World of Cities
The biennale offers up serious points of reflection. The world's population has concentrated in urban areas. Only ten percent lived in cities in the 1900s, while half of all people on the planet today are urban dwellers. The United Nations projects this will increase to 75 percent by 2050.
These statistics remind us of the interconnectedness and continuing fragility of the world. Seventy-five percent of carbon dioxide emissions originate in cities; 29 percent of London's inhabitants belong to ethnic minorities; 42 percent of Cairo's population is under 20 years old; Mumbai's density is 88,000 residents per square mile (34,000 per square kilometer), and 85 percent of its population uses public transportation to get to work.
"How we choose to shape our cities, buildings, and public spaces — as architects, urbanists and city-makers — will determine how we respond to the challenges of climate change and address human rights, justice, and dignity for billions of people," Burdett said.
The responses of architects and projects remained practical and pragmatic — a sanitation project in Mumbai which addresses one of the city's most critical needs; upgrading city spaces in London through the 100 Public Spaces Programme; four Bogotá libraries which are the most intensely used in Latin America; and Tokyo's Cool Island Projects to develop parks and green spaces that provide "cooling winds" to combat the heat of the concrete jungle.
The U.S. post-Katrina exhibit, "After the Flood," presents storm-proof projects, including some innovative, but impractical-looking floating cube houses. Other city projects included removing height restrictions in Tokyo to increase density — building up rather than out.
The message of the exhibits remains one of hope and responsibility. "Architects cannot remove people from the equation," said architect Massimiliano Fuksas, a speaker at the biennale's "Conversations" organized for the occasion. He criticized the exhibit for being too dry and too focused on statistics, but he conceded that as architects "we can or rather must, have an effect on the community."
Fuksas, designer of Ferrari's headquarters and the new Milan Trade Fair, echoed the theme of the biennale. "How can architects help many different people live together without killing one another, without insulting one another, with respect and resources for all?"
Architects Zaha Hadid and Rem Koolhaas and sculptor Anish Kapoor and others also explored the theme in the "Conversations," held shortly after the inauguration. Koolhaas stated that, "today we have a dialog on cities that we would not have had five years ago. We are the first generation of architects that has had a direct experience of working in so many urban systems at one time."
One exhibit states: "as growth continues in urban areas, so do the challenges that accompany it. Cities are the pressure points of the flows that shape our world." As centers of migration, capital flows, and political movements, the statement continues, cities must respond first to deepening crises like cultural conflict and environmental degradation.
The exhibit claims that the challenges, though universal, must be addressed locally. "Designers have a role to play," it states and asks, "will it be a merely aesthetic approach, privileging object over context?" Or will it be to "shape the spaces that stimulate democracy, justice, sustainability, tolerance, and good governance?"
The biennale as a whole seems to take the position that well designed buildings and responsive urban design can foster cohesion. São Paolo provides an example with 100 new schools that open to the public after hours providing city youth an alternative to violent street life and reducing crime in surrounding areas.
Bogotá, Mexico City, and Caracas demonstrate similar examples with sports and arts facilities, and Mumbai offers a level of dignity and improved health to its inhabitants with its sanitation units. These have transformed the way people live in and engage in their cities.
The biennale will close on November 19, 2006 with an "Agenda for XXI Century Cities." Drawn from research, workshops, and explorations, the ambitious agenda can be a tool for those who establish or take part in the management and building of urban areas.
"The welfare of nations is linked to the evolution of cities," the Arsenale exhibit concludes. "As people concentrate in megacities of ten million or more, so do the by-products of social and economic development: poverty and wealth, death rate and illiteracy, energy use and pollution."
Understanding the effects of city growth on people and the environment has become a necessity as the links between architecture and society become more complex and more fragile. The responsibility falls to city-makers and designers to anticipate urban growth and contribute to a more just, sustaining, and sustainable world.
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Debra Moffitt is an American writer based in Europe.