Places for People (11/02/2017)

Some remarks about Austria’s contribution to the 2016 Architecture Biennale in Venice- Published in 2A Magazine, Edition 38 / Winter 2017

Places for People

Curators: Elke Delugan Meissl, Sabine Dreher, Christian Muhr

Teams: Caramel Architekten, EOOS, the next ENTERprise

Photographer: Paul Kranzler, Matthias Cremer

Occasion and intention

The project “Places for People” was launched in the summer of 2015, a summer marked in Austria by an enormous influx of refugees for who the authorities had been unable to organise enough additional accommodation and proper health care. Around 1,500 people were having to sleep in the open air while others camped in fields outside the town.

In the light of these events the team felt called upon to do something, not only as private individuals but also in their professional roles as architects and curators of an architecture biennale. Hence, a project was immediately set in motion which sought to make constructive use of the know-how of selected Austrian architects and the of the Biennale in order to adapt vacant buildings in Vienna with the aim of offering people dignified temporary accommodation and care.

Objectives and methods

The chosen approach was deliberately “hands-on”, practical, pragmatic and very decidedly not socio-romantic. This decision led to a shift of focus from Venice to Vienna, from the context of an international cultural event to real locations in Vienna, from the presentation of exhibits and results to the working and produc- tion processes which precede them.

“Places for People” is primarily inspired by the simple, classical or, even, traditional notion that the elementary roles and constituent characteristics of architecture include the protection of people and the creation of humane living spaces and the basic conditions for a functioning communal life.

However familiar, obvious or even outdated this as- sertion may appear, current developments lend it a new potency: how can one still speak legitimately of “Places for People” in an age of mass mobility and mass migration in which increasing numbers of people are switching locations – voluntarily or other- wise – or even abandoning their homes complete- ly? Is the compact relationship between these two terms still valid or has it been replaced by a looser, more temporary arrangement?

For this reason alone, the project has been driven from the very start by a spirit of experimentation – a spirit which also, quite consciously, accepts the risk of failure.

The scepticism of the curators regarding universal solutions in such highly complex and conflict-rid- den contexts included the full consciousness of the limitations of such a Biennale contribution. So the intention was not only to help as many people as possible but also to encourage a certain pluralism of methods and ideas including, naturally, thoughts about scalability and the wider applicability of each approach.

Selection and approaches

The selection of the three teams was guided both by this intention and by such practical and prag- matic criteria as experience, commitment and re- silience: Caramel Architekten, EOOS and the next ENTERprise were all prepared to accept consider- able extra expenditure as the price of their social commitment. But there were weeks of discussions with statutory authorities, government agencies and private investors to find locations and a partner who was willing to ensure the long-term support of the three pilot projects.

During the following process the three offices con- sulted intensively with each other and with the cu- ratorial team and worked closely with the Austrian NGO Caritas’ various experts to develop the specif- ic concepts.

The city and the public realm

Their strategies for the three interventions - and the results achieved – vary markedly in a number of ways but also exhibit important similarities. Prin- cipal common features are that the interventions were developed in cooperation with the people affected and the fact that, for all their specificity, the individual measures are also part of a broader context provided by the building and, beyond this, the city. All three interventions also provide a con- crete contribution to the wider discussion of such issues as new and intermediate use, the activation of vacant property, densification, the opening up of public space, new forms of living and working and, not least, the reinvention of social housing, a field in which Vienna can point to both an impressive lega- cy and a wealth of high-quality examples.

The extent to which the city is central to “Places for People” is also demonstrated by the title itself which was inspired by Bernard Rudofsky’s book “Streets for People” and by its passionate plea for a more hu- mane urbanity and for the cultivation of the public realm.

The Austrian-American architect, designer, author and exhibition curator (1905-1988) devoted his life and work to travel as a result of which he also ex- perienced involuntary exile. After focussing on an examination of such elementary aspects of life as eating, sleeping, sitting, lying and washing, his writ- ings, buildings and exhibitions ask how these needs can be met in a humane way and what role archi- tecture can play in this process. Rudofsky based his observations on his analysis of anonymous architec- ture and everyday practices, especially in the Arab World. His famous dictum, that what we need is less a new way of building than a new way of living, is a call for a shift of emphasis from the design of mate- rials to the design of relationships – a call which, giv- en today’s many crises, has now gained a particu- lar meaning in architecture and, hence, increased political significance, under the rallying cry “social turn”.