers to the Feigenbaum constant, describing the transition of a non-linear system from regular to chaotic behaviour. For Sobek, this point of transition is where we are now.

Werner Sobek Abaton-venice

Werner Sobek’s Abaton – a cryptic memorial / photo: Werner Sobek

The Australian pavilion reports from the edge of a pool, intuitively understood as a public space where the personal and the communal intersect. Who doesn’t enjoy a swim in the pool when it’s hot? But I would rather call it cynical, knowing that Australia’s politicians are squeezing Oceanic climate refugees into concentration camps on island states like Nauru. These states essentially get paid so that refugees will not pee in Australian pools.

The pool as  public space – but not for everybody

The pool as public space – but not for everybody / photo: Robert Schäfer

Psychologist Abraham Maslow developed a „Hierarchy of Human Needs“, represented as a pyramid with basic needs located at the bottom. The Nordic pavilion has chosen the title „In Therapy“, referring to Maslow. The pavilion, in the words of Davis Basulto, curator and friend of Aravena,„interrogates perceptions and preconceptions of Nordic Architecture.“ A wooden pyramid, which definitely does not meet the quality of famous traditional wooden buildings in Scandinavia, occupies most of Sverre Fehn’s pavilion. Visitors are encouraged to climb and crawl on the structure to collect 300 recent architectural and landscape architectural projects on small paper sheets. Whereas Maslow placed the concept of „self-actualization“ at the top of his pyramid, the top of the Nordic pavilion, in contrast, symbolizes incertitude.

© Robert Schäfer

In Therapy – the pyramid in the Nordic pavilion / photo: Robert Schäfer

Spain is one of the countries where the impact of the economic crisis has most deeply affected the practice of architecture. The real estate bubble created modern ruins, unfinished buildings, which are scattered over the Spanish landscape. The Spanish exhibition, awarded with the Golden Lion, tries to take an optimistic view to this reality, focusing more on processes than results. The situation is documented in photographs, displaying examples of how spaces are created as well as change over time. The works call attention to the incomplete and the temporary. They are inserted into the existing, consolidating disintegrated spaces and developing a sense of belonging to the place.

Venice-Spanish-dream

Spanish dream: Living in unfinished houses / photo: Cadelas verdes

„ Home. Communal garden“ is a contribution organized by the landscape architect firm View Unlimited from Beijing. In the Arsenale garden they present an outdoor installation, a garden that grows and changes for half a year. On screens, live streaming videos connect to the „actual“ project, the renovation of Yangmeizhu Street, part of an old hutong, which is an attempt to reconnect people with shared courtyard spaces. In this environment of shabby houses and crowded rooms, the creation of public space through communal gardening or planting is a true welfare project, 66 meters long, 1 to 4 meter width. The project began in 2015 and is still in progress.

Home-Garden installation

Home. Garden installation by View Unlimited

Much like in Beijing, density is a well known concept in Medellin, Columbia. EPM, a state owned services company, is highly effective in coordinating actions for the benefit of the community. Using aerial photographs, EPM, together with the mayor of Medellin, identified clearly visible dark spots or „dangerous places.“ which turned out to be Medellin’s water cistern network, fenced off for security reasons and disconnected from the city’s neighborhood. The political and technical decision taken was to reverse their isolation by transforming them into public spaces. Two key elements for urban welfare come together: water and open spaces. A net of 20 spaces are planned in total.

Water reservoirs as public park Medellin Colombia Anibal Gaviria Mayor of Medellin-2

Water reservoirs as public park, Medellín, Colombia / photo: Courtesy Aníbal Gaviria, Mayor of Medellín.

Although architecture is to be seen as part of the landscape, urban or non-urban, landscape architects and their work are hard to be found at the Biennale. One exception to this is the restoration of the garbage dump of Vall d’en Juan by the Catalan landscape architects Battle i Roig from 2008. Another is„Catch the Landscape“, an installation by Teresa Möller: blocks of precious travertine stone were treated as debris from a copper mine in the Atacama desert and transported to Venice, so as to critique the copper mining industry and its disturbance of natural landscape.

Travertine from Chile-an installation from Teresa Moeller

Travertine from Chile – an installation from Teresa Möller / photo: Robert Schäfer

A similar sense of alarm comes from the landscape architect Pierre Bélanger. „Extraction“is an exploration of the dark and often obscured role that the mining industries have played in shaping Canada’s economy, cities and identity, at the same time exploiting indigenous lands. It consists of a row of giant sacks of gold ore from Sardinia, where a Canadian mining firm left behind poisonous debris in 2009, as well as a peephole in the ground, through which pictures of Canada‘s history of exploitation are shown. Bélanger knows exactly what mining and landscape destruction means, having worked in the industry and also holding an operating permit for heavy mining vehicles.

Montenegro, one of the former Yugoslavian republics, is proud to present the only purely landscape exhibition of the Bienniale, in a small Palazzo near Academia bridge. The Ulcinj Solana project is about a vast, 100 year old salina landscape which developed over time into a thriving bird habitat with rich biological diversity. (A further article about this project will follow soon).

Erik Pleijster from the dutch firm LOLA and his diversity panel at the Montenegro exhibition

Erik Pleijster, from the Dutch firm LOLA, and his diversity panel at the Montenegro exhibition „Project Ulcinj Solana“ / photo Robert Schäfer

A landscape related success story comes from Chile. Migration to urban areas became necessary after impoverished territory in the Vilarica region became entirely unliveable. GrupoTalca used local resources, workforce and craftmanship to build a wooden viewpoint in Pinohuacho in 2006. Young architects made a project proposal, working for wo years with the local community. They developed an ecotourism plan for 150 hectares of native forest, with the objectives of protection, conservation, and presentation of the natural heritage of the area. Once the viewpoint was open to the community and the ecotourism plan started, the Pinohuacho community began to receive thousands of tourists from all over the world.

© Grupo Talca

South Chilean viewpoint in Pinohuacho / photo: c/o Grupo Talca

Venice receives more than 30 Million visitors per year; many tourists think of Venice only as a backdrop for selfies. I’m not entirely convinced that visiting architects really need the Venetian atmosphere and all the parties that go along with it in order to understand the challenges we are currently confronted with.

Alejandro Aravena’s exhibition is probably far more ambitious than others. Nevertheless, the Biennale in Venice, in the end, is a grab bag, the visitor encountering both tired examples from old champions as well as refreshing think-pieces from grassroot-builders.


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Landscape architecture is always underrepresented in architecture exhibitions – this article re-examines the landscape front in Venice.




Published on July 5, 2016
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