The Architecture of Good Intentions. Reflections on 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale • Jeremy Till

Cycling home in London last week, I was struck by a Christian Aid poster outside a church: “15-21 May. The Week We Love Every Neighbour”.

Which begs the question: what happens in the other 51 weeks of the year? Do we love just our chosen neighbours: you know, the ones that are like us, other Christians maybe? And if we love only those ones, then what is our relationship with others? Hate, possibly? And why is it a week? Could it be condensed into a massive lovefest of one day, or would it be possible to spread it over a month without emotional burnout?

It is questions such as these that this seminar at the Palazzo Widmann may ask of architecture. If, as the title suggests, this 2016 Biennale is about good intentions, then what are all the others about? Bad intentions, obviously. And if this Biennale is just part of a cycle of architectural jamborees, is the implication that we are somehow bound to behave ‘properly’ for this limited period, suffer all this worthiness for a bit – like taking medicine that tastes bad but the doctor says is good for us – and when it is all over get on with what we all really enjoy and want to do, all the irresponsible fun and high testosterone stuff of Real Architecture?

This seminar condenses the simple binary narrative that is already being played out in the twittersphere and reviews, namely that Aravena’s proposition is in some way worthy, even fascinating, but a mere pause before we get back to the hardcore architectural values. Aaron Betsky has just now dismissed it all as ‘boring’ and clearly cannot wait to get back to the interesting. Even Tom Dyckhoff, normally the most patient and generous of critics, admitted defeat in his twitter: “Now I LOVE a bit of architectural worthiness. But, it seems, I do have a limit”, accompanied by the hashtag #lessethicsmoreaesthetics.

The same thing happened in 2006 when Ricky Burdett turned the Biennale over to an exploration of cities, and I filled the British Pavilion with the sounds and stories of Sheffield, much to the fury of the London architectural crowd who could not see themselves anywhere (as if they don’t have their own stories). I remember well a dinner at the Dark Side Club (an elite dining club hosted by Robert White) where big name architects berated Ricky, declaring him more or less a traitor to architecture. “But where are the buildings?”, they asked. Well, the exhibition was about cities, so the buildings were of course everywhere. But they were not foregrounded, not fetishized, and (most importantly) not identified as the beautiful children of their famous parents. It was a Biennale without architects and so, the logic goes, a Biennale without architecture.

It was almost inevitable therefore that the pendulum would swing back in 2008, when Aaron Betsky curated an exhibition of sheer excess. Greg Lynn won the Golden Lion for making toys out of recycled furniture. Or maybe it was for making furniture out of recycled toys. I forget. And don’t really care. However, the citation took architectural hubris to a whole new level:

“…(Lynn) advances the digital-form problem to a new level that intrinsically engages traditional architectural concerns such as meaning, aesthetics, and advancing fabrication technology with the recycling, an issue of broad, immediate and pressing concern.”

Isn’t that heartwarming? You can be aesthetically and technically progressive, and save the planet at the same time! In Technicolor!!

Now the pendulum has swung right back. A Biennale apparently full of the architecture of good intentions. First, let’s look more closely at the phrase (which I am increasingly disliking) “the architecture of good intentions”.
How could an architect set out without good intentions? No architect sets out to make the world a worse place, but as I argue in Architecture Depends, the definition and values attached to the word good are too often misplaced. Good is normally defined on architecture’s own terms as a matter of aesthetic delight (beauty), formal innovation and/or technical progress. We have had much of this from the previous speakers, with their emphasis on salvation through beauty or innovative form. And so when I hear about this year’s Biennale, as I have all too often, “but it doesn’t look like much”, what I am really hearing is, “it doesn’t look like our definition of good”.
Probably the most extreme example of this disjunction of values could be seen in the US Pavilion, in which a number of famous architects (including Greg Lynn) have released their architectural imagination onto the fabric and souls of Detroit. The narrative appears to go:

Those people in Detroit are real poor
They must be miserable
Let’s cheer them up by cluster bombing them with gratuitous form
That should do it.

Now, I am sure all those architects operated with the best of intentions, but their means were too removed from the political and economic context within which they were working, and so their ends come across as unfortunately decadent. As the activist group Detroit Resists note in their statement on the US Pavilion: “We fear, however, that the U.S. Pavilion, precisely as an attempt to advocate ‘the power of architecture,’ is structurally unable to engage this (urban) catastrophe and will thereby collaborate in the ongoing destruction of the city.”

So the first point is to discuss what is meant by ‘good’, what are the political and social contexts within which the ‘good’ is located. The second point is to understand what might be meant by ‘intentions’. If the intention is merely formal, then it is reasonably easy to realize, in so much as it pushes to one side all the complexities of the social world. “My intention, Mr. Client, is to design you a building that is blue and blobby”. And sure enough that, to a greater or lesser extent, is what is delivered. It is for this apparent ease, and wish fulfilment, that architects tend to invest their intentions in the formal.

But if the intentions are broader in their social and political engagement, then they become more contested, and in this more difficult to fulfil. The Cordiere is full of these not-completely-realized intentions. This, however, does not at all mean that they are failures, but rather they are a recognition of the contingency of all intentions – namely that they might turn out otherwise. What is really interesting about this Biennale is its open engagement with something outside of architecture. And if architecture (as object and process) sometimes looks fragile and modest in these engagements, then that is simply an honest representation of the limits of architecture in the face of its dependencies.

There is a certain bravery in facing up to this engagement with others – to deal with ecocide, migration and inequality. This is not about ‘good intentions’ but about the world we live in. We can’t engage with it just for a week (like the Christian example), or six months (like the Biennale), but have to see it as an ongoing project of the application of spatial intelligence to social conditions. The alternative is a retreat into architecture’s hubris of form and imposition, and with it further marginalization. I shudder to think that in the swinging pendulum of Biennales, 2018 will do exactly that.

Jeremy Till
Architect, writer and educator. Head of Central Saint Martins and Pro Vice-Chancellor of University of the Arts London.

Edition notes
Transcript of a talk given at a day long seminar of the same title: Palazzo Widmann, Venice 26th May 2016. Published in Punkto with permission of the author. The original can be read in Jeremy Till website.

1. Opening ceremony of “Extraction”, curated by Pierre Bélanger (Canada Pavilion’s curator), OPSYS. Friday, May 27th, 2016. Image © Laurian Ghinitoiu (via: archdaily).
2. A Conversation With Rem Koolhaas, Norman Foster, Alejandro Aravena, Andrew Makin, Grupo EPM, Joan Clos, Paolo Baratta, at the Biennale's First "Meeting on Architecture" (Image via: archdaily)

Publishing date: 12.06.2016