Venice Architecture Biennale: How Will We Live Together? [Part 2]

Part two of our Design and the City episode covering the long-awaited 17th Venice Architecture Biennale to explore the question “How will we live together?” and features curator Hashim Sarkis in conversation with Greg Lindsay along with British and Austrian pavilion curators as they explore accessibility on many levels.

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.

Listen to part two of our special episodes on the 17th Venice Architecture Biennale on Design and the City now:

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.

For this episode we have it broken down into three parts. The first features none other than the 17th Biennale curator himself, Hashim Sarkis. Hashim is the Dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and founder of Hashim Sarkis Studios. Joining him in conversation is NewCities’ Director of Applied Research and reSITE’s own visiting curator, Greg Lindsay, to discuss the meaning and aims of this special Biennale.

How will we thrive together?

Hashim Sarkis + Greg Lindsay

Sarkis’ challenge—“How will we live together?”—was initially posed with reference to the societal impacts of climate change, political turmoil, wealth inequality, among other global crises. But it became even more pertinent with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Lindsay, along with his teammates at MIT Architecture’s Future Urban Collectives Lab, proposes answers through their installation Open Collectives, which illustrates how the synergy of the digital and the urban can foster and strengthen new communities. We were excited to host these two in conversation.

Following Sarkis and Lindsay’s conversation, we will explore accessibility and hear from the curators of the British Pavilion entitled The Garden of Privatised Delights and wrap up with the curators of the Austrian Pavilion entitled, We Like Platform Austria. Both sets of curators tackled what can often be a rather serious topic regarding accessibility along with the binary that exists between public and private space, but with a bit of whit and a sense of playfulness, ultimately makes the message on accessibility, accessible in itself. But first, let’s hear from Sarkis and Lindsay.

Greg Lindsay, NewCities + reSITE: Hashim, thanks so much for joining us.

Hashim Sarkis, Curator of the 17th Venice Architecture Biennale: Thank you.

Greg: Obviously, this has been the strangest Biennale, not just because of the pandemic, but because of the extra year the participants had to prepare, including my own team. And so I'm curious how, obviously beyond simply the fact that the pandemic denied us the ability to live together for much of it. So much has changed on the other side of it.

The world is at multiple speeds. Nations have quarantined themselves off. We've seen bubbles in housing markets around the world. I'm curious, coming to the other side of the pandemic, how does architecture and design start to grapple with these questions? Why is design the proper tool for dealing with things like the financialization of housing with borders and quarantines? How do architects assert themselves as having the agency to deal with these problems?

Hashim: This extra year was actually a very challenging one, as you mentioned. Initially, we basically huddled, each into their own world, trying to come to terms with what it could do—to our lives, to our work, and to the Biennale, but that was tertiary almost at that point. But slowly as we began to understand better the situation and what it might entail, and after we postponed the second time until May 2021, we in a way, pressed restart, and started talking again.

This extra year also gave every one of us the opportunity to understand a little bit better, actually much better, the role that architecture plays in our daily lives.

And this extra year gave us more space to talk with each other, not just curators, to individual participants, but across [and] among participants. And that also allowed the national curators to talk among themselves almost for the first time because we've had the opportunity to do that. And that created very interesting synergies, exchange of ideas—at the very practical level, comparing notes as to how people are going to be able to adjust their work to fit the new schedule, to fit the new shipping restrictions, and all.

And I also think that extra year gave us an opportunity to simplify, refine, improve on many of the installations. And because of restrictions on travel and shipping, it also allowed us to reduce the carbon footprint of this event quite dramatically I would say, and I really hope that these changes will stay for Biennales to come even in normal times.

This extra year also gave every one of us the opportunity to understand a little bit better, actually much better, the role that architecture plays in our daily lives. Each one of us all of a sudden became a scenographer of the space behind us on Zoom. Even though we say well, we're in isolation, but actually, that scene behind me represents me on Zoom, and all of a sudden architecture became much more present. We entered people's houses, people's bedrooms, people's living rooms, and even when they didn't want us to look into them, they put a scene of something else, which was also invariably architectural or landscape. So we became very attentive to that aspect of our lives.

The Biennale is not about the pandemic, it is about the causes that led us to the pandemic.

We also began to be much more aware of distances. We now can measure quickly with our eyes, six feet, or three feet, or four feet, depending on our setting. And we became much more aware of how tables are arranged in a restaurant—how a house can also become an office. So, it may very well be that we've been in isolation, but we have become much, much more attentive to the role that architecture plays in shaping our daily lives.

Greg: That's true, but the flip side is also true in the sense of these digital tools, how we're recording this now, you know, always existed, but they have sort of asserted their supremacy in this over the past 18 months. You know, we've seen, you know, these housing shortages, again, in the United States and elsewhere have sort of, you know, led to people fleeing cities. I mean, the whole notion of how we will live together has been challenged. We've seen people desperately try not to live together at all, by purchasing the largest homes in the rural countryside they can.

We've seen, you know, a year of stories about whether this is the end of cities as we know it. And, you know, I've been reading the reviews of the show, of course, you know, the critics say that they asked so many questions, but you know, there's a paucity of answers and solutions to this. And I'm curious where you see the Biennale pointing to. What is the future on the other side of this? We're putting the pandemic behind us, at least in some places, but what features have opened up for us?

Hashim: The Biennale is not about the pandemic, it is about the causes that led us to the pandemic. It is about climate change. It is about how we live together with other species and the planet. It is about increasing political polarisation, and how we can live together across these political divides. It is about growing economic differences and how these are really eroding the idea of a common good, and how we can re-engage that through architecture. It is about mass migrations, and how we can, whether citizens, nomads, tourists, or refugees, find common spaces to live and share. All of these are factors that led us to the pandemic. But this Biennale is not about the pandemic.

The pandemic will probably go away, hopefully, it will go away very soon and we will forget about the two feet, six feet, eight feet. But if we do not address these major issues, other pandemics or other problems will come back to haunt us. That's what this Biennale is about.

If we do not address these major issues, other pandemics or other problems will come back to haunt us.

Now, you asked me about the end of cities, and I want to remind you of a very similar moment that took place during the Second World War when cities were being bombed, and people were leaving central cities elsewhere to go to the countryside and all. And there was a very lively debate in, and among, urban planners and urban designers about where we will be after the end of the war. Some were saying well, “we will now continue to inhabit the countryside, we will be spreading around because of new transportation systems”. And others were saying “no, we will come back to the city as a way to rebuild and reassert the urban presence”.

I would say that after the war, both happened at the same time, or at different degrees in different settings. And I feel that we will probably face a similar situation now. I do also want to point out that those who fled the city are the ones who could afford to. And therefore, if anything, the pandemic or this phenomenon led to an even bigger divide between the rich and the poor. The rich house and the poor house have become much more strongly distinguished through this public health crisis.

Greg: Yes, and my question about this is how can architecture help us repair this inequality, help us repair these quarantines these bridges, again, how is design the right tool for these crises, verses dealing in global taxation rates in all sorts of policy visions as well, how does design reassert itself as a primary tool in helping to, again sort of bridge this, and help us to think about these scales?

This is the sort of thing architects are always asking themselves and are always asserting the fact that they are the makers of cities, and that they are the ones with the power over the public realm to do this. And I'm curious, you know, at a time when people turned away from the office buildings and turned away from the cores of cities—how does architecture as a profession bring its sensibility back to solving these issues?

Hashim: As architects, we are many things and I will distinguish between that, and the planners or urban designers, who are also many things. But primarily, we are the custodians of the contract—the contract to build. And therefore we represent the client in terms of how a project gets to be put together, and therefore we convene structural designers, city employees to help us on the permits—mechanical engineers, programmers, contractors, and designers as well. Sometimes we include interior decorators, sometimes we include other skills. But our skill is in convening and in synthesising the input of all of these people into a solution, or a resolution of a particular project.

We do not solve all the problems alone, but we orchestrate the solutions of problems.

That skill set is a very important one, and it can extend to many situations. We do not solve all the problems alone, but we orchestrate the solutions of problems. That's one aspect of our agency. The other aspect of our agency is that we are, after all, citizens. And there's a certain activism that comes with that and a set of responsibilities that comes with that. Sometimes we can use our tools as architects or skill sets as architects towards that. But sometimes we act as if we are simply citizens. And the confluence of the two sometimes it's important, because it allows us to bring to other citizens a certain level of awareness of their rights to space, their understanding of space.

We are also artists—we express, we represent, we make visible certain phenomena that others cannot see. And this is another level of the agency of architecture, which is this idea of the architectural imaginary.

That's very important also, as an aspect of our agency. But another extremely important aspect of our agency, Greg, is that we are also artists—we express, we represent, we make visible certain phenomena that others cannot see. And this is another level of the agency of architecture, which is this idea of the architectural imaginary, that is very much on display at the Biennale. When dealing with issues like climate change, of course we cannot act alone. But we can make visible the way that political boundaries have ravaged the Amazon. We use architectural representation tools to do that.

Greg: Interesting. Oh, one idea. One question that comes to mind is going back to the elongated time period of planning the Biennale. What ideas at the outset now seem in retrospect absurd to you? What has been discarded? We've talked about whether we're going back to new normals or going back to whatever normal is. I'm curious what did you and your team have, having all this time to rethink the Biennale from scratch, what do you discard as no longer true or no longer worth keeping and, and proceed from there?

Hashim: We did not have the opportunity, luxury, or even the difficulty of having to reimagine the Biennale from scratch. The first time we postponed was February 2020. We were three months away from the finish line. Many people had already packaged their projects in boxes and they were on their way to Venice. We did have the luxury to refine the exhibition and that helped a lot. It sharpened the dialogues that we were trying to create among projects in different rooms, in the way we set them up, in the way we framed the question for every room. It also allowed many of the participants themselves to go back and rethink some of their projects.

We also can help imagine what could be the future of the planet through certain changes, whether in terms of carbon emissions, in terms of connectivity of green spaces, in terms of the impact of geoengineering and what it might do to the planet. We help imagine alternative futures and in that, whether it's at the level of an alternative and better house, or an alternative and better planet, we propose and say, what if? And it's in that skill, that we also can change the world by proposing alternative worlds.

Greg: You've asserted in other interviews, that and that space is defining our social relations as the pandemic has shaped us, right? So the notion of social distancing, the notion of how architectures are defining how we interact during the pandemic, but I'm curious if the opposite isn't also true—that you know that social, social relations and the mental states that many of us have spent the last 18 months in will also affect our architectures going forward as well.

And I'm curious about your thoughts on this about how our spaces shape us and in turn, and what do you think, if anything, there will be a lasting legacy of pandemic architecture? There's been, of course, so much discussion about the Spanish Flu leading to Bauhaus. Is there an architecture of our time that emerges from this on the other side?

Hashim: It's too soon to say at a certain level, especially that most of the signs lead to the observation that the new normal looks very much like the old normal. However, stronger awareness of public health is actually a good thing. A stronger awareness of the fact that we have rights to public open spaces in cities where we don't have the luxury to have open spaces around our houses is a good thing. Taking over sidewalks, or parks for public activities is a good thing. And the realisation that a collective common good is necessary in order to define cities.

The privatization of public space, which has been increasing over the past 50 years, has now somehow been confronted with the reality that these public spaces are needed for leisure, public health, social distancing, education, all of that.

So the privatisation of public space, which has been increasing over the past 50 years, has now somehow been confronted with the reality that these public spaces are needed for leisure, public health, social distancing, education, all of that. And I feel that these kinds of changes will probably stay with us for a little bit longer, and we'll probably settle into a different understanding of what the public realm is.

Greg: Well, there is this question about what, what the, what the public realm is now on the other side—of who these new clients might be. You mentioned climate change, for example. You know, Rafi at our team has talked about the fact that the 20th century—the public was the client leading to social housing and leading to these programmes, and under the neoliberal turn the markets became the client and drove that as well and it raises questions about whether there could be new forms of clients, new ways to initiate projects—whether that is new ways to understand climate change, whether that is sort of non-human participants, I think it's Superflux—really gets into it in the Biennale, and others.

