Yehuda Safran and Hashim Sarkis: A Dialogue on the Venice Biennale 2020
All is for all.
“The means of production being the collective work of humanity, the product should be the collective property of humanity. Individual appropriation is neither just nor serviceable. All belongs to all. All things are for all men, since all men have need of them, since all men have worked in the measure of their strength to produce them, and since it is not possible to evaluate every one’s part in the production of the world’s wealth. All things are for all!”
Peter Kropotkin, The Conquest of Bread (1892)
Manfredo Tafuri in his book, Architecture and Utopia (1973) introduced in the first few pages the expression: “sublime uselessness”. An expression he most likely pinched from Thomas Mann’s
Tonio Kröger (1903). Inspired as a critic of his friend Aldo Rossi and other members of the “Tendenza”, who were interested in
étienne-Louis Boullée’s pure geometries as idealized forms in themselves. Even though the cover of the book carried Aldo’s painting of “broken architecture”, there is no doubt that the dialectic between the useless and the useful characterize architecture from its earliest origins.
One could argue that the useful is merely the excuse for everything that became known as architecture. Nothing exemplified this dialectic more so than the Architecture Biennale in Venice, which only inaugurated in 1980 with Paolo Portoghesi as Director who introduced the Strada Novissima and the idea of the past as a more reliable source for contemporary architecture than any leap of the imagination. We sat in the office of the Dean of the architecture school at MIT, Hashim Sarkis who was selected as the Director of the 17th edition of the Venice Biennale of Architecture.
Hashim Sarkis: There is a certain continuity between the Biennales. There are many threads that you can see starting somewhere in a past Biennale and continuing into this one, just like I hope to start a few threads this year that continue into other ones as well. One thread that continues from past Biennales is the attempt to stitch a dimension of research into the projects. Meaning it is not just projects but some analytic work done by the universities and other organizations.
Yehuda Safran: Yes, sometimes it is ideologically very forceful. The first Biennale, Portoghesi’s Strada Novissima was a very forceful intervention.
H.S.: So, at that level, I feel there are hints or return back let us say to the commitments that Ricky Burdett presented and then that Rem Kolhaas presented to vast research “analytic of the fundamental”.
Y.S.: Yes, I can see this as an issue.
H.S.: It would not be primarily research. It is not Koolhaas or Burdett. It would be a research as a way to situate the projects. So, there would a component that would be research and that is university participation as well.
Y.S.: Do you have a strong belief in the social agenda promoted by architecture?
H.S.: I do, but it has a different set of components and it has a different approach than some previous ones. I feel that there is some continuity from times past; I think Kazuyo Sejima has had that commitment. Burdett has had that commitment.
Y.S.: I think you are right.
H.S.: David Chipperfield has had that commitment, even if in a different version, and I think you would see yet another version in this Biennale.
Y.S.: Oh, I can imagine.
H.S.: So, there would be that commitment, especially given the plan.
Y.S.: Sejima’s Biennale was particularly beautiful. I reviewed it in Abitare. I thought that she did a very beautiful job. One of the reasons was that she put herself in the center. But her own work is very beautiful. She made it a kind of crown-like effect, and everything was revolving around her own work. It was okay. The social message - architecture is where people meet, and so on - was nice but it was not really correct from a point of view of description. It was not. It was not the center. The center was purely architecture - pure architecture.
H.S.: Another message, which I think Alejandro Aravena has probably highlighted the most, is the social agency of the architect. And this one I think continues in this project, but in the statement I made a proposition that the architect can reclaim that position by being the convener and the custodian of the contract. And by “contract” I mean the spatial contract, the social contract, but also the architectural contract. I am introducing back a vocational dimension to what the architect does.
Y.S.: Yes, it is a question of the patron; as you know, Leon Battista Alberti says there are two privileges of the architect: one is the program and the other is the client. Meaning that you have to kind of massage the client... and then rewrite the program.
This is very important, because more often than not we have kind of a social organization that the client and the people that are actually acting do not even know how to order a pair of shoes, let alone execute an architectural project.
H.S.: I feel on that front, there is another dimension that has to do with architecture’s role as a host of other fields.
Moving away from the kind of monomaniac approach to architecture, especially towards the other arts. To be at once convener but host, and saying we orchestrate the other voices through architecture and through its ability to socialize and to be hospitable.
H.S.: So this notion of hospitality is a very important one for this Biennale.
