Repair

By Veronica Kooyman

Repair, Australia’s interpretation of the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale’s overall theme of “Freespace,” opened on a delightfully sunny morning at the Giardini. Since we’ve been making buildings and cities in Australia, it has mostly been to separate us from the natural environment. Consequences of the disregard of natural systems are now being felt and there is a shift of thinking amongst built environment disciplines towards repairing the natural environment as a meaningful and enduring framework for urban form – an expansion of the natural environment in a sort of reverse order of urban sprawl.

Presented by the Royal Australian Institute of Architects, Repair is an approach to architectural thinking, (that is, how can architecture play a role in repairing the places it is part of) and is set to become a critical strategy of architectural culture.It is particularly relevant to Australian architects who work in one of the most diverse and ecologically sensitive landscapes in the world, where the pre-settlement condition can still often be known and understood. Uniquely, our cities are interspersed and bordered by remnant vegetation and often connected to larger natural systems. Let’s also remember that our cities are built over and around the traditional cultural landscapes of our First Nations peoples.

The use of land for buildings is no small act. There is a role for architecture to actively engage with the repair of the places it is part of: the soil, hydrology, habitat, connections, overland water flow, microorganisms, vegetation and so on. This type of repair is critical to enacting other wider types of social, economic and cultural repair. The first move is the repair of the natural environment. How architects can do this will be an exciting development of an architecture not yet fully imagined. It requires a coming together across disciplinary boundaries and a widening of the architectural knowledge base to a front end detailed understanding of a site across multiple scales; where the very small scale action has a role in the large scale, and a facilitation of repair of the environment through the many decisions we make.

In this way, Repair at the 2018 La Biennale di Venezia aims to expand the point of view from the object of architecture, to the way it operates in its context; and to advocate a role for architecture among the many players it takes to repair something.

This way of presenting an alternative perspective is central to the theme of La Biennale di Venezia, Freespace. The curators, Shelley McNamara and Yvonne Farrell of Grafton Architects, have asked participants to ‘encourage reviewing ways of thinking, new ways of seeing the world, of inventing solutions where architecture provides for the wellbeing and dignity of each citizen on this fragile planet’. Repair will address Farrell and McNamara’s call ‘to stimulate discussion on core architectural values’ and to validate the ‘relevance of architecture on this dynamic planet’.

The encouragement to review ways of thinking, is also an approach that can be found in the work of Australian artist Linda Tegg. In 2014 Linda installed a grassland in front of the State Library of Victoria revealing what once was on this site. It was a powerful and direct move. This year, Linda and Baracco+Wright will be collaborating on a living installation, Grasslands Repair, that presents more than 60 species of Western Plains Grasslands plants (south east Australia). Only one per cent of this plant community remains from pre-European settlement times, having been removed through urbanisation, agriculture, grazing and industrial land use.

Through this act of reclamation and displacement, the plants undergo a categorical shift – from ground for human use, to inhabitants of Australia’s cultural institutions. These relations are manifested through the process of making Grasslands Repair. From sourcing seed, learning how to germinate them, transporting the seed to Italy, growing them with the Italian partners, and bringing them into view for an audience.

Grasslands Repair presents what is displaced when we occupy land.

Above Grasslands Repair, Skylight will be installed. It is a life-sustaining light installation providing the necessary light spectrum to the plants denied by the fabric of a building. It channels energy from the Italian electricity grid – 64 per cent Fossil, 21 per cent Hydro, nine per cent Wind and Solar, five per cent Nuclear, and one per cent Geothermal – into the bodies of plants.

Alongside this installation, Australian projects that address the theme of repair will be presented through a video, Ground, conceived by Linda Tegg and Baracco+Wright with David Fox. Ground challenges us to reorient ourselves in relation to what we might consider the world-around-us, or the world-for-us. It presents the context of the places the architecture is a part of rather than singular objects.

Baracco+Wright has also invited a wider team to support the framing and development of the theme, including architect and anthropologist Paul Memmott, landscape architect Chris Sawyer, landscape architect and urban designer Tim O’Loan, curatorial advisor Catherine Murphy, ecologist David Freudenberger, and architects Lance van Maanen and Jonathan Ware.

Q&A

What is the concept behind the title Repair?

At the centre of the theme Repair at the Australian Pavilion is the fact that architecture takes up land and effects the natural environment. A statement so obvious it should go without saying – and yet, in order to consider the consequences and potentials of architecture in relation to repair, we need to focus on this very elemental fact.

The way in which built and open space designers can repair the environment will be an exciting and critical development not yet fully imagined.

You plan to transform the space into a ‘living installation.’ What is your approach?

