On Reporters and Fronts: Aravena’s 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale
By Gabrielle Printz
When the architecture world raised fury—or commenced eye-rolling—over the all-male panel that inaugurated the 15th Architecture Biennale in Venice, we found ourselves confronting a familiar image.
Norman Foster, Rem Koolhaas and Andrew Makin were among those invited to reflect on “INFRASTRUCTURE” with chief curator Alejandro Aravena and Biennale president Paolo Baratta. As part curatorial programming and part ceremony, the first “Meeting on Architecture” revealed again that the prestige qualifying a speaker for architecture’s main stage often coincides with the speaker’s other privileges, namely their whiteness and maleness.
Not unexpectedly, audience questions immediately challenged the structure of the panel. An architect from Egypt pipes up: “I couldn’t help but ask myself, as a woman and a brown woman, from the Arab Spring, from a developing country…” (full comment 1:07:40-1:09:45, link). She asks why they—the biennale and its curator—hadn’t called upon other voices from the broader architectural public, those that might speak with more specificity to the problems addressed here. “They exist,” she said, so why not include them?
“I don’t know if somebody wants to take this question,” Aravena offers, before dismissing her question as one of simple representation, and not participation. To paraphrase his short response: Don’t look for my curatorial ambitions on this stage, at this particular front, but rather survey the entire collection of projects, which together are representative of the diversity of questions that I’ve posed. So in his capacity as curator, Aravena is the one soliciting diversity, but is not ultimately responsible for its apparent absence on the stage.
“Where are the women?” is a necessary refrain. But its invocation here isn’t sufficient to probe the problematic optics of Aravena alongside six men, or alongside a white South African architect testifying to spatial consequences of colonization and apartheid (Makin). And it doesn’t help us to understand the notable absence of one of architecture’s own troubled fronts from those nominated by Aravena for our consideration: its historic and continuing gender-based inequity. This is the tugging irony of Aravena’s “outward-looking” biennale, an event whose most visible figure for “looking out” is a woman.
German-Peruvian archaeologist Maria Reiche serves as the conceptual protagonist of this year’s biennale, Aravena’s lady-on-ladder. Symbolically, it’s Reiche who announces Reporting from the Front, but those actually afforded a voice are not the under-resourced and under-represented practitioners that she is appointed to represent, or that her image is used to inspire.
The all-male panel is just one symptom of the insistence that architects speak on behalf of slew of issues whose stakeholders remain outside the typical purview of architectural thinking and patronage. Instead of the picture of eight white men on a stage, it might be more useful to look carefully at the way Reiche alone is leveraged to embody architectural reportage, and how the circulation of her image reinforces the curatorial prerogative to account on behalf of [X] without considering one's own power to do so. From this vantage, Reporting from the Front appears less about the things seen as matter of reportage, or how that seeing is enabled by architectural ingenuity. Rather, the exhibition affirms the architect as reporter and the fronts he designates outside architecture.
"In his trip to South America, Bruce Chatwin encountered an old lady walking in the desert carrying an aluminum ladder on her shoulder." 
This is how Aravena introduces his woman atop the ladder. Maria Reiche is presented with her back to us, obliquely, and at the remove of another man’s endeavor to see the world. The introductory sentence of the Biennale’s curatorial statement thus nominates its first interlocutor: British travel writer and lapsed antiquarian Bruce Chatwin. Reiche is discovered “in his trip”—one that was actually instigated by a map of Patagonia painted by the architect Eileen Gray. 
En route from Lima, Chatwin finds Reiche in her literal field of study, the Nazca plateau. By this time, she had already spent decades dragging her ladder around a seemingly empty expanse of desert, which has since been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of her efforts to see and understand the information embedded in it: monumental drawings constructed in low relief across the desert by the Nazca civilization. It is her deliberate act of looking and the simple construction of a vantage point from which to do so that inspired Aravena’s call to “report.” Yet it’s Chatwin’s image of her, facing away from the camera and toward the Nazca lines invisible from the camera’s perspective, that pervades the 2016 Venice Biennale.
Chatwin’s photograph of Reiche first greets architects and visitors arriving at Marco Polo Airport, designating the particular front of Venice as one to be discovered. Her figure circulates across the biennale territory: a slight body balanced on an even slighter structure positioned elsewhere on the earth’s supersurface. Repeated on maps, brochures, and other signage, the image suggests that visitors are peering into some indiscernible void. But in the context of Venice, saturated with designed attractions and interventions, the desert, the ladder, and Reiche are metabolized to serve other curatorial aims.
