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Beyond the frontier architecture

“There are still many battles to be won and many frontiers that still need to be expanded in order to improve the quality of the built environment and, consequently, the quality of life. More and more people on the planet are looking for a decent place to live in, and the conditions for achieving this goal are becoming increasingly difficult. Any attempt to transcend the commercial aspects encounters, as always, a strong resistance in the inertia of reality, and any effort to address important issues must deal with the growing complexity of the world. But unlike the conflicts of war in which nobody wins and over which there is a widespread sense of defeat, on the fronts of the built environment you can breathe an air of vitality because architecture is looking at reality in a proactive key.”¹

With these words Alejandro Aravena, curator of the 2016 Architecture Biennale², presents the themes of the event entitled “Reporting from the front”.
It is perhaps the first time that the International Exhibition addresses those aspects that are more “niche” in the daily debate on contemporary architecture.
“A Biennial dedicated to those architectures capable of detaching themselves from the status quo”.
I think it is precisely this Biennial, in a way, the beginning of a deeper and more careful debate on these issues, or at least the one that made this intention official. More than two years have passed since those beautiful words and since that Biennial.

What’s changed?

Did “Minority architecture” continue to be the subject of discussion, or did it only have a voice during the exhibition, and then will return to be a niche theme?
The discussion and related initiatives have not only consolidated their position of great importance in the contemporary debate, even if it certainly weakened as the months passed from the closing of the festival, but the last few years have been an occasion for the birth of new perspectives and approaches to the theme.
In the particular relationship that unites architecture and migratory phenomena, this period made it possible to overcome the automatic translation of humanitarian architecture into objects, artifacts, individual buildings, which we could call simple systems: structures, even if small in size, able to enhance the social value of the context in which they are inserted, reaching the peak of an opportunity and their usefulness when the dialogue with the external environment is maximum, often becoming the fulcrum of the system in which they are inserted.
Moreover, longer term solutions are envisaged, imagining an integration, or a more lasting solution than the temporary nature of these simple systems and temporary reception centers, even if sometimes not so temporary; the reception centers have progressively become indefinite “cities” that are lost in the limbo of their own temporary nature, chasing a bureaucratic system that does not seem to simplify itself.

In addition to these simple systems, the new solutions proposed can be grouped into two macro-categories: the first consists of “new” technologically advanced architectures, specifically designed to meet the demands and needs of this new part of society; the second, on the other hand, are more related to the reuse and redevelopment of some forgotten urban spaces, trying to revitalize those places that have ceased their productive, economic and social function.

Among the projects in the first category, a 2007 project stands out, winner of the World’s Oceans Competition: The United Plastic Nation³, created by the Australian studio FREISCHAERLER ARCHITECTS⁴.
In drawing up the project, the study identified three global problems: pollution of plastic waste in the oceans, large global migration flows and capital deriving from tax evasion, actually using the latter as financing for the implementation of the project itself.
The “United Plastic Nation” should solve these three international issues in one move: an island wandering the oceans in continuous self-construction, thanks to additive 3D printing, by drones that would use plastic waste found along the path of the island, which in the meantime would accommodate the various migratory flows encountered, both from land and sea.
Planimetrically the plan is articulated within a main circumference, following a zoning that finds its dominant elements in the financial and political district around which they organize: the industrial district, the city park and the housing areas. Instead, what determines the altimetric conformation is the need to float the platform, from which the different architectural bodies develop; thus producing an iceberg profile where in the living work of the “city” we find a perfect correspondence with what develops beyond sea level.

The movements within the complex are developed on different transport systems, such as underground, water, pedestrian and cycle paths, thus making the city a space where polluting means of transport are absent.
Self-sufficiency becomes one of the cornerstones of the project, managing to achieve energy independence by exploiting the movement of the waves, and to meet food needs by finding space for hydroponic cultivation and breeding, especially fish.
A very interesting project, certainly utopian, at times ghettoizing and not very open to integration, but that constitutes a starting point for more concrete proposals, reflecting on the global human condition while, at the same time, entering into the heart of a debate with which we should deal in the short term.

The second category, certainly more concrete from an implementation point of view, is exemplified by the many initiatives that took place in France⁵ and which have subsequently contributed to form, in part, the exhibition of the French pavilion at the 2018 Biennial.
A story, that of the pavilion, which is expressed through a catalog of ten places where public administrations, private and architects, have come together to experiment with new forms of community by entrusting the management of unused spaces to one or more associations.
This is the case of La Friche la Belle de Mai in Marseille, a former cigarette factory which, after a troubled journey, in 2001 reinvented itself as a center for neighborhood activities, and in 2008 its mix of art workshops, exhibition spaces, theatres, cinemas, art schools, nursery and primary schools, neighborhood gardens and restaurants, became one of the key projects that allowed Marseille to be chosen as European Capital of Culture 2013.
Speaking of reuse and integration, one cannot miss to mention the former Saint-Vincent-de-Paul hospital in Paris, built in 1795 and abandoned in 2010, where since 2014, thanks to the acquisition of the entire area by the Aurora association, an eco-district is born where more than 600 homeless people are housed.
A great experiment in social architecture which, thanks to the addition of two other associations, such as Plateau Urbain and Yes We Camp, manages to overcome the ghetto effect by opening up to the neighborhood and the city.
This is precisely the winning idea of the initiative; thanks to the collaboration of these three associations, an innovative and dynamic form of public space is born.
One could say that in this case architecture has won the challenge of not being used only as a means of closing and defining spaces, to decide who is inside and who is outside, but as a tool that can create a community and enhance its possibilities.

Cited the “French case”, it is necessary to move the discussion to the Italian one⁶, where we find episodes that go beyond the simple planned integration; where architecture joins politics, social actions, the economy and the deep problems of a country like ours, which is less and less able to respond to the needs of some communities that feel progressively abandoned by institutions, apart from some cases that “teach” and become, on the contrary, inspirational outside our national borders. Integration could turn into an opportunity for redemption and growth for all those villages that, depopulated due to the severe work situation that grips the Italian economy, especially in the south, could instead be reborn by exploiting a phenomenon for now only been suffered and never really metabolized. This would create a link between architecture and integration that would allow the latter to keep the former alive while preserving its historical and artistic beauties, which in times of difficulty are the first to lose. However, we are veterans from the cases of Riace and Acquaformosa which, beyond politics, have shown how all this is not limited to words, but, if applied, manages to obtain concrete results by improving the quality of life of the migrants and, at the same time, preserving our urban heritage.

These are just some of the design and intervention proposals that have been presented or implemented in recent years, but they make it very clear how progressively an architecture aimed at the weaker sections of society and attentive to migration flows is becoming increasingly necessary. Frontier architecture should not be relegated to a simple topic of discussion or cultural study, but it is a question we should soon deal with and for which architecture, both the academy and those who practice the profession, will have to find appropriate answers to the times we live in.

Translated into English by Marco Grattarola.

¹ Biennale di Architettura 2016,, date of consultation 12/01/2019.
² Biennale di Venezia “REPORTING FROM THE FRONT”,, date of consultation 15/01/2019.
³ Un isola di plastica riciclata per accogliere tutti i, date of consultation 23/01/2019.
United Plastic Nation,, date of consultation 23/01/2019.
Così la Francia reinventa dei rifugi nelle sue città,, last modified 08/07/2018, date of consultation 24/01/2019.
Il sud Italia si sta svuotando. Questa è l’immigrazione che dovrebbe spaventarti,, date of consultation 26/01/2019.