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We, the Unsigned: Dispatches from the U.S. Pavilion at La Biennale di Venezia
William Menking and Aaron Levy, Curators

An illustrated version of this essay was published in Tank magazine (London: January 2009; edited by Shumon Basar).


With a little knowing irony, we like to label Into The Open: Positioning Practice, the 2008 United States Pavilion at La Biennale di Venezia, "the first architectural endeavor of an Obama presidency." Setting aside the fact we were commissioned by the U.S. State Department under George W. Bush, and that the exhibition opened some weeks before November's election, we believe (and hoped, when we organized the exhibition together last summer) that the present moment will redefine the meaning of social space in today's American cities and neighborhoods. A generation of American architects are already playing an active role in this re-definition. These inspiring, intellectually entrepreneurial choreographies of collaboration deserve highlighting. Here, architects, expand the usual narrow definition of practice. Instead, they become activists, developers, facilitators of inclusive urban policies, as well as unique urban researchers.

With Barack Obama's new mandate in the U.S. election and the current world wide financial crises acting as forceful agents for change, maybe the stars are finally aligning in a propitious way. Perhaps they will force architecture to mitigate its current star obsessed approach, encouraging instead a new type of collaborative thinking about design and space that highlights local and even, edge conditions. Since large-scale public infrastructure projects in the United States are largely absent, local initiatives are necessarily becoming the empowered, dynamic arenas for exploring and generating new forms of sociability and activism.

No local initiative can succeed, however, without first exposing political jurisdiction and the conditions of ownership. Who owns the resources? Whose territory is it?

San Diego based architect Teddy Cruz has referred to this approach as the "radicalization of the local". 'Project Row Houses' in Houston, Texas and the 'Heidelberg Project' in Detroit, Michigan are two examples of the way in which grassroots non-governmental organizations reclaim the ability to shape communites and the built environment through the scale of individual neighborhoods. The Heidelberg Project, bearing the name of the street on which it exists, was started in 986 by Tyree Guyton. Though once racially integrated, many neighborhoods have become segregated urban ghettos characterized by poverty, abandonment, and despair. Armed with a paintbrush, a broom, and neighborhood children, the Heidelberg Project has transformed vacant houses and lots through inventive uses of refuse. Likewise, Project Row Houses develops housing, public space, facilities and programs for low to moderate income residents to preserve and protect the historic character of the Third Ward. Unprecedented development in Houston has resulted in the demolition of blocks of single-family bungalows and the dislocation of residents.

As the financial crises spreads around the globe, it's likely these locally-situated projects will be less affected than others. They rely on and generate different economies. Maybe now, architecture will have a good socio-economic alibi to rid itself of the obsession with so called 'parametric' computer modeling that has resulted in self-indulgent shape-making. The American Pavilion at Venice had an unusual sobriety to it this time around, in opposition to the Biennale as a whole, which The Guardian likened to a disappointing and decadent "fun palace."

Visitors were engaged with empowering stories about architects who, against all odds, have generated new approaches to architectural practice and social responsibility in adverse circumstances. Contrary to popular opinion, we felt that politics is in fact quite at home in Venice's Giardini and need not be associated exclusively with the far-right. (In keeping with that tradition the Lega Nord, a far right party in Italy, erected a large rally and scaffold this year at the Giardini's entrance on opening night).

We invited Estudio Teddy Cruz to cover the facade of the United States Pavilion with an epic image of its infamous and contested border with Mexico. Viewers literally and metaphorically passed through to gain entrance to the exhibition. The photomontage presents a 60 linear-mile section cutting across the Tijuana-San Diego border wall, at the most trafficked border checkpoint in the world, and contains the most dramatic issues currently challenging our recieved notions of architectural practice. This 'cut' begins 30 miles North of the border, in the periphery of San Diego and ends 30 miles South of the border, in the edges of Tijuana. We find along this trajectory some of the richest and poorest areas of North America. Teddy Cruz proposes that this complex terrain be thought of as a laboratory in which to reflect on the current politics of migration, labor and surveillance, and the tensions between urban sprawl and density.

Likewise, in selecting the work of Rural Studio at Auburn University it draws attention to the lack of recent investment in American public infrastructure (something Barack Obama has promised to address as president), and in particular in some of the poorest neighborhoods. Roughly one-third of this region's residents live below the poverty level, many without access to plumbing in trailers without kitchens, and more than one quarter of the population is currently receiving food subsidies from the government. The percentage of unemployed residents, at 13.1%, is more than double the average for the state, and over 33% of residents live with disabilities. Rural Studio have worked doggedly in this area close to two decades, providing dignified, community-based housing and municipal structures. As a university based programme, Rural Studio teaches its students that success as an architect depends on direct, social engagement with the community. As such, it leaves successive generations of empowered citizen-architects who are able to navigate their way through otherwise economic and political deadlock.

Of course architecture in the United States has lurched back and forth between social engagement and indifference since at least 1932, when the Museum of Modern Art exhibition Modern Architecture: The International Style highlighted - or, according to some critics, created - a split within the field. Conceived by historian Henry Russell Hitchcock, architect Philip Johnson, and MoMA director Alfred Barr, The International Style show presented modern architecture as the new style, imported from Europe, that had evolved from new materials and ideas about contemporary habitation. Arguably, the position espoused by Johnson, Hitchcock, and Barr defined the profession in North America from that time onwards. Branding, formalism, myopic obsession with the upper and middle classes: these are the hallmarks of the majority of American architecture. But was there ever an alternative outlook?