Reiche’s aluminum ladder in particular is a repeated motif across the Giardini and Arsenale.
“Maria Reiche’s Room” in the Giardini’s central pavilion features an abstracted ladder, aluminum studs recycled from the 2015 Art Biennale propped up against a textured wall—more biennale waste, plasterboard cut into bricks and stacked on their old faces. Reiche’s Room assumes the spatial equivalent of the curator’s statement: an old woman to be encountered at the beginning of “his trip.” Flattened, she is leaned against a backdrop, unintelligible until your eyes adjust to its texture. The cannibalization of the previous exhibition’s infrastructure is a competing motif, echoed in the curator’s introductory room in the Arsenale. There, the stacked plaster wall continues and the aluminum ladder of Reiche’s Room is multiplied into a crumpled metal forest suspended from the ceiling, no longer two articulated studs.
Other ladders appear through the trees; three-legged wooden ladders for picking apples are positioned under simulated cuts in the Arsenale ceiling, devised by Transsolar and Anja Thierfelde, an installation intended to play on the solar effect sometimes called “angel’s ladder” (somehow an ode to locality).
Reiche’s device is rendered a symbol for seeing, but one which affords no view in particular, perhaps with the exception of a massive blue foam city in the Arsenale by BeL Architects. A step stool is provided to survey the room-sized model for NEUBAU, a speculation on pro-immigration urbanism in Germany. In the photogenics of the Biennale, however, this ladder becomes the armature of choice for instagramming the exhibition.
"Indeed, it is a rather odd sight, the old woman perched atop a step-ladder, apparently gazing into nowhere, or measuring the desert with steel tapes." 
Reiche and her ladder are appropriated to signify under-resourced work and the ingenuity that lack inspires. But the curatorial directive to work “from nothing” is at odds with both the visual bombast of the Biennale and the immense cost of its production. In Venice, the full technical arsenal of architectural exhibition strategies is deployed to reveal—theatrically—certain conditions of living that proceed despite or due to architectural intervention. Out of what seems to be the Biennale’s scarcity of scarcity, particularly after Rem Koolhaas’s 2014 “Fundamentals,” which reveled in certain excesses of architecture, Aravena has invited the challenges of several social “fronts” bereft of architecture’s proper attention. The embattled fronts to which architects must now avail themselves resemble some more essential “fundamentals,” which for Aravena lie beyond their typical concerns.
Aravena’s Biennale can be seen as an attempt to reconcile architecture’s humanist roots with a host of contemporary global crises, which come to bear on the practice of architecture (surely the environmental and urban concerns Aravena nominates as fronts are not foreign to today’s design practitioners). Positioned as “new fields of action,” an uneven batch of conditions—“segregation, inequalities, peripheries, access to sanitation, natural disasters, housing shortage, migration, informality, crime, traffic, waste, pollution and participation of communities”—are held at a distance from architecture at the same time they are subject to examination by architects. And in doing so, what goes under-examined is all the ways architecture is already inequitable, wasteful, criminal, involved in patterns of migration, or in the political and economic circulations that advance these conditions.
Ultimately, there are problems of definition at both ends of this scenario: reporter—who speaks on behalf of whom, who is empowered to produce evidence for intervention—and front—the sites whose evident scarcity (or abundance) is aestheticized for architectural emancipation. The filters through which Reiche’s image passes to ultimately appear in Venice attests to the underlying issue of interlocution at this biennale, of asking architects to be announcers of a host of social issues they are not otherwise compelled to address. This is not at all to say that design thinking is ill equipped to understand or impact these fronts, but the solicitation and presentation of design interventions as a matter of expanding the discourse must consider how the architectural imagination also produces these fronts. Socially oriented architecture is not exempt from its own deployable ethics.
This of course comes to bear on the conflict surrounding the US pavilion. “The Architectural Imagination,” co-curated by Cynthia Davidson and Monica Ponce de Leon, was the result of a national open call, and all its aspirations to involve Detroit’s public could not prevent the politics of its own production from also appearing in Venice. The digital occupation of the US pavilion by Detroit Resists was the result of a months-long antagonism fomented by the appropriation of the city’s image, and provides an example of the democracy that idealist American architecture insists upon but is less often actually inconvenienced by. The coalition that makes up Detroit Resists (Andrew Herscher, Bryce Detroit, et al) takes issue with both the misapplication of the power of architecture and its imaginary (by those who hold that power) and the depoliticized representation of the city as a spectacle of blight.
