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MIT at the Venice Biennale

On a global stage, MIT helps steer architecture toward solving worldwide challenges.
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The Venice Architecture Biennale, held every two years at the sprawling Arsenale (above) and Giardini grounds on the city’s eastern tip, opens this weekend. This year’s focus on architecture’s ability to address global challenges — including numerous installations and projects from MIT faculty, students, and alumni — may indicate a paradigm shift for architecture, participants say.
Caption:
The Venice Architecture Biennale, held every two years at the sprawling Arsenale (above) and Giardini grounds on the city’s eastern tip, opens this weekend. This year’s focus on architecture’s ability to address global challenges — including numerous installations and projects from MIT faculty, students, and alumni — may indicate a paradigm shift for architecture, participants say.
Credits:
Photo: Thomas Gearty
This earthen masonry shell made from thin tiles is a full-scale prototype “droneport” for use by fleets of cargo drones that will deliver goods to rural areas of Rwanda that lack roads. MIT graduate students Luisel Zayas (left) and Sixto Cordero spent the past four months in Spain preparing for the construction of the vault.
Caption:
This earthen masonry shell made from thin tiles is a full-scale prototype “droneport” for use by fleets of cargo drones that will deliver goods to rural areas of Rwanda that lack roads. MIT graduate students Luisel Zayas (left) and Sixto Cordero spent the past four months in Spain preparing for the construction of the vault.
Credits:
Photo: Thomas Gearty
“Beyond Bending” is a second exhibition from Philippe Block 'SM 05 PhD '09 (left), associate professor at ETH-Zürich; Matthew DeJong 'SM 05 PhD '09 (right) senior lecturer at Cambridge University; and MIT Professor John Ochsendorf. Compression-only forms, such as this soaring and undulating vault, are not only uniquely expressive but also more efficient and ecological, the team states.
Caption:
“Beyond Bending” is a second exhibition from Philippe Block 'SM 05 PhD '09 (left), associate professor at ETH-Zürich; Matthew DeJong 'SM 05 PhD '09 (right) senior lecturer at Cambridge University; and MIT Professor John Ochsendorf. Compression-only forms, such as this soaring and undulating vault, are not only uniquely expressive but also more efficient and ecological, the team states.
Credits:
Photo: Thomas Gearty
The vault is made from hundreds of limestone tiles supported only by compression: No adhesives, pins, or other fasteners hold the tiles together.
Caption:
The vault is made from hundreds of limestone tiles supported only by compression: No adhesives, pins, or other fasteners hold the tiles together.
Credits:
Photo: Thomas Gearty
Alexander D’Hooghe, MIT associate professor of architecture, and his partners at Organization for Permanent Modernity showcased their design for a Brussels market that serves immigrant populations. “Architects apply technology in service to culture," says D’Hooghe. "A building can shape — and celebrate — the idea of an open society."
Caption:
Alexander D’Hooghe, MIT associate professor of architecture, and his partners at Organization for Permanent Modernity showcased their design for a Brussels market that serves immigrant populations. “Architects apply technology in service to culture," says D’Hooghe. "A building can shape — and celebrate — the idea of an open society."
Credits:
Photo: Thomas Gearty
The market from D’Hooghe and ORG features “platonic panels”— simple concrete planes that can be assembled in almost any direction. Alongside the full-scale structure at the Biennale, a small-scale model demonstrates how the panels may serve as building blocks to design extended and flexible spaces.
