Venice Architecture Biennale: How Will We Live Together? (Part 1)
reSITE is back with a special two-part Design and the City episode covering the long-awaited Venice Architecture Biennale to explore the question “How will we live together?” Part-one covers the U.S, Nordic and Luxembourg Pavilion curators for their use of timber and wood construction to answer this years pressing question.
The postponed 17th Venice Architecture Biennale asked its 112 participants to consider the question, “How will we live together?”. A question originally posed in 2019 by curator and architect, Hashim Sarkis far before our collective 2020 experience. Sarkis originally asked participants “to imagine spaces in which we can generously live together” Answers from 46 countries materialized into the exhibition of 2021. After a year spent living apart, the theme is both hauntingly fitting and reifies our disconnection.
It has signalled something, a community eager to reconnect and a deeper understanding of just how interwoven we are with our spaces spanning the full spectrum of human existence. The exhibition explores that spectrum across five scales: Among Diverse Beings, As New Households, As Emerging Communities, Across Borders, and, As One Planet.
reSITE got the opportunity to attend the preview to speak with some of this year’s contributors on site. In this episode we’ll hear from the U.S. pavilion curators, Paul Anderson and Paul Preissner; exhibitors Lukas Feireiss and Leopold Banchini; curator from Luxembourg, Sara Noel Costa De Araujo; and finally exhibitors for the Nordic Pavilion, Siv Helene Stangeland and Reinhard Kropf–all whose work shares a common thread–wood.
These wood-based installations make cases for their egalitarian and democratic nature. They offer a particular simplicity, humility, flexibility and familiarity coupled with considerate retrospectives, to not only answer the pressing question, “How will we live together?” but “how will we thrive together?”
How will we thrive together?
Practical, banal and cheap. Descriptors are often used when speaking about wood as a building material. Architects Paul Andersen and Paul Preissner, curators of the U.S. Pavilion, invite us to reexamine humble softwoods and their place as the literal bones for American homes in their exhibition entitled “American Framing”.
Relatively uncommon throughout the world, Paul and Paul are quick to note that over 90% of the houses constructed in the United States are wood framed. While there is undoubtedly a sameness and a certain banality to this style, the curators stress its accessibility. It is with this one material that a diversity of structures are made and yet, it is architecture that is widely overlooked. They posit that it is a representation of democratic values, egalitarianism and pragmatism, as softwood is cheap and offers opportunities for structural improvisation.
The installation itself is unmissable within the Giardini. The curators attached a 3-story tall structure to the outside of the U.S. pavilion, providing a striking juxtaposition given the humble nature of wood framing and the monumental statement its making. I spoke with both of them just outside the Giardini in Venice during the opening weekend.
Alexandra Siebenthal, reSITE: Would you mind introducing yourselves?
Paul Andersen, Curator of the U.S. Pavilion, American Framing: My name is Paul Andersen and I'm one of the curators, I have an office in Denver and I teach at UIC University of Illinois Chicago and where a lot of the people, including Paul Preissner, are also working and teaching, a lot of the people that work, we work together on the pavilion, so it's a pleasure.
Paul Preissner, Curator of the U.S. Pavilion, American Framing:: Hi, I'm Paul Preissner. I'm also a faculty at the University of Illinois Chicago and have my own architecture practice there as well.
Alexandra: And how did the both of you kind of connect and start working together? Because I've seen you've collaborated on other projects, if that's correct?
Preissner: Yeah, I guess we've worked together since 2014 or so–13, 14–five, or six or so years ago. We met at the university, teaching together. So I started there in 2007, and Paul started a little bit later, and we met at the school. So we've started I guess, you know, we kind of maintain our own independent practices and have come together to work on installation projects for art exhibitions, or architecture exhibitions.
Andersen: Yeah, I mean, I think a lot of the things that we've tried to set up here in Venice are an extension of that work. In the end, like all of the projects that we've done together for exhibitions have been, like full scale constructions of some kind. Sometimes they're inside, sometimes they're outside, using different materials. But generally, the materials that we choose are common ordinary materials–nothing like that super technologically advanced or exotic–and more things that most people probably recognise and can relate to, in some way, but then trying to set it up or design a way of using them that that isn't quite so familiar, and maybe allows them to see those materials and maybe the built world a little bit differently.
Alexandra: That's fantastic. Okay, so maybe tell us a little bit about this idea of framing, kind of as a starting point. You mentioned it's for, you know, more for research and discourse and less than looking at what's been done in the past.
Preissner: I think it came from looking at the overall history, not a kind of specific one, but American framing, as is the title of the exhibition. It's more of a kind of a topic show or a subject show, looking at American architecture, not American architects.
And the title, in a way, kind of works both literally in the sense that it is the framing that happens within America and accounts for over 90% of domestic construction in the US. But it's also kind of metaphorical or speaks to a particular cultural ethos of America–one that is a little bit more bored with tradition and kind of prioritises, or privileges, expediency and kind of utility or usage over more delicate or slower forms of craft and precision.
Alexandra: What does the question of how will we live together mean to you as designers, as curators?
Preissner: Yeah, it's interesting, because of the artistic direction–because of the schedule of award of the grant to produce the US pavilion–the artistic direction came after we had already developed the project, submitted it, and found out. So in that sense, it wasn't a conscious and direct response to the question asked by Hashim, "how do we live together?" But, but nonetheless, I think it has kind of, you know, the quick answer: “we'll live together in wood framing because that's what we do”. But we'll also live together in kind of a more wily, domestic type that kind of explores new forms of creativity based in normalcy, as opposed to the exotic.