Designer-reporters returning from a glimpse at Detroit deliver in Venice heavily aestheticized proposals: glitter-coated, 3D-printed, lenticular “mixed realities,” enhanced by Microsoft’s HoloLens technology. Their curated imagination is invited to catalyze the development of sites whose specificity—the cultural and commercial identity of Mexicantown, for instance—is only entertained to color megaprojects that might one day extend postindustrial urban futures to America’s other divested cities. Removing the expectations of realization does little to remedy the situation the curators themselves have acknowledged as the object of tumblr-era “ruin-porn,” even in the attempt to rehabilitate Detroit in this picture book of new urbanist vision; the architecture of good intentions.
If we take seriously the goal to locate imagination in spaces of scarcity, then it becomes clear that Reiche’s own ingenuity in recognizing lines in the Peruvian desert is presented in a misleadingly informal way. Beyond this labor, her work required the recognition and support of governments, of hired security, of the United Nations, of her own training. Reiche’s ladder, while a powerful symbol, was perhaps the least operative part of her endeavors to resignify whole swaths of land. Instead of marveling at Chatwin’s account of Reiche’s action against scarcity, Aravena might have considered why she specifically was under-resourced, why it took her a lifetime of walking around the desert to convince the government, granting institutions, and other international bodies that the Nazca lines were worth understanding and protecting; why after self-publishing her book (because “no editor will drink champagne from my skull”), she was offered support in the form of other experts. “But I, who have worked here for forty years, what am I if I am not an expert?”
With all Aravena attempts to take on in a biennale that champions perspective, the view is never turned on itself. In gesturing toward to the pressing conditions of humanity, he relieves himself and his reporters from responsibility to these conditions. Bringing “social issues” to light as a reporter is to rewrite them, depoliticizing and decontextualizing conditions that have specificity and real implications for the people that live amidst them. Aravena has used the platform he was offered to define what architecture is by asking instead to what or to whom it is responsible. In the end, there is no coherent response, only a competition of gestures, another open call with political ambitions but no positions and no ability to remedy the problems in which it is already engaged.
 This necessity is underscored by feminist scholar Sarah Ahmed (who recently left her position at Goldsmiths in protest of the institution’s inaction on issues of sexism): “sexism might drop out of the feminist vocabulary not because of our success in transforming disciplines but because of the exhaustion of having to keep struggling to transform disciplines. It might be because of sexism that we do not attend to sexism. We lose the word; keep the thing.” See Sarah Ahmed, “Introduction: sexism - a problem with a name,” New Formations vol. 86, Aug. 2015, https://www.lwbooks.co.uk/sites/default/files/nf86_01introduction_0.pdf.
 This recalls the condition of social and cultural visibility that John Berger summarized in the early 1970s as “men act, women appear.” John Berger, The Ways of Seeing (London: Penguin and BBC, 1972), 47.
 Chatwin interviewed Gray at her Paris apartment where it hung, and when he mentioned it, she said she’d always wanted to go (she was in her 90s at this point). So he went to South America, published In Patagonia, and the map eventually wound up in his home. Bruce Chatwin, “The Making of a Writer; I Always Wanted to Go to Patagonia,” New York Times, Feb 27, 1983, https://www.nytimes.com/books/00/03/19/specials/chatwin-writer.html
 Bruce Chatwin, “Maria Reiche: The Riddle of the Pampa,” What Am I Doing Here (New York: Penguin, 1989).
 Tom Wilkinson has more to say about all the “ineffectual good will” to be found at this Biennale. See his think piece “Learning from Venice” in the Architectural Review, http://www.architectural-review.com/archive/viewpoints/learning-from-venice/.
 Bruce Chatwin, “Maria Reiche: The Riddle of the Pampa,” What Am I Doing Here (New York: Penguin, 1989).
Gabrielle Printz is a researcher, writer, editor, and erstwhile/occasional designer of things architectural, political and technological. She is a co-founder of f-architecture collaborative and a co-editor of Beyond Patronage: Reconsidering Models of Practice. She sometimes tweets about #bodies as @gabbyprintz.