Features

Venice Biennale: Survival versus Resilience

October 26, 2010

Eschewing the temptation to offer portents of dystopia, the team behind Survival vs Resilience brings us a future vision of the city based on the transformative potential of uncertainty.

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

In their proposal for Now and When, the Australian exhibition at the 2010 Venice Architecture Biennale, curators John Gollings and Ivan Rijavec promised “eye-popping visceral entertainment”. It was therefore unsurprising that, when called on by the curators to imagine Australian cities in 2050, architects responded with striking, dramatically heightened imagery. The curators’ stated aim of “catapulting urban debate” was perhaps overshadowed by the emphasis on stereoscopic 3D technology, putting the focus not “on the creative potential of architecture”, but on its potential for spectacle.

During his recent TEDx talk in Sydney, Rob Adams, director of design and culture for the City of Melbourne, took aim precisely at the spectacular imagery in some of the Now and When proposals. He contrasted the most dystopic and moody renderings from the 17 selected Biennale schemes with his own vision of the future: a series of ‘before and after’ proposals for Melbourne’s streets, created by his council department. Attractive and understated, Adams’s eye-level illustrations featured shady trees, outdoor dining, public transport and uniformly scaled apartment buildings. They were clearly designed to allay anxieties about the scale and character of urban densification, anxieties which the Now and When entrants had capitalised on for dramatic effect. Asked
Adams, “is it no surprise that we live in fear of what the city might be in the future, presented in these images?”

With Adams’s critique in mind, what should we make of the projects that comprise Now and When? Are they mere visual provocation, evidence of the increasingly diminished agency of the architectural profession? Or do they offer genuine ideas for the future? One of the Biennale projects, Survival versus Resilience – a collaborative submission from architects BKK, “place makers” Village Well, property analysts Charter Keck Cramer and mathematical modeller Daniel Piker – overcomes the limitations of the exhibition format to provide a genuinely innovative concept for the future of Australian cities.

The initial premise of the collaboration posited two outcomes of social and environmental change in 2100 – survival and resilience. While the extreme of survival provided inspiration for many of the other Biennale teams, resilience was preferred as a scenario which relied upon social cooperation, distributed authority, responsible consumption and local networks. Based on input from the various collaborators, BKK set about parametrically mapping diverse variables in order to generate a formal embodiment of these principles. The existing morphology of Melbourne was used as a base.

Ostensibly an urban plan, the extruded grid that resulted from this mapping process bears superficial resemblance to Michelangelo’s Cordonata paving at the Campidoglio, Roger Anger’s plan for Auroville, India and Zaha Hadid’s “soft grid” masterplan for Istanbul.

The grid is radial like the Cordonata, centrifugal like the Auroville plan and chamfered like Hadid’s Istanbul proposal. However unlike these stylistic references, BKK’s grid represents not a fixed pattern but rather a field in flux. Depicted in a state of constant change, the tower-like volumes of the grid grow and atrophy, forming spirals that enclose voids at their centres. “This project conceives the city as a continually active system rather than a static construct,” the architects wrote in their submission to the curators, “eschewing the detrimentally deterministic model that is bound by a singular approach.”

This time-based approach presents the tantalising prospect of a city in which accretion and decay are orchestrated in real time, allowing the urban form to shift in response to environmental stimuli, demographics, changing patterns of occupation and the like. Over a period of years, the central business district might expand to accommodate prosperity, or retract to encourage new commercial models to develop. In BKK’s images, the city is a glowing, translucent energy graph, peaking and falling like musical soundwaves. Terraced from flat to stridently vertical, the extruded elements are unavoidably architectural. As in Zaha Hadid’s competition-winning Kartal Pendik masterplan for Istanbul, this plan has no recognisable hierarchy, but is instead a mat of connective tissue, an adaptive organism ready to be squeezed and stretched within topographical constraints. Like Hadid’s, BKK’s plan has no obvious centre or periphery. Indeed the city is multicentred, with blocks radiating around duplicate points of intensity. Compositionally and temporally, BKK’s proposal is a quantum leap from the European model that defines the arrangement of Australian cities. In his oft-quoted paper ‘From Object to Field’, Stan Allen describes the belief that “architecture can only be diminished in the measure to which it relinquishes control over the uncontrollable” as “a desperate measure to survive… a kind of zero sum thinking”. As Allen points out, we thrive in cities precisely because they are places of the unexpected. The solution here then is one of loose-fit, an eddying urban plan capable of adjusting itself to accommodate a proliferation of centres.

While the images of Survival versus Resilience are visually seductive, Village Well’s Samantha Choudhury readily admits that her office’s contribution could not be easily visualised. Village Well was able to provide data such as the optimum amount of public space per capita, or the ideal distances to various modes of transport. However, much of what was discussed in the initial collaborative sessions, such as the accommodation of locally owned small businesses within the city centre, could not be translated directly into the parametric model. Rather than revealing shortcomings in the team’s proposal, this problem of representation highlights challenges facing all future masterplanning. The adaptive strategies that today constitute so much of the social, cultural and economic life of the city are far more sophisticated than what we can build from scratch. In New York, for example, the retrofitted schoolhouse interiors that play host to the PS1 gallery provide an infinitely more stimulating environment for art than the ascetic environment of custom-built MOMA.

“Field conditions are bottom-up phenomena,” writes Allen, “defined not by overarching geometrical schemas but by intricate local connections.” The clarity of the formal outcome created by BKK belies the fact that the fine-scale networks and linkages that emerged through the collaborative venture eluded visualisation. With one eye on the 3D spectacle of the Biennale, the collaborative BKK proposal is formally beautiful. However, it is important to point out that unlike many of the other Now and When projects, and even Rob Adams’ illustrations, significance is placed on the formal, rather than the pictorial. Italo Calvino reminds us in Invisible Cities that form making is never an end in itself. “The catalogue of forms is endless,” he writes. “Until every shape has found its city, new cities will continue to be born.”

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