DIARIES OF A BIENNALISTA (Or: how I survived visiting 6 architecture biennales in two months) 

DIARIES OF A BIENNALISTA (Or: how I survived visiting 6 architecture biennales in two months) 

1 September 2022

“What’s the point of another architecture biennial?”

Many of us heard this remark at opening parties, waiting in line for another free spritz. And while it may be a fair question, it is only a fair question the first time. If the last 15 years recorded the proliferation of biennials there must be a reason – and asking, “What’s the point?” a second time means that you just didn’t do your homework.

I studied biennials and triennials for years. I learned how they attract people and investments, how they exhibit, how they differ and compete. I learned how they cheat, sometimes. After two years of delays, 2022 marked the reopening of many events. I am about to embark on a European tour to visit 6 biennials in 8 weeks. A Biennalista. This is my diary.

Chapter 1 – Tallinn

2 September 2022

Covid gave me way too much time with myself. Too much reflection, too much introspection. Some people locked themselves into a room and had a great time, but I’ve crawled out of the pandemic feeling like I haven’t really learned anything new. 

Screens didn’t work for me; pixels don’t allow the information to sediment into knowledge. I need to be there, to read the room, to absorb discussions. The banter with the speakers, a beer after.
I wanna get back into the game, but the streak of *iennials (biennials and triennials) opening in the next weeks kinda scares me: Do I still have the energy to engage in all that

I will never have the answer, I can only dive head-first. I’ll take it as a stress-test.

I reach for VOLUME 54 On Biennials, the issue I edited in 2019. There was a diagram showing the intersections of 11 international events; that’s a good start to plan my European ping-pong.

The Tallinn Architecture Biennial should be the first one; Oslo and Timișoara open the same weekend – I pick Romania, I was an advisor there. Rotterdam is low-hanging fruit, Tbilisi maybe a long shot; Lisbon intrigues me, never been, so their conference will be the wrap-up.

6 September 2022

I’ve been in touch with the Tallinn biennial press office for a few days, after receiving a press release that felt as warm as a personal invitation: Jesus Christ, automated marketing tools are getting too good. It takes me a few emails to understand that their press budget is already gone – so no travel expenses, but they still have a hotel room available. Better than nothing, I ponder, I’d go anyway for this topic!

The complex relations between food and architecture are the focus of Edible – Or, The Architecture of Metabolism, the 6th Tallinn Architecture Biennial. The theme had already caught my attention before the pandemic, when the two curators were announced, for personal reasons. Fresh off my Master’s (in architecture), my career took a sharp detour: in 2017 I co-founded a FoodTech start-up with another friend, later incubated in the Copenhagen School of Entrepreneurship. Our angle was food waste; for years we had been involved in local initiatives – I can proudly name the two times I left food on my plate – and we saw the opportunity to scale up/speed up our efforts through the use of artificial intelligence.

When I saw architects stepping into food-related challenges, their responses never really satisfied me; I still remember graduation projects that, after months of research, came up with pink-lit skyscrapers to grow lettuce in the middle of London: “It can provide food to 900 people…” No, my dear, maybe it can provide a fucking lettuce to 900 in a city of 9 million – and in the most expensive plot on the globe! AAAAAARGH!

Sorry, but the thought still gets my blood boiling. Breath…you are going to Tallinn… they will have real solutions there, an inner voice reassures me.

I have very short notice to get organized, the opening night is 2 days away. The only flight compatible with my shallow pockets leaves after the vernissage, but I still can attend the 2-day symposium with most of the selected participants. 

That’s alright, the inner voice tells me, and I know arriving late wouldn’t let me break rule #1 of biennials: don’t judge an exhibition by the opening. The race between content and free drinks permits only one result – I learned it much to my cost in 2012, after building the Canadian Pavilion in Venice. 

8 September 2022

I hop on the plane while Schiphol airport is still waking up, but the free-coffee machines work around the clock (yes, there are!). The trip I booked forces me to stop in Helsinki, and while I sip the third cappuccino of the day I realize that I’m sitting 88 km away from my final destination. I am not a flight-shamer, but I do feel guilty. There is water in the middle, ok – but for an 88 km flight you don’t need a plane, a catapult is enough. But my sky-high hopes trump every sign of guilt: I gotta go because I’m sure Tallinn has solved food systems!

