On Monday, the Venice Biennale announced the theme of their 2016 event, to be directed by Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena. The provocative title chosen by Aravena is "Reporting From the Front," a title loaded with implications of a battle against what he refers to as the "inertia of reality."
"More and more people in the planet are in search for a decent place to live and the conditions to achieve it are becoming tougher and tougher by the hour," explains his curatorial statement. "But unlike military wars where nobody wins and there is a prevailing sense of defeat, on the frontlines of the built environment, there is a sense of vitality because architecture is about looking at reality in a proposal key."
Aravena will have big shoes to fill. The previous Biennale, Rem Koolhaas' 2014 event, was extremely successful and highly praised by many critics. It was also widely regarded as the most anticipated event in the Biennale's history, after the Biennale had courted Koolhaas for years. But if Koolhaas' Biennale was the event that people looked forward to, I believe - or rather I hope - that Aravena's Biennale will be the one that people look back on in decades to come.
Aravena's theme capitalizes on the growing trend of socially conscious architecture that has been brewing for some years now - a trend in which Aravena is one of the leading practitioners with his designs for low cost housing and his post-disaster rebuilding schemes. For his part, the Venice Biennale president Paolo Baratta highlights Aravena's contribution as a continuation of the challenging questions proposed by the Biennales hosted since 2008, saying that "staying above the fray leads to no longer knowing what questions to ask, and not being able to imagine different and alternative solutions – or to frustration on account of unrealizable proposals."
Aravena's theme, however, is clearly the most explicitly anti-establishment theme taken on by the Biennale yet, apparently aiming to highlight political and social problems around the world and present architectural solutions. Aravena is also well placed in his ambition to include issues worldwide: as only the third director of the Biennale born outside Europe, and the first ever not to hail from one of the three architectural centers of Europe, the US and Japan, Aravena might bring the perspective of an outsider, someone who has spent their life around architectural problems which rarely cross the mind of established architectural leaders.
Interestingly, though, as much as we frequently hear about socially conscious architecture these days, the word that is used is usually "trend." Why are so many writers reticent to use a more definitive term and call it a movement?
"History never looks like history when you are living through it. It always looks confusing and messy, and it always feels uncomfortable." - John W. Gardner, US Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare 1965-68
The course of history rarely runs as smoothly as it appears in hindsight. Take Modernism, for example: most architects know the story of its birth in the 1910s, with Walter Gropius, Adolf Meyer and the Fagus Factory. After that came De Stijl, the Bauhaus, Le Corbusier's publication of L'Esprit Nouveau and Vers Une Architecture, the Chicago Tribune Tower competition, the Weissenhof estate. Finally, in 1932, Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock's International Style exhibition in New York marked the widespread acceptance of Modernism and the start of four decades of total dominance in the field of architectural theory.
But at the time, this trajectory was not so clear. For others, the 1920s was a period of decadence, the era of The Great Gatsby rather than Modernism's doctrine of industrial efficiency. The dominant architectural style, in the US and parts of Europe at least, was Art Deco. Two years into the following decade, Johnson and Hitchcock's exhibition was hosted in the context of the Great Depression. Yet in architecture, it is the former, cleaner story that is remembered.
In our own times, socially conscious architecture has been steadily gaining advocates since the turn of the millennium, struggling against the orthodoxy of the architectural establishment for the better part of a decade. The financial crisis turned this on its head, with many turning against the perceived hedonism of so-called "iconic" design and socially conscious design presented as its antithesis. Widely recognized as this decade's biggest trend, this social-justice architecture has gained small wins in the world of the establishment with Urban Think Tank, Justin McGuirk and Iwan Baan's win of a Golden Lion at the 2012 Venice Biennale and Shigeru Ban's win of the 2014 Pritzker Prize.
Is it naive to compare social-justice architecture of the past decade to the the modern movement in the 1920s? Perhaps. Is it too early to compare Aravena's upcoming Biennale with Johnson and Hitchcock's seminal 1932 exhibition? Absolutely - it could be decades before we can say for sure the effects of the 2016 Venice Biennale. But it does seems like the timing is right for such a galvanizing event, and all I can say is that I hope we might look back on the event, in 2030, 2040 or even beyond, as a turning point in the movement for socially conscious architecture.
And if this doesn't come to pass, so be it. As Aravena states in his curatorial statement:
"When the problem is big, just a one-millimeter improvement is relevant; what may be required is to adjust our notion of success, because achievements on the frontlines are relative, not absolute."