The theatre of usefull

How can an important event be installed without wasting resources? Rural Studio explains and shows us how, with its design for the Venice Biennale

Rural Studio, Il Teatro dell'Utile, 15. Biennale di Architettura, Venezia, 2016
Art, in its numerous forms, is often seen as an activator of circumstance, a catalyser of motions, passions, ideas and actions. On a local level, it may help to spontaneously and genuinely reset social dynamics by introducing a factor of novelty in how the event is perceived. But what happens when the event takes on a grand, international scope and the situation grows more complex?
Rural Studio, Il Teatro dell'Utile, 15. Biennale di Architettura, Venezia, 2016
Rural Studio, The theatre of the usefull, 15. Biennale di Architettura, Venice, 2016

An artistic event stands alongside a bureaucratic-organisational structure that allows it to function and to last to the end, thereby becoming the driving force of the event itself. This structure, in turn, becomes a business, a company of a commercial nature where for-profit rules reign. The local dimension can be lost. Art turns into the catalyser of international capitals while neighbourhoods are aimed at hosting rather than being sites of investigation and social development.

We asked Rural Studio whom we met at the 15. Venice Architecture Biennale. They offered a methodological approach that reconsiders the entire exhibition process in an almost surgical manner, placing once again at the centre of the investigation the design and its protagonists: the inhabitants.