The historian Lewis Mumford, who had visited European housing projects throughout the 1920s, was asked to participate in the MoMA's exhibition section on housing. Mumford's argument that modern architecture had evolved out of social welfare concerns (such as the movement for decent housing for all segments of society) was in direct conflict with the exhibition's more formalist position. Mumford, however, continued to make his 'social' argument about architecture throughout the rest of the 20th century. It would be too simplistic to conclude that he lacked adherents and followers, but his approach has remained the minority view in architecture.

Indeed, it could be argued that the split between these dueling positions - between formal concerns and social engagement - remains one of the most important dilemmas for today's architects. Can the problem of where architecture is going ever be thought separately from the larger problem of community and public forms of solidarity? Must the ethical and the aesthetic always be in direct opposition? These questions are not just for philosophers. Our exhibition, Into the Open: Positioning Practice, and the practitioners we have highlighted clearly enters the fray and takes Lewis Mumford's side.

That's not to say form in architecture is unimportant. Nor do we believe, either, that architecture is simply "a social project full of rhetorical symbolism." Questioning traditional architectural methods does not mean dispensing with all of the values of architecture per se, but rather tackling each situation's unique complexity. There are increasingly more and more original ways that urban actors and agents take up the challenge of designing the conditions from which new architectures can emerge.

The Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) takes a broadly interdisciplinary approach to the investigation of land use and our complex formation and denigration of land through development. Their project, 'Post-Consumed: The Landscape of Waste in Los Angeles,' explores how garbage moves through the landscape of Los Angeles. Unlike liquid wastes, which drain down-slope to the sea, the tiny tributaries of trash, from millions of homesteads, collected by a fleet of thousands of trucks circulating in constant motion, hauling to nodes of sorting, distribution, reuse, and, finally disposal, flow up the canyons and crevices to the edge of the basin. In addition to researching a particular land use phenomenon or issue, the Center also organizes and conducts tours for school groups, museums and other cultural organizations.

At the turn of the 20th century, New York City had as many as fifteen floating bathhouses moored along the East and Hudson rivers. They were tied up to existing piers during the summer, usually near the tenement districts, and provided an opportunity for the public to bathe and learn to swim. Inspired by these historical floating bathhouses, the Neptune Foundation, Inc., a non profit organization, commissioned a Jonathan Kirschfield Architects to build a new type of movable swimming pool facility. JKA's 'Floating Pool Lady' opened in the summer of 2007 at Pier 4 Brooklyn, hosting over 50,000 swimmers during its first season. It is now temporarily docked in the Bronx and integrated into the Parks and Recreations Department of the City of New York.

The work of Design Corps creates positive change in communities by providing architecture and planning services. Conversations with farm workers, community members, government regulators and service agencies led Design Corps to recognize a need for improved bathroom facilities at migrant labour camps. An estimated 2,000-plus North Carolina migrant workers live in housing lacking adequate plumbing. Due in part to these unsanitary conditions, agricultural workers are forty times more likely to have tuberculosis. Furthermore, pollution of groundwater from improper septic systems poses health risks to the entire community. Recently, one of the most active and destructive hurricane seasons on record in Florida has complicated the lives of approximately 300,000 migrant farm workers. Their annual family income rarely exceeds $10,000 per annum and affordable housing is either severely limited or restricted to dilapidated mobile homes. Florida Legal Services began working with Design Corps, in consultation with migrant farmworkers, to design a manufactured housing unit specifically designed for hurricane resistance and the housing needs of Florida's farmworkers.

The Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP) brings together art and design professionals with community-based advocates and researchers to create projects ranging from high school curricula to educational exhibitions. Their public programmes mix design, research, politics, and entertainment to connect people who are usually kept far apart. In 2004-05, for instance, CUP worked with tenant organizers from Public Housing Residents of the Lower East Side (PHROLES) to create Public Housing Television (PHTV), a series of videos about critical issues facing public housing residents in New York City. PHTV employed animation, direct address, and sketch comedy to inform residents of their rights and to challenge the architectural stigma associated with public housing. The Subsidized Landscape (2003-05) is a project which includes photomontages, texts, and an interactive model that illuminate the complex workings of housing subsidies in the United States. As architectural research, The Subsidized Landscape explores how to visualize the relationship between public and private and the financial incentives that flow among tenants, investors, developers, and builders. These teaching tools are mobilized in CUP's Affordable Housing Workshops, where tenants learn about government mechanisms and become better advocates for their interests.

Last but not least, there's the work of Gans Studio, who, together with Estudio Teddy Cruz, helped us conceive of the idea for our Pavilion. Gans Studio's 'Roll Out House' is an urgently needed alternative to the current universal tarp used in refugee housing for populations displaced by environmental or political disaster. Hollow columns of various materials can support a roof or even a second floor, and make possible a domestically-scaled infrastructure of waste, water, or heat. The "roll out" houses can also be assembled in larger formations to cultivate the structure of a town. In this way, a physical and social infrastructure emerges according to new principles of "roll out" housing.

As we head to Venice in the coming days to take down our exhibition, perhaps we too are beyond the Biennial's enigmatic theme, "Beyond Building," tired at what has become little more than an empty slogan. However, the pertinent question surely is now that the Bienniale is over and its immediacy has waned, what happens next? We hope our preliminary showcase of America's alternative architectural practice acts as a stimulus, that in turn might see new forms of social participation emerge and flourish beyond our own imaginations.

New York, November 2008








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