|Does the new architecture, as represented at ArchiLab 2004 and Venice Biennale, offer solutions to some of the challenges of our contemporary built environment?
This essay will address new and imaginative architectural solutions to the problems inherent in the different sets of concerns that are investigated by contemporary architects today. These investigations include material-economical, environmental, social-political, cultural-historical, and futuristic problems which were presented at the Venice Biennale and the ArchiLab2004 in Orleans, France.
The new millennium introduced two important architectural exhibitions that were a forum for some of the newest issues and ideas concerning various challenges that contemporary architecture has to deal with. These include material-economical, environmental, social-political and cultural-historical, as well as the future of architecture.
The Venice Biennale, the 9th International Architectural Exhibition, entitled “Metamorph”1, was a very large architectural exhibition displaying contemporary forms and aesthetics of over 170 architectural offices from 40 countries2. It was intended to induce exploration of effects of technical and theoretical change and to prompt speculation on the new forms it will engender3. The curator of the 9th Biennale was Kurt Forster, a professor at Bauhaus University and a former director of the Getty Institute and the Canadian Centre for Architecture. This was also a forum for discussions among individual architects, as well as avant-garde groups, including Archigram, Coop Himmelblau, Superstudio and Archizoom4. It included several commercially successful architects as well as architects searching and experimenting with new forms and designs5.
The ArchiLab2004 in Orleans, titled, “La Ville a Nu”, meaning “the city laid bare”, was an event curated by an author and architectural critic, Bart Lootsma. The conference explored the works of over 30 progressive architects in a series of meetings and exhibits on a wide spectrum of latest architectural issues from biotechnology to urban impoverishment6. This exhibition, sometimes referred to as a “festival of architecture” included a series of seminars on building environment and one-man shows7.
The chosen themes and architects represented at these events show that architecture is going through a period of revolutionary shifts and that it has opened up unexpected new perspectives8. Vital problems that exist in modern architecture were represented, discussed, and analyzed during October and November in Venice as well as in Orleans. This essay will argue that a wide range of ground breaking architects including Raoul Bunchoten, who works on urban concepts revealing new site potentials9, and Petra Gemeinboeck, who experiments with virtual space10, Philippe Morel, who studies the relation between calculus and architecture11 and Greg Lynn whose projects resemble deep water creatures and are intended as a tribute to ecological diversity12. I will use the following categories including material-economical, environmental, social-political, cultural-historical, and futuristic to illustrate the types of concerns that lead to new solutions to the problems of the built environment.
The world faces material and natural resource shortages, which are a result of rapid population increases and the need to build growing numbers of dwellings and other architectural structures. The increasing need for houses result in unsustainable demand for materials and wood in particular. It is also a great economical concern to find inexpensive materials that can make building for underprivileged population less of a financial burden. Architects who are particularly sensitive to the environmental issues are researching solutions that would find alternative materials that can be used for constructions.
Maurie Nio a Dutch architect with an international reputation, who presented his work at ArchiLab 2004, stands out from other participants with his design of the Hoofddorp bus station. This daring architect promotes aggressively in lectures writings and films his new approach of using synthetic materials. The bus terminal he designed is considered the world’s biggest synthetic materials structure to date and won him the ar+d Award13. The new material he used, not only found an alternative to traditional brick and mortar, but also contributed to an extremely original form with spectacular curves that managed to accommodate all required functions of a terminal allowing easy access to buses. The building is formed in polystyrene foam and covered with polyester skin and has a very futuristic look that is possible thanks to utilizing these particular materials14. Maurice Nio succeeded in finding an alternative to commonly used materials and achieved interesting new form for a public structure during the process of investigating new materials.