And I'm curious, what do we think about on the other side about new ways to initiate projects, new ways of practising architecture because that theme runs through the Biennale as well? How might we reimagine the profession itself and education as well, to grapple with these problems beyond simply the client, whoever they might be?

Hashim: As we know, the Biennale is organised into five scales, from the scale of the body to the household, to community, to borders and across borders, to the planet. And in the section, As Emerging Communities, we deliberately use the term community, not cities or neighbourhoods, in order to keep it open to possibilities of communities manifesting themselves spatially, in forms other than cities, or that we can understand and identify communities.

Let me give you a very concrete example, in the section As Emerging Communities we invited a group from Armenia called "Tumo", T-U-M-O. Tumo is an after-school programme to help kids in relatively underprivileged communities in the city of Yerevan, but now it's a national programme and actually international to become more digitally educated, to learn about coding to learn about data visualisation, to learn about animation, to learn about AI. And in order to enable those communities even more, they planted their after-hours schools in areas close to these communities, but strategically, near empty spaces where they can create parks, or next to a highway so that they can create an overpass to connect them better.

We deliberately use the term community, not cities or neighbourhoods, in order to keep it open to possibilities of communities manifesting themselves spatially, in forms other than cities, or that we can understand and identify communities.

And over the years, the success of the programme has become such that they are not only providing support education wise, they are providing support to the communities urbanistically—architecturally, urbanistically. And now, the government is turning to them whenever they have a need for an urban design intervention to help frame the project so that it is more inclusive of the communities.

This is the kind of agency that emerging communities are looking for—architects to understand better the nature of their needs, and to turn them out to become less about one sector meaning education, and more about the connectedness among the different sectors. The fact that the government is now using the agency of Tumo to help in urban improvement is a testimony to the success of this group of architects, programmers in creating a very important agency for architecture.

Greg: Interesting, well beyond the scope of the Biennale I'm curious what's on your radar as an educator, as a curator in these new types of hybrids. Obviously our project at the Biennale dwells upon this-- this notion of hybrid physical-digital communities. There's so much attention of course to blockchain, non-fungible tokens, distributed autonomous organisations, there's so much attention to this notion of non-physical communities and also the need for rethinking housing and new types of projects that go beyond the sort of single-use types.

And again, you know, in the context of your work at MIT, and as a curator, I'm curious, you're thinking about what new forms, what new hybrids, what new projects, do you think offer perhaps some of the most opportunities or avenues for architects to explore to rethink what the physical-digital means? Or what you know, housing means, in this context, given the functions that we folded into housing over the last year? How is this affecting the curriculum at MIT and the questions that you were asking?

Hashim: The digital has not replaced the physical. If there's any evidence in this Biennale to that relationship, it is about how they complement each other in different ways. At one very basic level, the production of drawings and now of models is through digital means. At another level, the presence of the machine is, and the computer as well, is very necessary for the activation of many of these installations. They depend on the machine and on the computer a lot.

The digital has not replaced the physical.

At another level, the visualisation that digital brings amplifies some of these experiences rather than replaces them. And so I feel it's not that one is taking over the other. It's that we are at a point right now where we are finding complementarities and continuities in a way that we do not see the seams or the ruptures or the generational shift anymore. It's actually quite smooth.

Greg: Interesting. Well, going back to that, I mean, what does—your students at MIT and a younger generation of architects who are looking at this, I'm very curious about sort of how they are perceiving these relationships, this complementarity between the physical and digital? And, on the other side of this, I mean many students, MIT's included, have spent time doing virtual learning by default. And, you know, while I personally am in favour of face-to-face and believe in the power of space, of design that way, it's been challenged on many levels. And again, I'm curious about how that is, how does this get represented in the curriculum? Or how does this get represented in the projects in the studios that the faculty will pursue?

Hashim: We've talked a lot about the digital entering into our production of architecture, the CAD/CAM, etc, and 3D printing, and all of that. That is a discussion that happened and that was important, and that is continuing to impact the production of architecture and the teaching of architecture. Because now, the possibility of a student making prototypes, physical prototypes out of their projects is much stronger than before. That set of tools and equipment have entered into the workshop and even into the studio space. Behind every student, sometimes you find a 3D printer.

We are beginning to discover that they are not contingencies at all, but they are crucial to the shaping of architecture.

So the presence of this new technology and industry is in the studio. But another level, I think, which is going to be even more important is the possibilities that these technologies are bringing, to changing what we consider to be contingencies or externalities to the design process and what we don't. For the past century, I would say, we have come to acknowledge that the important factors in the design project are the form of composition and the arrangement of space—structure to a secondary level, but ultimately, it's all about the composition.

And that factors like context, not always, but sometimes factors like the mechanical, electrical, the environmental budget constraints are seen as contingencies or as secondary or tertiary factors of the building. The technologies that we have right now allow us to have all of these factors built into the design-making from the get-go. And all of a sudden, I think, we are beginning to discover that they are not contingencies at all, but they are crucial to the shaping of architecture.

The performance of a system is difficult to measure because the discrete nature of the architectural object allows us to contain it, to fathom it, to measure it, to assess it.

And especially with the sustainability pressures on us, we have to rise to the responsibility and to the occasion. And therefore we are beginning to even strengthen the capacity and the agency of the architect as a synthesiser, of all of these factors together, thanks to this new technology. This is a direction that I'm hoping we can see, improve, and change the profession by changing the education of the architect.

Greg: It's interesting. I'm reminded of a line by Frank Duffy, the office architect who once asked whether architects were slaves at the mill in the sense that they were bound to a system that led inexorably to the production of physical space, whether that space was needed or not. And it's interesting, because your Biennale raises particular questions about—it looks at some of the issues beyond simply that amount of space.

And I'm curious about what directions architecture should head in beyond simply that construction of space to look at these relationships, these contingencies, and ways to reconfigure the system of how we produce the built world, and if that opens up particular avenues on the other side of this, that could lead the profession interesting ways.

Hashim: That is definitely in this Biennale, but also in the air among young architects—the interest in going beyond designing objects to designing systems. Now, that's very challenging, because systems are sometimes invisible, and how do you design them? The aesthetic evaluation of the system is very hard. We know what is a beautiful object, or at least we dabble with the qualities that we think are describable as beautiful or not. But a system is a tough thing to measure that way.

In the air among young architects [is] the interest in going beyond designing objects to designing systems. That's very challenging because systems are sometimes invisible, and how do you design them?

More importantly, the performance of a system is difficult to measure, because the discrete nature of the architectural object allows us to contain it, to fathom it, to measure it, to assess it. But a system depends on so many other factors and variables, and indeterminate futures, that it becomes very difficult for us to assess. But we're beginning to take on this challenge and introduce it into our thinking.

Obviously, by system, we mean environmental systems, the urban system, the connectivity of the object, or the architectural intervention to a larger network in which, to which it belongs. And its impact on it is going to be important, but it's very difficult to measure it right now. We're entering into that space and you can see that in the Biennale.

Greg: Indeed, and I mean, it gets to the heart of so many of the wicked problems that confront the world, climate change being one of them obviously—and a world perhaps of, yes, of mounting adversity and diminishing resources in some areas. Pivoting to an example of that, I wanted to ask you about Beirut, obviously, as a Lebanese architect. And we've had a prior episode looking at the destruction of Beirut and the challenges the city and the nation of Lebanon will face given the collapse of its economy over the last year.

I'm curious about how you would intervene there and where there might be spots for intervention and in the context of so much of the city has to be rebuilt. So much wealth has been destroyed because of currency issues. How again, does sort of design intervene or find spots to begin that process given so many systems in perhaps freefall right now? I'm curious how you look at that problem and think, where can we begin to solve that?

Hashim: The explosion that happened in Beirut last August happened at about one kilometre away from the city centre in the harbour of Beirut. The past reconstruction of Beirut in the 1990s was in the old downtown—a downtown that was historically very vitally linked to the harbour. But over the years of the reconstruction, and for, because of the privatisation of the process of reconstruction, and the not so friendly relationship between the port and the company that took control of the reconstruction, the harbour was separated from the downtown. That created a rupture in the fabric of the city that till today we feel. That downtown is sitting in the middle but without that vital economic connection.

The explosion made us aware of the proximity between the harbour and the residential areas of Beirut in the downtown. And it made us, as we are beginning to rethink the reconstruction of the harbour and the areas around it, aware of the possibilities of reconnecting the two.

In the meantime, the harbour grew on its own because of container shipping and other needs and isolated itself even further from the residential area that was behind it, and even from the transportation networks that fed it originally. The explosion made us aware of the proximity between the harbour and the residential areas of Beirut in the downtown. And it made us, as we are beginning to rethink the reconstruction of the harbour and the areas around it, aware of the possibilities of reconnecting the two. The opportunities for Beirut are to correct the mistakes of the previous reconstruction by connecting the economic vitality of the cities with its residential fabric and with its commercial centre. That's where I feel we should put our emphasis.

Greg: Interesting. Well, as a last question, I want to return to the Biennale. It's been interesting in terms of the arc of the Biennales over the last decade from, you know, Aaron Betsky's show very focused on form. There was a turn with curators such as Alejandro Aravena, who of course is also in your Biennale, to explore some of these pressing social issues. And I thought it was interesting at the time it was announced, that your theme of "How will we live together?", followed quite naturally from Freespace under the previous curators, of looking at these rethinking of social relationships.

And looking ahead, you know, any advice you might have for future curators or thinking about where the Biennale should go? What are the questions that should grapple with on the other side of it? What is the larger story that you have provided a chapter in that the Biennale has tried to tell and how the Biennale can be a force for thinking through these issues? Because of course, its critics argue that the Biennale is, you know, a party for architects, a wasteful exercise, etc. But it's, you know, unlike any other event in its ability to convene, so what should we be convening for?

Hashim: Every field, every discipline, every profession should have its parties. And the poor profession of architecture doesn't have that many. So Venice has, since the 80s, provided that opportunity for architects to come together to discuss and show what possibilities they are thinking about for the future. That's hugely important. And that proved to be the case, when everybody converged on Venice for the opening of the Biennale.

There were 7,000 people who were there, usually there were 12,000 on the opening weekend. There were 7,000 on this one, just one week after the borders opened in Europe. This proves that people were really interested in coming together, seeing what young architects from around the world are proposing, trying to do, and benefiting from this to have discussions about the future of architecture. These are irreplaceable and the platforms that the Venice Biennale, but also other Biennales provide, is hugely important.

Venice has the experience, has the space, has the visibility. And that's what we benefited from in being able to turn around and make a Biennale happen despite all of the financial, travel, and public health constraints. So yes, there are sometimes continuities among Biennales, but then there are sometimes ruptures. A part of that is the decision of the president of the Biennale in terms of who they appoint as curator, but a part of that is also the decision of the curators themselves in choosing the theme.

It is part of the Biennale's mission as well is to surprise us, to introduce different angles on architecture from different periods.

There are clearly strong continuities, as you observe, in terms of the relation between this Biennale and past Biennales, particularly when it comes to Aravena's Biennale on the social dimension, particularly when it comes to the very early or kind of forerunners of the Biennales by Vittorio Gregotti in terms of the relationship with the territory and landscape. There's a lot of territory and landscape and planet here. When it comes to where the future of the Biennale lies, I am so happy that it's not my responsibility to determine. But I also feel that it is part of the Biennale's mission as well is to surprise us, to introduce different angles on architecture from different periods.

Invariably, Greg, the Biennale is a kind of time capsule that tries to capture the situation, at the moment, at its best, both in terms of what its problems are, and what it could propose as being inspiring projects and possibilities for architecture.

There are Biennales that have been much more reflective on the present condition and even on the past. And by that I point to Demetri Porphyrios'—uh, sorry—the first Biennale, the, "The Presence of the Past". But I feel like some Biennales try to represent the moment at its best through built projects. This Biennale is not about that. It does include built projects. It does include projects that are proven to be valid and deployable like the two more projects that I mentioned earlier. But it also includes research. It includes theoretical propositions, experiments, and widely visionary projects. This Biennale is about the future.

Greg: Thank you, Hashim.

