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Waste in Venice

Waste was one of the ‘fronts’ Aravena identified in his opening statements for the 2016 Venice Architecture Bienalle. wasteBy now we’ve all either seen or seen images of the exhibition entrance features – you know the ones. 

You’ll probably also have been told those installations were made from 10,000 sq.m of plasterboard and 14 km of metal studs from the previous Biennale – the one curated by you know who.

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What Aravena has done is turn old waste into new waste and, in the process, make it represent waste as well. He’s also wasted his time and ours. The plasterboard might have been more reusable if it hadn’t been cut into tiny pieces, as might those metal studs if they hadn’t been bent. If this is the best the best of architecture has to offer, then sooner or later we can expect to see the aestheticization of waste as architectural ornament. It was sooner than I expected, for immediately outside was another example of someone arranging stuff into a pointless representation of waste. What does it mean? What does it do? Why did they do that? It’s more cutting-edge contentless content. 

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Aestheticizing something by making its representation more important than the thing itself is one of architecture’s many dysfuctions stemming from the belief it’s an art. Arty however, is much better at aestheticising raw materials because that’s basically what it does – it takes materials and uses them to represent something independent of those materials. It also adds value, albeit a highly subjective one.

At the Prada Fondazione in Milan is an exhibition of works by Edward and Nancy Nienholz who assemble found objects into rather disturbing collages.

This most definitely is art. Something new and having a different kind of value has been created. Their intention was never to reduce some global oversupply of disused carnival paraphenalia. Elsewhere at the Prada Fondazione, unwanted art is being repurposed into new art.

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The Pirelli Hangar Bacocco in Milan currently has an exhibition titled Architecture as Art. [Grrr.]

One of the works on display was this ‘architectural’ space made out of shredded books. You could climb it and find a space to – what else? – read a book.

This isn’t a response to some global surfeit of shredded books but nor does it pretend to be one. Who knows what will happen after? Perhaps it’ll become part of a permanent exhibition somewhere, or perhaps it’ll be reconstructed elsewhere from different trash at some later date.

The fashion industry is currently attempting to come to grips with recovering fabrics (at the level of fibres) and remaking them into high-value garments. This is good in that land can be used for things other than growing cotton but it’s bad if the main object is to maintain a high churn ratio even if at lower environmental cost. Getting more wear out of clothes is a sensible idea. Geting rid of the concept of fashion and its obsession with trends and novelty is a better one.

Outside Hangar Bacocco is a temporary pavilion built out of the packing crates artworks arrive in. It will be eventually dismantled and its pieces distributed to where they can be put to use.

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The pavilion is a structure with a limited degree of utility and no small amount of artistic/architectural pretension but there is at least a plan to use it for something else afterwards. It’s a better way of doing things. Its designers understand that the best way to generate less waste is to give things a purposeful next life and prevent them from becoming waste in the first place.

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This thinking is evident at the Austrian pavilion at the 2016 Architecture Biennale.

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The first room contains piles of posters depicting refugee housing projects at three locations in Vienna. In the second rom is a large display table that, after the biennale, will be divided into three parts for re-use at those locations. There’s an exhibition website and a comprehensive exhibition newspaper.

The Austrian pavilion isn’t the only one having this it’s-not-waste strategy. The Portuguese pavilion contains hardly anything and is in a building that, after the biennale, will be purposed as housing. The exhibition has stopped the building from being waste.  

The space is sparse, the only installations some projection screens, models of the projects shown, and plinths with handouts. Maximum effect was extracted from next to nothing, mainly due to the engaging films of Siza talking to the occupants of three of his housing projects.

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Rural Studio is the only US ‘practice’ to have be invited to exhibit at VB16. Having never worked outside of Alabama in their twenty years, they must have been bewildered at having been invited to exhibit. They chose to show The World two things. The first was some videos of who they are, what they do and how they do it. These videos were presented in a small theatre delineated by suspended bed frames and with stacks of insulation panels as benches. The Theater of the Usefull, they called it. 

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Rural Studio used the money they’d been granted to purchase things that, after the Biennale, were to be given to the Assemblea Sociale per la Casa association that provides shelter for the homeless in the Venezia-Mestre-Marghera area. Again, this eliminates waste as a concept and also happens to do maximum good. Besides being a simple and honest thing to do, it’s consistent with the Rural Studio ethos. It’s also worth noting that, compared with some of the more high-profile set pieces, it was all done with zero air miles.   

The same connection between medium and message was there in the German Pavilion I mentioned in the previous post. The visual content of the exhibition was just posters and text on the walls, supplemented by a book and a comprehensive website that’s also a database/resource of housing projects. Again, this is low-impact, low-cost, and you find out stuff. Note that the furniture is not custom designed and made.  

The little pavilion at Hangar Barocco, Rural Studio’s Theater of the Usefull and the Austrian Pavilion at the Biennale are preventing resources from becoming waste by planning for a degree of utility for different people further down the line. This isn’t the case with Aravena’s installations. I’m curious. Didn’t Koolhaas have had a refuse management plan? Does all that stuff just lay around until someone decides to throw it away? Or did Aravena say, “no, don’t throw it away – I have a point to make”? We’re definitely being asked to reflect upon the amount of waste a bienalle generates and I most definitely am. Aravena’s just kicked the can two years down the road to when this waste might well be in our faces again as something useful. Or it might not.

Not that it matters. You can probably learn more about waste management from just walking around Venice.

  • The buildings are designed and made to last. Their life-cycle is set at Forever.
  • People and what they do fit into the buildings available.
  • New buildings are never frivolous.
  • There is none of the aesthetic churn characteristic of architectural activity elsewhere.

On a different level, every day and night enormous quantities of food and drink are produced and consumed yet all the waste just seems to magically disapppear.

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VESTA (Venezia Servizi Territoriali ed Ambientali) is a limited company of Venice Municipality and is responsible for drinking water supply, urban and industrial wastewater treatment, waste collection and treatment, public and private cleaning, management of green areas and cemeteries, and environmental reclamation work. Veritas is responsible for rubbish collection.

  • Dry waste and wet waste is placed in tightly closed bags of any kind, that can be given directly to the rubbish collector or left near the outer door of your building between the hours of 6-8 am.
  • Paper, cardboard, tetra-pak is placed into paper bags tied with string and collected on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
  • Glass, plastic and cans are placed in plastic bag marked with blue stickers and collected on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

Collection, management and recycling are all good but some there are also cultural factors that work to limit the amount of waste and prevent things from becoming waste in the first place. These are the things we’re currently rediscovering.

  • Footpaths in Venice have very few wastebins yet there is no litter. If people need a drink or something to eat, they sit down somewhere and order it. People don’t generate trash as they move throughout the city.
  • Restaurants purify and gasify their own water in refillable bottles.
  • Fabric tablecloths and napkins are still the norm.
  • Much of what you eat will have been cooked from raw, unprocessed ingredients that have never been wrapped, packed, bottled or canned.

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Venice is of necessity a water supply and waste management hotspot. This year the city will be hosting the Water Technology and Environmental Control Exhibition & Conference September 21-23.

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Since 2006, Venice has also hosted the biennial International Symposium on Energy from Biomass and Waste.

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One hot topic is the generation energy from lagoon agla caused by inadequate waste management in the first place. Tackling the same problem from the other end, organic waste from the many kitchens and restaurants is collected and sent to a mechanical-biological stabilisation plant at Fusina not too far away.

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What happens there you can read about here.

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Further reading:

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