As the wheels touch the ground I’m already on my way to the symposium, hyped like a door-to-door salesman on cocaine; I register, throw my trolley somewhere dark and bow down, palms to the ceiling, ready to receive the long-awaited answers. 

But I missed the intro sermon, I don’t know the liturgy, and my attention is exceptionally volatile. For the first few minutes, words reach my ears but don’t make it up to the brain, like wild salmons on their day off. Maybe my expectations are too high, or maybe I’m overdosing on caffeine. 

To retrieve some sort of cool I try to focus on the venue – it is impressive, how come I didn’t notice it. We are surrounded by a metallic maze of pipes, stairs, and suspended passages, two hidden blue-and-orange spotlights create a wonderfully mysterious atmosphere. I can’t say if it is planned, but when looking up a soft mist torn by the two ultralight beams appears, like the depths of a forest; this is some concert-type of scenography – and so I wait, expecting Kanye to pop up from the heavy machinery. 

But no Kanye shows up on stage, my euphoria finally fades, and I manage to take my first look at the program. Despite my long-lasting interest in the topic I have never heard some of the names. It must be because curators Lydia Kallipoliti and Areti Markopoulou operate in different geozones: Markopoulou is the Director of IAAC in Barcelona (Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia), an interesting talent-pool when it comes to applying new technologies, and Kallipoliti in based on the East Coast of the United States, where she made a name for herself teaching at the most prestigious architecture universities. 

The different milieus of the curators emerge interestingly throughout the selection of speakers: together with academics from Europe and the US, there is a strong representation of innovative business ventures, a mix that I have hardly ever seen in an event with architecture in the title. When catching the presentation of Allison Dring (CEO of Made of Air, a carbon-capturing company), I immediately think, She is not an architect – and I mean because she is spot on. No beating around the bush. No useless details, no convoluted periphrasis or hunger for neologisms. People from the start-up world know how to pitch an idea; they know how to pick words that make you fantasize – and rest assured, their company is turning your fantasy into reality, right now. 

My years in incubators whisper that I should be suspicious of these tactics, but I want to believe that the biennial has done its due diligence and these are all credible projects – so I lean back and let myself be nurtured by their hopes and dreams (and companies). And it is rather uplifting. 

Let’s face it: many of the urban challenges of our time have been picked up by people that have never studied the dynamics of a city – but this should only push architects and planners to venture more into the world of innovation, not just sitting outside and sulking. Mitchell Joachim, architect and founder of Terreform ONE, is a good example of this courageous attitude: on stage he showcases a great ability to appeal alternatingly to the general public, to business investors, or to an architectural audience.

Incommunicability.

But as this term hits my mind, the architecture world has a great chance for immediate redemption. “For thousands of years mankind used clay as a building material…” say Columbia professors Lola Ben Alon and Sharon Yavo Ayalon, and I listen distractedly, “…but not many of you know that in Haiti they use clay to make cookies…”

Wait, WHAT?

“…although they have no nutritional value…”

I want clay cookies, where are the cookies.

“…for centuries people ate baked clay…”

WHERE ARE MY COOKIES. Tension. 

“…so with our students we made edible clay cookies…”

I – WANT – MY – COOKIES – RIGHT – NOW. The climax of a gangster movie.

“…we tried different consistencies, textures…”

BITCH BETTER HAVE MY COOKIES, like Rihanna sang (kinda).

“…we studied the practice of geophagia…

Talking, talking, talking for 10 interminable minutes – and still, no cookies.

I mean, your lecture has one of the most memorable beginnings, and you blow it by over-explaining it? You see, that’s what I mean: if you had a start-up, you’d have handed us cookies already, 100%. Locked and loaded baby! Bam: millions from VCs, raining like it’s the UK. You goddamn architects, when will you learn the power of anecdotes!

The day proceeds without cookies, nor any particular highlights. The biennial has organized a dinner for the press, and the walk to get to the restaurant gives me the opportunity to see how much Tallinn has changed since 2017. That was the year I had taken a road trip through the three Baltic republics, to realize that, culturally, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia have far less in common than I expected; their landscape and size are comparable, and so is the aversion to Moscow – in particular in Estonia and Lithuania; less in Latvia where 25% of the population is ethnically Russian – but that’s about it. 