Play With(out) Grounds from The Garden of Privatised Delights. Photo by Cristiano Corte © British Council
Play With(out) Grounds from The Garden of Privatised Delights. Photo by Cristiano Corte © British Council

British Pavilion: The Garden of Privatised Delights with Manijeh Verghese and Madeleine Kessler

The Garden of Privatised Delights is the exhibition at this year’s British Pavilion directly addressing the question of how we will live together by exploring the increasing privatisation of public spaces. Laced with proper whit and humor, curators Manijeh Verghese and Madeleine Kessler explore tangible and intangible examples of inclusion as they exist in between those realms of which we live out our lives.

They use their platform to examine the kinds of spaces rooted in British culture, asking questions that challenge the polarisation of private and public, in a self-described joyful manner. This polarisation is one that often leads to divisions within British society, yet, can be understood as universal. Their vibrant approach makes it all the more accessible, inviting a wider audience to the conversation.

Questions like, could the pub become more than a place for drinking, but a versatile center for civic action? How can rethinking facial recognition technology free our collective data for public benefit? Could the high street go beyond commercial interest and become a place of diverse exchange? Can we design new spaces in the city for teenagers to occupy on their own terms?

Manijeh Verghese and Madeleine Kessler are the founders of Unscene Architecture and have been commissioned by the British Council to represent the UK at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2021. I joined the both of them in conversation after returning from Venice.

The Garden of Privatised Delights curators Manijeh Verghese + Madeline Kessler in front of the British Pavilion. Photo © British Council
The Garden of Privatised Delights curators Manijeh Verghese + Madeline Kessler in front of the British Pavilion. Photo © British Council

Alexandra Siebenthal, reSITE: I'm catching up with the curators of the British pavilion, the garden of privatised delights. And thank you both so much for joining us.

Madeline Kessler: I'm Madeline Kessler, and I'm an architect and co-curator of the British pavilion with Manijeh Verghese.

Manijeh Verghese: And Hi, I'm Manijeh Verghese and together with Maddy, we run a practice called Unscene Architecture that's really interested in this topic of privatised public space, but also how to engage people in having more agency around how their cities and spaces are kind of accessed, used, owned, and experienced.

Alexandra: Fantastic. And do you want to know how we first met?

Alexandra: Sure! Yeah!

Madeline: Actually, it kind of feeds into the pavilion. That's why I like the story, then, I would love that, because anything personal or just like something that maybe you can't just get from, you know, to deepen the experience of it.

Alexandra: I think that's great. So please, please share it with us. I'd love that.

Madeline: So we first met when we were studying at the architectural association, in the queue for the ladies toilets, which we love as a meeting place because toilets are actually really important in allowing access to public space. And it's something that's not really spoken about enough. And it's actually sort of fed into one of the installations within our pavilion called "Toilet," which looks at opening up the toilets in the basement of the British pavilion to the public for the first time.

And then after that, we taught a summer school together in 2015, all about the pub, where we're looking at the pub as an interior type of privatised public space. And a positive example of privatised public space, which sort of goes back generations within the UK. But pubs are closing up and down the country. And with that, we're sort of losing this kind of communal facility, which is sort of the extension of people's living rooms, the modern day public toilets.

You know, it's much more than just a sort of watering hole where people go to drink, it's a real kind of community space. And so through that, we became really interested in this topic of privatised public space and how the public and private spaces within our city sort of work together. And that again, has really been the starting point of exploring this topic within the British Pavilion.

To-I-let from The Garden of Privatised Delights. Photo by Cristiano Corte © British Council
To-I-let from The Garden of Privatised Delights. Photo by Cristiano Corte © British Council

Alexandra: I feel like I kind of have a funny story with the toilet aspect of the pavilion. I was with two other women. One of which is my colleague, and we exited the pavilion and one of them was expressing that she needed to find a bathroom to use. And for some reason, they did just go around the side of the building actually looking for the toilets, and then realised that that was actually part of the pavilion, we just kind of laughed and sort of, you know, talking about that actual lack of accessibility.

Manijeh: But it must be frustrating to like then see a toilet on display, but not actually be able to access or use it, which is kind of what well, originally, we were hoping to open up that toilet in the basement and then but we couldn't because of legislation and kind of Italian building code that prevented us from doing so.

We still decided to put it on display in order for people to realise that there are so many toilets that could be made open, like made accessible to the public, if it wasn't for these policies that are holding us back, and these kinds of weird demarcations between public and private. And that actually things like toilets in the basement of the British pavilion could really be a really useful resource for people visiting the Biennale, and hopefully that will happen in the future.

Madeline: Yeah, I mean, that's exactly what this exhibit is all about, what you and your friend experienced. And we were super interested because we went over to Venice when they were installing the British pavilion for the art Biennale. And that was when we realised that the British pavilion was one of the few pavilions which has toilets in its basements. And we found that it was this real social hub because you had all these other people from other pavilions coming to use the toilets.

And we were really interested then in how we could start to open up the toilets, to allow other people to use them, rather than just those working in the British Pavilion. And as Manijeh says, yeah, we were just confronted by all these building regulations, because they're not fully accessible and the way they're kind of hooked up to the system. Which, yeah, then provoked us to sort of allow this weird glimpse in which provokes this conversation about all the red tape, which prevents us from allowing us to open up existing facilities.

Alexandra: Absolutely, it's not very human is it? No, I thought it was funny and had a laugh about it. And I think it was a very well executed point. But you know, it really was a tangible experience.

Madeline: That's great to hear. That's really great feedback, thank you.

To-I-let from The Garden of Privatised Delights. Photo by Cristiano Corte © British Council
To-I-let from The Garden of Privatised Delights. Photo by Cristiano Corte © British Council

Alexandra: You're welcome. So on that note, I guess we kind of started with the end. But maybe we can kind of go in and talk about and you know, all the different aspects of public versus privatisation that you explored within your exhibition. I really loved the sort of triptych of concepts that you put together to express that.

Manijeh: The title of the British pavilion this year is The Garden of Privatised Delights. And that came from our main inspiration, which was this triptych by the Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch, called the Garden of Earthly Delights. And we were really inspired by the three panels of the triptych and how this kind of middle ground of Earth is framed between two extremes. So the Utopia of Heaven on one side and the Dystopia of Hell on the other.

How can we act now to kind of open up these privatised public spaces and really rethink them in terms of who can access them? Who can use them? Who can own them? And how can we make them kind of more adaptable to the challenges we face today?

And so when we were entering the competition for the British pavilion, like two years ago now, we were actually really interested in how we could reframe this through our version of the painting, The Garden of Privatised Delights', that looks at privatised public spaces, this really rich opportunity for architects to work with the public and intervene, but that also sits between two extremes. So the utopia of public lands before the Enclosures Act of the 18th century here in the UK, and then the dystopia of total privatisation as this kind of future that we seem to be heading towards. And so how can we act now to kind of open up these privatised public spaces and really rethink them in terms of who can access them? Who can use them? Who can own them? And how can we make them kind of more adaptable to the challenges we face today?

Detail from The Garden of Privatised Delights. Photo by Cristiano Corte © British Council
Detail from The Garden of Privatised Delights. Photo by Cristiano Corte © British Council

Alexandra: Absolutely. And even to start, I really loved your use of humour, kind of within the exhibition that you know, when you walk in, you notice the sign that warns, "Contains Strong or Violent Language". And I actually took that quite seriously like, okay, you know, these regulations that they have to warn people about. And then the first message you're greeted with is, uh, "No Public Access - Residents Only". And I was like, “Oh, okay, I see. I see where this is going”. So maybe would you want to talk a little bit more about that, like, walk us through the exhibition itself?

Madeline: Yes. So as you enter through the doors of the British pavilion, you're entering into that middle ground of the triptych. So you're entering into that weird kind of private, public space that we're all living in today. And you're sort of confronted by these railings. And you can see there's something behind the railings, but you can't access it. And as you say, there's sort of a sign saying, "Residents Only". So you're kind of forced on into the next room. And you have to sort of go around to the whole pavilion until you find yourself back inside the garden square. And that kind of entrance experience is really setting up the issue with privatised public space, that it's not accessible to everyone.

And what we really are exploring is how we can make our public spaces more accessible and more inclusive. And so you're taken on this journey through the pavilion, you sort of follow this garden path through the garden of privatised delights. So the next room is the pub. And then you go into the Ministry of Collective Data, which is sort of exploring collective ownership of data and facial recognition technology. And then you go on to the high street, which is looking at how sort of there was this really high rate of closure of shops on the high streets at the moment. So how can we rethink our high streets to be kind of real kind of social centres of care? And then into the Ministry of Common Lands, which is looking at bottom-up, sort of approaches to land ownership and citizens assemblies, and then into Play Without Grounds, which is looking at how there's just nowhere in our cities for teenagers and young people anymore.

We were interested in how we can actually encourage people to kind of be creative and sort of take ownership of their spaces.

So how can we design spaces with them, rather than for them to allow them to take ownership of these kinds of frameworks within the city, and then eventually find themselves back into The Garden of Delights? And this time, you're sort of inside the square, the railings have sort of disappeared, and they've been repurposed into pieces of furniture. We were really inspired by how in World War Two, in fact, a lot of the railings around these garden squares, which you find in Georgian cities across the UK, like London, Bath—and they were, were taken down to be melted for ammunition. And what you actually found was, for the first time, anyone could use these garden squares. And there's loads of really amazing texts from the time, from people like George Orwell, talking about how amazing it was to suddenly mix with people you'd never otherwise meet

But then unfortunately, after the war, a lot of the railings were reinstated, which then closed off the spaces once more. And so we're looking at how you know, these really simple design moves can make a huge difference to people's experience of the city. And at the same time, kind of the importance of legislation and policy within this. And then I suppose, the signage that you mentioned, that's kind of a recurring theme throughout the exhibition. So we're really interested in how often in privatised public spaces, you have a lot of signage telling you what you can't do.

So you're always told you can't you can't play ball games—you can't do this, can't do that. We were interested in how we can actually encourage people to kind of be creative and sort of take ownership of their spaces. And so we've got all this signage, sort of encouraging you to do things, so to listen, share, act in the high streets, to plant seeds in the garden square, to play in the playground, you know, to graffiti in the toilet. And so yeah, we really wanted to just kind of flip that on its head, to make your experience of public space much more enjoyable.

Detail from The Garden of Privatised Delights. Photo by Cristiano Corte © British Council
Detail from The Garden of Privatised Delights. Photo by Cristiano Corte © British Council

Manijeh: And the painting becomes this really interesting visual reference. So in addition to being our kind of conceptual inspiration, it's also something that we constantly referenced in the design of each of these spaces, because we wanted you to be able to recognise spaces that you would find in a typical UK town or city like the garden square, or the pub or the high street.

But we also didn't want to just reconstruct these, as you know, perfect replicas, we wanted to show how architects and the role design could play in actually rethinking these spaces to open them up, but also make them maybe more adaptable to new uses and more diverse programmes. And, and therefore they have like this kind of surreal colour scheme taken from the Bosch painting, but also these playful and sculptural forms.

And we worked a lot with our graphic designer Kellenberger-White, to think of also typefaces. So they came up with this really fun, almost like finger painted font for some of the signage that's in the garden square inside the spaces once they've been kind of rethought. And like Maddie was saying about, you know, encouraging you to be creative and to act in different ways. They captured that through this kind of, the act of as though you dipped your finger into a pot of paint and like, made the signage yourself. And I think that links back to this idea you picked up on about humour was really important to us that people coming to the exhibition really felt like this was their space to explore and use as they saw fit. And we didn't want to be too didactic, about what you can and cannot do in the space or what you should be doing. And instead, we actually want to use the exhibition as this kind of experimental testing ground where we're actually hoping that over the duration of the Biennale, we can learn from how people occupy these spaces and use them in different ways.

We wanted to grapple with it in a really joyful way to challenge everyone to become part of this conversation, because when it's tackled in this very kind of serious academic way, you lose a lot of your audience.

Madeline: I suppose, like you say, you know, this is a very serious topic that we're grappling with. But we wanted to kind of grapple with it in a really kind of joyful way to kind of challenge everyone to become part of this conversation, because when it's sort of tackled in this very kind of serious academic way, you lose a lot of your audience.

