Speech by Alice Bah Kuhnke at the opening of the Nordic Pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2016
Venice, 26 May 2016.
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Excellencies, Dear friends,
We live in a rapidly changing world – with many anxieties. Capital flows freely across borders, people flee from their native countries, established democracies are challenged by division and political extremists, authoritarian regimes are rolling back freedom of expression. And last but not least: Climate threat presses for changes on all levels of society. This seems to be a time of transgressions of a sort that forces us to reconsider the fundamentals of society and of human values.
The Nordic exhibition in this biennale puts forth important architectural work seen through the lenses of three themes: Foundational, Belonging and Recognition.
These themes seem to me to be addressing crucial questions of this disturbed time. In an urbanised world architecture has become the living environment on which we depend so much in our daily lives. Quality in architecture has become crucial to the quality of life. And in this fluid age architecture may have a pertinent contribution by the sheer fact of its slowness, its relative permanence, its "longue durée": being a more still point in the rapid flow of Time.
Architecture is not only a shared environment; it is also necessarily an outflow of collective effort. To make it we have to work together, make a plan – to depart from and to guide the work. We have to decide on and apply methods we agree on. We have to negotiate and we have to invest.
There is also a distinct feeling of responsibility that what we produce will, in part or in whole, be given away to others to live and use. It must function now and in the long run.
But the design is more than function. The final articulation involves formal choices, giving the work a profound cultural meaning. The Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa speaks of architecture as an impure and messy discipline, being on the one hand a practical, utilitarian craft and on the other an art. Even if messy, he holds that: "Significant architecture makes us experience ourselves as complete embodied and spiritual beings. In fact, this is the function of all meaningful art. "
But has this become an invalid perspective? In a situation when urbanisation and urgent needs in society have to be addressed on a scale without precedents. How do we still speak about human values and practise architecture to its full potential when the main focus seems to be on quantity and speed?
Looking ahead and looking for hope are among the expectations of this year's biennale. We are in a continuing process of building and rebuilding this society, whether we like it or not. And to do this we need to understand the movements inside our society, what defines our belonging, what values are at stake and, in my mind especially important, what constitutes fairness in the living environment.
My hope is connected to the idea that in the process of building we should always depart from and support the needs of the human being. And look at architecture not as something in itself, abstracted from its beginning, but as a process that serves the human needs at its origin. This implies processes of broad engagement, mutual respect and profound dialogue.
To build is to be involved in what has been called a "wicked problem". It is to place oneself in what might seem to be a jungle/maze of agendas and dilemmas. For a wicked problem there is not one evident solution. And yet one has to decide, to make a decision that not only solves the problem but one that brings new values to its inhabitants. Not a solution we can live with, but one we would want to live with. This is the sign of excellence of the architect.
And we must see to that the emblematic ladder of this Biennale doesn't turn out to be the new ivory tower. To be honest, I am ambivalent about this image of a perspective from above. But the ladder implies the dual movement of climbing and descending. Of course we have to rise above the immediate flow of circumstances, to get the bigger picture. But lots of problems built into the structures of modern cities seem to stem from a too high-flying perspective.
Given all these complexities it is perhaps not so surprising that we must get ourselves into a Therapy – as is proposed in this Nordic exhibition. This means not looking at things from a detached bird's perspective but to start down below, with an inner dialogue. "Know thy self", as the Delphic maxim goes. It will stand as a counterpoint to an "all-knowing" perspective. As I understand it, the introspective Subject on the couch is or should be Society itself, with all its conflicting layers.
And in this process: let's not forget to put that hope into the work we do. Without hope the work won't move forward.
With this I declare the Nordic Pavilion of the 2016 Biennale opened!