Intensifying Cities

The theme of “Cities: Architecture and Society” for the 2006 Venice Biennale was communicated through an impressive display of our planet’s expanding urban centres. Although the exhibition comprised some fantastic documentation, few solutions were proposed in response to the enormous challenges facing cities around the globe.

TEXT Mason White

2006 International Architecture Biennale

The 10th edition of the International Architecture Biennale in Venice this year demonstrates a radical departure from its preceding edition. If the 2004 theme of “Metamorph” offered a buffet of formal trends toward a qualitative history of the present, this year’s theme of “Cities: Architecture and Society” veers straight for the quantitative history of the present. The difference, though drastic, is refreshing and not surprising considering that this year’s director is Richard Burdett, advisor to the Mayor of London and Professor of Architecture and Urbanism at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

The Biennale grounds are divided into the Giardini, sprinkled with some 40 national pavilions, and the Corderie dell’Arsenale, a series of converted naval warehouses, with Burdett’s “Cities” theme pervasive. But herein lay Burdett’s own challenge, as the Venice Biennale has always tended toward themes of architectural styles and trends over the social or the contextual. Past themes suggest the subtext of the Biennale as a visionary event able to forecast the winds of architecture, such as “Next” in 2002 or “Sensing the Future” in 1996. This year has no such ambitions, opting for a portrayal of cities today. Equally significant is the scale of Burdett’s theme; the scale of a city or region instead of the scale of a building. And with astounding growth and rapid development worldwide in urban areas, the subject is both timely and complex. This exhibition could have been an essential resource for us to re-evaluate city form and manifestations of our rapidly urbanizing culture after globalization. Instead, the exhibition falls somewhat short of that ambition.

Cities: Architecture and Society

The Arsenale contains the main exhibition and most accurately represents Burdett’s vision for the Biennale. Here, 16 cities are selected for statistical scrutiny, none representing Canada. While some of these selections illuminate unique and emerging urban hubs such as Shanghai, Mumbai, Bogot, Caracas, and Cairo–others seem more as default notions of the city–such as New York, London, Barcelona, and Berlin. Although one could argue that these are here as measuring sticks against the new urbanizing territories, greater representation of how these cities operate as organisms might have been more revealing. Of course, cities such as London and Barcelona are essential benchmarks in city evolution, socially and morphologically, but the selections miss an opportunity to further emphasize the diversity of city form and structure. What about the politicized city (Jerusalem), the bombed city (Iraq), the dispersed city (Atlanta), the neon city (Las Vegas), or the cold city (Moscow)? What about Seoul? What about Jakarta? Or, what about new modes of the city, such as the wireless city (Philadelphia) or the aerotropolis (Schiphol)? In either case, the exhibit remains focused more on the urban footprint and snapshot statistics of the city instead of the forces that have shaped them. This is where the architecture of the city lies.

Each of the 16 cities are represented in three ways: photography, charts and statistical data. Although some of the statistical information is numbing, it is displayed clearly and sparsely enough to convey general economic and cultural trends. However, the preference for population and economic statistics obscures other aspects–such as war, weather or tourism–that may have made a city grow in one way versus another. In addition to statistical information there is documentation of public projects in progress that have had (or will have) a significant social impact within these cities.

As evidenced by the projects at work in these cities, a tendency for architects involved in public space, transport infrastructure and social infrastructure emerges. Of note is the work being done in Bogot for cycle networks, Caracas for settlement accessibility upgrades, and So Paulo for new schools. And this is where the Biennale gains strong ground. We see evidence of architecture in service of urban society. This comes in complement to two additional exhibits in the Arsenale compound that, though limited in scope, are promising.

The 10th edition sets a new standard for substance and content that subsequent editions will need to confront. However, with the growth forecasted by “Cities: Architecture and Society,” the next time the theme is in this context, it is likely that it will need to evolve into city-states or regions.

Canadian Cities

With Canadian cities noticeably absent from the 16 city case studies at the Biennale, we are left to triangulate off of those that are represented. Canadian cities grow at a rate similar to US cities, have cultural ambitions similar to European cities, and absorb immigration from all over Asia. But even this is simplistic and an unrealistic snapshot of the Canadian city in its current guise. With geography and transportation a strong factor in the urbanization of Canada, the largest cities dot the southern border, the longest shared international border in the world, with 80 percent of Canadians living less than 70 miles from the United States. No other country has such geographically aligned yet dispersed urban centres.

Statistically, Canadian cities cannot rival the hyper-growth of Asian cities, nor the sophisticated fabric of European cities. For example, from 1951 to 2001, Manitoba added 4.5 times as much farmland as it did city territory. Calgary’s petro-fuelled economy hosts Canada’s fastest-growing city with a population of 142,000 in 1951 and 950,000 in 2001. Edmonton mirrors that transformation. In terms of density, Toronto boasts the highest with 2,640 people per square kilometre. Additionally, in the decade preceding 2001, Canada welcomed some 1.8 million immigrants from every part of the globe, with most coming from Asia. Canada has the highest per capita immigration rate in the world. Some 43 percent of new immigrants settle in the Greater Toronto Area. If it were not for immigration, Canada would have negative population growth.

Canadian cities are by nature slow-growth, but that doesn’t mean that urbanization has been a controlled calculated exercise. To varying degrees, cities in Canada all exhibit what Michael Harrington in 1965 called the “accidental revolution” of development as much as they exhibit over-planned development. Often reductively seen as opposing methods, both forms depend upon the attempts, and even failures, of each other in order to formulate a city of intensities.

But what makes Canadian cities unique is not to be found exclusively within the quantitative. And this is where the Venice Biennale suffers. Its concentration on the idea of reading cities statistically obscures other criteria that affect urban social behaviour and city form.

Some recent tendencies that appear to be scripting city form in Canada are immigration, downtown re-densification, adaptive reuse, and an overzealous penchant for condominium development. Increasingly, Canadian cities are becoming less defined by an attitude to the urban core or downtown as it is by our attitude to the periphery, or exurban conditions. All too often, we do not participate in the discussions surrounding building and planning at the periphery. This is fertile territory for design and rethinking that must be confronted for the city to evolve.


What role does density play in the Canadian city? I would argue, and in reaction to Burdett’s Biennale, that the term density is no longer relevant criteria for city-m
aking. Los Angeles and So Paulo among others make this point through their indifference to density and centres. In place of density, a city is called upon to generate intensity by intensifying transit, its public space system, and mixed-use developments that do not default to lifestyle centres or big boxes in outlying areas. The coincidence of the Venice Biennale theme, the death of Jane Jacobs, and an increased interest in public projects shows promise for the intensification of Canadian cities.

Mason White is a partner of Lateral Architecture and teaches at the Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design at the University of Toronto.