World Urban Architecture Biennale 2014?

Reflections on the 13th Venice Architecture Biennale and the 6th World Urban Forum 

Why do we go to Forums and Conferences?  For me it is to take the pulse of the state of design and governance; to engage with others about issues of the city. After exhibiting, debating, and networking at the 13th Architectural Biennale in Venice and the 6th World Urban Forum in Naples, I’m struck by the contrast of what these two massive events put on display – actions at the Biennale and policy at the WUF.

While several conversations about cities in Venice and Naples still focused exclusively on objects, monuments, and systems of infrastructure, rather than the people that use them every day, as I leave Italy I’m encouraged that the dialogue about our urban future is beginning to address the culture and life of cities more rigorously. Indeed the intersection of design, politics and civic society in the center seems to be on everyone’s mind. But why aren’t they talking more about Design at the WUF and more about Policy at the Biennale?

Here are a few questions I’d like to see addressed over the next two years before we rejoin the urban community in exploring that state of design and urbanism again in 2014.

Chennai, India

How can we make people – their habits, routines, actions and needs for a high quality everyday life more visible in the planning process?

How can we expand the sets of data that decision makers turn-to in making choices that affect people in cities?

Chennai, India

Can we re-imagine the role of the street, as not only corridors of mobilty flow but also as a place for the flow of social, financial and political capital as well as a place of knowledge exchange? Can the street again become a valued meeting place?

Rio de Janeiro

Can we develop a new growth model for urban expansion that is based on streets?

Rio de Janeiro

Can we develop new funding streams for this expansion that supplement the role of large public and private institutions with an equally extensive but more diversified, contextual, and incremental form of growth and expansion?

Dehli, India

Can we rediscover the human scale in our cities – old and newly built?

Dehli, India

Can we apply site specificity and context when designing cities like we’ve learned to with buildings.  Can we learn from modern vernacular form in terms of density, proximity and scale and not purely aesthetic?

Rio de Janeiro

How can policy more explicitly tie land-use to mobility planning?  Can we work to alleviate time poverty (caused by great separation between affordable housing and work places) in the way we’ve worked to reduce financial poverty?

In addressing these questions we can begin to focus again on who we plan, design and implement policy for – people! This will take a multi-disciplinary, open and questioning approach full of dialogue and exchange, similar to the event I attended sponsored by ANMA-F at the hidden urban oasis and heritage gem Riot Studio in the center of Naples. 

Most importantly it will take a fundamental re-calibration of the role of architect, politician, planner and citizen.  For designers it will mean a greater focus on culture than on form and greater skill in facilitating than convincing.  For politicians and civic servants it will demand more attention to various forms of civic expression beyond just elections and fund raisers and into social media and observing everyday use patterns. For planners it will mean less control and more flexibility and an ability to provide a framework for messiness and diversity rather than a plan for equilibrium and control.  Most importantly this shift requires that citizens continue to demand more from the public realm of their cities, daring to imagine and test what streets and spaces can become rather than settling for the status-quo.

After all, why do we love cities?  Is it for their landmarks, historical sites, and ‘cultural’ buildings ranging from shopping malls to churches?  Or is it for the people, the life and the culture of the place? Of course it is a combination of the two, and it seems that the debate would be enriched if discussions about Actions and Policies could take place in the same event. Here’s the first call for the World Urban Architectural Biennale to explore how form and governance affects life in cities.  2014 WUAB here we come.

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