Caption:
The market from D’Hooghe and ORG features “platonic panels”— simple concrete planes that can be assembled in almost any direction. Alongside the full-scale structure at the Biennale, a small-scale model demonstrates how the panels may serve as building blocks to design extended and flexible spaces.
Credits:
Photo: Thomas Gearty
On a more speculative front, the Kuwait Pavilion includes new work from Design Earth, the creative practice of MIT assistant professor of architecture Rania Ghosn. “After Oil” imagines the urban and social landscape of the Pan-Gulf region in the post-oil future.
Caption:
On a more speculative front, the Kuwait Pavilion includes new work from Design Earth, the creative practice of MIT assistant professor of architecture Rania Ghosn. “After Oil” imagines the urban and social landscape of the Pan-Gulf region in the post-oil future.
Credits:
Photo: Thomas Gearty
Drawings and models from Ghosn and her partner, University of Michigan Assistant Professor El Hadi Jazairy, are set on a stainless steel floor that covers the gallery space. “After Oil” is included in “Between East & West: A Gulf Book,” published by the Kuwait Pavilion and edited by MIT graduate student Muneerah Alrabe.
Caption:
Drawings and models from Ghosn and her partner, University of Michigan Assistant Professor El Hadi Jazairy, are set on a stainless steel floor that covers the gallery space. “After Oil” is included in “Between East & West: A Gulf Book,” published by the Kuwait Pavilion and edited by MIT graduate student Muneerah Alrabe.
Credits:
Photo: Thomas Gearty
For his exhibition at the GAA European Cultural Center, Kevin Slavin, director of the Playful Systems group in the MIT Media Lab, brought along thousands of assistants: honeybees. Slavin has installed a specially designed beehive in Venice’s Palazzo Mora. Genetic sequencing of “bee debris” captured by the hive will provide data to create a microbiological portrait of the city.
Caption:
For his exhibition at the GAA European Cultural Center, Kevin Slavin, director of the Playful Systems group in the MIT Media Lab, brought along thousands of assistants: honeybees. Slavin has installed a specially designed beehive in Venice’s Palazzo Mora. Genetic sequencing of “bee debris” captured by the hive will provide data to create a microbiological portrait of the city.
Credits:
Photo: Thomas Gearty
In the Baltic Pavilion — set inside a community gym — Gediminas Urbonas, the director of the MIT Program in Art, Culture and Technology, and MIT research affiliate Nomeda Urbonas present their “Druzhba project,” a fictional journey along the Druzhba, the world’s longest pipeline, built by the Soviets in the 1960s and 70s.
Caption:
In the Baltic Pavilion — set inside a community gym — Gediminas Urbonas, the director of the MIT Program in Art, Culture and Technology, and MIT research affiliate Nomeda Urbonas present their “Druzhba project,” a fictional journey along the Druzhba, the world’s longest pipeline, built by the Soviets in the 1960s and 70s.
Credits:
Photo: Thomas Gearty
A creative and thoughtful installation from Ensamble Studio, headed by MIT professor of architecture Antón García-Abril and MIT research scientist Débora Mesa, initiates a battle: the seemingly different but strongly interrelated challenges when designing for highly rural (foreground) versus highly urban (background) domains.
Caption:
A creative and thoughtful installation from Ensamble Studio, headed by MIT professor of architecture Antón García-Abril and MIT research scientist Débora Mesa, initiates a battle: the seemingly different but strongly interrelated challenges when designing for highly rural (foreground) versus highly urban (background) domains.
Credits:
Photo: Thomas Gearty