Alexandra: I appreciate that. You also mentioned that the style of framing is rooted in equality. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Preissner: Yeah, so it developed in the early 19th century, and it came kind of from the need for an enormous amount of housing as the American population was expanding. A lot of immigrants within the Midwest–where it started–were from Scandinavia, Germany, and came from those traditions of heavy timber framing, stone work–much slower, more elaborate forms of construction. But the population just didn't have access to the kind of educated skill, the tools necessary to do that. And also, the region just wasn't populated with the same types of wood. So the Midwest–Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois–had a much cheaper kind of disregarded form of woods, off wood. The trees grow fast, and as such, they splinter, they're not as strong. So it wasn't used for the way things were built with elaborate joints, carved joinery and stuff.
So it kind of developed as a really quick, easy way to use wood that you wouldn't like by instead of just using less things to produce the, you know, the structural load of the house, they just use lots of them. So instead of four columns to hold up a house, you had 80, or such, and they were all these small studs. And by using a lot of really small, cheap pieces of wood and nails, just nailing boards into boards, instead of trying to slot them in it, started to produce a kind of architecture that had its own grammar, its own informality, but still produced to kind of domesticity.
Andersen: Yeah, like for all those reasons, because it was easy to work with and because the wood was plentiful and inexpensive, it was something that everybody could use. And that is still true. So, today, over 90% of homes in the US, or, you know, like Paul mentioned, are built with wood framing, but it's all the same framing. So, no matter how much money you have, you can't buy a better two-by-four than the one that your neighbour has. So there is a kind of equality, I think, in that that is, you know, interesting, and maybe works on some ideological levels, but also for design, opens up a lot of possibilities that, you know, maybe other construction systems don't allow for.
I think that the improvisation, the quirkiness, the ease of experimentation, and change on the fly, are all things that are part of that ethos of a kind of egalitarian system that's cheap and quick and easy.
Alexandra: And you already touched on this maybe a little bit, but why do you feel it's so uniquely American?
Andersen: I mean, I think there is the very direct, literal answer to that, which is that we build primarily out of wood framing, whereas, there's quite a bit of it in Canada also. But outside of North America, there are examples of it, but at least when it comes to stick-built, lightweight, soft wood framing, there's not a whole lot of it around the world. It tends to be more of an exception or an anomaly in most places than the standard way to work.
So, it is very straightforwardly an American way to build that, for whatever reason, is not, for lots of reasons, the way to build in other places. And I think maybe both that kind of the egalitarian sense of "it's all sort of the same stuff for everyone, no matter what they're building, no matter what type of building, no matter how expensive", that seems to be quite American. Then there's the kind of anti-tradition part of it, which comes in, in a lot of ways, in through artistic practices. But also, we tend to think of architecture as being stable and permanent and heavy. Wood framing is lightweight, kind of flimsy.
There's always been sceptics who questioned whether or not it's a good system for building in because is it durable, and is it gonna last? But out of that has come, I think, some very American cultural practices that have embraced that fluidity.
For example, the idea that you would just move a wall on a house, or change the location of a window, or at a skylight, or something like that, it's really really easy with wood framing. It's not so easy if you have some of that building built in concrete or steel or masonry. So I think that that sort of sense that things are not permanent, that they're shifting, that they can always be new, they can always be different, and always be changed, seems to jive with American life, too.
Alexandra: Why do you feel the style is often overlooked? One thing I really liked is that you seem to be really interested in maybe the more plain and simple and humble practices of architecture. But, when you walk up to the pavilion there is quite a statement, a structure that you installed. I think that's quite powerful, just the commentary and the humbleness of it, but with like, very arresting structure.
Preissner: I mean, I think it's, it's overlooked in the sense that everybody knows about it, over 90% of the homes are built by it. So it's overlooked in a kind of intellectual sense, or overlooked as a way of producing architecture that's open for new forms of creativity or expression. In a sense, it's utterly normal, and therefore gets disregarded. It's something worth spending time on, either intellectually or creatively, in a sense.
I think Paul and I have always–one thing we've done when we've worked together is always try and work with anonymous histories or anonymous materials–things that are vaguely familiar that you grew up with, and you see it everywhere and you see it anywhere–but to try and produce a kind of new form of profundity with those methods, in a sense.
So, we think it is profound, and it's consequential, and it's big, but it's also done in a way that is a little bit disarming because it's familiar and approachable and you understand it, but it's also utterly new simultaneously. That kind of conflict of emotions or responses or experiences, we think, is a little bit more special and consequential than to produce something immediately exotic that you're then trying to normalise. We're doing the inverse, which is to take the normal and kind of make it weird.
Alexandra: Building on that a little bit, I read your interview with Kate Wagner–Kate actually spoke at one of our conferences, or last conference. Really incredible, I really appreciate her work. It was the interview for ArchDaily, and you discussed with her some of the urban/suburban divide. A lot of what people find distasteful about the suburbs, you find fascinating.
Preissner: Yeah, of course. I mean, I think that the suburbs get demeaned within a higher level of architectural discourse or something–it's considered tasteless, tacky, in the interests of people with no idea of what proper architecture is. I think what has always been, what's interesting to Paul and I about the suburbs is that within that tackiness, or within that tastelessness, also, is an enormous amount of weirdness and kind of creative choices that are made that aren't orthodox choices, in a sense.
And so I think that type of unorthodox nature of formal expression or organising a plan–the house plans–for suburban developments are really weird in ways too, because a lot of them are just willful, or sometimes overly excessive, or just organised in ways that you wouldn't do it with other forms of construction. You can do it because it's wood framing. So I think we kind of like that out of fashionable weirdness that exists, and feel that that's a kind of form of creative expression too, that is enormously valid and actually produces something much more consequential, in a way.
Andersen: Yeah, I totally agree with that. I think there are a lot of reasons why the suburbs are worth taking a look at or spending a little bit of time on. For sure, one of the main main reasons is what Paul said, that there's a kind of low or pop culture development of ideas and forms and organisations there that can be really fascinating and can be actually very rich if you are patient and look close enough and don't dismiss things so quickly.
