The Oslo Architecture Triennale has established itself as a rich event of international dimensions – and international ambitions. The 2016 Triennale is entitled "After Belonging". It examines what it might mean to be at home in a world that is changing at an accelerating pace.
Robert Wilson visited the main events of the Triennale.
It´s a good thing that the Oslo Triennale is a three-yearly event, as otherwise the temptation to call this iteration ‘the AirBnBiennale’ might have been too much. For AirBnB – with all it symbolises technologically, socially and anthropologically – seems to stalk this Triennale, appearing as a direct referent, inspiration and player in several of the projects shown. Even the company’s tagline ‘Belong Anywhere’ seems to have been a trigger for the Triennale’s title After Belonging.
The subtitle: A Triennale In Residence, On Residence and the ways we stay in transit, is fleshed out thus in the introductory text: ‘Global circulation of people, information, and goods has destabilised what we understand by residence, questioning spatial permanence, property, and identity – a crisis of belonging. These transfers bring greater accessibility to ever-new commodities and further geographies.’ Not surprising, then, that the curatorial team had in mind the recent worldwide phenomenon of the AirBnB business model as a touchstone for some of this ‘crisis of belonging’ – although stating this destabilisation as a given, not as an open question for investigation during the Triennale, seemed problematic.
However, pointedly, the introductory text then continues: ‘But, simultaneously, circulation also promotes growing inequalities for large groups, kept in precarious states of transit.’ This underlines that the other clear progenitor of this Triennale, and in any question of ‘belonging’ today, is migration – an almost inevitable elephant in the room for any architecture festival looking to make itself relevant today, particularly in Europe, given the febrile politics around this issue at the moment.
Such richly variant veins of contemporary reference – from the technological to the geo-political – appeared to underline what the curatorial team at the opening press conference said was their interest in dealing with architecture as a subject for newspaper front pages, not just for the architectural press: a desire for finding contemporary relevance. The focus here is to look at the ‘transformation of the profession and its modes of working’, of ‘the architect not working in isolation’, and of architecture as building being in itself ‘not a solution’.
Effects and implications
The curatorial team for the 2016 Oslo Triennale is made up of Lluís Alexandre Casanovase Blanco, Marina Otero Verzier, Alejandra Navarrette Llopis, Ignacio G. Galán and Carlos Mínguez Carrasco (the only practising curator, working at Storefront New York), who together form the After Belonging Agency, or ABA for short. Five curators, all billed equally as ‘chief co-curators’, seems to be asking for trouble – too many cooks and all that. And as might have been expected, given that two of them are currently PhD candidates at Princeton, by the end of the opening press conference their joint explanation just served to make the focus and intent behind the Triennale more theoretically diffuse than before.
In particular their contention that ‘we don’t distinguish between the effects and the architecture’ and that the exhibition consists of ‘non-explicitly architectural things, with architectural implications’ seemed to cast the net dangerously wide for what they were intending to look at in a nominally ‘architecture’ Triennale.
It had all seemed so simple to start with. The title After Belonging, whatever its origins, seems a catchily straightforward, if inevitably glib, frame for the show – the type of title where you know roughly what it’s getting at, a fresh repackaging of the question of ‘home’, be this a vast and overworked subject. But with the zippy title graphics, littered with random international accents jumping around in differing combinations above and below the letters – graphics apparently inspired by the emails one used to get advertising Viagra and designed to get through Spam filters – this promised to be a Triennale curated with a fresh eye and a deftness of touch.
"It had all seemed so simple to start with. The title After Belonging seems a catchily straightforward, if inevitably glib, frame for the show."
The programme structure
Overall, compared with its previous iterations, the format of this Triennale has been ‘decentralised and extended over time’. It consists of a core programme of two main exhibitions: On Residence and In Residence – which includes 50 commissioned works and interventions happening in other cities; a conference (inspiringly held at Snøhetta’s Oslo Opera House), a week-long education forum and workshop The Academy, organised jointly with the Oslo School of Design AHO; and a major installation entitled The Embassy. The latter is an off-site installation by Jonathan Stael, which opens in November – its full title The New World Embassy: Rojava, designed as a stateless embassy for the Kurdish communities of the autonymous region of Rojava in northern Syria. This core programme is to be massively supplemented over the coming three months by an ‘extended programme’ at venues throughout Oslo, including events, workshops, exhibitions, talks and two further conferences.