Zbigniew Oksiuta, an architect, artist and scientist, who was educated in Poland and who lives and works in Germany, proposes a dramatically different solution to material and natural resource issues. He created controversies at ArchiLab 2004 and at the Venice Biennale, by presenting his concept of biological architecture. His aim is to create a biological living space. He is laying social and physical groundwork that will make existence of such space possible. The “Spatium Gelatum” habitat he proposes is a research project conducted with the help of technological firms and technical universities that study possibilities of creating living space that does not merely imitate a biological form, but is a living system itself15. Zbigniew Oksiuta studies new methods of creating a future habitat using multiple forms with the focus on physical phenomena in liquids. In particular, he studies the surface tensions of liquids and the transition from liquid to solid states16. This technology envisions using liquid mass at near congealment point for underwater casting that would be shaped mechanically but also with the help of streams of water and air that would change the shape of the outer skin as well as create interior vacancies. The process distantly resembles glass blowing on a large scale. In his quest to find appropriate gelatin substances that could be shaped in water to create these biological forms, he experiments with animal and vegetable biological polymers. His research progressed enough that he was able to present at the ArchiLab 2004 as well as at the Venice Biennale large scale specimens that proved that gelatin from animal protein, cellulose and starch from vegetable polymers can be used as building materials in the future17. Zbigniew Oksiuta simultaneously presented the project titled "Breeding Spaces". This project investigated the possibilities of designing biological spatial structures. This biological organizational process can serve as a new kind of habitat and presents a new form of spatial and energetic coexistence between man and nature. The development of living organisms contains two basic processes: growth and differentiation. Growth is the increase of the mass and volume of an organism and differentiation is a change of the form and function of an organism. His studies concentrate on these two processes with the intention of creating a condition that would allow the spatial structures to grow and adapt to their environment just like living organisms do.
Zbigniew Oksiuta takes this idea of a special structure and uses chemical reactions that form the foundation for developing new chemical skins that have been growing in a pseudo biological process. This process is based on chemical reactions and is allowed to grow arbitrary way. The resulting formations are not able to be controlled in their resulting form. This leads to highly unusual special volumes in a manner that approaches almost surrealistic proportions. This stage of the research has many parallels with genetic tissue engineering and deals with the cultivation of living cells outside the organism in the laboratory. The research concerns genetically controlled biological systems, multiplying in living cells and managing the growth of bio-artificial spaces. Zbigniew Oksiuta is an architect who is looking well into the future and trying to find biological resolutions to the shortcomings of conventional building materials18.
Maurie Nio and Zbigniew Oksiuta have designed technological processes to the shortages of construction materials by presenting economical alternatives that use cheaper and more easily available components in the research for new structural encloses to allow architects to be able to design in a way that gives them far more radical freedom.
The world’s concerns for the environment engage a number of architects to design a variety of projects that would tackle some of the issues concerning the ecosystem and the urban environment. Some designers have a goal to find solutions that would contribute to the development of technologies to save and preserve the environment, rather than continue deplete natural resources or pollute the natural environment.
Nicholas Grimshaw, a British architect with a long list of prestigious designs, including the British Pavilion at the Seville Exhibition and the International Terminal of the Waterloo Station is also engaged in projects focusing on the environment. He presented samples of his work at the Venice Biennale19. The Eden Project in Cornwall England is a showcase for global bio-diversity and human dependence upon natural plants. The idea was to erect large "conservatories," or greenhouses devoted to flora and fauna from humid tropics as well as plants from the Mediterranean Southern African and Southwestern United States. This allows them to be conserved and studied in the hostile climate of the Southern United Kingdom. The structure is made up of 23 000 square meters of linked, climate controlled transparent capsules. The domes are based on lightweight structures with the highest possible volume. The volumes of these structures contain highest possible space to structure ratio. The cladding of these structures is made up of optically clear inflated foil pillows. The system allows the building to easily adapt to terrain in which it was set in and allows the task of housing a variety of flora and fauna, which was the function it was built to perform20. The complex itself, made of geodesic domes of various sizes, make an impression that it is made of soap bubbles or reptile’s skin, it gives an impression of a biomorphic organism. The overall concept was to create an experience that would fill the visitor with anticipation, excitement and amazement. This creates an environment, a landscape and architecture conceived as one unified organic design. Nicholas Grimshaw must have succeeded. Opened in 2001, the Eden Project is set to become one of England’s leading points of interest. Even before it was completed, the project had the distinction of being the most visited construction site in the world, proving that the issues related to the environment are vital. This is not life, as we know it: this is the future. Welcome to the Eden Project!21
Dan Pitera, an architect and director of the Detroit Collaborative Design Center at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Architecture is deeply involved in political and social activities and immensely involved in conserving the environment. His goal is not to build new structures with disregard to the environment and amount of resources used, but to reuse or “recycle” the existing buildings. In his own words:”…we should inject new life into abandoned spaces, and get rid of ghosts without destroying buildings”.22 He defended his resolve to protect buildings already constructed and to limit the consumption of new materials, a process whose aim is to preserve the natural environment. Dan Pitera’s concern for environment and saving existing structures leads him not only to play a political and a social role, but also an artistic one. His latest design transformed a vacant Detroit building into a temporary art installation by wrapping it in plastic. The artistic happening brought attention to his cause and his message: “We must rely on the creative potential that already exists in our cities and turn it in to nothing less then a strategy”…a strategy which might be a solution to saving the resources available to man and preserving the environment.