I was just reminded of a conversation from a couple of years ago that I hadn't thought of in a long time with a guy named Bob Brueggemann, who was an amazing historian also based at UIC, and very much a provocative person who goes against the grain in some really interesting ways a lot of times. We were having a casual conversation one day, and he happened to mention that a lot of the architecture that he was seeing, that's avant garde–or was at the time–for example, some of the Libeskind buildings, were basically the same as McMansions. They were both aggregations of self-similar parts, it's just that the parts were a little bit different, they were a little bit different form. But they were all kind of the same parts just repeated and globbed together in some way.
That correspondence was amazing, I never thought of that. I thought of those worlds as being so far apart, and people really would at that time take a stand for the kind of architecture that Libeskind was doing, but not ever definitely for the McMansion. It made me realise that, first of all, all of these preferences are cultivated and cultured, and biased, but also you can't dismiss the suburbs as being uniform and always one thing and always abhorrent, and that, actually, you should look closer, because they are different. Houses are different from different eras in different places. Absolutely, there's some very interesting things there that go against the unwritten rules of contemporary and traditional architectural design. So, yeah, it's good to take a closer look.
Alexandra: So, what will become of the structure once you dismantle it? Do you have plans to sort of reuse the materials in some way, or readapt?
Preissner: So we don't have anything definitive as to what will happen. We're in conversations with a couple of different people right now who want to absorb the structure and repurpose it either in the way it is now or in some kind of reassembly. So it won't just be burned, in a sense, or just thrown into the lagoon, but we'll find a home somewhere else in some kind of configuration.
Alexandra: That's great. Yeah, it seems to be kind of a theme, and a lot of the installations that we've seen are actually using this timber and these timber installations. Have you seen some of the other pavilions?
Andersen: There's a lot of correspondence for sure, there's a lot of overlap. It's funny because our immediate neighbours, spatially, on one side, we have Norway's contribution. Their work is also with softwood, and more like a configurable interior, and how that relates to community life, and maybe can open up some different ways for people to live together and form their environments together. Then, just kind of across diagonally in front of us is the Finnish pavilion, and they are looking at a prefabricated wood housing system from the 1940s and 50s.
Also, [the installation used] soft wood, also looking at what part of that was designed, what part of it was then later changed by the people who lived in the houses. How did they customise them? [The pavilion examines] the differentiation of these houses that were all identical to start with, and how that became a project of the people who lived in them. It's very interesting–the issues of authorship and materials. We've talked with them and it's been a good exchange of ideas for sure.
Alexandra: One thing we've explored in some of our other podcasts, or just interviews, is just the sustainability aspect of it. But one thing why I asked about the reuse that I find very beautiful about it–and maybe this is also something that's uniquely American– is that just as wood ages, it really becomes more valuable. You see these places, especially in the Midwest, where they salvage barns and people come and buy that wood because it has this textural quality. I don't know if you have anything to add to that, but that's one part I really love about particular wood structures.
Preissner: I think there is the kind of patina of wood that people appreciate, especially with the kind of old growth, forests, woods, oaks and chestnuts, and things you get that are a little bit better. What's interesting, I guess, about the soft woods–like spruces and Douglas firs that are used in the stick construction or American framing–is that the trees grow really quickly. So, you can kind of sustainably manage forests.
While you're producing the material for the houses, you're also growing trees, which has a kind of additional benefit. It's not as deleterious to the environment as using, say, hardwoods, which take half a century to grow and take much longer. So, it can actually keep up with the kind of domestic need in ways that other materials can't.
Alexandra: Is there anything you hope to influence with your installation?
Andersen: The influence might be... I don't know if I'd put it in those terms. I don't think we had ambitions to influence anybody in a particular way. But we definitely thought of it as a project of opening up a topic, trying to try to look at it a little bit more closely and give a thoughtful presentation of the subject matter to other architects and to people in general, whoever is the audience of the biennale, whoever comes, any visitor.
For us, I guess we're trying to make a case for the field to take a closer look. We think that there's some interesting work that could come out of it, and hopefully it will. But, if and how that happens is out of our hands now. We've put it out there and hopefully some people pick it up and do something with it. It's provocative for some people in terms of their ideas and questions about how to work.
Preissner: Yeah, for me, I guess maybe influence isn't the right word, but [rather] alert people or kind of make visible and understanding. I think what we wanted with the installation in the front is we kind of think of it more as an addition to the existing US pavilion from 1930. So, it kind of literally completes it in the sense that it produces a formalised courtyard space, a kind of protected courtyard space, a private social space on the interior.
Then metaphorically, it also kind of joins the early 20th century cultural aspirations of the United States, made visible through this kind of adoption of European Palladianism in the way of the structure, and then completing it with the most ubiquitous form of domestic structure. And so it works for us more like a completion to the building and a way to kind of alert you to what's at stake and the consequences of the exhibition, to see something that is both kind of monumental and anti-monumental simultaneously, and that there's nothing special about it, but it's like nothing you've ever seen.
And that in a way conditions you to what's at stake and allows you to then explore the interior, the galleries, and the exhibition, where we start to look at the kind of traditions of the history; the way it was packaged as either kit homes, the kind of details of the site, the kind of messiness of the very temporal construction process that only takes a number of weeks to go from no framed house to a fully framed house; to explore the kind of natures of labour and the kind of social aspects of labour, the precarious parts of undocumented workers and day labourers, to the more professionalised labour that you have with union carpentry; and then to kind of get into the myths and the origin stories of trees and texture, seeing the trees for the forest instead of the forest for the trees.
