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Architecture: In What Sense?

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Architecture: In What Sense?

This is a special year. The International Exhibition of Architecture in Venice is strongly geared to issues of ethical, sustainable and participative architecture, obliging our profession to come to grips with a specific question: can architecture be a means to enact justice and bring about greater fairness in society? And if so, can this sort of architecture be considered “good”? This editorial attempts an answer. With the opening of this year’s Biennale, every architect with a sense of responsibility has found him/herself thinking about the different social, economic, and environmental effects any work of architecture produces. A consideration this, that broadens the spectrum of competences attributed to our discipline: no longer just a matter of the composition, technology and expressive use of materials but now extended to include the local and global effects triggered - or not triggered - by architectural choices in terms of sustainability, inclusion and access to systems of safeguard under law. The first consideration is to ask whether in such circumstances we are still talking about architecture. The debate has lined up proponents of two different opinions. The first group, sensitive to the issues presented at the Biennale, is decidedly in favor of a “new” architecture focused on considering the social impact of our discipline, and with a particular sense of responsibility towards the environment and management of human and material resources. The opposing group focuses more on the specifics of creating architecture as a series of technical systems, forms and materials, placing the accent more on the value of seeking an expressive language and making available to clients the specialized know-how of the individual architect. The whole debate is underpinned, however, by an overarching concern: that the shift or broadening of architecture’s remit may lead to a loss of skill and quality, in other words, the “betrayal” of architecture itself, which, as a result, risks being sidelined by the imperative of producing merely for utility’s sake, putting social and political relevance before technical and expressive excellence. Alejandro Aravea, the Biennale director, and Patrik Schumacher were the respective spokesmen for the two sides. The debate engaged critics, architects and most of the sector-specific press (although this latter prudently put off taking sides until the real effects of the debate become evident). From our point of view - as a practice engaged for more than 20 years in socially aware architecture and communication projects, and this year in charge of the Italy Pavilion at the Venice Biennale - the debate appears overly focused on the role and prerogatives of the architect working within a hierarchical system of knowledge and know-how. In our view, the focus should be shifted to the function and potential of architecture as a means of building circular knowledge systems. More especially, the debate should consider the far-reaching and disruptive changes ongoing in the societies and production systems that characterize our times. Projects involving the creative process are increasingly developed on open platforms. The more these new creative processes are able to sweep aside the traditional hierarchical strata of knowledge and trigger new processes thanks to continual information exchange, the greater will be their effectiveness. This holistic vision leads to a whole new concept (and representation) of the architect, who increasingly becomes part of a complex process where different participants contribute to the overall creativity that will lead to the final outcome. The new demands made on architectural projects can be summed up as: flexibility allowing the proactive involvement of many stakeholders (not least end-users and clients); the ability to metabolize available resources to ensure sustainability and self-sufficiency; the possibility of transferring information in the form of replicable knowledge able to generate processes where human capital enhancement is an important value added (workgroups like, for example, Mass Design Group and Catapult Design in the United States and the co-design platform coordinated by the Italian Bebop Gresta to develop the Hyperloop project). Projects reflecting this mindset must increasingly engage with new supportive disciplines if they are to interface with the many agencies working interactively on agendas aiming at the fair and sustainable development of our planet. Examples of what these new practices involve are: open, nonhierarchical decision-making models; assessing complex variables using increasingly structured databases; learning how to share information on common platforms; assessing the production/re-commissioning life-cycle and environmental compatibility of projects (a theme considered at the United Nations COP21 on climate change held in Paris from November 30 to December 12, 2015). We are before an “inevitable” revolution brought about by changes to the very structure of knowledge and attempts to pilot the consequences towards better management of available resources. We believe it is especially on these issues - not others - that the debate should consider what architecture can contribute to the governance of this vast sea-change. The Italy Pavilion and the exhibition “Taking Care - Designing for the Common Good” offered an opportunity to experiment a systematic selection of works. All projects had to involve architects, institutions, and users in the building of a common good, going beyond mere utility or laudable aesthetic to illustrate how metabolic, participative processes can be replicated on different scales and with different budgets and be implemented in a wide range of contexts (urban, suburban, industrial and natural) with a variety of systems (new build, reconversion, restoration etc.). Commissioned by the Directorate General for Art and Contemporary Architecture and Urban Peripheries of the Italian Ministry for Cultural Heritage and Tourism, the exhibition looks closely at the role culture and architecture can have in urban regeneration processes. Twenty projects were included, all by young Italian practices. They provide a raft of examples we consider the right response to the umbrella theme proposed by Aravena, Reporting from the Front, since all are located in outlying areas or disadvantaged neighborhoods (abandoned villages, former industrial areas, peripheral quarters, etc.) where the central challenge for architecture is precisely the issue under debate: the fight to counter marginalization and social resignation with quality, culture, protection of rights, and support for service provision policies. The determined research underpinning the projects does not stem from any ideological conviction, or worse, armchair socialism. It comes from 20 years in the field working for social goals, a practice our American colleagues call with pragmatic clarity “impact design”. (Examples are the experience of the Autodesk Foundation and the all-important research carried out around the Curry Stone award.) Experience has often led us to compare our work with that from different cultures, which inevitably leads to questioning the role of architecture in the last peripheral areas of the world. The answer that always returns is that the true foundation of any building is embedded in an empathy and shared feeling for the project, which in turn is always the result of working together and listening in order to mediate between resources, ambitions and respect for the local culture. The various hospitals developed by us with the Association Emergency in the last few years have been a test bed in this sense. The diverse stakeholders (architectural, medical, economic, environmental, energy, etc.) become part of a system aimed at building an alternative sustainable public healthcare model in places where the very idea of the right to service provision is practically unknown. As part of a network including communities and local authorities, these projects are building the basis for a new concept of health and health care that can really make a difference and produce change. An example is ANME - African Network of Medical Excellence - founded in 2009 with the aim of promoting the building of healthcare centers of excellence in Africa along the model of the “Salam” Heart Surgery Center. These examples and the reasoning underpinning them are why we believe we can return to the initial question and answer, yes, we can aspire to produce architecture that brings about social justice, because it is architecture rooted in an idea of the common good shared by architects and end-users.

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