Rural Studio, Il Teatro dell'Utile, 15. Biennale di Architettura, Venezia, 2016
Rural Studio, The theatre of the usefull, 15. Biennale di Architettura, Venice, 2016
Rural Studio is an undergraduate program in the School of Architecture at the University of Auburn. Since 1992, it acts in support of Alabama’s local communities, constructing homes and public buildings in collaboration with students, local authorities, professionals and the inhabitants themselves. The Theater of the useful installation is a large and enigmatic parallelepiped hanging in mid-air, with walls made from assembled spring-coil beds, lockers that create a sort of hallway, and insulation panels in wood fibre that gradually slope down from the ceiling and give life to a small theatre, where visitors can sit on benches made from stacked untreated panels. “We did not pick them,” states the Rural Studio team, “the materials come from a list. We asked two local organisations what they needed and we used part of what they requested to build our installation.” The two organisations are the Assemblea Sociale per la Casa (ASC) and the Cooperativa Caracol, which are, respectively, involved in reclaiming abandoned social housing and providing shelter to the homeless. “The list we received was much longer,” the group continues, “so we chose to include in our space only those materials needed to create it. For example, we decided to use spring-coil beds in their original packaging, considering them as see-through panels offering a glimpse of the inside from the hallway.
Rural Studio, Il Teatro dell'Utile, 15. Biennale di Architettura, Venezia, 2016
Rural Studio, The theatre of the usefull, 15. Biennale di Architettura, Venice, 2016
The design also concerns transforming this list of items into construction materials and architectural elements. A bed or a locker, alone or piled one on top of the other, do not constitute this transformation. However, the act of hanging turns a bed into a wall and so on: this is an architectural change. Everything we brought to the Biennale was installed in such a way as to express the idea of being in transit. That is why some materials are on pallets or still in their original packaging, as in the case of the lockers. This is all part of the installation concept.” This installation seems to be an all-out, comprehensive lesson in architecture. The composition itself is impeccable for its proportions, lighting, overall and detailed elegance. But it is also an engineering challenge, seeing that almost all the elements are suspended.
Rural Studio, Il Teatro dell'Utile, 15. Biennale di Architettura, Venezia, 2016
Rural Studio, The theatre of the usefull, 15. Biennale di Architettura, Venice, 2016
“When using non-structural materials to build something you need to find a way to pull it off,” the American team states. “The actual mountings are temporary installations, and when you think of mounting a work two processes come to mind: assembly and disassembly. In this case, we wanted to obtain a system that would allow for the most flexibility, so that the materials could reach real life immediately, once the event comes to an end, with minimal environmental impact. Our tendency to use materials that are not strictly for construction is a characteristic of ours at Rural Studio, and we especially don’t fear experimenting. Thanks also to our engineer who, in keeping with the Rural Studio spirit, won’t hesitate to resolve non-conventional structures, thus allowing staff and students to learn how to design with awareness and freedom.”
Rural Studio, Il Teatro dell'Utile, 15. Biennale di Architettura, Venezia, 2016
Rural Studio, The theatre of the usefull, 15. Biennale di Architettura, Venice, 2016
It’s clear that the installation’s final objective isn’t a mere display at the Biennale, which actually becomes a step in a broader course, dismantling the traditional exhibition mechanism and, at the same time, recreating it in an even more powerful manner. Etymologically speaking, these aren’t recyclable materials after the event’s lifecycle. “That’s right, there’s no re-cycle here,” according to Rural Studio. “It’s one life, not two lives. Re-cycling intended as a second life for a material that lived out its lifespan in this case is unfounded. I think it would be better to call it a passage, seeing that through our process the materials are still waiting to face their first life cycle. The materials are on display for a short time at the Biennale, and their life will begin only after dismantling the installation. In other words, a bed will truly be a bed only after it has reached Caracol. Now it’s not a bed yet, it’s a manifesto; it’s there to help us tell a story.” A year’s worth of work is behind this project, along with a close-knit team, who chose to interact with two local groups and support two radical projects: a homeless shelter and refurbishing a squat.
Rural Studio, Il Teatro dell'Utile, 15. Biennale di Architettura, Venezia, 2016
Rural Studio, The theatre of the usefull, 15. Biennale di Architettura, Venice, 2016
“As far as the radicalness of the projects is concerned, we don’t believe fighting for shelter is radical: it’s basic, it’s important. We want our projects to be finished by someone who has the necessary experience and knowledge with regards to local impact. We want to be a source of resources, and not waste them. We visited some local organisations and we liked these two in particular, because they work on the theme of housing, a theme we focus on back in Alabama, too. Straight away both the Assemblea Sociale per la Casa and the Cooperativa Caracol seemed very serious, impassioned and rigorous. So we trusted them to continue with this idea of using resources even after the Biennale. We believe that our designs grow in strength when coming into contact with the locals, because this explains what we normally do: we work with local communities. It’s the idea of facilitating the lifespan of onsite resources.”
Rural Studio, Il Teatro dell'Utile, 15. Biennale di Architettura, Venezia, 2016
Rural Studio, The theatre of the usefull, 15. Biennale di Architettura, Venice, 2016
In November, The Theatre of the usefull will be taken down and the materials shipped to their final destinations, to the two projects at hand. The fact of using materials that were on display at such an internationally prestigious cultural event is quite peculiar. “This year we have the Venice Biennale opportunity to amplify what these two organisations are doing, and maybe this way they will be able to get further help. Or at least the public will have greater awareness of these projects. Rural Studio has raised some questions, and one of these is to understand if an important event like the Biennale can work only this way or if there are alternatives. Rural Studio is a place where many questions are asked. We don’t expect to have all the answers, but we like to raise them nonetheless and discuss how many different answers we can find to a question and which one of these has the greatest value. In this case, we answered a specific question: our installation is a solution to the waste of resources during and after an important event.”
© all rights reserved

until 27 November 2016
The theatre of the usefull
15. Biennale di Architettura di Venezia
Design : Rural Studio
Local partner : Studio Architetture Precarie
Exhibition set : Andrew Freear, Xavier Vendrell, Elena Barthel, Mary English – Rural Studio; Alessandro Zorzetto – Architetture Precarie; Pasquale Ambrogio, Niccolò Bocenti – Rebiennale

Latest on Architecture

Latest on Domus

Read more
China Germany India Mexico, Central America and Caribbean Sri Lanka Korea icon-camera close icon-comments icon-down-sm icon-download icon-facebook icon-heart icon-heart icon-next-sm icon-next icon-pinterest icon-play icon-plus icon-prev-sm icon-prev Search icon-twitter icon-views icon-instagram