We have a set of models that kind of track the history and explore different types of housing, from the kind of euphoric and utopic conditions of countercultural developments in Colorado, to the more brutal, oppressive instances of the architecture being used for the more unkind reasons, like US military outposts in the Midwest, to kind of really explore the periphery and the margins as a way of getting a deeper understanding of what's at stake with architecture in general. So for us, I think the show was always meant to be about architecture, not architects. In a way, that also might be how we respond to how we live together, because it's about a kind of social project that architecture participates in.
Alexandra: What do you feel will define our generation architecturally?
Paul: I mean, that's hard to say. I know we're currently–I mean, this isn't new, this has been [around] for a while, but it seems to have stuck pretty hard, I think. There's a strong backlash against signature. I think it's clear that no matter what your project is, what your ambitions are, very few people are invested in signature form or signature, like a signature sensibility in their works. Maybe that's what it will be in the end. But, yeah, at the moment, it's pretty hard to say.
Preissner: I think Paul's right in the sense that there's one thread that's a kind of backlash against more exotic works. But, it seems like we're also just kind of caught in a moment where nobody knows what is good, or nobody knows what to do. There's a lot of competing interests and competing inquiries into both what's possible and what we should do. It's difficult.
I think architecture, unlike art, and unlike other forms of creative practices, is a much more compromised field. Even cheap architecture isn't really cheap in absolute terms. I think people struggle with what architecture is supposed to mean and do, and who it's supposed to be for and who it's supposed to represent, and how it's used as symbols of power or oppression, or how it's used as things that are inviting to develop new social spaces or conceptual spaces for people.
I don't know what this generation or the next one will do for architecture, I don't think it'll be defined in terms of a formal style. But, I don't think it will be anti-formal in that sense either, where it just dematerialised into things that aren't architecture, that are actually more policy driven or something like that. So right now is, I think, really interesting for me because it feels like we're trying to figure these things out and wrestle with our own histories, and what the future could be, and how architecture can produce and condition that and be conditioned by it.
There Are Walls That Want to Prowl: Lukas Feireiss + Leopold Banchini
Previous reSITE speaker and Venice Biennale exhibitor, Lukas Feireiss collaborated with architect Leopold Banchini to create an installation entitled There Are Walls That Want to Prowl that was featured in this year’s exhibitor hall in the Arsenale. The project accompanies their retrospective Shelter Cookbook, a homage to Lloyd Kahn. The pair describe him as not just a publisher whose texts have inspired them deeply, but a pioneer who shaped the green, self-build movement in the U.S and beyond, like no other.
Lukas and Leopold stress how Kahn’s texts were revolutionary, launching a counterculture movement focused on de-growth. These alternatives to conventional forms of building and living together have deeply influenced Leopold’s practice. They emphasize a conscious, connected and liberated way of life. Citing that Kahn’s work was not necessarily about the use of wood in his building, but the use of local resources. In Shelter Cookbook, Lukas juxtaposes his building practices with a curated section on mycology, serving as a symbolic metaphor for our own entangled existence.
We caught up with Lukas and Leopold in the gardens of the Arsenale to discuss their definitions of shelter, application of wood structures, degrowth models and retrospectives to rethink how we will live together.
Lukas Feireiss, Venice Biennale Contributor, There Are Walls That Want to Prowl: My name is Lukas Feireiss. I'm a Berlin based curator and writer at the intersection of Arts, Architecture, Design–both theory and practice. Next to me is Leopold Banchini.
Leopold Banchini, Venice Biennale Contributor, There Are Walls That Want to Prowl: I'm Leopold Banchini, and I'm an architect based in Switzerland at the moment, and we collaborated together on this installation.
Lukas: Shelter, to me personally, means home, and shelter, to me personally, means a safe place in a safe space.
Leopold: I think [they are very similar]. But for those who don't know, it's also the name of the book that was very inspiring to us by Lloyd Kahn. We call the book this way, I think not necessarily referring to emergency shelter, but rather, to the idea of the shelter as a self-built place where you could live in, and as [Lukas] said–make a family, develop, make love, heal, etc.
Lukas: Well, the book–the publication–that Leopold just referenced, Shelter by Lloyd Khan, is very much on self-building practices, and they are mostly with wood. So this is something that Leopold can talk more about, but it is a concept of lightweight construction and local material that seems, to us, still very appealing as a way of working in building your own environment, your own house, your own shelter.
Leopold: I think in the case of the book, Shelter, it actually speaks about a lot of different construction material. It focuses on wood because Lloyd was living in Northern California, where there's clearly a very strong wood presence. In this area, it was probably the easiest way to build for someone who doesn't have the experience of the builder.
I don't think that he was specifically only interested in wood. Of course, we all know that wood is a very easy material for nonprofessionals. It's an easy material to start, and it's a very, as you can see, it's a very lightweight material.
I think probably the degrowth model, and probably from what we understand from Lloyd Kahn, once again, is not linked directly to wood. It's rather linked to local resources, to a certain economy, an economy of means, and economy in terms of material. So I think wood is only one technique that comes out of it. What I think we see today is that wood is just another large-scale material produced all around the world, which falls under the category of highly processed materials. I would not say that today wood is necessarily an ecological material. I think this is probably a misconception. But it is still a very sustainable material if it's used in the right way and locally. And, of course, with attention and care.
Lukas: Maybe what we were attracted by–are attracted by–is this kind of more organic and holistic look at the manmade environments.
Lukas: We really liked the curatorial question, but it's one that's directed to the future, how *will* we live together? And our approach was, well, in order to answer the question, maybe we have to look at models of the past or question preconceived ideas of how we can live together and learn from examples that still inspire. Hence, we are very deliberately said we're not going to talk about our own practice, but look at ideas that were thought of half a century ago, and they're still relevant.
Leopold: I think I could say that. What I find very inspiring in the book of Lloyd Kahn's is that, first of all, they were extremely avant garde at the time. They were proposing highly different models that were not only about a way of building architecture, but really about a way of living in a new relation with the environment, with the economy, and between people. And I think for me, that's still extremely inspiring about this period in the 60s and 70s, and we are specifically focused on that.