Y.S.: Do you know the magazine Potlatch? The last issue devoted 85 pages to an interview with Vincent Scully. It is an extraordinary interview. He touches on those issues. He was instrumental at Yale in bringing in different architects like Louis Kahn.
H.S.: If I may say another dimension about this - what thread continues there - that is, a little bit on the difference in terms of the social agency of the architect. I also feel that it is through the optimism of building that we transform, and that we need to really connect with that optimism. Responsible optimism. But, the will and act of building is a very important thing. And I do feel also that there is a poetic dimension, which we hardly ever talk about but that will be up front and center at this Biennale.
Y.S.: Will it be?
H.S.: It will be. Another thread, I can say, is the extent to which the Biennale presents itself as being about Europe and the United States proposing to the world what the avant-garde is doing versus the rest of the world coming together to show from different angles, especially from the margins and from unheard voices, where the “new” is.
Y.S.: There was a strong presence of the Chinese and Japanese.
H.S.: It would be about the presence of the other voices in this Biennale, as well, as a way to…
Y.S.: …balance it…
H.S.: …and also to create a leveling …a more global equity. Africa will be very present; Central Asia will be present, Latin America. I am trying not to be directly working on making sure that everything is represented but by virtue of the theme - How Will We Live Together? -, it will be.
Y.S.: When you have “together”, what do you have in mind? It is a very strong word.
H.S.: We can start with the title. This is the first time that the Biennale’s title is a question, and an open question.
Y.S.: How is it so?
H.S.: It is a sentence with a question mark at the end. I feel like we can explain many things about the Biennale through the title. The How is a very operative question. We are looking for methods and approaches, architecture’s ability to solve certain problems through the “how”.
Y.S.: The know how?
H.S.: Yes. Will is both the future but also determination. The will.
Y.S.: A desire?
H.S.: We, the pluralist, multiple, is also very important but it is also inclusive. It is not cleaving people up. It is us.
Live is an important dimension because again here it has survival, which becomes important when we talk about the planet survival and also refugees and their lives. But it is also about life in an expanded definition with other species. That would be part of this Biennale. To “live” is to “thrive” but also to “inhabit”. The notion that living has to always be put as an architectural…
H.S.: Proposition. Not just as life in general. Or a biological one.
Together has to do with another architectural dimension, which is at once what is common, what is community, what is communal, but also what is universal.
? The question mark is about seeking answers and trying to ask every participant to take up their title as a direct answer to the question. But not one answer, many answers.
You know, the title is not a new question. Aristotle has asked it. Every priest has asked this. Every philosopher has asked this. Every marriage counselor has asked this. Yet it seems to me today, given the polarization that we are living in, it is begging an answer.
Bruno Latour is asking it. Roland Barthes has asked it. Others have asked the question. But I prefer the Aristotle version for a very simple reason: as he was trying to answer the social question, the political question, he came back to the spatial. The city. He could not separate the city from its politics. And actually, the political structure was following an urban structure.
Y.S.: The city is the work of art.
H.S.: Yes. His formulation is worth highlighting among other versions of that question. I also feel like we need a new spatial contract that rehearses, anticipates, and expresses a new social contract. But we cannot wait for the social contract and then put architecture in the servile role of simply representing it. I would like that Aristotelian formulation to determine the outcome.
That is how the question came about. That is how I am conceiving it in part.
The answer to it comes back to at one level a very practical problem and at another level, a way of curating, I guess. I was president of the jury two Biennales ago and I participated in others, and every time I visited the Biennale, whether art or architecture, I felt that the exhibition space was very big. At some point, your energy, but also the theme, reaches a limit of elasticity. You get exhausted. It gets fleshed out in ways that become a little bit - overreach. And it is natural, every Biennale - even the very well-curated exhibition sometimes has that in it.
Sometimes, thematically it can help you to have variety and to have pieces that question the theme; but the vast scale in Venice adds a dimension of exhaustion. I remember thinking to myself, “They should be able to shut down a wing or two. It would help”, so when the task came to me to curate it, I thought about that and they said “Hashim, you will soon see that as you begin to try to orchestrate it, it will fill up too soon and you will need more space”.
But before that happened, and they were right about that by the way, I thought that maybe a way of organizing would be to ask a question at different scales. To go from the planet, across regions, to communities, to the dwelling, but also to this, the interpersonal space or the space of the body in relation to other bodies. And so the exhibition now will be organized at these five scales.
Y.S.: Did you appoint an architect for the Biennale? Someone who will help you to create?