Grasslands Repair presents over sixty species from the Victorian Western Plains Grasslands, over ten thousand of these species will be arranged inside and out of the Pavilion, it aims to reveal what is at stake when we occupy land. Only 1% of this plant community remains from pre-European settlement times, having been removed through urbanisation, agriculture, grazing and industrial land use. The area of plants exhibited is similar to that taken up by the Pavilion. It is also a smaller area than that of an average Australian family house. Such an area takes around an hour to bulldoze.

Grasslands Repair continues the themes of Tegg’s 2014 Grasslands installation in Melbourne, attempting to recreate the pre-European settlement grassy plains woodland that once occupied the site on which the State Library of Victoria now stands. Each installation is a unique set of relations between plants and place. Living plants destabilise spaces that have been designed for the preservation of cultural objects. Through these acts of reclamation and displacement the plants also undergo a categorical shift – from ground for human use, to inhabitants of Australia’s cultural institutions.

To keep the plants alive the work Skylight has been created, it is a life support system (LED Light fittings) . Suspended between the ceiling above and the grassland below, it is engaged in an unlikely act of transference. It channels energy from the Italian electricity grid – 64% Fossil, 21% Hydro, 9% Wind and Solar, 5% Nuclear, and 1% Geothermal – into the bodies of plants.

Skylight is a powerful actant within the assemblage. From its constrained position, Skylight mediates the dialogue between the grassland, videos, and the pavilion. Each by their very nature would otherwise overpower and erase the other.

What were the criteria for the final selection of projects for the short films?

As we had hoped, the broad selection of projects submitted for Repair revealed that there are many architects thinking about how to repair the environment, address social issues and catalyse cultural repair. This was demonstrated in the 126 entries that responded to a nationwide call for submissions to teams of architects working with landscape architects and urban designers.

In our final selection, we chose projects that represent a geographic, scale and project-type mix that illustrate different design processes and identify challenges. Some of the selections may seem modest, however, they all show a trajectory we are keen to provoke and strengthen, one that can be meaningful for the architecture profession, where the ‘thing’ to be repaired pushes back on how the architecture or built form and its relationship to context is conceived and made.

This is a way of approaching architecture that is at the heart of the theme Repair.

Our aim and provocation is that through a primary approach of the repair of the natural environment, human physical and mental health, social, economic and cultural health will in turn be repaired through the care required to do so, and the connection to and presence of nature in our everyday lives. While most of our focus has been on achieving repair outcomes through addressing the natural environment, we have also been interested in an expanded idea of cultural, social or economic repair; examples of this include the reuse of old buildings, the remediation of industrial land and the presence of indigenous culture in our cities. 

You mention the main themes behind Repair as environmental diversity, architectural values, ecology, and cultural repair. How are these themes translated in your design of the Australian Pavilion?

We are presenting a living indigenous grassland in the Australian Pavilion. As we struggle to meet the plants’ needs within the constraints of the Pavilion, we are bringing architecture into an active dialogue with one of Australia’s endangered plant communities. 

How does your proposal for the Australian Pavilion build on Baracco+Wright Architects and Linda Tegg’s previous work/relationship and how are you bringing together your respective backgrounds in art, film and architecture? 

This is the first time we have collaborated.

Creative Directors: We have often struggled with our relationship as architects in the use of land. This is no small act. For some time, we have been thinking about this in our office, teaching and research activities for over 15 years. It is through the lens of the Garden House (Baracco+Wright) that we began thinking about the idea of repair for the Biennale Architettura 2018; this house’s form and arrangement was driven by the repair of degraded land.

The land management profession, landscape architects and urban ecologists among others are actively working on repairing the natural environment, yet architects are rarely present in this discussion and activity. We keep wondering what the role for architecture might be. In fact, this theme is full of questions.

The aim to present architecture from a different point of view is behind the decision to collaborate with artist Linda Tegg, whose practice often presents us with a different way of looking. Linda’s Grasslands installation in front of the State Library of Victoria in 2014 presented species that might have grown on that site only 200 years ago. We were aware of that work and felt that this approach, of presenting what wasn’t there, or disrupting one’s way of looking, was how we would like to work and Linda has been instrumental in the development collaboratively of that approach.

Linda Tegg: From my point of view I work within a world of images that form our idea of what is natural, and our interactions with others. I like to find, or create, moments in mediation where a categorical shift can occur. When I looked at Baracco+Wright’s notion of repair, it was clear that they were prompting a shift in how architecture understands its place.

Looking back I can see that many of my previous artworks were engaged in a kind of repair. In the case of Grasslands, 2014 it was an attempt to illuminate a blindspot, to make tangible something of our history that wasn’t taught in school. Throughout our collaboration it hasn’t been hard to find common ground, particularly in our respective engagement with Victorian grassland plants. I often think that it’s the prevalence of plants in our lives and thinking that enables the kind of generous collaboration that we’ve shared over the past year.