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La Biennale Sheds Light on the Transformation Occurring in World Wide Design

Think of the Biennale as Olympics for Architecture and our participation in it the equivalent of storming the Bastille or in this case the Arsenale. The gathering of 55 nations to display and compete for the coveted Golden Lion awards for architecture occurs every two years and is typically focused on trends in modern design. One architect is chosen to select a theme and curate the main pavilion, Arsenale. British Architect, David Chipperfield directed this, the 13th annual Biennale under the theme of “Common Ground.”   He chose this theme in order “to encourage my colleagues to react against the prevalent professional and cultural tendencies of our time that place such emphasis on individual and isolated actions. I encouraged them instead to demonstrate the importance of influence and of the continuity of cultural endeavour, to illustrate common and shared ideas that form the basis of an architectural culture“. Let me translate that from Old English to Americano: Hey big headed architect, if you want to stay relevant stop just thinking about your monolithic building project and consider the space around it and the community in which you are building in.

So in reaction to this charge, the 55 participant countries gathered the best of the best. The US Pavilion, curated by Cathy Lang Ho, David van der Leer and Ned Cramer chose the theme of Spontaneous Interventions which seeks to celebrates a movement for democratic change in cities in the United States, inspired by a kindred activism around the world. That meant instead of having renderings, plans and pictures of modern buildings, the US  focused on actions—planting abandoned lots, occupying and reprogramming public spaces, and generally making cities more beautiful, inclusive, productive, and healthy, says curator Cathy Lang Ho, who further states that these actions “are planning at its most direct, expressions of a desire for good places that cannot simply await the sanction of the “authorities” to find their form.” Ahh I think we found our people! Better block was contacted early in the formation of the exhibition and co-founder Jason Roberts provides the following introduction to the installation which can be found in this month’s Architect Magazine:

 The hands-on movement seen unfolding around the world is a response to the pent-up demand of those who are tired of waiting for governments, consultants, or other so-called experts to create the kind of communities we crave. Better Blocks, PARK(ing) Days, yarnbombings, guerrilla gardening, pop-up businesses, and depaving efforts are byproducts of a more social and connected community that refuses to accept the idea that “We can’t be like Paris.”

The pavilion was adorned with 124 spontaneous interventions from around the US see this video to get a first hand feeling for the installation Video of Biennale.

Team Better Block Co-Founder Andrew Howard and intern Ashley Shook participated in the US Pavilion opening ceremony.

Jason was there is spirit and virtually. This video echoed through the hall every few minutes reminding people that this was a revolution. And that is what it felt like, as we toured the other pavilions I got a sense that there is a major divide in the architectural world. On one side the old guard is hanging on to Le Corbusier visions of the city as canvas for isolated monolithic high rises connected to sterile public housing projects with highways. Amazingly it is some of the old world countries like Russia, Denmark and Germany that are still lost in modernism.

On the other side is a growing understanding that Architecture is not the savior of the city, that communication technology matched with community action is shaping public space and Architects to stay relevant must embrace new ways of approaching design through the lens of the local community. This was illustrated in the UK, Japan, Urban Think Tank demonstration and the US pavilion was the center of the upsurge in a new way of thinking about the city. A thinking that says we don’t know everything, it would be arrogant to think so, but we know if we get started with the community in mind that together we can solve our urban issues.

The Jury of the Biennale recognized the progress of the guerilla urbanism movement by awarding a  Special mention to the United States of America for ‘Spontaneous Interventions: Design Actions for the Common Good’. This interactive installation impressed the Jury with its celebration of the power of individuals to change society in small but effective ways. The unpretentiously simple presentation was a delight said jurors. This is the first time the US has been mentioned at the Biennale.

For everyone that has lead a better block, picked up a hammer to build a chair, experienced a better block this is a giant international bow to you! You are on the leading edge of a movement that is transforming this country and now other parts of the world into a place that is more livable, easier to start a small business in and more sustainable. Keep agitating for these changes. Have your own spontaneous intervention in your neighborhood no matter how small it is (here are 124 to choose from). These little victories add up and create permanent change faster than any public meeting, planning charrette or multi-year study can do. Cheers to all the participants in the Biennale and look for new partnerships between the Better Block and the other 123 spontaneous interventions that are bucking the system and making progress a reality in our lifetime.


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