At the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale, opening Saturday, architects and designers have responded to a charge to “report from the front” on major challenges and issues facing humanity around the globe.

In installations throughout Venice — from the historic venues of the Arsenale and Giardini on the island’s eastern tip, to repurposed palazzos and churches across the city — MIT faculty, alumni, and students are among the contributors offering varied and potent responses. Their efforts, considered alongside numerous others displayed in scores of exhibitions and pavilions, may signal a paradigm shift for architecture, participants say.

Considered one of the foremost global forums for architecture and the built environment, and drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world, the Architecture Biennale takes place every two years in Venice. The 2016 curator, Chilean architect and Pritzker Prize winner Alejandro Aravena, chose as his theme “reporting from the front,” focusing on architecture’s capacity to improve the human condition by addressing problems such as segregation, inequality, suburbia, sanitation, natural disasters, housing shortages, migration, crime, traffic, waste, pollution, and community participation.

“If the current condition is that you deal with only projects that interest other architects, then let’s [instead] try to start from projects that interest every single citizen,” said Aravena. “Once that is done, then use the specific knowledge of architecture to address those issues — go from nonspecific problems through the specific knowledge of architecture to try to make a contribution.”

If past versions of the Biennale have sometimes leaned toward the high-concept and avant-garde, Aravena’s issue-oriented theme gives this year’s event a feeling of purpose and application.

“It's fascinating to see our faculty leading on multiple fronts: thinking through architecture's relationship with building and design technologies, geopolitics, and resource depletion,” said J. Meejin Yoon, professor and head of the Department of Architecture at MIT. “The Biennale brings together architects and designers from around the world — and, in this exhibition in particular, those who represent an incredible commitment to positive change in society and environment through architecture and design.”

The MIT presence at the Biennale is widespread in terms of both geography and issues. The faculty, alumni, and students presenting in Venice comprise more than a dozen nationalities and countries of origin, and their Biennale projects represent projects on five continents. Their areas of concern are just as broad.

Some MIT-related projects introduce technological innovations for building but then apply them to social and environmental concerns. John Ochsendorf, the Class of 1942 Professor of Architecture and professor of civil and environmental engineering is part of two projects — in collaboration with MIT alumni Matthew DeJong and Philippe Block — that demonstrate the structural, economic, and environmental benefits of compression vaults. Assistant professor of architecture Alexander D’Hooghe and his firm, ORG, created an innovative system of modular concrete panels; in a design for an urban market for immigrants in Brussels, the structure reinforces the notion of an open society.

Other projects consider how rural and urban contexts shape the design process. The exhibition from Ensamble Studio, headed by professor of architecture Antón García-Abril and MIT research scientist Débora Mesa, examines the often conflicting challenges of designing for urban or natural settings. Visiting professor Clara Solà-Morales considers the constructed environment as more than just walls and explores how the landscape becomes part of architecture and vice versa.

Several contributions celebrate, critique, and reveal history through the built environment. In the Brazilian Pavilion, MIT alumna and urban planner Sara Zewde’s “Circuit of African Heritage” presents a plan for a series of historic sites in Rio de Janeiro to acknowledge the black experience and its contributions to the country’s culture. Gediminas Urbonas, director of the MIT Program in Art, Culture, and Technology, and MIT research affiliate Nomeda Urboniene, also traces the impact of a historic structure: the Druzhba pipeline built by the Soviet Union. In the Baltic Pavilion, located in a local gymnasium, their thought-provoking installation spills down the bleachers like an oil slick.

The MIT contributions also include more speculative investigations. Kevin Slavin, director of the Playful Systems Group in the MIT Media Lab, has developed a modified beehive that captures “bee debris” for genetic sequencing, to create microbiological portraits of cities and neighborhoods; he has installed a working hive at the Palazzo Mora alongside videos visualizations of bee-sourced data. Rania Ghosn and her practice, Design Earth, imagines what the post-oil urban and social landscape of the Pan-Gulf region.

“We come here for inspiration, we come here to share ideas, we try to show how architecture can change the world. The Biennale is really about celebrating architectural design on every scale and every level,” said Ochsendorf. “In my case, it’s the first time I’ve ever been to a Biennale, so it’s exciting to be here, but it’s also very exciting to have a chance to showcase our research over 15 years coming to fruition and having a chance to share that with the world.”

Press Mentions

BBC News

In a BBC News article about the Venice Architecture Biennale, Will Gompertz highlights a "drone-port" developed in collaboration with MIT researchers. “With the aid of cutting edge computer science and buried steel tension ropes, the largely self-supporting structure uses a fraction of the materials such a building would normally need.”

Metropolis

Hashim Sarkis, dean of SA+P, speaks with Vanessa Quirk of Metropolis about MIT’s widespread presence at the 2016 Venice Biennale, the Institute’s approach to architectural challenges and its interdisciplinary ethos. “MIT thrives on what it calls complex societal problems,” says Sarkis. “And what better complex societal problems are there today than cities and architecture and the environment.”

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