Features

Venice Biennale: Saturation

October 26, 2010

Paul Carter argues that if the transformations affecting our cities are fluid and mutable, then our response to the challenges they represent should not be cast in concrete.

This scheme formed part of the Now+When: Australian Urbanism exhibition at the 2010 Venice Biennale, curated by John Gollings and Ivan Rijavec.

When ‘Saturation’ leaked into the public domain, someone objected, “Not another utopian project! Concrete solutions are needed.” The objection to this criticism is that the problems created by the inter-related processes of climate change, the overexploitation of natural resources, the growing rift between rich and poor and the corresponding risks to geo-political stability do not present themselves in easily contained and managed forms. Transformations are occurring that ooze, leak and otherwise diffuse across the conceptual frameworks used to describe, delimit and neutralise them.

In relation to urban design, the lag between the science of “concrete solutions” and the actuality of the social and environmental transformations that suffuse the world we inhabit often produces facile design responses. For example, in an attempt to mimic emergent forms (perhaps we should say emergency), ooze forms are generated, building envelopes and public spaces that imitate the characteristics of colloidal systems. But, in the context of changes that radically alter the economy of accommodation and the prospects for maintaining civility, it is these aesthetic choices (however much they are defended on functionalist grounds) that are utopian: they intensify the disconnect between contemporary design and human need.

Saturation sought to address these pressing questions. Recognising that the public, or at least its politicians, appear unmoved by the implications of data whose cumulative effect is massive, but whose immediate impact is subtle, we decided to posit a crisis. Crises dissolve ideological boundaries; they produce swarming crowds and, briefly, the conditions of invention. Bunching the incremental changes to the sea levels experienced in Melbourne’s Port Phillip Bay, we imagined an urban response to massive inundation (dated, for the purposes of conceptualisation, 2050).

The four urban typologies that emerged from this thought experiment were also designed to meet another condition. The phrase “concrete solutions” is perhaps an oxymoron. However, it is commonplace in decision-making parlance because it satisfactorily evokes the nature of problems. Problems in design, procurement and management exist to be solved; but the nature of the solution proposed is never liquid: it is always solid, concrete. Evidently, any concrete solution to a problem that inherently flows is ineffectual: you cannot step into the same river twice. In other words, you can continue to solve problems but the circumambient environment of change absorbs them, much as the gradual tilt of coastlines pushes villages into the sea.

One can respond to this scenario in at least two ways: through the present, institutionalised logic of denial; or, through the development of conceptual tools better adapted to the behaviour of humid systems. The logic of denial can be characterised as ‘dry thinking’; it is in theory and practice architectonic in temper, being preoccupied with firm foundations, lasting stability and the traditional identification of the real with the immobile. We would say that this idealisation of human society and its milieu is crumbling. Perhaps a geographical parti pris can also be acknowledged, for it is reasonable to ask what northern hemispheric orthodoxies of linear thinking and discrete quantification have to do with the world which, as Hegel imagined it, lies beyond the outreach of the north’s tapering peninsulas.

What do we, in the mouth of Ocean, feel, think and dream about water, its eternal ebb and flow? In the listening ear of Port Phillip Bay, we enjoy a reflective space where the ‘chaos’ of the westering Forties returns to embryo or is washed up in the wrinkled surface of old age. We border reaches of the future in comparison with which the Venetian Lagoon is a painting.

An alternative, humid understanding of our liquid condition was needed; and we found it in the phenomenon of saturation. At a certain point, difficult to predict but easily observed, a liquid to which a soluble solid is added becomes saturated: it loses the power to dissolve any further solid added to it. This chemical reality should, by the way, give our commentator pause for thought. In his model, problems are solids dropped into the great churning sea of contingency: the problems appear to go away, but the solution is illusory (or temporary) as, in the long run, the solution becomes saturated with problems. At this point, when the solution can no longer dissolve further problems, it becomes clear that the solutions proposed to the problems merely deferred the acts of invention needed to rehabilitate ourselves to the new conditions of life.

When a liquid is saturated, crystallisation may be induced, as anyone who made alum crystals as a child will recall. Solid geometries can be lifted out of the liquid sea. These do not exactly reproduce the soluble material previously fed into the liquid: in forming, the crystals draw together and draw out the formal properties of the element’s chemical composition in a new, ennobled way. Passage through the flood of the liquid state leads to a crystallisation that can be compared to the resolution of a problem (rather than its temporary solution).

Even so, crystallisation can (if divorced from the matrix of its production) easily be mistaken for another, aesthetically motivated, “concrete solution”, or solution rendered crystalline. Our point of contact with this chemical discourse focused on the phenomenon of supersaturation: when a liquid passes through the saturation threshold and is paradoxically able to absorb an additional amount of the solid dissolved in it. Supersaturation can be achieved by heating a liquid whose saturation point is higher at a higher temperature, but the surprising thing is that additional solid absorbed at the higher temperature remains dissolved when the temperature lowers. Supersaturated solutions have some surprising characteristics. If, for example, you now add further solid to the solution, the solid, instead, of dissolving, grows – and continues growing until the solution is precisely saturated. In this case, an additional change to the system acts to restore it to an ideal, critical state. Intervention acts to stabilise crisis rather than suppress it.

As supersaturation increases, so does instability, the likelihood of spontaneous change. When the right ‘seeds’ enter their environment, metamorphosis may occur, and chemists speculate, “Perhaps in our own world many other possible solid species are still unknown, not because their ingredients are lacking, but simply because suitable seeds have not put in an appearance.” Saturation is not driven by a desire to imitate these chemical utopias at a larger scale; rather, it uses the language of saturation as a poetic thread through the conceptual labyrinth that appears when design attempts to visualise and model forms of crisis.

The ‘seeds’ that produce the four “possible solid species” of Saturation are urban conditions that seem, in the present regulatory environment, to float with unassigned value. What is a refugium – a public park – when it is transposed to a marine environment? What coralline incrustations are necessary when a sea wall has to be built – an effect that can be compared with supersaturating a liquid so that, under certain (design) conditions, it produces further solid? What happens when splash forms, the beloved creatures of high-speed photography and algorhythmically-informed design, are lent the stability of Daliesque dream cliffs? The concept of the envelope dissolves, and continuity between inside and outside is exposed. What happens when the dust settling in the suburbs finds the surfaces are supersaturated? The ordinary jolt of traffic thundering through the network of road and rail might be enough to trigger extrusions whose heights met the functional demand for higher density residential development in a surprising – and witty – way.

It may be wondered whether the 2050 urban crisis typologies offer concrete solutions to problems. However, the point of Saturation is to bring this way of formulating the challenge of sustainable urbanism into question. The crisis is not, after all, 40 years hence: it creeps into our present-day scenarios, like quicksand under the feet. We sink into it, and one object of Saturation is to encourage us to think about swimming.

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