The architects who want to build housing for the millions

The architects who want to build housing for the millions
The neighborhoods of Jalousie (L), Philippeaux (C) and Desermites (R) in the commune of Petion Ville, Port au-Prince / © Hector Retamal

The image chosen to represent Reporting from the Front, the 15th Venice Architecture Biennale, is a photograph of an elderly archaeologist named Maria Reiche in a housedress standing atop a steel ladder. She is looking out over a desert for traces of a culture that disappeared long ago. Reiche could not afford an airplane to do her job, so she improvised. The photograph is a fitting symbol for a show that to a large extent is devoted to celebrating activist architects working in the trenches on some of the world’s most formidable challenges.

Asked to climb Reiche’s ladder and describe what he saw, the Biennale’s curator, Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, erupted with a passion that’s all too often missing from his profession. “We need to build a one-million-person city per week over the next 15 years for $10,000 per family,” he said. If we don’t respond adequately to this global challenge by 2030, he added, the world’s slums and favelas will swell with more than a billion residents living in deplorable conditions.

Other issues in Aravena’s brief for this year’s Biennale, which opened last week, include sustainability, pollution, waste and quality of life. At the same time, he wants architecture to do something about the metastasizing “mediocrity” infecting the built environment today: the thickets of uninspired towers and soulless developments transforming cities such as Toronto and Vancouver.

We are informed that this is not intended to be a “Biennale of the poor.” However, readers of design magazines and newspaper real estate sections undoubtedly will be unfamiliar with many of the types of structures on display. The world’s most important architecture show includes work from a host of little-known architects, a great many of whom work south of the equator. […]

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