What Futures for Architecture Biennales? Lessons Learned from the 2019-2020 Shenzhen Biennale

For the 2019 Shenzhen Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture (UABB), titled "Urban Interactions," (21 December 2019-8 March 2020) ArchDaily has been working with the curators of the "Eyes of the City" section to stimulate a discussion on how new technologies might impact architecture and urban life. The contribution below is part of a series of scientific essays selected through the “Eyes of the City” call for papers, launched in preparation of the exhibitions: international scholars were asked to send their reflection in reaction to the statement by the curators Carlo Ratti Associati, Politecnico di Torino and SCUT, which you can read here.

Over the past few months we have heard many bold predictions about the world after COVID-19: the death of the movie theater, the death of the office, perhaps even the death of the city itself. What about architectural exhibitions? As the curators of the 2019-2020 Shenzhen Biennale, which holds the unfortunate distinction of being the first event of its kind to be disrupted by the pandemic, we would like to share our thoughts on the future of architecture Biennales as we wrap up a long editorial series dedicated to the "Eyes of the City."

Before the pandemic, the meaning of Biennales had already been called into question. They began in the 19th century, as part of a broader movement of international exhibitions—most prominently the World’s Fair—that served as venues for celebration and competition among the nations of the industrialized, imperial West. Massive pavilions held encyclopedic collections of the world’s architectural production, with every nation (especially the host) clamoring to display the most splendor and power. 21st-century critics have questioned the logic of expensive, temporary exhibitions when the Internet allows far more accessibility; they have also wondered aloud why we should maintain the celebration of nation-states when the modern world is defined by fluid interconnections.

As in many parts of our lives, COVID-19 accelerated our decisions far beyond the pace of this debate. The sudden interruption of the exhibition in Shenzhen has proven that relevant parts of an architectural Biennale can be virtualized. The “Eyes of the City” editorial series began in April 2019 with the curatorial statement announcing the topic of UABB 2019 in Shenzhen, China, inspired by Jane Jacobs’ “Eyes on the Street” and her vision of city life. 36 foundational contributors from all over the world helped us to enrich that statement, inspiring our work as curators before the opening day. Moreover, in the seven months between the inauguration of the exhibition in December 2019 and the present day, other 15 essays, selected through the “Eyes of the City’s” call for papers, have further advanced the debate.

This series of contributions and essays, graciously hosted by Archdaily, was intended to be a digital companion to the physical exhibition. Since “Eyes of the City” was physically cut short by COVID-19 just one month after opening, it became the beating heart of our work. Seven months after the forced closure and three months after the virtual Closing Ceremony of UABB, this collection stands out as an essential tool to enjoy the Biennale, along with the website’s exhibition.

As the virtual exhibition continued, we realized that even projects that require physical interaction can be disseminated across the world in new ways. The digital blueprints for all designs were shared in an open-source platform, creating the opportunity for local fabrication in Shenzhen. Participants in the global Fab Labs network were able to rebuild parts of the Biennale in cities all around the world, creating either 1:1 copies or smaller-scale replicas of circuit boards, architectural models, and interactive installations. On-site production decreased the environmental impact of an international Biennale while celebrating Shenzhen as the “factory of the world.” Encouraging participants to fabricate elements in their own cities took the ethos of local production even further. Beyond the benefits of flexibility amidst global lockdowns, this model also circumvents carbon-intensive supply chains of both people and goods. By moving bits instead of atoms, we experienced a glimpse into a more sustainable future. The Biennale could evolve from a model of physical collection to one of digital, democratized distribution.

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Both the Archdaily series and the local production principle relied on the dissemination of ideas that transcend geographic boundaries and existing communications infrastructure. In other words, Biennales —and architecture itself— are first and foremost a space for discussion.

In spite of the above successes, our in-person and remote experiences in Shenzhen make us believe that there are at least two aspects of a traditional Architecture Biennales that must be preserved. The first is the richness that comes from physical encounters between like-minded professionals in a shared space. It is the same atmosphere that one finds at events such as Milan Design Week, a veritable Woodstock of design. Physical space has the unique power of facilitating serendipitous connections and bridging social divides. We are forced to encounter, and perhaps even understand, the people who share our spaces. 

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The second element we must preserve is how a physical Biennale, beyond acting as a place to exchange ideas, can actively accelerate the pace of urban evolution. New environmental factors—pandemics today, but more generally climate change and the Internet of Things—are emerging in our cities every day. In this ecosystem, innovative temporary exhibitions are like new mutations in the urban genetic code. In the face of rapid change, we must facilitate rapid experimentation and adaptation. This is happening all over the world because of COVID-19: temporary bike lanes or outdoor terraces could help reprogram our cities for the post-pandemic future. In Shenzhen, a large, empty hall could be reconfigured based on how we used it for the “Eyes of the City” Exhibition inside Futian Railway station - one of the two main venues of the Biennale. 

Beyond reconfiguring the space itself, the in-person period of the exhibition allowed us to play with new technologies within it. We asked visitors to register at the “info points” designed by MVRDV, and then to choose among two options: to be facially tracked by a technological system embedded in the venue (with the benefit of gaining extra information about the exhibits), or opt-out. Interestingly, most people among those who registered preferred not to be tracked, surrendering parts of the experience in exchange for invisibility to the facial recognition system. It was a thought-provoking, if surprising, insight, adding to the crucial debate on the ownership and sharing of personal data at the intersection between physical and digital worlds. Since COVID-19 struck, the risks associated with intelligent technological systems have been further complicated by their potential for contact tracing and remote work, among other public health benefits. The built environment provided us with a unique venue to engage with cities and new technologies.

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For such reasons, we are confident that in-person Biennales will return, and we are hopeful that they will do so in a more sustainable, accessible form than their predecessors, which COVID-19 cut short. These cherished exhibitions can shed their encyclopedic ambitions and nationalistic distractions without losing an ounce of their ambition. Biennials are platforms for information exchange, venues for human connection, and monuments to the collective devotion of architects the world over. They are one of many tools that we must employ if we are to build and refine the city of tomorrow.

“Eyes of the City” Curatorial Team: Carlo Ratti, Michele Bonino, Sun Yimin, Daniele Belleri, Edoardo Bruno, Xu Haohao, Valeria Federighi, Claudia Mainardi, Monica Naso, Erika Bettega, Camilla Forina, Xingxin He, Jiachen Lin, Xian Lu

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Cite: Eyes of the City Curatorial Team. "What Futures for Architecture Biennales? Lessons Learned from the 2019-2020 Shenzhen Biennale" 30 Aug 2020. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/946136/what-futures-for-architecture-biennales-lessons-learned-from-the-2019-2020-shenzhen-biennale> ISSN 0719-8884

© Prospekt


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