Towards a different meaning of togetherness

Atelier RITA, Emergency Shelter for Refugees and Roma Community, 2017. Courtesy David Boureau @urbamutability // All rights reserved 2020Atelier RITA, Emergency Shelter for Refugees and Roma Community, 2017. Courtesy David Boureau @urbamutability // All rights reserved 2020

How will we live together? If, that is, we are still capable of doing it, after a year of social distancing! Above all: what is the meaning of cohabitation, coexistence? How will we live together? is the interrogative title of the 17th International Architecture Exhibition of the Venice Biennale, curated by Hashim Sarkis. Sarkis has put designers face to face with five different scales, not of size but of coexistence. Between different species, new families, emerging communities, geographical and political borders, and as a planet. In this Biennale, Sarkis asks architects to act as catalysts between different disciplines, with the aim of designing a physical space that reflects these relationships. In this outlook, physical space has the role of a “social contract” that enables cultural, social and political relations. Not just among individuals, but also with the natural world.

Hashim Sarkis. Photo by Jacopo Salvi, courtesy La Biennale di VeneziaHashim Sarkis. Photo by Jacopo Salvi, courtesy La Biennale di Venezia

“The current global pandemic,” Hashim Sarkis explains in his press presentation, “has made the question this Biennale is asking all the more relevant, even if somehow ironic, given the imposed isolation. However, many of the reasons that initially led us to ask this question – the intensifying climate crisis, massive population displacements, political instabilities around the world, and growing racial, social, and economic inequalities, among others – have led us to this pandemic. We can no longer wait for politicians to propose a path towards a better future. As politics continue to divide and isolate, we can offer alternative ways of living together through architecture.”

Courtesy Michael Maltzan ArchitectureBureau of Engineering, Michael Maltzan Architecture, Inc. / HNTB Corporation, “City of Los Angeles,” Sixth Street Viaduct. Courtesy Michael Maltzan Architecture

How will we live together? An open question

How: practical approaches and concrete solutions, problem solving as a key parameter of architectural thinking. Will: looking towards the future but also seeking vision and determination. We: first-person plural, to be inclusive of other peoples and species, for a more empathic understanding of architecture. Live: not simply to exist, but to thrive, to inhabit, and to express life, tapping into architecture’s inherent optimism. Together: collectives, commons, universal values, architecture as a form of collective expression. ?: an open, not a rhetorical question.

Courtesy PRÁCTICAPRÁCTICA, “River Somes, Urban Beach,” River Somes: Across Communities and Ecosystems, 2017-ongoing. Courtesy PRÁCTICA

The spatial contract

Every space we design has an impact on existing social dynamics, while proposing an alternative at the same time. “We need a new spatial contract,” Sarkis continues. “In the context of widening political divides and growing economic inequalities, we call on architects to imagine spaces in which we can generously live together. As human beings, who despite increasing individuality yearn to connect with one another and with other species across digital and real space. As new households looking for more diverse and dignified spaces for inhabitation. As emerging communities that demand equity, inclusion, and spatial identity. Crossing political borders to imagine new geographies of association, as a planet facing crises that require global action for all of us to continue living at all.”

Courtesy SOM | Slashcube GmbHSOM, “Moon Village Earth Rise,” Life Beyond Earth, 2020. Courtesy SOM | Slashcube GmbH

The active commitment of architecture

There is no all-encompassing design solution, and we cannot rely on standard models. Architecture has to be aware of its political and social implications. Because while politics and policies set the terms and processes for collective life, constructed space is where people gather and shape the social contract. Observing how societies shape space could be just as important as observing their ethical codes. The evolution of social relations, the link with technology and the environment, raise issues that demand flexibility, an ability to adapt and – above all – plurality of vision in architecture. “Our bodies have acquired new prosthetics and, increasingly, the nascent freedom to express fluid genders. They are being diversified and liberated from uniformity, but the architectural criteria of their comfort are still based on standardized approaches that confine the body and detach it from its environment. Our family lives have evolved and diversified, but we continue to replicate ad nauseam the model of the nuclear family house along with its embedded biases of hierarchy and privacy. Our social associations have become more diffused and diverse and yet the space of the community is still centered around values of association that tend to be more inward-looking and claustrophobic. Our cities have long expanded beyond the centralized model of separated land-uses and income groups, but we often continue to think of the good city as one with a center, spatially organized societal hierarchies, and with its back turned to the rural and nature.”

Courtesy Alison Brooks ArchitectsAlison Brooks, ”Axonometric,” Home Ground, 2020. Courtesy Alison Brooks Architects

With these premises, Sarkis brings together the works of 112 participants from 46 countries, proclaiming a renewed, active commitment for architecture. “Architects today are rethinking their tools to address the complex problems at hand. They are also enlarging their table to include other professionals and citizens. More than ever, they are called upon to propose alternatives. We are looking for a spatial contract that is at once universal and inclusive, an expanded contract for peoples and species to coexist and thrive in their plurality.”

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