Nicholas Grimshaw and Dan Pitera, through their work, bring to our attention the need to search more fully for solutions that are environment friendly.
Not all architects are thinking about form, function and materials. Some concentrate on the social and political aspects and try to answer these issues through their architectural work.
The Danish pavilion at the Venice Biennale has assembled work from socially and politically conscious architects. The result is a radical exhibition titled “Too Perfect: Seven New Denmarks”. A plan for a society, that may look like utopia on a large scale, but may just be realized in a miniature Denmark23. This exhibition was more about asking questions then giving answers. This made it even more intriguing. Questions asked at the pavilion had a universal aspect and concerned social and political themes of global dimensions. Their main concern was to make the world a better place. The exhibition in the Danish pavilion was dominated by leading architectural firms rather then by individual architect’s practices. These groups, though usually involved in main stream contemporary architectural projects in Demark, here in Venice presented very unconventional solutions. Some answers had a utopian flavor but without such ideas the progress of society would be somewhat impossible. The issues tackled, ranged from creating a mega port, which would increase the area of the country substantially. This project was contemplated by a group of architects, who are known PLOT. They designed a central harbor for an enlarged Europe. Another Danish architectural group called NORD proposed the conversion of Danish agriculture to specialize in pharmaceuticals raised on farmland. Architects from Kontrapunct tried to find solutions that would reverse the dramatically declining birth rate in Denmark. Architects from the office Arkitema looked for answers how to mass produce housing for societies in developing countries which will be, in the near future, short of housing for 1 million inhabitants every week. They proposed a global network of housing factories that would cut across social and political boundaries and create a system to produce affordable high quality living units and distribute it by airships. PLOT group concieved a plan that would allow Denmark to maintain a water and energy bill of zero Euros24.
Most prominent and visible of the exhibitors in the pavilion of Denmark was
Bruce Mau. This, Canadian Designer, was invited to present his design philosophy. He has a very social approach to design,"It's 90% about people and 10% about selecting the right business. You have to ensure that the work -- and the time that people spend on it -- is meaningful."25. Though his work and studio has achieved great commertial succes and he is able to work with large and prominent clients he still sees a humen being at the end of each project. Bruce Mau puts a stress on collaboration, and allows for as much of input from the “receiving end” as possible26. Bruce Mau believes that the design has become a way of thinking that is relevant to all aspects of living. Design allows re-imagining the way we live. It reveals opportunities. For design to do that, we must liberate ourselves from the, straitjacket of style, and figure out what we want as effects, as capacity – the human capacity to plan and to produce desired outcomes, says the Toronto based designer27.
One of the other projects presented in the Danish pavilion was work by young group of architects calling them selves PLOT. They carried out comprehensive research looking at needs, trends and opportunities in the energy sector. PLOT concluded that it would be eventually possible for Denmark to achieve a zero-energy bill without having to reduce consumption or worry about the depletion of oil and gas reserves in the Danish sector of the North Sea. Through a detailed mapping of the Danish energy flows, PLOT was able to re-think the Danish energy system. The biggest challenge to a society based entirely on renewable energy is the problem of simultaneity of the energy. The problem of natural energy sources such as wind and solar power is that you can not rely on them. They only work when the wind blows or the sun shines. Though this project dealt with mostly the technical ways of changing our sources of energy it also looked at it from a social point of view by analyzing how we as a society can change to conserve energy.