A cabinet of curiosities
The focus of the two main exhibitions, On Residence analysing the ways in which ‘architecture participates and intervenes in our attachment to places…where do we belong?’ and In Residence looking at ‘…the objects we produce, own, share, exchange – How do we manage our belongings?’ set up a nice clear binary proposition to start with: from general overview to a more specific focus. This clarity slipped a bit on receiving the catalogue published by Lars Müller, impressive but rather difficult to navigate. It randomly mixes up projects from both exhibitions, in between essays, its layout complicating rather than helping to explain the curatorial structure.
On Residence, held at DogA, the Norwegian Centre for Design and Architecture, is an immediately noisy and immersive show. The exhibition design is striking: with graphics and elements of the displays dropping down from the ceiling. The projects are grouped into ‘five lenses or points of access’: Borders Elsewhere, Furnishing After Belonging, Sheltering Temporariness, Technologies for a Life in Transit, Markets and Territories of the Global Home. It is not always clear to which category the various projects belong, due to the free-flowing exhibition design – perhaps purposely ‘borderless’ – but also due to mission creep in the definition of ‘belonging’ and ‘architecture/s’ within the selection. That said, there is some fascinating content – although often more documentarily presented than analysed. A Wunderkammer of research – although, as with the Renaissance version, all somewhat randomly categorised and displayed.
One of the first projects as one enters the gallery is Movement as Civil Disobedience: Mapping Migration and Solidarity on Lesvos Island, which tackles the migrant crisis in Europe head on with a project that looks at the development and use of different networks at the height of the refugee wave during December last year. A screen shows an endless mobile phone feed of What’s App message updates, graphically relating the dramatic minute by minute arrival of boats of desperate people onto the beaches of Lesvos island. In addition, a series of Perspex maps outline the development of the key points of infrastructure that developed across the island to help the migrants – mainly organised ad hoc by local people – from registration points to medical care.
Other uses of online media, offering new networks, is seen in Pornified Homes by Andrés Jacque/Office for Political Innovation, a video that interviews and records two male Brazilian sex-workers in London describing the construction of their online profiles – ‘Brazilian’ being the most searched for category for gay escort services in the UK. Although less convincing, it compares this ‘exoticisation’ to that accorded to the arrival and cultivation of the giant water lily in late nineteenth century London.
Another website, finn.no, a local Craigslist, was used to source Found, a project by Superunion Architects. This is a dramatic installation of a tower of belongings: furniture and furnishings aquired over 24 hours, showing the instant ‘rehoming’ of possessions possible today via the internet.
Meanwhile, OMA – one of the rare big name architecture firms participating – working with local web consultants Bengler, show their project Panda: Empire of Disruption, a network for hacking and disrupting the ‘technologies of oppression’ of Uber and AirBnB. But aside from looking like lots of fun – with the creation of a Panda HQ replete with a cast-aside Maggie Thatcher rubber mask, appearing like a cross between a set for Reservoir Dogs and a Paul McCarthy installation – this feels like an easy swing at the sitting duck target of global tech companies as networks of control.
This easy critique of the low-hanging fruits of neo-liberalist polices runs through several of the selected projects. One project focuses on the wealthy, often Portuguese, ‘migrants’ buying up flats on the Ilhu peninsula outside Luanda, Angola; another on the almost industrial scale of operations of the cruise industry. The crude contrast between these two projects and others focusing on enforced migration, seemed to be lazy curating by simple juxtaposition. The main curatorial voice never really pulls the threads together or sticks its head above the parapet, just arranges things for the audience to draw their own conclusions.
On an introductory tour around the exhibition, Carlos Mínguez Carrasco explained that ‘architecture isn’t just about façades’, and certainly amongst all the ‘non-explicit architectural things, and architectural implications’ there is precious little actual architecture going on. One nod towards a conventional understanding of architecture is in a research project, The City of Islams by L.E.FT, which looks at 1400 years of the mosque as an architectural form. This is presented through a Nolli-like plan dotted with key historic examples of mosques sited and juxtaposed to scale on a city map, a graphic representation of a fascinating survey of hybrid commonality of form, and a representation of diverse communities.