And it's really important for us that we have everyone involved in this conversation from community groups, to landowners, to developers, to policymakers, to architects, and one way for us to do that is to create these spatial immersive experiences that everyone can enjoy. Everyone can sort of experience, everyone can test out different ways of using it. And the pavilion felt like a really exciting opportunity to create this testing ground for these installations, which we can then take back to the UK and start to place in privatised public spaces around the UK, and really start to test how we open up these spaces to become more inclusive.

Publicani from The Garden of Privatised Delights. Photo by Cristiano Corte © British Council
Publicani from The Garden of Privatised Delights. Photo by Cristiano Corte © British Council

Alexandra: Well, I really felt all that and I that's, you know, I really appreciate your attempt to widen that conversation by making it accessible. And I think that's a big reason why, you know, it impacted me the most. And I can imagine it will resonate with a lot of people. So I hope so,

Manijeh: I mean, the idea is also that, like may—that when we were initially kind of designing these spaces, our hope was that this pavilion becomes the kind of platform for a wider project. And that, although it's the British pavilion, and we're looking at kind of quintessential British spaces in many ways, privatised public space is such a global phenomenon.

We've tried to design it as a kind of manual that will allow people to kind of think about their public spaces differently, and also see that they have a lot of agency in kind of transforming them, and using them differently.

And although we might be putting on display a pub or a high street, we hope that people can find parallels with their local contexts and examples of privatised public space that they would recognise in their own environments. And that a lot of the kinds of strategies that we're suggesting, of how to open these spaces up, could be kind of applied and taken forward, regardless of where you live, and the public spaces that are near you.

And we both I think, even our exhibition catalogue, we've tried to design it as a kind of manual that will allow people to kind of think about their public spaces differently, and also see that they have a lot of agency in kind of transforming them, and using them differently.

Madeline: I mean, the whole exhibition was sort of inspired by widening access to this conversation. And we sort of recognise that a lot of the time architecture exhibitions, they're quite dense and difficult to sort of absorb and understand unless you're in that very sort of academic architecture world. And so there's a lot of text on walls, a lot of references. And we really wanted to step away from that to create these experiences that everyone could understand. And we were quite interested in also how the second biggest group of visitors to the Biennale are Italian school children. So you know, how do we get like younger people who aren't architects to also engage in this exhibition? Because it's so important to have them as part of this conversation about their city.

Alexandra: Absolutely. Um, so aside, maybe from like, you know, your story of how you met, do you have any other personal experience that really inspired this, in any of these aspects that you've included: high street, the pub, private gardens, and more?

Madeline: I mean, so we both studied at the Architectural Association, which is a sort of part of an old Georgian square. And I think what we recognised when we were studying there is that there's this kind of really big green space at the centre of it. And it's now surrounded by what were townhouses, but are now sort of academic institutions and offices. And very few people were able to access that square and at lunchtime, you just see everyone sitting around the railings, eating their lunch, sort of on the pavement, when there was this piece of, like, amazing greenery right at the centre of the city just there. And I think that probably kind of subconsciously embedded itself in our minds as we were studying.

And then when we were choosing the typologies for the pavilion that was just kind of like a really obvious one for us, because it really helps to very clearly set out the kind of real issues with privatised public space.

Ministry of Collective Data from The Garden of Privatised Delights. Photo by Cristiano Corte © British Council
Ministry of Collective Data from The Garden of Privatised Delights. Photo by Cristiano Corte © British Council

Manijeh: Yeah. And then as Maddie said previously, like we—the kind of our interest in privatised public space grew out of the summer school looking at the pub, and that was something that really resonated with us because we have felt that the pub has often become the kind of modern day public toilet and in our own lives, you know, we have often met together and brainstormed ideas in the pub, and, you know, used it as everything from a living room to a waiting room. And that was a really rich topic that we explored in the summer school, but then we wanted to expand on the pavilion.

They're a way to propose a more bottom-up approach to decision-making rather than top-down and to look at the tangible assets of land versus the intangible assets of data.

And I think, you know, it's been a kind of ongoing trend over the last several years, if not decades, that a lot of these spaces in the UK are at risk of, you know, disappearing because of, you know, a lack of support or funding. And also, because of the way cities are changing, I think the high street is under threat, because a lot of retail is moving online, youth centres are closing because there's lack of funding to support them. And so these kinds of spaces that are so important to bring people together in the public realm are just disappearing. And so it felt really urgent that the pavilion address these topics, and we personally have, like, you know, experienced, like the lack of public toilets and the need for these kind of social hubs that can bring people together.

So what we really wanted to do was to bring people that were already doing interesting research on this topic. So we were really lucky to work with five other practices in kind of bringing to life this kind of concept around privatised public space and see what, what could change or what could be done differently about breathing new life into these spaces and inventing some new ones.

So the government ministries in particular, they're a kind of way to propose a more bottom up approach to decision making rather than top down and to look at the tangible assets of land versus the intangible assets of data. And really think about how, like, the public can decide how land and data are used for collective benefit. So for us, it was really important that we took our personal experiences and that of our team and then translated it into something that had longevity, but also that would resonate with a wider group of people.

We do more than just build, like, we're great communicators, and how therefore can we bring different people around a table to transform our cities?

Madeline: I think as well, like rethinking the role of the architect within the city, and what it means to be an architect today. So how architects, like, we do more than just build, like, we're great communicators, and how therefore can we bring different people around a table to transform our cities? I mean, so often, I've worked on a project, and you'll just be like, why is the site even here? Like, by the time we get involved in these conversations, often it's far too late. So quite, I think we're quite interested in exploring how can architects become part of the conversation and much earlier at a much more strategic level, so that we can really be part of these kind of visionary processes right from the outset? Right the way down to the final sort of detailed design.

Ministry of Collective Data from The Garden of Privatised Delights. Photo by Cristiano Corte © British Council
Ministry of Collective Data from The Garden of Privatised Delights. Photo by Cristiano Corte © British Council

Alexandra: That's a great point. And it's something we're trying to explore as well at reSITE, of just kind of the importance of having lots of different interested parties involved in it. in regards to just, you know, again, public private space, you know, some might argue that it's only fair, and I use air quotes, to use a property if you take care of it, but how might you inspire those who who are using public space to care for that space collectively?

Manijeh: I think it's a really interesting question, because so much of the argument around what should be public and what should be private and even privatised public space, the way that they're currently being designed in new developments, it's often around issues of maintenance, and security that like governs like how they're designed, but also how they're maintained and encouraging that sense of care is really important.

And I think, you know, it's been a kind of ongoing trend over the last several years, if not decades, that a lot of these spaces in the UK are at risk of, you know, disappearing because of, you know, a lack of support or funding. And also, because of the way cities are changing, I think the high street is under threat, because a lot of retail is moving online, youth centres are closing because there's lack of funding to support them. And so these kinds of spaces that are so important to bring people together in the public realm are just disappearing. And so it felt really urgent that the pavilion address these topics, and we personally have, like, you know, experienced, like the lack of public toilets and the need for these kind of social hubs that can bring people together.

What we really wanted to do was to bring people that were already doing interesting research on this topic. So we were really lucky to work with five other practices in kind of bringing to life this kind of concept around privatised public space and see what, what could change or what could be done differently about breathing new life into these spaces and inventing some new ones.

We do more than just build, like, we're great communicators, and how therefore can we bring different people around a table to transform our cities?

In the ministry of common land, these big paper machine heads that were made by school children, and when they were making them, they were told stories about the kind of influential figures in the discourse around public lands. So everyone from Jane Jacobs to Colin Ward, and then they got really inspired. And then when they were making these heads, they had this additional significance. And then the fact that then those heads now sit in this ministry of common land, and they look down on you as in the space of the ministry. As you know, people come together to take decisions about their spaces, it feels really powerful, and there's the kind of I guess, the design almost manifests this kind of process that, you know, the more you know about these spaces, the more you know what you're able to do in these spaces, the more you should be able to care for them.

Madeline: I think as well, like rethinking the role of the architect within the city, and what it means to be an architect today. So how architects, like, we do more than just build, like, we're great communicators, and how therefore can we bring different people around a table to transform our cities? I mean, so often, I've worked on a project, and you'll just be like, why is the site even here? Like, by the time we get involved in these conversations, often it's far too late. So quite, I think we're quite interested in exploring how can architects become part of the conversation and much earlier at a much more strategic level, so that we can really be part of these kind of visionary processes right from the outset? Right the way down to the final sort of detailed design.

High Street from The Garden of Privatised Delights. Photo by Cristiano Corte © British Council
High Street from The Garden of Privatised Delights. Photo by Cristiano Corte © British Council

Alexandra: That's a great point. And it's something we're trying to explore as well at reSITE, of just kind of the importance of having lots of different interested parties involved in it. in regards to just, you know, again, public private space, you know, some might argue that it's only fair, and I use air quotes, to use a property if you take care of it, but how might you inspire those who who are using public space to care for that space collectively?

Manijeh: I think it's a really interesting question, because so much of the argument around what should be public and what should be private and even privatised public space, the way that they're currently being designed in new developments, it's often around issues of maintenance, and security that like governs like how they're designed, but also how they're maintained and encouraging that sense of care is really important.

And we've felt in the research that we've been doing that it's linked to a sense of ownership. So if you feel like that's your space, you're more likely to care for it. And that's why like, even through the signage, and through little touches like that, we've really tried to think how we can instil the sense of ownership and people by making them feel like this, like without necessarily having to own the this land, like how can you feel like you have the power to do certain activities there or to take certain decisions about it collectively, and a lot of the across the different rooms, a lot of the research, but also even the making of these, of the objects that you see within the spaces have been, like kind of done collectively.

The design almost manifests this kind of process that the more you know about these spaces, the more you know what you're able to do in these spaces, the more you should be able to care for them.

So in the ministry of common land, these big paper machine heads that were made by school children, and when they were making them, they were told stories about the kind of influential figures in the discourse around public lands. So everyone from Jane Jacobs to Colin Ward, and then they got really inspired. And then when they were making these heads, they had this additional significance. And then the fact that then those heads now sit in this ministry of common land, and they look down on you as in the space of the ministry. As you know, people come together to take decisions about their spaces, it feels really powerful, and there's the kind of I guess, the design almost manifests this kind of process that, you know, the more you know about these spaces, the more you know what you're able to do in these spaces, the more you should be able to care for them.

Madeline: Yeah, I mean, civic pride is just so important. I don't know if you, you know how in Tirana, in Albania, the mayor, he came into power. And he noticed there was like, really high crime rate, but he had next to no budget to do anything with. And so what he decided to do was paint, paint—paint the buildings, lots of different colours, and really bring joy into the city that way. And it saw a reduction of crime rates because people started to feel much prouder of the urban realm.

And so we're really interested in how you actually allow people to take ownership and feel that level of pride. And it's been really interesting over the past year, particularly in the UK, with all these lockdowns, and you started to see people getting to know their neighbours, for the first time in new ways, they started to get to know where they actually live, for the first time in new ways, and they started to sort of reclaim pieces of the city and pieces of space that weren't being used before, say, by planting trees or flowers, and sort of rewilding the city, by taking over the streets, once again.

You know, the street was the original kind of playgrounds. And then the motorcar became too dangerous for children to play. And that, you know, the past year, there's been a reduction in traffic. So once again, people could reclaim the streets and start to use them. And so we're really interested in how do you give the public the kind of tools and agency to be able to do more of that and start to really reclaim their public space so that they transform into places that are what they want to see, there's no kind of one size fits all model. So it's about how do you allow people to kind of reclaim those spaces.

Ministry of Common Land from The Garden of Privatised Delights. Photo by Cristiano Corte © British Council
Ministry of Common Land from The Garden of Privatised Delights. Photo by Cristiano Corte © British Council

Madeline: Yeah, I mean, civic pride is just so important. I don't know if you, you know how in Tirana, in Albania, the mayor, he came into power. And he noticed there was like, really high crime rate, but he had next to no budget to do anything with. And so what he decided to do was paint, paint—paint the buildings, lots of different colours, and really bring joy into the city that way. And it saw a reduction of crime rates because people started to feel much prouder of the urban realm.

