Resilient communities as an antidote to the environmental crisis

Alessandro Melis, curator of the Italian Pavilion for the next Architecture Biennale, tells us how we should inhabit the planet, also in light of the pandemic.

The next Architecture Biennale will open to the public (if all goes well) on May 22nd. A year later than expected and with the pandemic still underway. “Resilient Communities“ - this will be the name of the Italian Pavilion - will reuse Milovan Farronato's installation for the 2019 Art Biennale and the catalogue will have a low environmental impact. These are the first two clues. “The programme for the Pavilion, if I look at our first press conference, has not changed much. The main focus is on the environmental crisis. We wanted to give particular attention to the two most relevant aspects: the social implications and the consequences on health,“ explains Alessandro Melis, curator of the pavilion. “Certain sections of the exhibition, such as ‘Architecture as a caregiver’, werealways part of our research, even before Covid-19. Also, we chose the title ‘Resilient Communities’ because it represents our approach well: the names of the architects will certainly appear in our pavilion, but the focus will be on the ideas of the collective, the results of the work of many people, which are more strategic than specific“.

How did you come up with this approach?
Practice-based research - that is, the practice of architecture as research - was key to this process. This comes from the fact that I work in an Anglo-Saxon context that, unlike Italy, does not usually make a clear distinction between profession and research. Today architects are faced with the evidence that the building industry is one of the main causes of the environmental crisis. This forces architects to deal with a more complex scenario, in which they should be able to respond to the requests of the client, but also to address this issue. Therefore, it is necessary to think of architecture as a research practice, and its quality should also be evaluated in relation to the extent of its impact.

During the pandemic, there has been a lot of talk about the dichotomy between city and suburbs, or centre and periphery. Where are your "resilient communities"located?
Let's start from the assumption that Italy has a very different urban configuration compared to other nations. I believe that the Italian model has taken a step forward, more than others, to overcome this very dichotomy. It makes me smile to think that, in Italy, those who live in Pontedera think of Peccioli as an internal area of Tuscany, while in reality the two areneighbouring towns. That same distance in New Zealand - where I lived for four years - is equivalent to the distance between two different districts of Auckland. What I would like to say with this pavilion is that we should leave aside the idea that the size of a settlement is more important than its relational units, which are called communities.

When can we say that a settlement does not work?
The connection between the physical environment and the social structure is a political fact. What has been built in a monofunctional and specialised way - responding to the urban paradigm of the last century - is destined not to be resilient. In North Africa, especially in Algeria, the idea is that in order fora community to function, its physical configuration should correspond to the social organisation: this concept is called El Houma. In my studies of Algiers, together with Yazid Khemri, I found that in the Medina and the part colonized by the French, compactness produced a certain structure for the community, comparable to that of the outer suburbs. On the contrary, in the parts of the city built with the criterion of zoning - the same criterion used in Europe in the post-war period - the relationship between physical environment and social structure is broken.

How do we reconcile this thought with the fact that settlement density has become a focus of debate around Covid-19?
Let's assume that in order to create more distancing, we all move to hamlets, or make bigger houses, or wider streets, as has been proposed. The reality is that, in doing so, we are notlooking at the global issue, which is that the cause of the pandemics that have struck the world in recent decades is the pressure we have generated on the environment with our settlements. Thinking that building larger cities is the solution to the contingent problem of Covid will lead us to even greater problems in the future. As planners, we must therefore regain a global vision, since the strategic goal of architecture is exactly the opposite at this time: that is, to create more compact cities in which each structure must serve multiple functions. In 2020, another key thing happened: the artificial mass exceeded the biomass of the planet. We can no longer ignore the responsibility we have. It is our task to rethink urbanism in a global perspective, with a change of paradigm: the architect must be first of all a builder of principles.

Alessandro Melis is curator of the Italian Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2021 (formerly 2020), co-founder of Heliopolis 21 Architetti Associati and lecturer at the University of Portsmouth.

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