H.S.: To design the space? That is the task of the curator here. I am doing it. You are right. Sometimes the curators are not architects themselves and so they hire others.
Y.S.: Exactly. For example, the art Biennale usually does appoint an architect.
H.S.: In that space, I am doing it. There is a curatorial theme obviously.
I could say that there would be more fluidity, more clarity in terms of the organization, more of a connection to the historic structures. But there will also be more connection to the Biennale grounds. Meaning that the installation pieces will be also about improving on the larger grounds of the Biennale. They are not all freestanding objects.
Y.S.: Here you are touching on Carlo Scarpa’s territory.
He was very instrumental in doing such things at that time.
H.S.: And you will see there will be a little homage to Scarpa, which again I discovered inadvertently. I wanted to make an intervention in the flow of the space and discovered that Scarpa had made an intervention - which is very different - but still we identified a moment that he had identified as a key (region). What else can I tell you?
Y.S.: You never met him, did you?
Y.S.: You know, my friend Philippe Duboy published a book about all the exhibitions that Scarpa designed. It is an interesting book.
H.S.: I think the photographs of the space, and the sketches, come from this book.
Yehuda, given this scalar shift, I think this is the first time that the Biennale reaches out to the scale of the planet, and also that it goes to the scale of the body, the space that is, in a kind of conventional way, before architecture.
Y.S.: Whom would you associate with the issue of the planet in architecture?
H.S.: A lot of people have been fascinated with this question. Actually, I have just finished working on a book with Roi Salgueiro Barrio and Gabriel Kozlowski, The World as an Architectural Project which surveys since Élisée Reclus and Patrick Geddes to the present, architects who have taken architecture as a cosmic cause.
Y.S.: I love Reclus for many reasons. Also Patrick Geddes. The street that I grew up on as a little boy in Haifa, Mount Carmel, was designed by Geddes. I was very moved. He connected the street on the mountain with staircases, gardens…beautiful.
H.S.: So, I feel like there would be more range in this Biennale. There would be more landscape, more ecology.
Y.S.: Because you actually spent your life working between architecture and urbanism.
H.S.: And geography.
Y.S.: You did more urbanism, in fact, than architecture.
H.S.: My practice has primarily been architecture, but occasionally I have bigger projects. I think the connection between architecture and geography has been something I have been interested in more recently. And it comes out a bit in this Biennale.
Y.S.: Also, geography belongs to the theme of memory.
H.S.: Is this case very little. Even geography - physical geography - is very present.
Y.S.: Because one way of building the art of memory is geography. You can build it with buildings, as they did it in the Renaissance, but you can also build it with geography. At least, that is the way I teach my students: how to build for themselves the art of memory. I explain to them that if they connect everything the way it is connected in the geography of the world, then they can always travel in their mind and pick it up!
H.S.: What else can I tell you? I feel there have been a lot of revelations for me about what is happening in the world of architecture today. I think there is a better exercise to survey the field than to curate the Biennale.
It has been an important education for me, and I continue to learn every day in my interactions with the architects.
Y.S.: I understand.
H.S.: I have strategically left parts of the Biennale, until very recently, loose because I did not want to impose everything and I wanted to wait for the feedback from the architects.
For example, sometimes I thought it would be from “here to here” but then that section of the exhibition went from “here to there”. Sometimes, I was happy and I would shift with it. And sometimes it was too skewed, it gave me an opportunity to bring in others
to fill in the space. So that has been an amazingly helpful exercise. And the dialogue. I have done many iterations. It is a very iterative process.
Y.S.: It is not linear.
H.S.: It is not linear. I talk. I listen. At one level, I compromise. And then, change my mind. I talk again to a bigger bracket, bring it onboard, it shows me other dimensions, I shift again.
I am very careful. And now, I am becoming a bit more careful, with this opportunity in mind, of where my hand is, where my voice is, so as not to appear as if imposing. It is not a thesis, it is not a statement - it is a Biennale. That is very important.
In addition, you want the world to be present, with all its sounds, its contradictions, but you cannot present it as chaos. And how to work your way around that. How to make sure that you are not dictating too much, but that you are letting it to become too assertive. This is why I think scale of organization has helped and the question with very direct and literal answers.
Y.S.: Are you also in discussion with different countries to affect their own exhibitions?
H.S.: You propose the theme and they set up processes to choose a curator to deal with. But, unless they ask you…
Y.S.: You are out.
H.S.: Yes. And I like that, because also it creates another way for the theme to develop.