So, since the collapse of the Soviet Union the three countries separately embarked on ‘nation-building’ missions: each one has restructured its national identity, rediscovering (or sometimes creating) their foundational myths, and designing what they want to be remembered for.

Estonia decided to present itself as a young democracy that embraces technological innovation for both governance and private business, and in doing so gained worldwide recognition with the nickname e-Estonia. The repositioning of the country has attracted global attention and foreign investments, and Tallinn is the symbol of this success: a cashless city that spent a lot in micromobility, infused with a special creative energy with cranes dotting the skyline. 

Another interesting element of this nation-branding campaign is pushing Estonia toward the Nordic sphere of influence (by Nordic we mean Scandinavia+Finland). In Tallinn you encounter countless Nordic references, in signs, billboards and even menus, all claiming, “Look at us, we are with Finland now, not with the others”. This shift is highly strategic: indeed to break free from the imprecise idea of ‘Baltic’ – but especially to gravitate toward a part of the world identified by economic stability, efficient services, and good design. Industrial areas beside the old center are undergoing redevelopment, with residences, offices, and public spaces winking at the style of its northern cousins. 

I have the feeling that architects really do design here; they don’t have to reinvent themselves as graphic designers or writers (sigh).

9 September 2022

The following day opens with a strange realization: I am almost the only press correspondent left at the symposium – all the others have either gone on an organized bus-tour, or are strolling around in the sun. These things always get me mad: what are you gonna write about the biennial if you missed half of the projects’ explanations?

…and then the media complain about the lack of trust.

Anyway, the first day has offered me no cookies but some interesting insights, so I decide that I won’t go to the biennial exhibition today, I’ll focus on the presentations. Despite the well-parked fleet of e-scooters outside, time would be too tight. Better tomorrow. 

From the people on stage it seems that the Fab-Lab ethos is having a resurgence – it was promising back in the 2010s but I lost track of it. Many of the projects have been developed within the context of IAAC, but as much as I’m intrigued by the application of technological advancements, these often leave me with a bitter aftertaste: the food aspect seems to be stitched on, a posteriori. Like, do you really need to 3D-print facade panels to put strawberries into them?

They look like solutions looking for a problem. Like that pink skyscr… oh no not again! Breath. I simply think that [inhale] the team maybe has focused more on the technical details rather than on the concept [exhale].

‘Fab-Lab tinkering’ is one of the two macro-trends that I am starting to notice. The second tends instead to understand food in strictly metaphorical terms – the metabolic exchanges of a city, the inflows and outflows – but with limited relevance to food per se, including the final keynote of Beatriz Colomina, always fascinating but slightly off-topic. Some speakers fall into the trap of organic food nostalgia, the pastoral myth of ‘the way things used to be’, but interestingly, their projects do not always follow the same conservative trajectory. Are they saying these things to please the crowd? That’s never a good sign: food is becoming ideology. 

Then, two guys take the floor: there is something off in their posture, cloaked in oversized sweaters, like they don’t fully belong. When they say their research has been prepared by mixing three ingredients – artificiality, desire, and alienation – I know I am looking at two Strelka alumni. Sharp, witty, caustic, they go by the name Black Almanac. One of them pulls out a script that sounds as thick as molasses and as pungent as Roquefort, a dense concentrate of high references, etymologies, and punchlines that they must have learned from their mentor Benjamin H. Bratton during the year in Moscow. Reading from the podium through his small, rounded glasses, the speaker calls out what he dubs “agrarian simulations”, the invention of traditions, promoting an accelerationist attitude to embrace the ever-present technologic alienation of our food systems, in the name of transformation.

Ten minutes of well-choreographed speech, and you don’t know what hit you (if you tried to follow). I make a mental note to talk to them at the end – I fear that their position won’t reap them any particular success with this audience (and I am right). 

Rather than their provocations, it is the depth of their reflections that struck me, the ability to hover over disciplines and weave seamless threads between fields; fields until then unrelated and unrelatable

I’m a sucker for this type of research. I will admit that it is not for everybody, and it often risks making some people feel dumb (including other speakers), but if this is the result, so be it.

It’s still September, but I have food for thought for the entire winter.

