by Roderick Conway Morris

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Venice architecture show reimagines the modern city


By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 5 December 2006

 

The theme of the 10th International Architecture Exhibition of the Venice Biennale is "Cities" - the places where more and more of us are living in and migrating to every year. Just over a century ago, when the Venice Art Biennale was founded, around 10 percent of the world's population lived in cities. By 2050, if United Nations predictions are correct, the figure will have risen to 75 percent.

The Architecture Exhibition was founded in 1980, but it has steadily grow in size and scope with every edition. Many who attend the event this year (which continues until Nov. 19) may well feel that it has finally overtaken, in importance and in the rewards it offers, the better-known visual arts section of the Biennale, where the trivial and the superficial often predominate. Certainly, this spectacular and multifaceted show deserves to be seen by the widest possible public.

"Cities, Architecture and Society," the central core of the exhibition directed by the British architect and city planner Richard Burdett, deals with the characteristics, problems and possible development of 16 major metropolises around the globe, from Barcelona and Bogotá to Mumbai and Mexico City. This fills the long pillared hall of the old Corderie, or Rope Walk, of the Arsenale. The confluence of architectural, social, cultural and city planning issues raised here are echoed in the nearly 50 national pavilions at the Castello Gardens and other venues, offering an unprecedented "tour d'horizon" of global city life.

The Danish Pavilion is host to "Co-Evolution: Danish-Chinese Collaboration on Sustainable Urban Development in China." The show presents joint projects undertaken by young Danish architects and their Chinese counterparts relating to four key cities: Chongqing, Shanghai, the highly polluted industrial center of Fatou and the venerable historical city of Xian. (This show will travel on to Beijing and Copenhagen.)

Sixteen of the Earth's 20 most polluted cities are currently in China. Pollution from these gigantic urban masses, which will soon dwarf the emissions of hundreds of other cities put together, will ultimately affect us all. Well over a million people are arriving annually in the western conglomeration of Chongqing, described here as "the biggest municipality in the world." The Danish "Magic Mountains" project for Chongqing's new "green" Central Business District envisages edifices in the form of "inhabitable" mountains, reflecting the region's natural landscape, served by complex heating, cooling and water-conservation systems that harness local air currents, with verdant "valleys" of green space between, and eco-friendly bicycle and pedestrian paths to minimize motor transport - a radical reassertion of traditional means of travel in the face of China's exploding car culture.

Another project is a plan for one of the satellite "subcities" being developed by Shanghai city planners. Shanghai's population doubled between 1993 and 2002, and Denmark's entire population, in conditions its residents would no doubt find extremely uncongenial, could now fit inside the Chinese city's inner ring road.

Climate change has enormous implications for where cities will be located. Just as during the 20th century air conditioning in the United States enabled a southern shift of the population, even into desert regions, global warming could open up sparsely populated climes in the north. The Nordic Countries Pavilion looks at three "Arctic Cities": Kiruna in Sweden, Oulu in Finland and Tromso in Norway.

All are likely to grow with the melting of the ice cap, which could make new oil, gas and mineral fields accessible, and even open up the northwest and northeast passages between Canada and Russia. This could put Tromso, a town that stands on what until now has been considered on the outer edge of a generally habitable environment (where the winter sun disappears for weeks on end), on a major international maritime highway. The ways in which these cities are looking at the future are examined here, and they have lessons to offer other places with totally different climates and cultures.

Tromso, for example, "discovered that it was being bombarded by projects which only marginally reflected and were concerned with its future role," or which did not take sufficient interest in the needs of its present and future inhabitants, according to Knut Eirik Dahl, a professor of urbanism at Oslo School of Architecture and Design. This town, which reportedly has the youngest and most highly educated citizens in Norway, decided to take "time out," freezing all initiatives for a 40-week period of public debate on alternatives, and offering the opportunity for new thinking.

The quality of life in future high-rise megalopolises and low-level sprawling suburbs, or "dispersed urban continuums," to borrow a phrase from the instructive Australian Pavilion, is also a question raised in this dispersed continuum of an exhibition. With more than 80 percent of its population living in cities (making it the most urbanized country/continent in the world), but also with gigantic near-empty regions, Australia exists in some ways simultaneously in the future and the past.

The creations of the architect Terunobu Fujimori, who was born in rural Japan, are on display at the Japanese Pavilion. His designs for teahouses, residential houses, regional museums and other institutions reveal a rich combination of tradition and idiosyncrasy. This pavilion is the most charming and restful of all the national venues at the Architecture Exhibition, indeed an oasis of calm, but one which leaves the visitor with much to think about.

On entering the pavilion, visitors are requested to remove their shoes before walking on the bamboo floors. In his entertaining notes to Fujimori's elegant Akino Fuku Art Museum project, he says: "I originally thought of creating a museum in which viewers are completely naked when they look at the paintings, but I gave up on this idea because I was afraid that being undressed would actually make it more difficult for people to concentrate on the art."

Although most of the buildings illustrated here are in rural settings, they could work in cities. Tokyo, the largest single conurbation in the world, already has more than 35 million inhabitants, and there will inevitably be cities elsewhere of this size in the not-so-distant future. Fujimori's teahouses would make perfect refuges from the strains of urban life and modern households in very different cultures, and could be squeezed into relatively small spaces.

His "Too-High Teahouse" is placed atop two cut tree trunks, invisibly cemented into tubes under the ground some six meters, or 20 feet, below, and gently swings in the breeze. The more moderately elevated "Right-Angle Teahouse" occupies the corner of a tiny graveled garden in Kyoto.

Fujimori has also experimented with planting pitched-house roofs with turf, blooms and flowering vegetables - literal "roof gardens," an antique practice that is found both in rustic Japan and in Normandy in France, but which could introduce welcome greenery into towns. He also has visionary plans for cities of the future, to replace those swamped by global warming, the building materials of which would naturally imprison CO2 gases. This has, it seems, been ridiculed as a fantasy by some, but may yet contain fertile seeds for the kind of unconventional thinking that will be essential if the cities of the future are to be made truly habitable.


First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2016