Y.S.: Yes, of course.
H.S.: But, at the same time, the organization of the world as nation-states, in the grounds of the fair, et cetera, is one more dimension of the challenge of the Biennale.
H.S.: And the Giardini, which is around where most of the pavilions are, is organized as a planet and across regions, across borders. It presents two alternative ways of looking at the world than the nation-state.
Y.S.: Yes. Well, there you have the Central Pavilion, the central pavilion for you. And then they are like satellites, very much so.
H.S.: So two scales would be in the Giardini, the planet and the regions; in the Arsenale, it will scale up from body, individuals - to communities.
Y.S.: I just came back from Lisbon and Porto promoting my book called I Have a Weakness for a Touch of Red (2019), which is a selection of all the things I have written on Portuguese architects and artists. In Porto, they had two fantastic exhibitions, one of Álvaro Siza in Serralves Museum.
H.S.: In the one he designed?
Y.S.: Yes. The other one is of Eduardo Souto de Moura in the Casa da Arquitectura. It is an amazing exhibition within a 60-m long hall with all his projects.
H.S.: Can we turn this interview around, or am I not allowed to do that?
Y.S.: Of course you are!
H.S.: Having looked at many Biennales, are there similar structural problems in the Biennale or challenges or do you see them changing completely from one to the other?
Y.S.: I think I see them as shifting. I think that one should never forget that the idea of the Biennale was not of architects but the idea of artists. The desire was to bring the world to them. To make the connection. That was the essence of the Biennale. The role of the Biennale of Architecture was very different. It really depends on the moment. I think the most extraordinary moment is the first Biennale, with Paolo Portoghesi. It enabled him to galvanize what he was occupied with, for better or for worse, you know? And that street that he devised became part of the collective memory of architecture. It was an enormous achievement.
Of course, Aldo Rossi, for the larger public, came out on that occasion. The Teatro del Mondo, which is one of his greatest things.
H.S.: Even today, if you say “Biennale” to anyone, these two images, the Strada Novissima and Rossi’s project, are the most memorable ones. The ones that stick in our mind.
Y.S.: Exactly. Portoghesi was kind of a funny figure. I met him several times. The best thing he has done in his life is his book Roma Barocca (1973). Two volumes. It is beautifully done, and there are quotes from Giordano Bruno, it is an amazing book. But, he himself is disappointing and the two mosques in Rome are not great works. He is a difficult figure because he played an important role but he himself remained more difficult to appreciate as such. Nice man, very captivating. That is how it is. I think that there are these moments. Other people afterwards found it more difficult to reach that crystallized moment. Hans Hollein was a provocative director. With an unerring sense of time and place.
H.S.: You were asking about the design, I can tell you another dimension. I am relying on the other arts to help in carrying this message of hospitality and collaborating with graphic designers and artists to shape the space.
Y.S.: You know, David Adjaye designed one of the recent Art Biennales. That was strongly designed and very good. I have published a conversation with him on his role in that Biennale. Published in THE PLAN.
H.S.: Unfortunately, the curator, Okwui Enwezor, passed away.
Y.S.: I know. I knew him because I was invited to his Documenta. I was there with Stefano Boeri, who was the editor of Abitare and did something about refugees from North Africa arriving in Sicily. So, Boeri brought me to his project and I met Enwezor at Documenta, among many other places. Very good director.
H.S.: You mentioned Portoghesi and the strength of that moment, seeing the Strada Novissima and the message that it carries. And I was invited by Terence Riley for a new “Strada Novissima” that he did in Shenzhen, China.
Y.S.: Oh really?
H.S.: To design one of the pieces. It was a fun exercise, because you have to go back to all of the values that the Strada Novissima embodies and say, “where are we with those?”. The façade, the street, the neoclassical elements, the iconography of the façade.
But one thing I want to say, and this is very important what you are saying about the distinction between art and architecture. In the art exhibitions, the art is there. In architecture, the architecture is not there. And therefore you have to work very hard to attract people to come and see a representative aspect of the architecture. Artists do not have to worry about that. That is much more of a challenge for architecture.
Y.S.: Absolutely right.
H.S.: And the other thing is, in terms of audiences, the Architecture Biennale only recently - I think after the Koolhaas Biennale - became six months long. Before that, it was two or three months. Now it is the same length as the Art Biennale. And it has increased its audience, it is now up to close to 300,000; but the Art Biennale is still at 600,000. Double.
Y.S.: There is more to see!