Young Danish architects at the Venice Biennale offered solutions to architectural problems on a different level. These young designers that work in one of the smallest European countries have a very wide perspective. They look at issues not at the material, but at the social level. The questions asked were vital and the answers offered were far from realization, but never the less, essential to further development of societies, in generals.
On the cultural-historical level, many of the architects look for alternatives to the esthetic models of the Victorian and Classical eras for which time has long passed. New proposals point out that, cultural and esthetical issues should be re-thought of in terms of present and future esthetical needs. ArchiLab 2004 and Venice Biennale attracted a few of the most creative architects that search for new formal solutions that can be applied in architecture adding to cultural development and evolution of esthetical expectations.
Evan Douglis is one of such architects. He is a teacher, director of Columbia Architectural Galleries and an artist. He resides in New York City. In his installations and exhibits he tries to produce “mutant body” in the aim of becoming both his own exhibition and a critical commentary on the distancing of objects in the information age. His body of work consists not only of design projects but also studies and development of new formal ideas in design. His membranes created by the use of different computer tools result in a mélange of Cartesian grids, digital systems and curved forms28. Evan Douglis’ research has gradually focused on the generation of changeable environments supported by digital techniques. “Auto Breeding”, his latest creation is an innovative series of membranes manufactured with sophisticated 3D modeling software. Composed of interlocking units, the self-supporting and structurally rigid membranes are characterized by wave and braid-like shapes. Thanks to casting technologies used in product design, the membrane gives physical body to shapes that are usually associated with the virtual world29. These “floating’, “wrinkled” and “twisted” surfaces and shapes resemble nothing that has been built in the past. The casts made of glittery, brightly coloured materials are objects of art in its own right. Evan Douglis plans to use them as architectural elements that would immensely “lighten up” architecture giving it new forms, shapes and colours. The elastic membranes can be used not only in architecture but also can have theatrical and decorative applications. Evan Douglis has found a very artistic function for his creations and has proposed a novel solution to the traditionally used architectural decorative elements.
Going along similar route is Dagmar Richter. She studied at the Royal Art Academy in Copenhagen and at the Frankfurt Städeschule. Currently she divides her time and work between Europe and the United States where she runs her practice and teaches at UCLA. Dagmar Richter's architecture is intended to be radically critical and analytical, “no more inscription, but description”, as a temporary way of understanding and representing the world. Her “Wave” project, a sports and water complex at Aarhus, mingles landscape and architecture in an artificial topography, a complex and fluctuating medium, embracing a variety of sporting disciplines. Meshworks, which she has been recently working on, is an urban project for a problematic neighborhood on the outskirts of Wolfen Nord in former East Germany. Basing her idea on statistical data (pollen, movement of people, deterioration, etc), she proposes an active diagram and an operational modeling capable of introducing alternative strategies for recycling and retrieving this abandoned landscape30.
Evan Douglis’ work and Dagmar Richter’s computer driven Aalborg scheme presented at the Venice Biennale totally breaks with conventional forms commonly used in architectural design31. This wave or snake-like form at Aalborg seems to be taken from the fictional underwater world of Julius Verne.
A number of architects are pushing the boundaries of contemporary architecture well into the future. Some are working on the mathematical and technological levels and others, are working on philosophical and esthetical ones. Whatever the stage, they are exploring possibilities for architecture never ventured before. Some of them undertake projects that are a long way from realization but they mange to widen our architectural horizons.
