Architecture Biennale Sao Paulo 2007

The seventh Architecture Biennale – the most important after Venice say the Brazilians – takes place until December 16 in the exhibition building by Oscar Niemeyer in Sao Paolo. Alex van de Beld of architecture firm Onix, one of the participants in the Dutch presentation, visited the Biennale and explored the favelas.

Brazil itself is present everywhere at the Biennale with a posse of architects around the Pritzker Prize winners Niemeyer and da Rocha. Europe is poorly represented. Other parts of the world are largely absent, apart from South Africa, which presents a penetrating account of the meaning of public space in Johannesburg, which is representative of the country. Of the European countries, Germany, France and Italy in particular have done a lot of work, without, for that matter, making any contribution to the theme of 'public space' or highlighting any other theme. Portugal and Switzerland do make the effort but only elaborate on their own national identities. Austria has one of the few relevant exhibitions: a staged conversation between mannequins about the theme of public and private.

Norway does it the easy way by borrowing an exhibition, devised for another occasion, about the work of Jarmund/Vigsnaes Architects. Entitled Lost in Nature, the exhibition shows the wonderful and characteristic buildings of the duo in the endless natural beauty of the country but it looks out of place here. Nonetheless, after a few intense evenings it’s clear that the Norwegians are soul mates searching for relevance in their work.

Of the international architects invited by the Biennale, the Swiss office of Christ & Gantenbein Architects jumps out immediately. They present two projects under the title ‘primitive architecture’ in what is an extremely precise contribution. Concealed in their way of working is a search for a robust, honest architecture that lacks any preconceived aesthetics.

The Dutch submission Tangible Traces offers a more intimate look into the kitchens of the participating designers, their way of working and search for a relevant mentality in a culture dominated by commerce. The most convincing is perhaps the installation by Frank Havermans. The rough timber capsule contains a projection space in which the process of making the installation is shown; you see the designer building the structure. The only meaning of the installation is that it celebrates its own presence and right to existence and, with that, criticises the reality of the Biennale as an introverted glamorous festival. It also shows that talented designers in the Netherlands have time for this type of introspection and come into contact with socially relevant commissions with difficulty.

In addition to visiting the expo we had another aim: to make an installation with local architecture students. The initial idea to make a temporary installation from 200,000 PET (plastic) bottles in the public park outside Niemeyer’s exhibition building proved too controversial for the Brazilians. Nonetheless, we had the intuition to do some improvising after seeing all those overproduced exhibitions. It soon emerged that we could use the transport packaging of the Dutch expo (sixty different crates) to build an intuitive space. On the day of the opening we went to the architecture school to collect students. Not knowing where we were heading, we were amazed to end up in the magnificent school by Villanova Artigaz: an open, public building without doors, a thinking landscape, a manifesto cast in rough concrete.

Together with the Brazilians we returned to the expo grounds and told them over lunch about our D.O.G. (Detour Organising Group) project. An initiative to join with local partners and turn unexpected occasions into impulsive and intuitive installations. We had the remaining three hours until the Biennale opening to stack the crates into a 3D landscape — illegally on a leftover piece of land belonging to the introverted Italian pavilion. Five minutes before time was up we were sure the last crate was safely and securely in position. Our first D.O.G. project was a reality.

The next day we entered the favelas with the boys from Urban Think Tank from Caracas and a municipal project leader. It was impressive to see how people were working to improve the district through the provision of clean water, sewage systems, roads, housing in the spirit of the improvised shacks and even a public park. It was wonderful to see how architect and project leader Maria Teresa Diniz (what’s in a name?) worked amongst the people and sometimes even risked her life to make her projects succeed. It was distressing to hear that Brazilian architects have no interest in the challenge presented by around half their city. They prefer to conserve their modern sense by showing a Photoshop idiom, an architectural landscape far removed from reality. No, then the culture factory of Lina do Bardi, a high-density neighbourhood renewal scheme where the samba is danced day and night and where the stacked sports facilities in a cast-concrete urban bunker really mean something as a social amenity in this society. As primitive as this shall our Austrian colleagues, with their innate Swiss refinement, never dare to make it.

We (Onix) are strongly tempted to do something in the favelas, if only to see if the enthusiasm of Urban Think Tank about the future of this informal city is legitimate and whether we can distil from it a concept based on intuition and improvisation that will cast a more positive light on these prospectless city districts.