Still, today, in my opinion, the answer has to come rather from that side, rather than from highly technological answers that might save us. I still believe that degrowth is an interesting model, and probably the way out of the crisis we’re in, and it's only going to get worse in the future, I believe, if we don't find new models.
Lukas: It's actually very interesting that you make this connection because the publication that we're talking about, they were published in the late 60s, early 70s. So this is actually the time of space exploration. Even the cover of one of the magazines that Lloyd was co-editor of, the Whole Earth Catalogue, has this famous history that on the front cover of the catalogue, he saw for the very first time that humanity saw the earth as a planet as a picture. This was from the Apollo missions. So this connects my moon interest now: same year, back to the Whole Earth Catalogue, back to Lloyd Kahn, back to shelter, back to the Biennale 2021.
Luxembourg Pavilion: Homes for Luxembourg, Sara Noel Costa De Araujo
Tucked away in the Sale d’Armi of the Arsenale lies the Luxembourg pavilion. The installation, designed by Studio SNCDA, addresses the housing crisis in a local context. Entitled, Homes for Luxembourg, she explores modular, reversible wood-based designs ideal for a country whose land prices render housing unaffordable and out of reach for much of the population.
The installation is an exemplary modular unit, different from a manufactured home or the tiny house model, but instead reimagines a temporary housing scheme to mitigate undeveloped land and privatization challenges. Their minimal design paired with customizable units that fit together in a generous amount of combinations allow for flexibility while keeping costs relatively low. We spoke with architect and curator, Sara Noel Costa de Araujo, the architect and curator behind the project.
Sara Noel Costa De Araujo, Luxembourg Pavilion Curator, Homes for Luxembourg: [I am] Sara Noel Costa De Araujo. My office is called Studio SNCDA, and I'm the curator but also the architect of this housing project/pavilion. It's called Homes for Luxembourg, because there's a housing crisis in Luxembourg, which is due to the price of the ground, which is very expensive. So, people can't really afford to build any more houses.
Our proposal is to take away that factor–just to rent the land, the ground, for 5, 10, or 15 years, according to the agreement we have with the owner, and then to have a mobile flexible house that you put on it. Then once it's over, you take your model–your 3.6 x 3.6 x 3.9 height module–and dismantle it. Then you rebuild it somewhere else. But also because it's mobile, it's temporary. So, you don't really touch the ground, you don't make a whole foundation work. You just put it delicately on the ground, you put all the service underneath–not service–the canalizations.
It's really about the respect that you have for the land. You don't have to destroy everything, you can just put yourself on what is there. One other issue which interests me in the project, it's that the land doesn't belong to you. You don't start to put on fences. So if you have a bigger terrain, where you have three, four houses, you have to negotiate the relationship with your neighbours.
That's why we introduced some common elements, you have a common oven, you can have a common kitchen, you can really create a built piece of city on the terrain. And it's flexible, it's very important because the city centre, it's quite empty. So I think it would be interesting to find solutions so that people can live again in that city, which is actually very nice.
Alexandra: How do you feel like this interprets the question, "how will we live together?"
Sara: How will we live together? In Luxembourg, it's very specific. It's [asking] how will we live together in the city where we continue to live in the format that is preconceived for you? Or do you try to reconstruct relationships? It's really about relationships, and how you live together in a city. I think it's very important, and I think this is kind of a very small thing, but it can change and have a very big impact.
Yeah, and it's a collaborative project, which is also very important [when considering] how you will live together, how you think the future holds together. I invited an artist–Koenraad Dedobbeleer, a textile designer–Ester Goris, and researcher–Hendrickx. We were doing the project together, but you see very clearly that everybody has specificities, like Koenraad really looks into the detail, he really works with the fabric. So you have it's a common project, but where you see the specificities and characters of everybody still.
Nordic Pavilion: What We Share, Siv Helene Stangeland + Reinhard Kropf
Our last guest of this episode encapsulates the final phase in crafting a livable space by examining how these wood structures are used and lived in through a radical approach. I spoke with the exhibitors of the Nordic Pavilion. Siv Helene Stangeland and Reinhard Kropf founded architecture firm Helen&Hard and collective living development ‘Vindmøllebakken’, a co-living experiment in Stavanger, Norway, which they not only designed, but also occupy, along with 65 other tenants.
Here, residents share—facilities, spaces, and resources—along with a local democracy based on collective participation. Individual needs are addressed with fully-equipped private apartments.
The installation, entitled What We Share, illustrates how architects can design more than just physical spaces but build communities. Something they hold a strong conviction for —that co-housing can resolve a number of issues, like loneliness, overconsumption and waste of resources, all while increasing housing security and quality of life.
It is a full-scale model of co-housing complete with fluid spaces that flow effortlessly from one to another and architecture that plays off the pavilion’s existing structure. In addition to the cooperative nature of co-housing, the model embodies democracy in its design, allowing residents to participate directly through the malleability of the space itself. We spoke with Siv and Reinhard following our trip to Venice.
Siv Helene Stangeland, Nordic Pavilion Curator, What We Share: Yes, I'm Siv Helene Stangeland. I'm a partner and founder as well, together with Reinhard of Helen and Hard architecture firm. We can talk about the firm later maybe. But that's my very short introduction.
Reinhard Kropf, Nordic Pavilion Curator What We Share: My name is Reinhard Kropf. I'm originally from Austria, but have lived in Norway the last 25 years, and [I'm] the co-founder of Helen and Hard together with Siv. [I] studied in Austria at the Technical University in Graz, and then in Oslo at the architectural school.
Siv: That's where we met, in fact.
Alexandra: Really? Oh, that's wonderful. I would definitely love to hear more about that. I thought we'd start by talking about your exhibition and how it tackles the question of how we live together, how we will live together.