Marcos Novak, is one of them. Graduating from Ohio University with a specialization in computer-added architecture, he remained faithful to his field. He managed to convey his futuristic ideas wherever he could. While working at the Center for Advanced Inquiry at the University of Wales, leading the Transarchitectures Foundation in Paris or teaching at the University of California and Ohio State University. His work has been essentially virtual. His work is so advanced in this field that he is regarded as the “pioneer of the architecture virtuality” according to the organizers of the international Architecture Exhibition in Venice32. He is known for projects which in their name give hint that they consist of a futuristic element. “Sensor Space”, “Transmitting Architecture”, “Liquid Architectures”, “Metadata Visualization”, ”Echinoderm”, AlloBio” and “Alienwithin” just to name a few. Marcos Novak became the most visible proponent of cyberspace as an autonomous architectural field of inquiry. His greatest achievement is his use of non-Euclidean spatial concepts with the idea of algorithmic unfolding, that is, mathematical modeling of data space navigable computer environments to create unexpected futuristic forms33. In other words, the animated mathematical forms created in the virtual reality by Marcos Novak, derive from the manipulation of mathematical fields. All these technical terms mean that throughout his immense body of work he attained forms that are “out of this world”. Forms, which resemble some neo-biological creatures floating in the extraterrestrial seas, or science-fiction beings roaming the universe.34 Marcos Nova’s liquid architecture seems to combine the opposite, soft with hard, real with virtual, masculine with feminine and mathematical with poetical, to create third or “alien” condition. He seeks nothing less then warping into alien territory, into unpredictable conceptual spaces, into new states of being of the future. For example, in his “AlloBio” project, several distinct investigations are being converged. The question of the theoretical and critical production of the “alien” in our culture or merging of the technological and the biological are the two most intriguing. The viewers of this project were asked to express their emotional state through interactions with sensor implemented virtual sculptures. These data were then used to deform and alter the sculpture35. The “Allotope” project explored the mixture of architecture, light, sound computation, performance and environmental art. This was a mind riveting combination that showed some of the issues that will be contemplated together in the future36. The “Echinoderm _RP” project envisaged that the virtual forms be replaced with the living bone tissue and then covered with living skin. It led to the idea of a genuinely living architecture in the foreseen future. Marcos Novak’s ongoing investigations seeks to create architectonic propositions of the future that are liquid, algorithmic, transmissible and derived from the geometries of higher dimensionality. By liquid, he means a total but rigorous variability driven by data shifts in cyberspace that can be transformed into a physical world. By algorithm, he implies that the forms are never manipulated through manual corrections, but only by the mathematical formula that generates them. By transmissible, he means that his data forms can be compressed into algorithmic codes for transmission to fabrication sites, machines or to virtual environments.
Work of an Italian architect Massimiliano Fukas was also well represented at the Venice Biennale. Though he does not belong to the younger generation of architects, he is able to find forms for his latest designs that lead architecture into new territory. He already established his first practice in Rome in 1969. It was followed by offices in Paris and Vienna making him an internationally established architect. In addition he is active as a professor in a number of universities including Staadliche Akademia der Bildenden Kunste in Stuttgart and Columbia University in New York. Massimiliano Fukas is a recipient of numerous awards and a writer. He himself was a Director of the Venice Biennale 2000, the 7th International Architecture Exhibition, "Less Aesthetics, More Ethics"37.
For many years he dedicated his special attention to the study of urban problems and in particular to the suburbs, but in recent years his work concentrated on buildings that become spectacular examples of the newest of designs. Nuovo Polo Fiera Milano in Rho Pero, Milan is one of such buildings. It is intended as a place for meeting people, establishing contacts and setting up relationships. Besides that it is a new attraction for the city of Milan. The new trade fair centre will not only be one of Europe's biggest exhibition facilities, it will also stand out for its aesthetic value and use of high technology solutions. The new complex is 1 km and 300 metres long, characterized primarily by a large, undulating glass and steel roof which is more than 30 metres high. This project is not only structurally very challenging requiring a skillful team of structural engineers, but also astonishingly beautiful with gracious curves and parabolic surfaces.
Another architect that is looking well into the future is Mark Goulthorpe. He is the creator of dECOi, an architectural firm that seeks to open boundaries of conventional practice by fresh and exploratory approach to design. This American practice with an international reputation was involved in a number of contemporary projects in America, Europe and the Far East38. The work presented at the Venice Biennale which had a theoretical base, sparked a lot of interest. The most revolutionary of his projects is the last floor addition to an apartment building located near the Tate Modern in London. The aluminum structure designed with the collaboration of Arup engineers was created with the help of parametric modeling methods. The shocking result was achieved by making the skin the structure. In affect it, resembles a gigantic sea creature resting on top of the building. In consequence the mathematically derived shapes resemble forms found in nature. Other designs by Mark Goulthorpe take the form of sea shells that are often referred to as “accelerating curves”. It is obvious that Mark Goulthorpe is able to effectively merge commercial projects with futuristic and unconventional design. He is successful in finding a solution to monotony so common in contemporary architectural work39.