And so we're really interested in how you actually allow people to take ownership and feel that level of pride. And it's been really interesting over the past year, particularly in the UK, with all these lockdowns, and you started to see people getting to know their neighbours, for the first time in new ways, they started to get to know where they actually live, for the first time in new ways, and they started to sort of reclaim pieces of the city and pieces of space that weren't being used before, say, by planting trees or flowers, and sort of rewilding the city, by taking over the streets, once again.

You know, the street was the original kind of playgrounds. And then the motorcar became too dangerous for children to play. And that, you know, the past year, there's been a reduction in traffic. So once again, people could reclaim the streets and start to use them. And so we're really interested in how do you give the public the kind of tools and agency to be able to do more of that and start to really reclaim their public space so that they transform into places that are what they want to see, there's no kind of one size fits all model. So it's about how do you allow people to kind of reclaim those spaces.

Manijeh: And so much of the issue around privatised public space comes down to this issue of ownership. So often that you don't really know what looks like a public space to for all intents and purposes, as you pass by it in the city often ends up being privately owned, and you only find out that it is owned by a certain corporation or a landowner, once you try and do something on that land, and you usually get stopped from doing that, or you find a signage that tells you what you can't do. And we were really interested in this project called Who Owns England by guys Rob Solon, Anna Paul Smith, that was trying to map land ownership across England and, and also like then extending into Wales.

And they were really surprised to find out that when they started the project, only around 50% of all land in the UK was documented on the land registry. And even then it wasn't really clear who owned it. And the ownership of land is really important, because it obviously governs what you can do, but also where vacant land is like, could communities take that over. And so that was really important to us on the one hand in terms of making that more transparent.

But then also the sense of ownership that can kind of give people a strong feeling of care for their immediate environment and, and the kind of agency to change their public space. So it's kind of those two, two sides of ownership, like a more transparent understanding of what it means to own land, and then a kind of greater sense of responsibility over your public space that we're trying to encourage through this project.

Madeline: I suppose as well, sort of on the role of the architects, thinking about the level of control an architect has in a city and in public realm through design, and how often it's about sort of creating this framework that then allows people to take it over, like communities can come and use that in ways that you never would have imagined. Those are often the most successful spaces in the city.

How do you give the public the kind of tools and agency to be able to do more of that and start to really reclaim their public space so that they transform into places that are what they want to see?

So in London, for example, there's a place on the South Bank just south of the River Thames, which is sort of built as a sort of brutalist theatre complex. And at the lowest level, it's been taken over for decades now by skateboarders. And it's sort of like a theatre where people come and watch all these people skateboarding, but it's also a really important part of skateboarding culture, and it's graffiti there and stuff. And it was kind of it was going to be sort of, they were going to throw out the skateboarders a couple of years ago, and then this huge kind of protest movement started up to say, you know, this is actually a really important part of our city now.

And I think, for me, anyway, that's like, sort of a kind of sense of this being a really exciting, successful public space because the community has really taken ownership of that. And it's something that no one ever would have imagined would have happened.

Ministry of Common Land from The Garden of Privatised Delights. Photo by Cristiano Corte © British Council
Ministry of Common Land from The Garden of Privatised Delights. Photo by Cristiano Corte © British Council

Alexandra: Wow. Yeah. We had actually something quite similar in Prague with the skateboarders in that same neighbourhood, and actually that is a big reason. Why I ask the same question, the same with the mayor of Tirana. He actually spoke at reSITE a couple of years ago, and kind of what he was saying about giving people reason to feel ownership of their space, I thought was really powerful. I think just to transition, a little bit of something else that you featured in your exhibition about teenagers and how they're often left out of the design process. Where I grew up, public space for teenagers was literally the shopping mall. And I see that even happening here in Prague, in kind of the outskirts of the suburbs of the city.

Madeline: It's the same in London, I grew up in London, and most of my teenage years were just sitting by a fountain and a shopping mall. And I think that's something that the room designers for that room have been super interested in, is how often, when people are designing for teenagers and young people, they design very active spaces. So it'll be like skateboarding parks, or basketball courts. But actually, there's a whole swathe of teenagers, often female, who just want to stick with their mates and do nothing.

And so it's like, how do you create those frameworks for them to inhabit, which don't feel threatening as well. Because often you'll find when you have groups of teenagers in a shopping mall, they'll just kind of get ushered on, because no one wants them to be there. And so it's how do you create those spaces that they can belong, and they can sort of take ownership over and feel like it is theirs?

When people are designing for teenagers and young people, they design very active spaces. So it'll be like skateboarding parks, or basketball courts, but actually, there's a whole swathe of teenagers, often female, who just want to stick with their mates and do nothing.

And so yeah, I think we completely agree with either of the importance of sort of intergenerational spaces, but also space, certainly for young people. And I suppose as well over the past kind of decade or so. Manijeh and I together have taught a number of workshops for teenagers and young people, for people like the sassy club trust. And through that we've just found It's so inspiring to work with young people to understand how they think about their city, and often sort of spaces that we would have assumed they felt very safe, and they might feel dangerous and and vice versa spaces that we would assume they wouldn't want to hang out. And they do. I think it's really interesting to work with them to understand what kind of spaces they would like to see. So that we're not just making sweeping assumptions, and providing spaces that they don't want to be in.

I read an article the other day about this group of teenagers who there was like a skateboarding park that was being built for them in a corner. And the female teenagers were skateboarding away from that park and narrow road. And it turned out the reason they were doing that was just they felt safe and near the road, because they were just scared to be somewhere that was completely caught off where no one could see them in case something happened. And I think having those conversations in the design of our public realm is really important. So we don't sort of make those mistakes of providing facilities that no one's going to use.

Manijeh: Which hopefully you were able to experience in the pavilion because vpr worked with a lot of teenagers to record a series of interviews that you can listen to, as you kind of moved through that climbing frame structure. And it was really important to all of us that it wasn't, you know, people speaking on behalf of teenagers or architects or trying to design for teenagers. But rather, teenagers shaping spaces on their own terms and in their own words.

It's a kind of global phenomenon that teenagers end up just getting stuck in like the leftover spaces.

And I think that it's funny that I grew up in India, and I think it's a kind of global phenomenon that teenagers end up just getting stuck in like the leftover spaces or like in shopping malls, because they're so vast, they tend to have these pockets of space where even if you get pushed out of all the shops, you can just as Maddie was saying, like hang around a fountain or sit there, but it's kind of almost encouraging teenagers that you have to buy something in order to stay in a space and like creating spaces where they can be themselves and make noise and hang out and not feel like there's a time limit or a price tag attached to it is so important.

And we were really keen that they didn't get forgotten in this discussion around privatised public space. And that we really think about them as a huge group of people that use our cities that don't really have any specific spaces for them to enjoy and have a sense of ownership of. So yeah, we're quite curious to see how teenagers actually visit the pavilion especially because as Maddie said, like, we were fascinated by the fact that the second largest group visiting the Biennale is Italian schoolchildren. So we're quite keen to see how they actually start to use that space and appropriate it in different ways.

Play With(out) Grounds from The Garden of Privatised Delights. Photo by Cristiano Corte © British Council
Play With(out) Grounds from The Garden of Privatised Delights. Photo by Cristiano Corte © British Council

Madeline: Yeah, I guess teenagers are the future and they have so many valuable things to say. So it's sort of taking stock of that and making sure everyone takes a step back to realise that and really value those voices here.

Alexandra: Absolutely. I think it's a little bit insulting. But oftentimes, they're not taken seriously. So I guess you're the aspect of the Ministry of Collective Data kind of looks to the future of, in a way where, you know, all these other aspects of it are quite tangible, but who has owns and data and especially in terms of smart cities and, and in our public spaces, kind of is a bit maybe more intangible for some people.

Manijeh: No, it's just, it's funny, because when we started doing this project was obviously before Coronavirus was a thing. And, you know, we were just really interested in kind of the intangible networks that sit in cities, and actually, you know, in format, what data is like collected about us as we use public space, but also like issues of consent, like how aware are we of how our data is captured, and what it's used for, and who owns it. So it's similar themes of access, use and ownership that keeps coming up, but in a kind of more invisible way. So you're not even aware of it. And it felt like, you know, it was something that was speaking to the future.

But I think the pandemic has kind of fast forwarded us like maybe into that future. And because we spend so much of our time now on online on these kinds of platforms, it's, it's really blurred even the digital kind of realms of public and private, and that we're so much more aware, I guess, of, you know, people seeing into our homes suddenly, and like when we join public events, it's like a very different kind of concept of what's public and what's private. And, you know, who knows what zoom is doing with our data.

How aware are we of how our data is captured, and what it's used for, and who owns it? It's similar themes of access, use, and ownership that keeps coming up, but in a more invisible way.

And I think what we were trying to do in all the rooms, really, is to break this binary between public and private. And in a similar way, technology isn't necessarily inherently bad. It's just, I think it's mainly like the transparency around who owns it and how it's going to be used. And someone on our team told us a really interesting story that actually made us think about this really differently about how when you're waiting at a bus stop, you don't, you would like to know the data from the bus company about when the next bus is going to arrive at the bus stop. But you probably wouldn't be as happy if the bus company was collecting your data to find out how long you'd been waiting at the bus stop, which bus you were waiting for.

So a lot of it is about power structures, and who holds the data, and who has access to it. And, you know, facial recognition technology is something that's really considered to be automatically negative when it's used in privatised public space. And it has a lot of racial bias and gender bias embedded into it. But then at the same time, depending on how it's used.

In India, there was an article saying that it was used to locate 3,000 missing children in a short span of time. And so it's really about kind of thinking of different ways to apply this, and being more transparent about how it's used. So in that room, you're kind of tracked when you enter, but then, what we're really trying to show you is that if you consent to this being your data being captured as part of a public database, you could actually decide how that could be used. And it could actually be used to benefit [by] changing the design of our cities to better serve—like who actually uses them, and like how they use them. So it's trying to push up this idea of, I guess, as you were saying, the future of smart cities, and how to think about that in a more bottom up way.

Madeline: Yeah, it's really a crazy amount of data we're all constantly giving over. And we don't really know who it's to or what they're doing with it. It's so like, it's not transparent at all in the slightest. I think a lot of what we're looking at in this project is how land ownership isn't transparent. Data ownership isn't transparent. How do we therefore allow this kind of collective ownership of this data so that we can collectively ensure it's used for public good and benefit rather than things that just are quite evil, where it can all go horribly wrong.

And so there are some really interesting examples. For example, there's an app called CityMapper. And it's a bit like Google Maps, which people use to find sort of directions to go places. And they started tracking where people are trying to go so that they don't have direct bus routes. And then out of that they found where to start putting on sort of temporary bus routes and at what times to do that as well, like what times are very popular times for people to do that.

Data ownership isn't transparent. How do we therefore allow this kind of collective ownership of this data so that we can collectively ensure it's used for public good and benefit?

A few years ago, as well. There was a really interesting protest in Spain, outside the Spanish Parliament where, ironically, the parliament with the Spanish government, we're trying to introduce this new law against people protesting outside of the Parliament. So instead of physically protesting, there was this holographic protest, which allowed people to be kind of digitally present in the space but not physically present there. And that feels quite exciting that suddenly you can start to have a physical presence somewhere without physically being there.

So the kind of potential for that in allowing accessibility for people to protests and things like that, without having to physically be somewhere is super interesting. And I suppose we're kind of really interested in this kind of boundary between the physical and the digital. And this past year, we sort of all been thrown into this digital world, but it's going to be super interesting going forward to see how we sort of grapple between the two.

Detail from The Garden of Privatised Delights. Photo by Cristiano Corte © British Council
Detail from The Garden of Privatised Delights. Photo by Cristiano Corte © British Council

Alexandra: Absolutely. And I think it's going to be one of the biggest conversations that we have in the next decade. But all very good points. Thank you so much for sharing.

Madeline: Someone told me the other day that zoom recording absolutely everything, every single zoom conversation is being recorded. But no one knows what they actually want to do with that, it sounds like they don't even know, they just know, at some point in the future, it will be really useful data for them. And so it's just crazy to think that that's the level of documentation and data kind of ownership that we're giving up every time we have a zoom call. I'm sure all the other platforms are doing it to seem alright.

