Geoffrey Fox

Reflections & Inquiries

Impermanence, solutions and ephemeral cities

2020.08.30 - Tags:

I wrote these notes four years ago, but — for some reason I don’t remember — never published them. Still relevant, I think.

This year’s Biennale di Architettura, Venice [2016], invited architects from all parts of the world to confront the great social tensions of our day — leaving it to the invitees to define them. Thus instead of spectacular designs or stylistic innovations for luxury dwellings, buildings or private or semi exclusive spaces, we see a wide range of solutions to very specific local or regional problems. Or in some cases just ironically commenting on some unaddressed social issue, in the Polish pavilion’s delightful exhibit of videos of construction workers in the towers of Poland’s new capitalism, overworked, often underpaid and unprotected but fiercely proud of their work and skills.

The range is enormous but the issues they address include: climate change, extreme poverty, inequalities of services and life chances, destruction of familiar and sustainable habitats, pollution, and the refugee crises resulting from all of the foregoing. The solutions are sometimes ingenious and sometimes ingenuous, using imagination and usually modest materials. We were especially impressed by these:

Paraguayan architect Solano Benítez‘s creation of a system whereby minimally skilled workers using locally available wood and bricks can quickly erect big sturdy arches to sustain multistory buildings, addressing both employment and housing needs.

Norman Foster’s “droneports” to facilitate delivery of goods to remote areas in the interior of Africa, requiring only a mold for sections of a dome of mud that can be made large enough to shelter market and other activities besides drone landings.

The “forensic architecture” or reverse architecture of xx, the meticulous examination of bombing debris including blood splatters and the size and location of the bomb’s entry point to determine who launched it — a subject of heated counterclaims in many war zones, including Pakistan and Kashmir.
The conversion of wide, unlit and fenced-off areas in underserved and low-income sections of Medellín, Colombia, into illuminating and welcoming public recreational parks.

The examination of “ephemeral urbanism”, an increasingly common and large-scale phenomenon: refugee camps, mass religious festivals, protest encampments —15 May in Spain, Gezi Park in Istanbul, in Cairo etc., temporary UN bases in many parts of the world, music and other festivals that put up “cities” with food, medical and other services, long-lasting labor camps around mines, etc. That exhibit questions whether and how their structures and infrastructures may be turned into permanent assets for the cities or rural areas when they leave.