The exhibition at the French pavilion is engaged in predicting a future for architecture in a specific region. The project is taking a 144 ha site not far from
Paris and presents the results of workshops that predict its future development. The scheme chooses years 2014, then 2034, and then 2064 to analyze and predict potential growth of this particular area40.
Marcos Novak, Massimiliano Fukas and Mark Goulthorpe present visions of architecture that are even difficult to contemplate by most visitors to these exhibitions and take us, like a science fiction film or literature, far into the future of the building environment. French exhibition presented findings of a study that researched the progress in a chosen district.
The new architecture, as discussed in this essay, develops many ideas that are quite new to existing architecture. Archilab 2004 and the Venice Biennale are two modern exhibitions that suggest new approaches to contemporary building environments. Participating architects presented a variety of problems and answers and a wide range of issues and solutions. Some projects were already constructed or down to earth ideas, others were utopian or futuristic philosophies, still a long way from realization. The material-economical aspects were exemplified by Maurie Nio and Zbyszek Oksiuta. Maurie Nio finds solutions to material shortages within new chemical components including polystyrene by designing the Hoofddorp bus station and achieving never before used shapes. Zbyszek Oksuta in his two projects, the “Spatium Gelatum” and the "Breeding Spaces", is laying a framework for biological architecture envisaging that it will grow, using gelatin from animal protein and cellulose and starch from vegetable polymers, in the future. The environmental concerns lead Nicholas Grimshaw and Dan Pitera to propose projects that are sensitive to environmental concerns. Nicholas Grimshaw designed the Eden Project a structurally interesting space for the study of exotic species of flora and fauna responding to the natural environment. Dan Pitera, by utilizing abandoned spaces and buildings and returning them to “life” finds solutions to the urban environment. The social-political questions were brought to the exhibition through the ideologies and ideas of designers Bruce Mau and the architectural groups NORD and PLOT. Bruce Mau stresses throughout his design process that, whatever the scale of the assignment, the participation of the user is indispensable. PLOT demonstrated by the mapping of the Danish energy flows that it would be possible for Denmark to achieve a zero energy and water bill. Architects from Kontrapunct proposed answers to the significantly declining birth rate in Denmark. Arkitema Architects had an answer to how to mass produce and deliver by airships, housing to developing countries. Cultural-historical concerns were tackled by Evan Douglis and Dagmar Richter. Evan Douglis is trying to break with the traditional forms used in architecture and proposes membranes created by the use of different computer tools that result in a mélange of Cartesian grids, digital systems and curved forms in unconventional forms. Dagmar Richter achieves similar results by using other means that allowed her to create the “Wave” project, a sports and water complex at Aarhus that mingles landscape and architecture in an artificial topography giving an impression of flowing architecture. Marcos Novak, Massimiliano Fukas and Mark Goulthorpe enter an unventured territory of the future of architecture. Marcos Novak is working on a variety of levels in his intriguing projects like ”Echinoderm” or AlloBio”, where he merges the technological and the biological to produce spectacular virtual images and forms.
Massimiliano Fukas proposed a new Nuovo Polo Fiera complex in Milan that is so advanced in structure and form that it has already became an attraction as a symbol of new things to come. Mark Goulthorpe designed an addition to a high rise apartment building near the Tate Modern in London that looks like an invading creature from outer space and tackles our imagination and sparks questions on the journey that architecture will embark upon in the coming future. The experiences gained from these two exhibitions has shown that any new interest in providing answers to architectural and environmental problems will have to come from a cross pollination of social, political and economic interests applied to the development of new and innovative building and living projects. Strong evidence exists for the need to rethink the task of design to involve itself in the totality of available systems.