"On an introductory tour around the exhibition, Carlos Mínguez Carrasco explained that ‘architecture isn’t just about façades’ ".
Meanwhile, in Pacific Aquarium by Design Earth, intricate Perspex models of large-scale human constructions – from abstract mega-structures to a fragment of mid-town Manhattan – hang upside down in a series of cubic aquariums, making some point that is not totally clear, but in a beautifully architectural way, while nonplussed-looking fish stare moodily on. Another project presents a satisfyingly scaled set of models: this time a miniature 3D record of all the islands currently at the centre of global border disputes around the world.
Indeed mapping – and big data-processing of satellite imagery – seems a favoured method for many architectural research projects to relay information throughout the exhibition. In Air Drifts the pollution rolling borderless around the planet is tracked, while In the Frontiers of Climate Change by Paulo Tavares, the burning and clearing of the Amazon rain forest for soya crops is mapped graphically. This installation traces how one of the main recipients for the soya – a load of which hangs ominously in a huge transport sack – are the fish farms of Norway, which produce a product for which the country has become internationally known – and which itself is creating environmental degradation. This is an installation raising and mixing the issues of contested land rights, earth and sea pollution, global economics and national identity in a potent way.
On Residence was billed by the curators as an exhibition ‘stretching from the scale of territory to that of the object’, but it mostly misses out the building in between. It seems that whereas in the 1980’s architects looked to literary theorists and philosophers, and in the 1990’s to artists and sculptors, now it is geographers, aid workers, documentary filmmakers and storytellers who are the new role models.
Indeed, the first speaker at the Triennale conference was the uber-example of this: Eyal Weizman of Forensic Architecture, whose work has now moved on from analysing the traces of conflict left on buildings in war zones in order to identify what happened and assign responsibility, to the scale of the territory and the map. Forensic Architecture are currently engaged in the analysis of environmental change and degradation on the global scale, and examining how this is contributing to localised conflicts on the ground in the regions affected. Very powerful stuff. Architects have always liked playing with models, of course, it's just that now, due to big data, it is suddenly possible to model the world.
A platform for reflection
The second exhibition, In Residence, on show at the National Museum – Architecture focuses on ten ‘sites’ around the world ‘that encapsulate current transformations of belonging’ – from self-storage facilities in New York, to a hostel for migrants in Oslo, to an AirBnB rental apartment in Copenhagen. This exhibition promised a bit more at the scale of building. It also promised to be more hands on, as the five chosen locations in Scandinavia were also the subject of an open call for site specific intervention strategies – showing how ‘architectural expertise’ could respond to ‘changing realities.’ Also, the exhibition structure here is clearer, with each ‘site’ introduced and described through a short commissioned report and a large format photograph.
Again, some fascinating and thought-provoking locations are included. One site is on the Russian-Norwegian border, explored here in the Boris Gleb Bar installation by Transborder Studio. In the 1960’s the Soviet travel agency set up a tourist compound with bar, cinema and off-license for the Norwegian construction workers building a local joint Soviet-Norwegian hydroelectric power plant. The Soviets allowed anybody from the Nordic countries visa-free access across the Iron Curtain to visit the bar – and enjoy cheap vodka and entertainment, but after a few months the Norwegian authorities resealed the border, suspecting that recruitment of informants was occurring.
Another ‘site’ is in the coffee-growing region of Risaralda in Colombia, where money sent back by the members of local families who have emigrated abroad has transformed houses and local buildings into a riot of tiling, balconies and colour. Another ‘report’ is from the ‘medical tourism’ hotspot of Dubai where seven star hotels and VIP suites are mashed up with operating theatres furnished in Louis XVI style.
"That the curators describe the exhibition as a whole as a ‘platform of reflection’ is telling, with specific sites and situations showcased rather than critiqued."
