Viewpoint (October 01, 2008)

Perhaps the greatest understatement over the past few months is that our global economy is held in precarious balance, with the US financial system appearing to be on the brink of collapse. Yet despite this turmoil, current international architectural exhibitions and conferences continue to extoll the virtues of speculative high-rise buildings, the omnipresent themes of super-stardom, and the never-ending questions surrounding regional identity. Is the global architectural profession prepared for the new economic realities that have already arrived?

As the calamities of Wall Street took place in September, copious amounts of prosecco flowed at the opening of the Venice Biennale. Chaired by Paolo Baratta and directed by Aaron Betsky, the 11th International Architecture Exhibition, subtitled Out There: Architecture Beyond Building, presents a theme intent on addressing the “salient issues of society.” An ambitious program to be sure. “What should be an obvious fact: architecture is not building. Architecture must go beyond buildings because buildings are not enough. They are big and wasteful accumulations of natural resources that are difficult to adapt to the continually changing conditions of modern life,” wrote Betsky, a well-regarded architectural thinker who clearly admires experimentation and enticing images over real solutions. Fair enough, given the legacy of the Venice Biennale, but are the installations, manifestos and utopian futures on display enough to inspire architects to crystallize strong experimental visions for today’s world?

As one might expect, all the usual suspects are celebrated in architectural festivals like the Venice Biennale. Frank Gehry was awarded the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement and the new bridge designed by Santiago Calatrava opened to considerable protest, as many see this bridge as an expensive atrocity propelled by political interests. When questioned as to why he never made the bridge universally accessible, Calatrava arrogantly replied, “Nobody asked me [to].”

Responding to Betsky’s thematic challenge, the architects at the Arsenale and the Padiglione Italia at Giardini produced little beyond seductive installations that fetish real-world issues such as poor air quality or the increased number of single-person dwellings in our cities. But in Venice, notable attention is being paid to heal this sick, overpopulated and polluted planet. Several pavilions do examine the ways in which global cities are experimenting with new and successful sustainable programs and buildings. Our own Canadian pavilion showcases a range of sustainably designed projects over the past decade while the Danish pavilion offers thoughts and opinions from experts on sustainable city-building practices around the world–including the challenge to move toward bike-centric planning, mass transit urbanization, and corporate social responsibility.

Unfortunately, the plague of fame and vanity continues to spread elsewhere in Europe with Barcelona hosting the World Architecture Festival in late October. Intended as a showcase of new and emerging projects, the festival intends to bring together the world’s best critics to praise continuing trends and glorify fashion-plate architecture. Touted as a chance to “network” with big-name architects and possibly shake hands with Sir Norman Foster and Robert A. M. Stern, it’s doubtful that much inspiration can be drawn from an expensive trip to Barcelona to hear aging iconoclasts deliver the usual stuff: tall buildings for rich clients, globalization, and regional identity.

It is disconcerting to be devoting so much attention to old paradigms of architecture–all while the financial textbooks are being rewritten, the global economy is repositioning itself, and the need to research and develop more sustainable and innovative buildings has never been so important. In perpetuating traditional formats of international architectural expositions, architects aren’t doing enough to leverage their skills and imagination during uncertain economic times. Now is not to the time to sit back and listen to architects deliver overtures about their hugely expensive and iconic projects in Moscow or Dubai. Instead, we must work toward solutions in these challenging times where the state of our global economy and the environment is held in the balance.

Ian Chodikoff