Reinhard: Yeah, we try to connect to the theme quite literally and directly by designing a full scale installation of a cross section of a cohousing project. We wanted to explore a new model for cohousing, which is based on the Scandinavian cohousing model, but also based on our experiences of a cohousing project in Norway.
We wanted to explore how this model can be expanded, and how inhabitants can share more, and also thereby create common space and shared layers outside of the private units. So that was the experiment. We involved eight inhabitants of this project we did in Norway, and co-created this installation together with them.
Siv: Yes. I think what it contributes in relation to the topic of how we will live together is maybe to speculate a little bit in the future, because cohousing is a very trendy theme you find it in in a lot of different variations at the moment. What we wanted to also emphasise is that there can be an architecture that's supported and that we can maybe also ask these questions: Are we willing to share even more? Can we make our own private unit more compact? Why do you need them? How can architecture provide the kind of supportive platform for sharing and having more communal life together?
Reinhard: So, in the installation, we have a common space in the middle, then we have the private units, and then a shared layer in between the two, where the inhabitants can share certain activities and installations with the other inhabitants. We wanted to explore how this social idea of social sustainability can come together with material sustainability.
So, an important part of the installation is also to invent the new timber system that consists of solid wood planks, and they are connected with dowels. They are environmentally friendly, but also suitable for self building. The inhabitants can design and build the furniture and elements by themselves, but also the walls and ceilings are built of this system. And that system can be very easily locally produced, so it's not the crude industrial system, but a very low-tech, environmentally friendly lock system.
Alexandra: Wow. So would inhabitants have the chance to really have their hands on creating part of the architecture of the space?
Siv: That's what we have kind of speculated, in that this system is so simple that you can, in fact, build it yourself. But what we have shown in the installation is that it's also possible to build quite complex structures and you can make multifunctional furniture that really can handle a lot of different usages. So it can be very simple like a shelf, but it can also be a kind of stair with the playing sports facility integrated into it. We try to show a kind of span of what this system can be.
Alexandra: Yeah, incredible. Your full scale model is like a timber continuation of the pavilion's architecture in itself. Can you talk a little bit about that and the aesthetic choice?
Reinhard: Yeah, of course. This pavilion is gorgeous and beautiful. We wanted to create an installation that goes into a dialogue with the pavilion, and to keep a landscape, lower installation that connects to the ground. It's built in timber, in contrast to this concrete structure and this incredible, beautiful roof with the brise-soleil and the special light to keep that perfectly intact. So the dialogue between this landscape and the roof was important for us, and that the common space is organised around these three fantastic trees in the pavilion.
Siv: There is, of course, a kind of tension between this sublime space of Sverre Fehn, which is pure and light, and you don't want to do anything in there really, and then our intention to expose everyday life in a cohousing project. So this was the kind of creative gap that also was kind of with us–how to do that, how to kind of work sites specifically, and at the same time, take with us all these ideas of the cohousing project, which doesn't have anything to do with this pavilion. So I think the key was when we started to work with this building system of shelves, which has a kind of structural dialogue in it with the ribs of Sverre Fehn, it started to be also something that could play together.
Alexandra: It's really beautiful, how it all was just so fluid together. You really were able to capture that feeling, I think, you were trying to achieve, so well done. Also with that in the exhibition, there were several installations that are kind of centres you created kind of focused on crafts, and in particular, textile crafts like knitting and sewing. Was there a particular reason behind that choice?
Siv: Well, we have chosen some of the inhabitants that are residents in a cohousing where we are also living ourselves, so we know them. To us, it was important to kind of choose a variation of people. So you have this old lady that really owns a loom, and she's very dedicated to it. Then you have some other girls that are always repairing things and knitting things. So it's brought in through our friends in the cohousing project, and exposed there as an example of what you can do together.
Also these different scenes that we have kind of built there, we didn't want to inhabit and refurbish the whole pavilion, we are only insinuating that it can be inhabited in different ways. There are five different scenes, and one of the scenes is together with this loom and the knitting/sewing/repairing corner. It's chosen because it's something that we live and experience, where we are today. But it's maybe more showing that, together, sharing such facilitation as a loom or a sewing machine or different ways to repair things, it's also something that you would be encouraged or inspired to do together.
Reinhard: In our experience in the cohousing project in Vindmøllebakker, there were self-organised groups that produce furniture, or that produce cushions, or that are harvesting or growing things and making food. So these things are communal, they're kind of considered fragments of communal life, and we think that this also has an architectonic consequence and the potential which we wanted to show. We didn't want to show only a clean timber structure, we wanted to show it was also inhabited.
Alexandra: You took my next question, I wanted to ask you kind of more about your experience with cohousing. I knew you had created this really incredible compound that you were just discussing, but I didn't realise you actually lived there. So would you care to share a little bit more about it? I think that really adds kind of a special layer that really came from kind of personal experience, and how you really just made that tangible.
Siv: Yeah, it's a long story because, in fact, this cohousing in Vindmøllebakke in Stavanger, where we live, we started to develop in 2011, so it has taken some years. The first thing we did was, in fact, study different cohousing projects in Scandinavia and see how we could bring together a model that is suitable and contemporary and that's still built on this Nordic tradition.
So Vindmøllebakke is a pilot of a model that we have tried to define, and now we are, in fact, working on five new ones. So it's kind of growing. But this special cohousing, we've worked a lot on because it's strange how just to engage the users earlier in the process is radically new, or radically different, to a normal housing industry, and how that is arranged.
So we had to really invent both these processes, how can we engage the user early on and still be on the commercial market? This was not the group of people that knew each other. So it's 67 people coming together, and we have to provide and facilitate how they can get to know each other. What are the values that can serve as a kind of guiding intention for creating a communal life? How can we also control this use of participation so that it doesn't go completely out of control in terms of time and resources? So there was a lot of inventions to make this work. Together with [the inhabitants], the way we have built it and the spatial organisation is special because of the integrated shared space. In Vindmøllebakke there are 500 square metres of common space with all different kinds of programmes.