The most compelling exhibit is a film installation, Selling Dreams by Ila Bêka and Louise Lemoine, that follows a black ex-tax inspector around the house that he rents out via AirBnB, as he adjusts cushions and puts pictures straight ready for the next guests. As he does so he relates with surprising equanimity the rather tragic story of how renting out the home he shared with his wife led to a minor voyeuristic obsession – with them increasingly moving out to sit in hotel rooms to watch the ‘guests’ in their home on CCTV. This increasingly eccentric lifestyle led to the break-up of his marriage, and he has now started an AirBnB business in which he has erased all traces of himself from his own home, which is now furnished with stock photos from the internet of an invented family. The flat is designed to provide convincing traces, for those who stay, of the fictional owners: a ‘typical’ white, blond Scandinavian family.
This is great storytelling – unsurprisingly from the makers of the film Koolhaas Houselife – but the documentation through which most of the other ‘sites’ are represented is far less critical in their exploration. That the curators describe the exhibition as a whole as a ‘platform of reflection’ is telling, with specific sites and situations showcased rather than critiqued, presented as artefacts in an almost old-school ethnographic-type way.
Even with the five Scandinavian sites where ‘tactical interventions’ have occurred, these are mostly relatively hands-off – the Boris Gleb Bar installation, for example, consists of the collation of an archive and an unconvincing reconstruction of the bar in the gallery space, while two other examples involve the development of apps; one of which, called ‘Cher’, is designed for people to be able to rent possessions by the hour, a sort of micro-AirBnB.
One of the exhibiting architecture practices, Ruimteveldwerk, has assisted an asylum seeker in making a map of Oslo for other asylum seekers, in order to show the location of the key services they need. Another, Eriksen Skajaa Arkitekter, the most successful, practical yet poetic intervention, The Orchard, have designed and built an apple press at the Torshov transit centre for refugees in Oslo. Sited in an old orchard that acts as a place of relaxation for the temporary residents of the centre, the apple press has created a hub of communal activity, with people tending trees and collecting and pressing apples into juice. This intervention, unlike most of the others, does appear at least to have drawn on specifically ‘architectural expertise’ to make it happen.
From big data to self-build
The After Belonging conference followed the same trajectory, not focusing down too much on practical specifics and solutions but staying mostly at the global scale set by Eyal Weizman, with data-heavy research-led presentations and polemicist TED-type speeches giving insights – if not always particularly new ones – into the issues that frame our world and problematise our sense of belonging, from reliance on oil to neo-liberalist policies and global mobility.
There were exceptions. A presentation by Andreas G. Gjertsen of TYIN tegnestue underlined the importance in their work, which focuses on an ‘architecture of necessity’ and includes an orphanage and library in Thailand for refugee children. TYIN establish their office on site if they can, grounding themselves in the very context they are building for. Gjertsen made the refreshing statement after so much theorising that: ‘as architects we want to make stuff and stay as close to the materials as possible’.
There was also an inspiring presentation by Yasmeen Lari of the Heritage Foundation of Pakistan, the first speaker of the day to actually show an image of a building. In her practice she helps people dispossessed by natural disasters to develop simple models of sustainable and self-built housing, using locally sourced materials, in order to stop mass population displacement and allow people to remain in their own districts. Her work seemed straightforwardly practical, useful and real compared with so much else at the Triennale.
A triennale in transit
Overall, for an event billed as exploring ‘the ways we stay in transit’, it felt like the ideas behind this Triennale were kept in transit too, and never really curatorially pinned down – perhaps a result of having five curators. While there are comparisons to the current Venice Biennale in the nature of the subjects tackled, looking at the political, social and ethical context in which architecture needs to be made, in the case of Aravena’s Venice show there was a strong practice-based core that the Oslo Triennale is lacking, remaining too academic and research-based in focus.
"Overall, for an event billed as exploring ‘the ways we stay in transit’, it felt like the ideas behind this Triennale were kept in transit too."
While ‘Belonging’ seemed like a good strong hook to hang a Triennale off, it has turned out to be more like the single hook you have in your hallway where you end up having to hang everything. The curatorial direction here is too weak to clear thing up, although one thing that seemed to have been thrown out early on was actual built architecture. This is a problem. For while architecture isn’t just about façades, it is about façades too.
Like the hallway of Tutankhamun’s tomb, there are wonderful things here, but it is all still a bit of a muddle: over-thought and under-curated.