I think belonging I guess means different things to different people.

Alexandra: Wow. So maybe an underlying theme of all of this is belonging. So in your opinion, the feeling of belonging—what creates that, within these spaces?

Madeline: I think, I mean, that feeling of belonging, I think you've hit the nail on the head, that is ultimately what we want everyone to feel in their urban environments that they do belong. And for us, that is about giving people that sense of ownership, that inclusivity, that accessibility over their public space, the kind of power to transform public spaces around you to provide spaces that you want to see and you want to use. You know, it's ultimately really creating inclusive accessible spaces that offer everyone, and everyone kind of has that sense of ownership and therefore wants to care for it and feels a part of it.

Manijeh: Yeah, I think belonging I guess means different things to different people. And, you know, we wanted to think about what does it really mean to access the space like, even though on the one hand, there's physical barriers that prevent you from accessing certain privatised public spaces, but there's a lot of intangible barriers that make people not feel comfortable to walk into a pub, or to spend a lot of time, you know, in the shopping centre, or in spaces on the high street? And how do we actually address those, like, how do we kind of be more inclusive, and who we're designing for whether it's people of all ages, genders, abilities, backgrounds, and so that was something that was really important to us like that.

There [are] physical barriers that prevent you from accessing certain privatised public spaces, but there's a lot of intangible barriers that make people not feel comfortable to walk into a pub, or to spend a lot of time in the shopping centre, or in spaces on the high street.

It's not about I guess, trying to create one size that fits every solution. And every person, I think it's about really trying to think about, like, what are spaces that you'd like to spend more time and that have a range of activities for different people, or could be cross programmed at different times of the day. And so even in the Garden of Delights, when you get back into [the] inside of it, there's lots of different types of spaces that, you know, maybe different types of people would enjoy. But that would allow you to spend more time in those kinds of spaces that often you feel like you have a kind of time limit on.

Whether you want to sit and spend some time alone and just contemplate or meet friends and have a conversation, or, you know, cook together or play. There's a whole variety of things that people of different ages and across generations might want to do together. And I guess I think inclusivity goes hand in hand with belonging. And that's kind of what we were trying to do across the different spaces in the pavilion like create different different approaches that kind of bring those ideas together.

Detail from The Garden of Privatised Delights. Photo by Cristiano Corte © British Council
Detail from The Garden of Privatised Delights. Photo by Cristiano Corte © British Council

Madeline: Yeah, I suppose this is this kind of making everyone feel welcome and listened to. And I think the high street of exchanges in particular actually really picks up on these kinds of themes of belonging. So the high streets kind of split into this kind of “listen, share, act”. So listen, you sit in this Barber's chair, and you listen to the sounds of Sheffield High Street, and that's all about how when you pay to get your haircut. You're not just getting your haircut, you're also getting a conversation with someone which could be so important, especially if you like an old person who you know might be the only conversation you have that week.

And then the next part of the installation is about sharing and that's based upon a kind of project called Sheffield Foodhall in Sheffield, which Studio Polpo, the rim designers for that room were involved in and Sheffield futile is this pay as you feel project. So the food hall sort of takes waste food from surrounding cafes and grocery shops, and then they make meals that anyone could come and eat, and you just pay whatever you can afford [or] whatever you feel. And then as part of that, they also have workshops, dancing classes—it's completely transformed as this community space and all the time, you're just paying what you can afford, and what you can feel. And say this kind of barrier between volunteers and consumers is blurred.

And I suppose that's kind of his ultimate feeling of belonging for the community, because you're accepted, anyone can go there, anyone can do whatever they want. And you know, you don't have to be of a certain standing in society of a certain group that’s super exclusive.

Manijeh: And another nice example is this big banner that you see in the ministry of common land, which is something that's part of the room designer of that space, public works as practice. They do these things called situated images that try, and document things like what happens at community meetings, because often it's people sitting around and just sipping cups of tea. But what they were trying to show is actually the bigger ideas and the kind of the kind of agency that's embodied in those conversations that then leads to lots of spaces in the city being transformed. So they created this amazing, like almost tableau vivant over the course of a day, where they got different groups of people that have been working on this project in South London, over several years to come together and kind of reconstruct historic scenes and collectively make some of these like fantastical props.

nd you almost seem like a kind of time lapse as you move across the banner of all these different ways in which different groups of people have been engaging with each other, but also with these different sites to really rethink what these spaces could be. And all the people kind of involved have actually actively been involved in transforming the site of a time to create adventure playgrounds, community gardens, community kitchens. And so the image really captures that. But it's also like it was a really amazing day because we got to go be part of it. And it was right when lockdown rules went east. And it was like the first kind of social gathering. It was like both the celebration and this kind of incredible collective making of an exhibition artefact rolled into one.

Madeline: Yeah, it's those thresholds, isn't it? Because it's things like the pub even though we've said the pub is more than a public toilet, not everyone will feel comfortable just going into the pub, and you still have to sort of buy a pint to then be able to use the toilet. So it's how do we break down those thresholds so that, you know, everyone can use a space no matter what. Wow. And the pub is sort of exploring that, as a roommate, you know, is looking at going beyond just being somewhere for drinking and somewhere that everyone can use.

Alexandra: I think that's all the questions I really have. Is there anything else you feel like we didn't talk touch on that you might want to speak about or add to the conversation that you feel is, is needed?

Manijeh: I think maybe like the fact that the exhibitions meant to kind of provoke questions, rather than necessarily provide solutions. So the main kind of text in the space, like, the only text that we really try to keep in the space, other than the signage? Are these questions in each of the rooms kind of inviting you to think about pub-size streets, garden squares, like all these different examples of public space in new and exciting ways? And just to get you to maybe apply that to your own public spaces. I think the overall question that the exhibition is asking is really, why can't all public spaces be designed as Gardens of Delight? So we hope that that's what people take away with them.

Madeline: Yeah, we're really inviting everyone to become part of this conversation. And that's why we've got all these questions because we want everyone to be part of this. It's not about architects just suggesting what the solutions will be. It's about all of us working together to transform our cities and our urban spaces, saying that they are more inclusive, and that they are Gardens of Delights.

The Garden of Privatised Delights curators Manijeh Verghese + Madeline Kessler in front of the British Pavilion. Photo © British Council
The Garden of Privatised Delights curators Manijeh Verghese + Madeline Kessler in front of the British Pavilion. Photo © British Council

Alexandra: Well, I definitely got that from that. I really loved it. And I loved the questions and stimulated and I think that was, you know, you hit the nail on the head there.

Madeline: Well, thank you so much, honestly, like, yeah, it's been so great to speak to you and like, it's amazing to hear your kind of feedback from the exhibition and how it resonated with you. Yeah, it's

Manijeh: a really lovely way to see whether it worked or it didn't. I guess we've been thinking about it for so long, and, you know, it's been, it's been quite a process to put the exhibition together. So it's like really exciting to hear your experience having visited it,

Madeline: especially as we haven't been able to go out there ourselves yet. And it's just amazing to hear that this conversation is transcending borders. And it's not just a sort of British-UK conversation, this is a really kind of important international conversation about our public space.

Alexandra: It absolutely is. And it really, you know, it connected a lot of dots even for me.I can't say enough nice things. But you know, really, the pleasure is all mine. So yeah. Thank you.

Madeline: Hopefully, we'll be able to meet properly someday and continue the conversation.

Alexandra: I would absolutely relish that. Thank you.

Yeah, we would love that, too. Thank you so much.

Manijeh: And it made us think about so many different things. So, yeah, it's a kind of ongoing project in so many ways.

Alexandra: And I think it's a conversation that needs to continue to happen. And I will say again,I really think just how you addressed it using humour made it so tangible. And I felt like those were the most powerful takeaways that I took from it.

Manijeh: Thank you. Lovely to hear. And I think coming out of the past year, I think humour and a sense of optimism about the future of these public spaces and how we can all come together is just so important. So it's really nice that that resonated and that it's a theme kind of across the whole BNR layer. Because, yeah, we have to be optimistic going forward.

Madeline: Yeah, we want to create more joyful places. And yeah, I think we love addressing things through kind of both a serious and more lighthearted approach. Like that's how you get the most interesting conversations.


Austrian Pavilion: We Like Platform Austria with Peter Mörtenböck + Helge Mooshammer

This year’s Austrian Pavilion entitled, We Like Platform Austria, addresses a fundamental yet overlooked impact digital technology platforms have on contemporary architecture and urban development. Curators, Peter Mörtenböck and Helge Mooshammer, turn the pavilion into a platform in itself to challenge the global monopoly exercised by platform enterprises, and the imagination of our future spaces and habits.

The curators created bold, catchy statements that catch your attention and stimulate reflection into how these platforms have influenced our lives, and particularly, our spaces.They used the forum to exhibit dozens of other contributors from around the world across several different mediums, combined with bold graphic statements such as “Access is the New Capital”. “Data is a Relation, Not a Property” and “The Platform is My Boyfriend”, that are literally begging to be posted all over Instagram.

A massive wall primed with various drawings of popular urban features often installed in cities are presented as an “a la carte” catalogue and matched with cheeky descriptions that slightly poke fun at such trends for their ubiquity due to the pervasiveness of these platforms. But it is in that power of humor and arresting statements that bring an otherwise abstract concept into something impactful and digestible along with a cohesive message that can be absorbed through any number of the exhibited offerings.

I had the pleasure of walking through the pavilion with Helge and Peter, as they shared their ideas behind the concept. Please note this was recorded on location at the Biennale, and plenty of organic sounds to accompany the recording.

Peter Mörtenböck, Co-curator of the Austrian Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2021: My name is Peter Mörtenböck, and I'm co-director of the Centre for Global Architecture and a professor of visual culture. I'm really interested in things to do with reality, but also to do with the ways in which we organise ourselves in the world. The network structures, hierarchies, markets, what have you, on the platforms are just one typical form of organisation today.

Helge Mooshammer, Co-curator of the Austrian Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2021: Happy to do so. I'm Helge Mooshammer. I'm one of the directors of the Centre for Global Architecture, which is an initiative that we founded some years ago, which really pursues the aim of providing a platform, speaking of which, to bring together new kinds of research into emerging spatial realities. So when we look around the world, we can actually realise that there are many shared spatial experiences nowadays, and how can we learn from each other when we try to understand these new types of spatial environments? So that's one of the goals of the Centre for Global Architecture. That's the main arena of my work right now.

The title of the party was Platform Austria, and what we talked about—this platform urbanism. So that's just two sentences that are easily said, but what does this actually mean, you know? And can we also show the architectural dimension of that?

So we thought very long and very hard about also the stenography of an exhibition, how to communicate this. And once you delve into the whole complex, coming together with all the different factors that make and constitute the phenomenon platform urbanism, one realizes very quickly that it's indeed enormously complex. So there's so many different layers that all interact and coincide.

So we've realised that we have to start with a very clear message and a message that you cannot escape. When visitors enter the pavilion you need an effective distinction between those two slogans, one about access to new capital, and the other one about the boyfriend. They kind of, again—also there's a meaning which is easy to comprehend, but they are also kind of confusing.

And what we realised is when we also connected this with the topic that Hashim Sarkis has suggested, about thinking about how we will live together, but at the end of the day, architecture is really about very simple things. So it's about providing shelter, it's about providing accommodation, and what shelter does is that it keeps unwanted things away.

We've realised that we have to start with a very clear message and a message that you cannot escape.

In a way, one could also argue that architecture is an intervention in the natural—if we want to say—that flow of things. Whether it's rain, cold, enemies, unwanted people—architecture creates spatial structures that keep these things away from us. So it's also a way, a regulation of access—Who can come? What can come to us? What cannot come? That's one part of it, and the other, in terms of access, and the other half is about, with whom do we want to share this shelter? What community do we want to be with? And what other kind of human people or other entities want to be together? So these are really two very primary questions posed to architecture.

Now, in relation to platform urbanism, what we argue here is that it's still about the same questions, but they are organised in a different way. So digital technologies have now taken over, to some extent, the role that previously very material structures, material infrastructures played, and it's now digital technologies that regulate the flow of things—they regulate access, and by doing so they also become extremely powerful.