Reinhard: What I'll just try to build a bit on, there are different elements which have to come together. One is the social structure and the process to work together and to live together, that has to be crafted, as importantly, the architectonic space with the common spaces in the middle and the apartments around. Then [it's important] to create a building system that allows this adaptability and change and growth, but then is also a parametric design that can handle participatory processes and changes and makes it still affordable. So these different elements we wanted to bring together in this model and show in the Venice Biennale also as a potential for further development.
Alexandra: Since you've lived in there, and this has been an ongoing project for quite some time, what are some of the lessons that you've learned of how to make cohousing as harmonious as possible that maybe is reflected in the architecture? Is there anything specific that you've learned or you've evolved with?
Siv: That's a good question. I think there are so many levels, we learn things. But first of all, maybe that today, people are very occupied with having their choice. So we can both organise it spatially so that you're not forced to always go through the very central shared areas, you can sneak up to your own apartment without dealing with everyone. You're having a unit which is fully equipped, so you're not forced to use the common kitchen or the shared area. It's based on having this individual choice, which is very important for people.
Then we also learn to look into different cohousing projects, that variation of age and life situations, we really wanted to have a mix of people. This is really showing itself as a kind of basis when it comes to having a rich life, people can contribute to different resources, they have different time, you have pensionists that are here during the day, they can cook, they have time for administration while others are really busy. We can kind of support each other because we are in different rhythms and have different everyday lives. So that's something we learned, and to really be true to that.
Reinhard: Also through cohousing, it's possible to offer more generous spaces because the apartments are a bit more compact, so you can share these central channel spaces. And it's important how they are located in the building, as we learned that it's maybe interesting to have more of a central space and the apartments around, and not only in the ground floor but somewhere else in the building. So all that has a very strong architectonic influence.
We think that, for us as architects, it's really very, very interesting–also, the participation of the inhabitants and how that will influence the architecture, especially the common spaces. So that also can give a new expression or a new vernacular by sharing or co creating the design of the common spaces, and those of the programming of course.
Siv: I think you're also asking about, that's something many people ask about of course, how is it to live together and solve the challenges that come. There is also a challenge to find out how we can agree about things when there are so many people. So, of course, there is learning in how to have good consensus processes so that we can find solutions that we are able to live with. Of course, we are not always happy with decisions, but decision making processes are a key and good decision presence.
This decision making process with good facilitation is something [inhabitants] have learned. And that it takes time. People need to engage to make it work, but that's another part we can talk a lot about–how are you living together when it's done and everything is built, and you move in and then there is this getting to know each other for real, and also timing out how to solve this basic thing that we owe so much together and we have to find out how to deal with that. So there is a continuous negotiation between us, how are we going to use this space? For example, are we going to invest in this or that? I mean, these daily things are going on all the time.
Alexandra: I can imagine, but that's fascinating. I think that's beautiful. Do you feel that there will be a demand for more cohousing in the future, or do you see it as something that's more experimental? Obviously, I know you feel it very personally close to your heart, you know, human connection. So where do you feel like the future of it is?
Reinhard: The whole aim for us was that this is not a niche product, but that it's really suitable to grow and expand and scale. We definitely think that this will be a future in the housing market, because loneliness and segregation have problems, especially in Scandinavia, and cohousing can really give a great contribution and answer to that problem. So I think that it's something which will grow, and there is a huge demand in the market.
But I also think it's important to see if it could be a potential that inhabitants are getting more shareholders again of the housing market, so that the housing market is not only in the hands of developers and general contractors. But this model, the cohousing model, could help to create more creative ownership and creative mob participation and a more democratic development of our cities. I think that that's a really interesting perspective of this model.
Siv: Yeah, it has, in fact, a kind of scale, which is intriguing because I just saw it here where there are 67 people. People are so much more engaged in the neighbourhood, not only the neighbourhood that we're all in together, but it's this intermediate space between the private and the very public—it's suddenly enhanced—and gives a platform for creativity and engagement. I think that's vital for good cities. So it is, in fact, also a model that supports a good city life and just in general.
We should also see it in the relation to—I mean, we have just survived the pandemic situation–and we're curious to see how that would function. But now it has also proven to work. And that is because of course, there is organisation and there is coordination in this system that we are caring for together, so we can handle it
There is a group then that takes care of how we can deal with social restrictions and still keep on having our social life, but of course, keeping safe safety records. So we have experienced [some] wonderful times also in this very problematic time because we could handle it, and we could go on to see each other and support each other in a difficult period.
Alexandra: That's so important, and that's really good to hear. Would you mind telling us a little bit more about that experience and how you were able to manage it?
Siv: Yeah, first of all, what makes it possible is that we have this buffer space. So we have a space outside our small apartments where it's possible to meet more people and you can keep two metres distance. That in itself is kind of basic. I think it's important that we are organised and coordinated as a side service. If something is decided everyone has to feel a responsibility to keep it and follow it and care for what is decided.
Reinhard: The experience was really also a pitch to have a social life, and we became quite creative. We were singing together from our pal is, inspired from Italy. And we had concerts for artists because they had really a tough time in this period. All of that was possible. We had dinners with a restricted [number] of people.
Siv: Spread throughout the whole house.
Reinhard: So it was a lot going on. I think we had a better time than if we would have lived in a conventional housing project where you're just isolated.
Alexandra: That sounds incredible and kind of like a bright spot in all of this. Maybe one last question, I kind of wanted to just hear more about how you got to this point, how you got interested in cohousing and how you got started in your partnership, as architects.