10 September 2022

I wake up early to visit the Estonian Museum of Architecture, finally ready to experience what people have been describing to me for the last two days.

Exhibition designer Sofia Krimizi has subdivided the space using colored strings that connect the floor to the ceiling. The effect vaguely reminds me of the web-like spaces of Chiharu Shiota, but here the density of the threads does not try to gain a spatial presence. 

I always found it fascinating to see an exhibited project after I’ve heard of its genesis: some carry a surprising strength in the translation from story to artefact (like the rice sculptures of Mitchell Joachim), while others make you thankful to have listened to the explanation. 

An enigmatic conglomerate of levigated stones sits at the center, the work of Andrés Jaque/Office for Political Innovation, who unfortunately were not at the symposium. I heard that their piece really came alive during the vernissage, an artistic performance that now makes me regret my late flight.

I am still alone – I was the first ticket of the day – but the space is not quiet at all: silence is broken by an impressive kinetic installation by Caroline O’Donnell (Ecological Action Lab, Cornell University), in which a complex mechanism of weights and drops, suspended in mid-air, spills water rhythmically into a pool below.

Many of the participants decided to exhibit their research samples: some laid out on a table, some in petri dishes, some arranged vertically. The most convincing effort to compile a complete taxonomy is the installation of Ben Alon and Yavo Ayalon, who displayed their studies on clay in a long plexiglass matrix, from building material to edible clay. 

That’s where I finally find them – the objects of my desire for the past 48 hours, the great joke that never got to the punchline, my Estonian coitus interruptus: an array of clay cookies, 4 lines of 15, neatly arranged by color! 

This section is not protected by plexiglass, the display is open: is this an invitation? I look around, still no one, so I snatch two baked cookies, one brick-red and one chalky-white, and I run outside on the grass, my heart pounding like when I first stole candies from a supermarket.

I can’t believe I am holding them in my hands: little discs of 4-5 cm in diameter, their look is the telltale of a previous liquid phase, with a little pointy tips like when the spoon leaves the meringue. They look more appetizing than I thought.

Before I can wonder wtf, I take a bite of the red clay one.

Crack.

Flavor doesn’t exist, but the chew is exactly how you would expect it: sandy bits grind through your molars, making a squeaky sound that reverberates straight into the brain. Jesus Christ they gotta be damn poor in Haiti, is the only thought I hear through the noise.

I give the white cookie a try. It must indeed be chalk, it crumbles better than the red one, but the resulting dust coats the tongue with an impenetrable film, a waterproof layer that kills the purpose of salivating. 

As I said, I take pride in remembering the two times I left food unfinished.

I mean, three times.

[A few weeks later – more or less when I finally digested the infamous Haitian delicatessen – I have a long call with Triin Ojari, the Director of the Estonian Museum of Architecture. When our paths crossed, I was always left with the impression of a very competent and witty professional, so when she asked me what I thought of the biennial I was very happy to give her my honest opinion.

The number of visitors was satisfactory, she said, the media reception had been positive, but the local architecture scene had expressed some discontent with the development of the topic – too academic, too abstract, too… flibbertigibbet. Was this something to keep in mind, to steer the following edition toward pragmatism?

My opinion was completely different: first of all, you should never evaluate the performance of a topical biennial at the end of the exhibition. A topical biennial has the ambition to produce a body of knowledge about one specific point – food, in this case – and that’s why it is legitimate to put its international reputation ahead of its local reception. A topical biennial isn’t just a display of works. It aims at driving the debate, and to do so it prioritizes depth over concentration. A better indicator would be how many catalogues have been sold worldwide, or how many times they have been picked up in university libraries over 10 years. 

A good topical biennial reverberates through time.

Moreover, since the architecture market in Tallinn is florid, the biennial – a publicly funded event, with the support of the Ministry of Culture among many other institutions –  should not follow the money but rather lead the discussion on a cultural level, to compensate for the systemic push toward construction. Given the circumstances, the Tallinn Architecture Biennial didn’t only have the liberty, but I would almost say the obligation to rebalance the scale; it shouldn’t just please its potential target audience, but challenge it to stay sharp.

I saw that Triin took notes. 

I mean, a different angle is exactly what you’d expect from a Biennalista.]

A Magical Mansion in Chongqing

0