H.S.: But also the Art Biennale attracts the patrons, the artists, the collectors, the museums, the galleries, the art dealers. Everybody in the art world. You can also see the lineup of yachts on the Grand Canal. It is a very different audience.
The Architecture Biennale heartened me a lot. It gives me motivation. Half of the people who come are not architects. And half of the people who come - not the same half - are 25 years and younger. You have to cater to that. Or at least to the young.
H.S.: We have to present what is best about architecture to the world through the Biennale. I have encouraged the national pavilions’ curators by telling them: as much as I know you want to share your problems, tell us what is best about your experiences; as much as we want it to be about your unique experiences, tell us about what you can share; as much as you want to promote architecture, let us elevate it.
In parallel, one of the main challenges when you speak to a broader audience is how to expand the audience without diluting the message and without architecture losing its material and aesthetic specificity.
Y.S.: You are absolutely right. By and large, the public for architecture at the Biennale is outside architecture.
H.S.: Which is great! I feel like this is empowering, if anything. It is a bigger responsibility.
Y.S.: It is a positive quality.
H.S.: I also feel that we should go back to not to just extending the time but extending the size. The size of the Biennale has changed, it has become bigger and bigger. As a response, the idea of the five smaller exhibitions within the larger exhibition. But there is also something else that has happened as a result of the scale. You cannot maintain the tempo to be the same. A certain rhythm and scale have to be added. So, I am using several techniques to vary the exhibitions. At the research dimension comes the project so that you can have… kind of…
Y.S.: Moments, reflections…
These are the kinds of things I am thinking about right now. We are advanced. We have to be. I feel a bit fortunate because I have been given a slightly longer period of time than usual to think about it and get it going. It allows me to introduce complex dimension, to talk about larger collaborations, etc. That is it.
I do feel in this moment - by now, we are in the second layer of aestheticization of dystopias. It is awesome. In a world, which is very polarized, where everything we talk about is a very deep division. I am relying on the optimism of architecture, which is, let us face it, we are condemned to optimism as architects. I am relying on that to bring the discourse about.
Y.S.: In some sense, architects more than anybody else have to keep utopian measure; otherwise, there is no horizon.
H.S.: And so, I feel like this is the moment for architecture to say, “Can we use the spatial contract to lead the new social contract?”
Y.S.: Well, it is a tall order, because a social contract is something far from simple and very difficult to achieve.
H.S.: But what is beautiful about architecture is that in every typology, even in every archetype, there is an imagination of life today.
Y.S.: Well of course!
H.S.: Shaping it, orchestrating it, imagining it. Also we are talking about geography. Paul Vidal de la Blache has a very beautiful distinction between causality and something else he says, which is “possibilism”. That geography puts in front of us choices, and we choose.
Y.S.: I just read this book on Alexander von Humboldt, beautiful book by Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature (2015).
H.S.: It is a very good book!
Y.S.: It just came to mind apropos of geography.
H.S.: And von Humboldt is very present in this Biennale. You will see him.
H.S.: Yes, yes. You will feel him. What I want to say is that discussion of possibilism I like a lot because it positions architecture in a very powerful way that it does not dictate, it does not impose.
Y.S.: It explores the potential. And then several people connected here also on that geography and biology and all that. Prince (Peter) Kropotkin wrote Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (1902), one of my favorite books. You must read it. It is amazing.
Actually, he wrote several books, one of them his autobiography. Because he started from a similar point to von Humboldt. A bit later. Because in his own survey of flora and fauna of Siberia, he came to the conclusion that the species do not survive by being stronger or more adaptable but by mutual aid.
H.S.: That is a very strong ethical dimension.
Y.S.: Exactly, and that is the title of this book, which in France had enormous influence. All these anarchistic tendencies were developed from him. Even now, the most important trade union in France is called “Aide Mutuelle”.
H.S.: I have been very fascinated with geography, and as a result - I do not know if you know - the journal New Geographies that I founded at Harvard with a group of my students. I have been fascinated by it for a variety of reasons but one of them has a lot to do with…when I have seen architects connect with geography, it has been at once a modest way of expanding the impact of architecture, but also elevating the dimension of that which is to be at once in the place - and outside it. Because, ultimately geographers are not about the locality, even though much of it is about the specificity of the locality. It is about the world; it is about the cosmos. And the founding text of von Humboldt is Cosmos.
Y.S.: The overworld view. The connection.
H.S.: And that is one of my aspirations for this Biennale.