by Anmol AhujaSep 17, 2021
The IPCC climate report, just a few days ago, essentially sounded a death knell for the human populace, even if it was decades down the line, with the impacts of the global climate emergency worsening every year. Terms like “code red for humanity”, and sermons to the tone of “enjoying it while it lasts” were screamed by media tabloids, and for the right reason. While the planet is bound to get hotter every year, no contest, even by conservative estimates, it would take some serious doing to attain a neutrality with respect to our carbon outage, let alone reversing the damage. The answer then, to curator Hashim Sarkis' question at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2021, must encompass how will we live together with these conditions as precedence, or, well, providence. Renowned Swiss landscape architect and designer, Günther Vogt’s showcase at Venice this year interestingly encapsulates the issue with a very specific geography, and while its context might be local to the European region, its findings and observations are global. Through three exhibitions put together jointly by his studio, VOGT Landscape Architects, and his chair at ETH, Zurich, the problems of our times are looked at through the lens of three basal elements in landscape: stone, water, and vegetation. It won’t be an overstatement to term these basal elements as not just the building blocks of any landscape, native or foreign, but as something essential to forming the systems that sustain our survival.
The climate catastrophe, and catastrophe it is, looking at the number of casualties and displacements in habitat caused just this year by raging forest fires and flash floods across the world, has accelerated the process of transformation of our landscapes, something that is supposed to be a gradual and cyclical shift. The very pertinent question then, what this means for the coexistence of societies, across and within borders, assumes centrestage. This gains even greater prominence given the events of the last two years collectively reinforcing the need for rejuvenation of landscape systems, while the geographies of our borders came to be redefined in darker ink. Through Rolling Stones, Migrating Landscapes, and Common Water – The Alps, the team at VOGT Landscape Architects poses important but allegorical questions; questions that beget thinking rather than providing straight answers.
Migrating Landscapes focuses on the expatriation of plant species, their migration to a foreign landscape, and the larger impact it is bound to have on native plant species and their perceptibly semi-fluid ecosystem there. VOGT refers to these species as “invasive”, but alludes to this invasion as a pre-requisite for studying or observing any landscape. Emulating the model of a city and its topography, Migrating Landscapes in the Biennale’s Giardini comprises a scaled “urban landscape” made of hard pressed bricks of soil from different regions of the city, offering an architectural material mapping of a region whose flora, like that of the world, is constantly changing. Rife with metaphor, the morphology of the installation is almost disrupted by the introduction of a large, deciduous tree that has, for ages, formed the centre of landscape intervention in public spaces: the Platanus Hispanica. As the tree grows and makes its roots through the “city”, introducing cracks in the soil, landscape and architecture become one, as Venice’s “synthetic history of ecological change and manipulation of land” is brought alive.
Through the second display, sharing its name with the legendary English rock band, VOGT ascribes rocks with a cultural agency as opposed to their identity as solid, immovable objects. Shunning their classification as “inert”, the display sees native rocks lined with wheels, now making them movable with just a touch. Crossing over into the realm of installation art, Rolling Stones forms part of the Biennale’s “exhibition within an exhibition”, Future Assembly by Studio Other Spaces in collaboration with six co-designers. Through the movement and animation, the rocks are then given a place in popular culture, and their imperceptible motion and transformation through ages is visibly metaphor-ised. In other words, every metaphor associated with a rock as a tangible object within the landscape comes alive with that movement, as soon as the notions associated with its weight and inertia are dispelled. A two-dimensional visualisation of these rocks placed in a public square for the people to interact with completes the installation.
Through the third installation, and probably the most specific one, Common Water – The Alps, the most significant impact of global warming: melting of glacial systems across the world, is brought to the fore. Being a sensitive ecosystem and yet, a constantly dynamic one, having undergone probably centuries of metamorphosis, the Alps harbour their own characteristic Alpine culture, geography, resources, and have been an important factor of integration into the economic and social developments of the European continent. Rather than a physical installation, Common Water takes the form of discourse to opine on the position of the Alps as Europe’s water tower, as the liquefaction of their water balance disrupts the region’s hydrological conditions. Reading this new relationship, the exhibition now proposes a reading of the Alpine landscape as an “ecological island” at the centre of the continent, integrating varying disciplines including art, natural sciences, engineering and landscape architecture. The Alps as an ecological island, as opposed to being the towering mountains that they are, now become a hotspot of biodiversity, a tourist destination, and a cultural space far from the stress of dense urban populations, subsuming new meanings with respect to their renewed role.
Through his enlightening conversation with us at STIR lending a fresh perspective, Günther Vogt sensitively embodied, and emboldened the belief that landscape design and architecture, the green and the built, share an intrinsic relationship. Expanding his viewpoint on the much needed, more holistic considerations with respect to landscape, he states, “Our view is that this "we" should include not only people but also water, stones, plants or animals. With this expanded concept of "we", this short sentence undergoes a dramatic stretching. The three contributions all deal with this perimeter of meaning.”
Curated as a series of thoughtful engagements that enhance the contemporary debate and discussion on architecture, the STIRring Together series introduces readers to the many facets of the Venice Architecture Biennale 2021. Tracing the various adaptations and following the multitude of perspectives, the series carefully showcases some incredible projects and exhibits, highlighting the diversity and many discourses of the show.