Reinhard: First about the cohousing: we have designed housing projects now for 20 years, and we really think that's important for architects to try to do because it's such an important task. But we also experienced that there is a systemic challenge in the housing market, that there are certain agents and interests involved that are maybe not always going so well together. So we have these typical coordination problems where a house is built, but no one is really happy with the result. But no one really knows how to solve it. You would need to screw different screws simultaneously to really change the entire system.
I think that's an incredibly interesting future for our profession. It's a bit of a history of Helen&Hard, that at Helen&Hard we always wanted to see how we can create another context for architecture.
Siv: And also, to create sustainable answers, we have to change systems. Thereby, we also often have to take on other roles and try to find new grounds for changing things on the principal level. That's what we did with this gaining by sharing company, which was very new for us to engage in, also to try to define another economy in relation to housing. How can we build a model that really supports people in living more sustainably? That was our kind of vision for this project.
We thought if we can provide houses that are compact, you don't buy more square metres, but we just kind of rearrange the square metres a little bit more–not less than your private [space], and the rest you put in together and thereby you get a lot more [space]. That was the gaining by sharing principle. We've really tried to redefine these premises for housing, both spatially but also how we organise the processes, how the user is invited.
Reinhard: Material wise, when we work with large housing projects, you have general contractors, and they're often coming from the concrete industry. They want to build in concrete, it's difficult to build with sustainable or environmentally friendly materials with that kind of system. That's why 15 years ago, we tried to specialise in timber architecture and find out how you can build housing projects, offices, normal buildings in timber with the same cost, and happen to create an alternative. And of course, Scandinavia has a history with timber architecture, but it's nearly forgotten. So it was a really long learning process for us.
But now, suddenly, this really changes, and we experience now that the market is really popping up more and more timber buildings, and also customers want to live in timber buildings. So it's an amazing shift, and it happened very, very fast. You see in the Venice Biennale a lot of contributions that deal with timber, which I think is proof that this is incredible in our time, now that concrete and steel are really the materials of the classical modern era, and timber is the material of our time, which has to be more sustainable and environmentally friendly.
Alexandra: Do you think it's possible that timber really becomes the next mark of a generation of architects, of architecture? I've also seen that, and I noticed at the Biennale, and then we've had quite a few guests kind of talk about that.
Reinhard: Yeah, we think so. I think that there will come a new generation of architects and engineers that really build even more in timber, and we are really happy that we could contribute quite early to this development because it's just not only to design buildings, it's also to have a whole value chain that, in fact, can conceptualise, and plan, and build, and use timber architecture. That takes its time, but it's only good in its own way.
You see it in different regions: in the Alps region in Switzerland, Austria, and South Germany. You see it in Canada, you see it in parts of Eastern Europe, in Italy. And that's fantastic. I think it will just take place in regions where you have forests, and they will expand, and this will change the architecture, for sure.
Alexandra: Absolutely. And that's good news, I would say.
Alexandra: Well, thank you so much! That's all the questions I have, but is there anything you feel like we missed, or you would like to discuss that adds to your practice or the exhibition itself?
Reinhard: There's something Siv and I discuss quite a lot. What we think is really interesting, also in the context of sustainability, is how architects can really combine architecture and weave together different disciplines, and different knowledge fields, and different cultures. I think that kind of aspect of our profession, that we are generalists and we are not specialists, is something which maybe gains importance. This systemic approach towards architecture and sustainability, I think, is really, really something which is very important. It's interesting to see in the Biennale that that has been an important theme in different contributions and in different pavilions.
Siv: Yes, and we think it's so important that we have media, like this podcast, that make it possible to expand the discourse and talk about it, because it's also often trapped in simplifying the message, which doesn't really give honour to our profession. Architecture is always complex, and it's holistic in its base, especially if it's going to bring us further into sustainable solutions. We have to work holistically and be able to talk about in holistic ways.
Alexandra: I agree, and I'm really grateful that you came on and shared all that with us. It's an honour for us to be that platform, and that is our goal with it. Thank you so much!
Siv: Thank you!
Reinhard: Thank you, Alexandra, for inviting us.
Paul & Paul, Lukas & Leopold, Sara, Reinhard & Siv, all speak about the ubiquity and accessibility of wood but also as something novel—modern even, while acknowledging its historical, humble application, that feels timeless.
Wood, both ubiquitous and democratic, doesn't require experienced builders to use. Its ecological aspect and multi-functionality, as a building material, is at once engaging and framing of one's life. It allows the user to partake in the physical, spatial framing of their residential life—to at once to express individuality, as in the U.S. Pavilion, while offering the possibility for fluid communal, co-living spaces as in the Nordic pavilion. Binding them both like the sinewy fibres of timber, is the material of a layman.
The follow up to this episode will feature a special interview between the curator of the Venice Biennale, architect Hashim Sarkis in conversation with reSITE’s own former curator, Greg Lindsay. We will then continue to explore this year's question, “how will we live together”, but through the lens of accessibility with the curators of the Austrian and British pavilions.
We have loved getting to create this podcast, and we hope you’ve been enjoying it just as much. Reaching a new audience, on a new platform with the same mission—elevating people and ideas to improve the urban environment—in the middle of a pandemic has been what we feel to be an important action. Also important to us is that these ideas remain accessible and free.
As a nonprofit, we are only able to produce this podcast thanks to the generous support of the City of Prague, the Czech Ministry of Culture, corporate sponsors, private philanthropists, and our network of passionate architecture and city lovers, like you. If you would like to support us as a patron, sponsor or strategic partner, please get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Your support allows us to continue sharing ideas to inspire more livable, lovable cities.
This episode was directed and produced by myself, Alexandra Siebenthal and Radka Ondrackova and with support from Martin Barry, Nikkolas Zellers, Weronika Koleda, and Anna Stava, as well as Nano Energies and the Czech Ministry of Culture. It was edited by LittleBig Studio.
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