Last week The Board of Directors of la Biennale di Venezia, chaired by Paolo Baratta, appointed Alejandro Aravena as Director of the 15th International Architecture Exhibition 2016. Since 2013, the event has been anticipated (it would traditionally open in August), so that it will now stretch (like the Art Biennale) for roughy six months. Next year's architecture event will therefore be held from 28th May to 27th November, allowing more visitors and schools from all over the world to participate in the Biennale.
It will be tremendously difficult to replicate the interest and success of the 2013 Biennale curated by Rem Koolhaas, and, while Baratta perfectly knows this, he also feels rather positive. As he stated in a press release: "After the important experimental Biennale developed by Rem Koolhaas, dedicated entirely to the curator's research, it is our belief that we must follow up with a Biennale that convenes the architects, and is dedicated to the exploration of the new frontier that demonstrates the vitality of architecture, a frontier that spans across various parts of the world and shows architecture engaged in providing specific responses to specific demands. This Biennale intends to react once again to the gap between architecture and civil society, which in recent decades has transformed architecture into spectacle on the one hand, yet made it dispensable on the other."
According to Baratta, Aravena is among the architects of the new generation, who represents this new reality and vitality of architecture. Born in Chile in 1967, he graduated in Architecture from the Universidad Católica de Chile in 1992, establishing his pratice in 1994. Aravena's work include several buildings for the Universidad Catolica, St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas (2008), a Children Workshop and Chairless for Vitra in Germany (2008), writers' cabins for the Michalsky Foundation in Switzerland (2015) and a building for Novartis in their new campus in China (2015). Shortlisted in 2013 for the New Center for Contemporary Arts of Moscow, Aravena won the competition for the Teheran Stock Exchange in Iran.
Aravena also taught at Harvard University, where, together with engineer Andres Iacobelli he founded the social housing initiative Elemental, an Urban Do Tank, partner of Universidad Catolica and Chilean Oil Company Copec. Since it was founded, Elemental expanded their field of action to a wide range of infrastructure, public space and public buildings that use the city as a shortcut towards equality: the Metropolitan Promenade and Children's Park in Santiago, the reconstruction of the city of Constitución after the 2010 earthquake, the redesign of the Copper mining town of Calama or the intervention of the Choapa Region for Pelambres Mining Company.
Aravena's work has been featured in many different events and exhibitions all over the world from the São Paulo Biennale (2007) and the Milano Triennale (2008), to the MoMA in New York (2010), the MA Gallery in Tokyo (2011) and the Centre Pompidou.
The recipient of several awards including the Design of the Year (London Design Museum, 2015) and the 1st Prize of Zumtobel Global Award (Austria, 2014), Aravena is also the author of many volumes about architecture and his work has been published in over 50 countries.
The architect actually knows Venice pretty well: while still a student in 1991, he participated in the Venice Prize at the 5th International Architecture Exhibition of la Biennale di Venezia; two years later, he moved to Venice where he studied History and Theory at IUAV and engraving at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Venezia. He took part in the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2008 (receiving the Silver Lion in this occasion) and in 2012 when he presented in the Giardini's Central Pavilion two projects by Elemental.
The latter were both driven by the challenging times contemporary Chile is facing: rapid social and economic change brought social inequalities that resulted in popular discontent, creating tensions that architecture and urban design can use as agents for improvement.
The projects revealed the architects' innovative responses to crises of different nature and their objective of finding an equitable common ground for those disenfranchised by changes. In both cases urban design was used to attract development and defuse social time bombs, and looked at landscape, infrastructure and environmental strategies; both were designed very quickly to briefs written in response to major crises - environmental and social - that developed in Constitución and Calama.
As you may remember, Constitución was struck by an earthquake followed by a tsunami in 2010; in 2011, people took to the streets in Calama to protest against the fact that, though the area is famous for its copper production, the government would take most of the revenue out of the area and spend it nationwide neglecting the area of the main mining operations.
These projects presented at the 2012 Biennale were focused on the fact that cities are magnets for people, knowledge and development, and Elemental used design to synthesize the cities' potential to be powerful vehiles to create wealth, and as a dismantling device for social time-bombs, considering cities as shortcuts towards equality.
Since Elemental's work is steeped in charged political and urban contexts of contemporary Chile, it's easy to guess that Alejandro Aravena's Biennale will be less theoretical than Koolhaas', but will hopefully prompt participants to come up with practical and functional solutions to the new and old problems society is going through.
"There are several battles that need to be won and several frontiers that need to be expanded in order to improve the quality of the built environment and consequently people's quality of life", Aravena stated in a press release. "This is what we would like people to come and see at the 15th International Architecture Exhibition: success stories worth to be told and exemplary cases worth to be shared where architecture did, is and will make a difference in those battles and frontiers."
While we may think the challenge will be on Aravena to equal the success of the previous event, the architect actually highlights how the 15th International Architecture Exhibition will be about focusing and learning from architectures that are capable of escaping the status quo. "We would like to present cases that, despite the difficulties, instead of resignation or bitterness, propose and do something," he added. "We would like to show that, in the permanent debate about the quality of the built environment, there is not only need but also room for action".
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