So that's very clear. Of course, we might also know about the debates about data, who owns data. There’s a huge struggle about—around digital technologies. The second layer in this stenography of the exhibition is to also point to the fact that even though it's now digital technologies that have taken over the regulation of flows of things, and the kind of guidance and direction is not that this new form of organisation does not also have architectural forms. And what we will see when we come to the site pavilions is that there's actually a whole plethora of new architectural topologies that have emerged, and that influence and shape this new architecture, this new city, these new platform cities.

The question though is, how are these new architectural forms conceived of? It's no longer the classical genius of the sole architect, mostly male architects in the office dreaming up these new forms, and it's no longer the mantra "form follows function". It's different values that shape the new architectural forms. And so what we want to ask is, first, you know, what is it that creates this new architectural form? How do these new architectural forms come into being? And then look at the catalogue of all these different architectural prompts—why do they look like this? What is it that redirects it? And then we've also come to realise that it's all of those new forms of architecture, they're much geared towards fueling the notion of attraction, of making things practical speaking to us, which relates to this intimate aspect of ‘the platform as my boyfriend’ is.

It's no longer the classical genius of the sole architect, mostly male architects in the office dreaming up these new forms, and it's no longer the mantra "form follows function".

The world around us is kind of furnished in such a way to appear attractive to us, so that we are wanting to connect with it. And that has to do with the particular character of platforms, even if we say that these digital technologies of ours have become so powerful, platforms are a particular kind of digital technology. They are a co-produced technology, they're not just working top down, they are relying on our collaboration.

So it's us that make platforms work and make platforms tick. So we need to be drawn in, we need to be seduced. And it's been really interesting also, these two days of the Biennale opening, talking to people and how they also have many kind of other recollections of how this new world that is emerging, always seems to be geared towards creating this promise of this wonderful new world that we want to be part of. And then people say, “Well, why do we?” If we talk about container villages for instance, “Why do we want villages?”, “What's so great about container villages?” I'm sure Prague has one as well. I know a student of ours, and she made this project about the new marketplaces near I think, is it the North, the railway station close to Eastern Railway Station, northeast of, I don't know, but this project of a market?

Alexandra Siebenthal, reSITE: Yes. Actually, it's really funny. So the founder of reSITE founded this market. But we were in—that was one of the things and we were talking, you know, seeing some of the things you have on the wall over there, particularly with the shipping containers. And yeah, like, it was an interesting juxtaposition. Yeah, we’ve done that. But it's something to explore.

Helge: Did you notice how people did want to do that, because it's actually the origin of this new Platform Urbanism is very much grounded in counterculture. Initially platforms were all about these ideas about self-initiating a space, a third space as it were. And so many of these container villages also originated in that. The people said, "Well, how can we create space for ourselves?" And now it's become commercialised. It's become commodified. It's easy to do, you don't need to invest into a real proper quarter for young people, you just say, here you have your containers and be entrepreneurial, do your pop-up shops, do your pop-up restaurant, cafe, and everything will fall into place by itself. It's not always true. So let's just walk through the exhibition a little bit.

Many people have an inclination of what platform urbanism is about, but then it's also very fleeting and ephemeral. It's difficult to pinpoint. And so that's why we've said, well, platforms are really about the creative connections bringing different interests together. And would there be a way that we could experiment ourselves with the potential of a platform, precisely because platforms have this history of actually creating alternatives?

Initially platforms were all about these ideas about self-initiating a space, a third space as it were.

And so we started to invite all these people from around the world, who we know have been working on these issues. So like Susan Moore, and—or those people, Sidovsky, or those who had their staff started to also write about or instigate projects—to go past I think of this station. You can hear podcasts. And so we invited them to blog about their everyday experiences of platform urbanism and they've written about it and they said, "Well, you know, the great thing about the blog is that you don't have to write this kind of scholarly essay, you can just write a short observation, like a diary almost".

And then we've collected those, and we've kind of reworked them into these short video clips. They're not long, each one is not longer than two minutes. You don't necessarily have to start at a particular point, because they're just the colour grading this kaleidoscope of everyday experience, of platform urbanism, but wherever you would start with a little aspect of it, and then it comes together as a bigger picture of what it means.

It's really interesting, so for instance this one, everything in itself is just very small. But this kind of street culture, if you will, has emerged to mark certain areas where you can create—make signs where free WiFi is available. This has a particular expression to think about is a spray painting, but there's a particular expression actually for that, is it true marking or so that you must be like a code? It's like graffiti in particular, but it's like, let me just look for that particular term. It's like, it took like a clandestine code. That's how it emerged, when WiFI was scarce. So people said, "Oh, you know, I make this mark so that others know, oh, there's WiFi". You know, you can get free WiFi here. And so certainly, the world is structured around access to WiFi. Because when we talk about access, of course, it's great to have a platform and apps.

One of the challenges is also that the visible side of platform urbanism is mostly just apps—and there are millions of different apps. But what is an app? I can just pay for the service and it makes things easier, but essentially you need a phone, and you need power so that your phone works. If your phone is dead, you won't have access.

And literally one of the challenges is also that the visible side of platform urbanism is mostly just apps—and there are millions of different apps. But what is an app? I can just pay for the service and it makes things easier, but essentially you need a phone, and you need power so that your phone works. If your phone is dead, you won't have access. So it's as simple as that.

Let's start with these areas that have no connection to the internet, and are cut off from the new kinds of societies. And all that comes together. None of it in itself says the whole story. You cannot tell it in simple [terms], but you need to bring all these different things together. And so that's what’s so great about this very conventional—one could call it the classical gallery of images that are presented like in a gallery of paintings, but they intersect together, they then allow us to understand how all these different sides and how all those are necessary and how they then create this universe of platform urbanism.

Peter: If you stay here for a moment—but I think what really got the thing started about the way in which we want to set up an exhibition about platform urbanism was to think about how new information landscapes are being structured and the way in which we relate to them. Because typically, if you think of a physical landscape, you know how to relate to them, physically, bodily, but also in the way in which we perhaps have an ownership, a certain claim in relation to a particular place, but in relation to digital spaces, and those that are much more dispersed through platforms and technologies.

We have a little sense about our own relationship to those and how we can situate ourselves in this information landscape. And that's the reason why we were thinking about the instruments, the institutions that are currently the curators of that particular information landscape. So platforms are the organiser of public discourse. They are the most concrete example of who is actually curating that kind of landscape.

Platforms are the organiser of public discourse. They are the most concrete example of who is actually curating that kind of landscape.

And so we thought that well, if you organise an exhibition, you have the possibility to intervene in that particular way by also curating knowledge about particular aspects, particular pockets of that landscape. And that's why we're thinking about inviting people, and having them tell us their own experiences about how they relate to particular aspects of platform urbanism—where it started. But we also wanted to connect our thinking to a particular tradition of architectural writing, in terms of blog writing, which is very different from social media nowadays—Twitter and Instagram, those media, which are very much driven by visual performance.

With blogs, that was a much more open-ended way of articulating oneself, say 15 years ago. And so we were inviting some well-known architectural bloggers like Owen Hatherley from the UK, and other people's work. But we wanted to extend the circle to invite as many people as possible coming from different backgrounds—disciplinary backgrounds, generational backgrounds, geographical backgrounds—to collect knowledge from all around the world. So that was the system that informs how to set up this exhibition. And that's why we ended up having 60 different—more than 60 different contributors assembled here in that space.

Alexandra: That's—absolutely, I really liked that about that exhibit, he does create so much more access, you know, just about these different perspectives. And actually, what was really interesting is that both Teddy Cruz and Fonna Forman, as well as Saskia Sassen, have spoken at our events. And so it's nice to see them that you know, you've also drawn a lot of inspiration from their work and kind of contributed to it here.

Helge: Yeah, very much so—and Saskia Sassen is quite the essential voice here. Because one of the questions that often arises is, of course, also that—well, when you have developed this critical view on platform urbanism, a lot of worries emerge. You know—what is happening, what directions are evolving—and Saskia Sassen, then as the kind of grande dame of architectural critique can step in and say yes, all this critique is essential and all this—that's important.

Various access is something that is not a given, access needs to be acquired.

But really, what it's not about is creating this black and white scenario. It's not about that we need to completely oppose the commercial side, as she says, of platform urbanism. That will always be there and it's probably good to have all this is—also the commercial developers that offer us these services. It's just important that there's not just a model for that, in terms of access. It can be a wide range of different providers of access, if you will.

So if we create this monopoly, then we need to start to worry, but you could be good—they could. I think she says literally, different providers could coexist side by side. And it's actually— what's much more difficult, she then continues, is in when we think about these alternatives. Again, there are very established understandings of an alternative format of access, when we think about the clearly underprivileged, they clearly disempower. But there are many in-betweens, those that are often overlooked, that are also underprivileged but are not so clearly visible as being poor, as such. So actually, we need to be much more sophisticated on the side when we think about alternatives. That's not the clear setting. Where we need to get active and where we will need to start thinking about other forms of alternatives.

Alexandra: Maybe what, what are some of the dangers then of really fragmenting access?

Helge: Well, what I mean, one of the key questions, of course, is that access is not a given right. So it's a completely different starting point. In a democratic understanding there are universal human rights that cannot be reduced, that are irreducible. Every human being at the moment one is born, one emerges on planet Earth—there are certain rights that are not, cannot be externalised.

Various access is something that is not a given, access needs to be acquired. And how is it acquired? By becoming legitimised. You need to register, you need to create a profile, you need to become recognisable even, you need to become knowledgeable. So you need to provide certain, whether it's in the form of data or whether it's some form of certain characteristics, certain references that you can provide that you say, "Oh, I'm a citizen of somewhere. I have all this kind of credit that allows me to register, but I need to look for this credit. I need to create it. I need to document it. I need to establish it".

So it's not something—we don't start from a level playing field. And of course, nobody ever does start on a level playing field. In any case, you're born into a particular class, into a caste, a particular gender—categories I ascribe to use. And it's, of course, a long-standing history of unequal access, and you're not denying this. But here, access becomes further complicated, if you will, that you—we need to get active. If you don't get active and if you don't provide the features that you can be recognised as someone who deserves and can be granted access, you've already lost in a certain way.

Access becomes further complicated, if you don't get active and if you don't provide the features that you can be recognised as someone who deserves and can be granted access, you've already lost in a certain way.

You will not be able—and now with of course the pandemic, with all the precautions that are taken in different places, that when you want to move, you need to register, you know, unregistered movement is not possible or is not desired at the moment. All that already illustrates the challenges. If access is regulated by digital technology, which is a database, access is then dependent on the provision of certain sets of data.

And in an analogue city, I mean, in an ideal analogue city, everybody could just enter in public space, and then it would just depend whether you would follow certain rules, certain behaviour regulations. But if you would do that everybody would, theoretically, have the same provisions of access. But here, it's different. It's ready before you even get to the point to enter that space. You need to require the kind of—you need to require the licence, as it were. So you need to become licenced. It's not a matter of rights, but it's a matter of licence.

Peter: The question then was how to transform access from a purely material issue to a political question. And that involves thinking about access, not as restricting access to something and regulating access to something, but offering access and demonstrating a form of generosity, a form of solidarity, and rephrasing—reframing access as a form of friendship, love, but in a sense that it proposes, suggests, and demonstrates some kinds of—also some qualities, that are far beyond the metrics of what the regulation of access typically implies. That you would count how many people would have that kind of particular kinds of access and equal tiers of access, but rather offering access to as many people as there was a population as soon as possible. And that kind of political discussion is currently restrained.

And so, we were thinking, but we are talking about several issues with platforms and how they could be restructured to transform these different questions—the question of access, the question of servicing cities, and how those aspects could be transformed into something else that would make use of platforms in a much more open-ended manner.

Helge: One of the key features of the way access is regulated today is that you need to be active. So activity is a kind of measurement that supports access, so a lot of the new kind of platform architecture is also kind of designed in such a way as to stimulate activities to stimulate circulation, and through that circulation—you know—data noise is created, and that creates crises. So, particularly people who have been inactive are falling out of access categories.

Is there a possibility of simply being a community, rather than constantly having to acquire your belonging through your activity?

So, whether this is because you are not employed in an official way or, you know, you—certain things that you do and don't do the presupposed way, then you're deemed inactive. And so, that question for you know, what does it mean for a society that is based on the aim and the idea of activity? And so, how values are generated purely through activity through being always productive and always active, as you said, and that relates to the question between licences and drives, because licences are something that allow you to do something.

Again, creating activity, where as a right you can also be inactive, you can be in an inoperative community, if you will. So, is there a way that we can simply be? Is there a possibility of simply being a community, rather than constantly having to acquire your belonging through your activity? So I want to continue with the architectural forms because that's what we decided is so important.

Either way, when we talk about [it], the activity becomes the kind of leading motif of architectural design, what also becomes remarkable is that a lot of the activity is not geared to any particular purpose or any particular function. It's purely for the purpose of activity for its own sake. And so what kind of architecture emerges then if there is no function almost, or as we conventionally understand it. So, what we've done is that we've visited literally hundreds of different locations around the world of this new type of architecture—the container villages that we spoke about, and you will see. But there's a container village, you know, that was in Prague, and then in Vienna, in Amsterdam, but also in this form, and in Las Vegas—all places. And they all reference each other.

So the Las Vegas container villages, you know, says, "Oh, you know, we saw the Brixton container village, and we think that took writing wanted to breathe, reconstructed," then the Abu Dhabi one says, "Oh, you know, this is like the London one," and so they all connect to each other and they legitimise each other by referencing each other. And so what then if you then in the technique of a kind of collage analysis emerges is, if you overlap, and in the same way as platforms decontextualize their architecture also almost decontextualized. But purely creating a kind of scenario is a scene, a stage, a setting of these different architectural expressions, particular kinds of formative and figurative patterns emerge.

And so, all this creates like really, like in a theatre, creates a stage that appears to be very attractive to us. And we then decipher the different props used for setting that stage. And that's what you see over here is this—almost like a catalogue book of new architectural topologies. And you just can browse through the catalogue. It's like a collection of papers and drawings. And you can choose and pick and choose if you will, and often for if you want to have a you know, a young startup environment and being you know, young and trendy and be and remain attractive, I choose from the catalogue in a little bit of...

the activity becomes the kind of leading motif of architectural design, what also becomes remarkable is that a lot of the activity is not geared to any particular purpose or any particular function. It's purely for the purpose of activity for its own sake. And so what kind of architecture emerges then if there is no function almost, or as we conventionally understand it.

We spoke with some people, they said, it's very funny that it's all almost pre-industrial. So, handicraft is very popular at the moment, so everything is retro. And so even if it's a newly built industrial bench, you kind of treat it in such a way that it appears to be old century. In the US, in particular, they call it European farmhouse-style, and all that nonsense. And so you can choose from this and also in an intriguing way these books appear to be scaled.

Headphones are equally important to allow for these co-working environments. For instance, [if] you have no headphones, you cannot use a co-working space. But you also need the coffee stop and the food corner and the food truck with nearby furniture. But how do they relate to each other? Here are some things that are big, some things are small. And they have created a kaleidoscope. And those of the individuals actually often are treated in such a way that particular firms register patents on this.

Because if you have this knowledge, like data knowledge on this, this allows you to become the global provider of let's say, co-working spaces, or co-living developments who create the know-how. It's an architectural know-how that is actually built up through these painted drawings.

But let me just go back to this setting of the scene, because what's of course clear is that this cannot just magically happen by itself. And so as in any theatre, this the stage, but there's the backstage as well and people. There's a lot of labour involved, so there is a real backstage now as well, that helps to create bots on the stage to be seen. And so this is how these two side galleries work together. It's like there's 50 onstage and offstage, and they come together, and we don't see them together. In most cases, we only look at a stage. We don't want to look offstage.

It's not such a nice world for many people. It's the distribution centres to highways. Funnily enough, because we talked about the containers, the containers feature in both worlds. You have the colourful ones here and you have grey ones, the battered ones over there. And so how can we—is there a way to reconcile these different worlds? To not just look at what's on stage, but also to look at what's offstage. And so that's the, I think the provocation articulated in this exhibition is how can we intervene in these two worlds—how they relate to each other. And that's why we have this first slogan at the front. We like that actually, in platform urbanism, it relies on our corporate action, and we can intervene in our imagination.

And so if we continue to, kind of, well, he will show me today is given in the condition. That condition can only be like image fangirls, which is a very simple proposition—is the world how we think about it, is really, also relies on images, particularly in a mediated world, like in a platform world. So if we intervene in the way we imagine things, we might also be able to think about these things differently. And so platforms with the sense of the notion of co-production, allows also to collectively co-produce imaginary.

Okay, so we invited people to simply post photographs that were taken with the phones of any everyday situation, and post those and then you collect them. And then similarly, perhaps first like we did with the colleges—to design a new architectural language, a pattern language, if you will, to go back to architectural history. A pattern language of a new platform urbanism that emerges might look very different if you know, different kinds of containers might be, you know, populating this new brave world? So, it's really interesting.

I mean, we've only just started, it's very early days. But again, people are posting lots of areas that you really appreciate. Yeah, it's really interesting to see what emerges in the centres of interaction and in these different ways in which we position this kind of indication, next to the slogan of data is a relation of the property, because I think that's really the way to not just..

What's the chamfer that not to say, “Oh, you know, platforms are all negative, you know, that we don't want platforms”. But platforms have a history of bottom-up initiative. And one of the things to recuperate, that is also to start to reframe, and that's what an art exhibition on architecture exhibition can do, it can reframe certain connotations, through representations. And the reframing of data is really important because data now we only think about data in terms of property.

And of course, property in English has this double connotation that it means characteristics. And it also means commodities that can be traded. But it's apparently only a small step from property as characteristic to property as commodity, as something that can be traded. But instead of really a property or characteristic, or isn't data actually something that we as humanity create as a navigation tool, to help us navigate the way we interact and how we coexist? So we have like, it's, you could call it a grid of reference, a reference grid, if you will, that helps us to deal with each other. So if I know where X-epsilon is moving from A to B, then that's not just that's not a characteristic of them. But I create data about this movement in order to be able to relate to that. So it's actually about the relationship.

And the big step forward when thinking about data as a reference is that then it's not a characteristic. And it's also not the property that is owned by a sole entity or sole person, but their relationship always depends on two sides. And it's actually collectively or public cooperatives. So data is not owned by individuals, but data is always owned by those entities involved in that exchange, those entities that want to know each other. And so that opens up a whole new path around—to think about platform urbanism completely differently.

Alexandra: It's really incredible. I really like how you're turning the tide, and how we are thinking about it, looking at it, and I think it's really important, and it was a very, very timely conversation.

Helge: So the big question is, of course, does it work when you present it in such a way? But we are really interested in hijacking the platform city. So to [make] this Instagrammable, the exhibition is very Instagrammable.

Alexandra: I'm guilty of Instagramming it.

Helge: No, but it's important because then you can intervene. You can distribute a message in a different way. And you talked about this Biennale as being a Biennale of messages. And you know, I very much support Hashim Sarkis' stance that the Biennale needs to take on this role of being an ambassador. It's so important that the Biennale is not just saying, "Oh, you know, we are just indulging [in] each other, and look at us—what great things we do". But we take a stand. And we say, "Well, you know, architecture is interested in making this a better world". And we can do that together, we can do that.

And to be such an ambassador, you need to have a message. And so that's how the whole list can tie in, creating these representations of messages, that if people like to take a photograph, this is brilliant. And then he can replicate. And yes, and suddenly people can say this sentence, it creates a vocabulary. And he creates a collective vocabulary that everybody can, not everybody. But some people can say, "Well, I don't think data is a property, you know, it should not treat data as property that gets traded. And I'm not happy if somebody just simply pays me for my data, I want to be understood as something that is actually common goods, it's a commons data is a commons. And now it's not an individual property, you know, it's not a capitalist commodity, per se."

It has been turned into a capitalist commodity, but this involved many different steps to actually frame it as property is not a breakeven. It starts with framing us as individuals as being possessive individuals that all have certain characteristics that we own. But even that was a first step. You know, it's again, not a given that we understand ourselves as separate individuals with each individual having particular individual properties, you know, that's already, you know, a way of distinguishing between human beings. That's not the breakeven. And so I think this is very important to create this vocabulary.

Alexandra: I think you're doing it well, and I you know, to me, I think that's why this ended up being one of my favourite pavilions/installations, because it is so powerful in the way you presented it and just making statements that—yes, yes, but actually one of my favourite parts of it and my colleague here, we were laughing at it.

Helge: If you don't like it, we don't love our army, but we love...ya know, that's that? I definitely see that many people have, you know, respond that way, and that's really great to see, because at the end of the day, culture is also somebody that needs to be experienced, you know, this is a cultural event. But it's us as human beings—we spend our time, you know, we go through and also that counts as well. We're not just an abstract machine for this exhibition. So how do we experience it? This is also providing some pleasure. That's important, I think.

And I think also some of the pavilions do this really brilliantly that they provide with—said the kind of culture—was it the senses—the central experience. Whether it's visual, or that's true in tactile senses, or for audio when you walk through. And I think that's very important. That's what an exhibition can do. So, you know, you're sure you have your opinions about those pavilions and then also central.

Alexandra: No, I like it when there's just one clear message that you can walk away with. And there's just so many different applications of it. So if you don't understand one thing, there's another way you kind of get it.

Helge: So it's very distributed. Yeah.

Alexandra: And I think there was, you know, there's tons of little gems here.

Helge: Yeah, about the layering.

Alexandra: Maybe a more personal question, is there an app you, either of you, spend time on yourselves?

Helge: Well, very simple ones, really, in terms of when we talk about navigation, I think navigation tools as navigation apps, are ones that people use in particular. So I'm not really guilty, but simply using Google Maps as an app is presumably a common one.

Apps are created and investment is undertaken, but then this app disappears very quickly. And what's the—what about the people involved in that, you know, people work for that—their services are offered on a platform. And so if you had a look at that book, and I'm not sure whether you had time to read it, but the introduction, we write about platforms as kind of member clubs, so we compare them to a club, like an old fashioned British club almost. And so when you register, you become a member of that club, and your livelihood is tied to that club. But what happens is so many other providers and other partners change their provider, suddenly, you're excluded, because you're on the wrong app, and you're in the wrong. So to think about how, without actually using a version, but it's good.

Alexandra: It's very true. So question, what do you think we will be, you know, every era has a type of monument, or, you know, era of design, let's say. What do you think? What will our monument be for this moment in time? Shipping containers?

Helge: I suppose we have—we actually structured the contribution of lockers in seven different chapters. And in one of the chapters, there's the title, "Monuments of Circulation: I is Everywhere." And so I think the question is really, I suppose the monuments of our time are atomized monuments, and they are documentations of our own circulation. So we are acting, we're alive because we circulate. So it's all these Instagrams, it's all these little fictions of us, of "I". So it's really the "monument of I."


So, what is the Biennale for, if not to influence and provide access to new ideas and ways of viewing architecture and spaces we share. The curation behind both Austrian and British pavilions share a common thread of accessibility. Their immersive interventions help the viewer experience what accessibility means and question the limits. The installations communicate in a way that is comprehensible to a wider audience—all while being visually very appealing.

I would like to personally, and on behalf of reSITE, thank you all for tuning in, for taking this journey with us as we navigate building a podcast in the midst of a pandemic. After this episode we will be taking a summer break for the coming months, and returning in autumn 2021 with a bigger, better and longer season 3.

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 podcast@resite.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.

More Venice Biennale curators featured in this episode:

Venice Architecture Biennale Nordic Pavilion: What We Share with Siv Helene Stangeland + Reinhard Kropf

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Venice Architecture Biennale: How Will We Live Together? (Part 1)

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Venice Architecture Biennale: There Are Walls That Want to Prowl, Lukas Feireiss + Leopold Banchini

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?” with curators Lukas Feireiss and Leopold Banchini to discuss their definitions of shelter, application of wood structures, degrowth models and retrospectives to rethink how we will live together.

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