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‘To be more free is what the future suggests’

Lebanese architect-scholar Hashim Sarkis on curating the ongoing Venice Architecture Biennale, finding new possibilities of spatial interaction and why cities matter

Written by Shiny Varghese | New Delhi |
Updated: July 7, 2021 1:38:08 pm
Lebanese architect Hashim Sarkis, Hashim Sarkis, Hashim Sarkis interview, Hashim Sarkis Indian Express interview, Hashim Sarkis curating Venice Architecture Biennale, Venice Architecture Biennale, eye 2021, sunday eye, indian express newsLebanese architect Hashim Sarkis. (Photo: Jacopo Salvi/Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia)

The 2021 Venice Architecture Biennale, on show till November, with 112 participants from 46 countries, is exhibiting on the theme: “How do we live together?” Its curator, Lebanon-born architect-scholar Hashim Sarkis, 56, dean of School of Architecture and Planning at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the US, blends multiple perspectives on how humans connect with each other, at home, in a community, in a country, and on the planet. He speaks of shaking up social contracts and why he’s emotionally connected to India. Edited excerpts:

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The biennale is here after three years. What are the new imaginations in this exhibition?

When we asked the question, ‘how will we live together?’, it was very important to ask it at the scale of the planet, but also at the very intimate scale of people. The reason is that actually the problems we are facing are at the scale of the planet – climate change, mass migration, global inequalities. Architecture has had this tradition of first using the architectural representational tools and the architecture imaginary to imagine the future of the planet. We need that today because many of the changes that are happening in front of us are unfathomable. We need to represent them, we need to diagram them, to visualise them, not just for the present but for the future. And I don’t think there is a field that can do that better than architecture.

There’s a big section in the biennale dedicated to this idea of exercising the architectural imaginary, at the scale of the globe and the plan. If we are to solve the question of the planet, we have to change our disposition in relation to other species, in relation to the elements, we can no longer think in a very anthropocentric way. The body has always been present in architecture as a measure, a scale of reference. But we now need to shake this body up a little bit, this body’s gender is now fluid. This body’s composition is no longer just biological, but also technological, it’s hybrid. This body is aware of the fact that there are other bodies present inside it like microbiomes, and outside that help it thrive. And so, this biennale is looking at all of these questions.

How do we, from the point of view of the body, change our perception of space, and then change our perception of the household. The household composition is changing, and yet we’re stuck with a single-family housing model. We need to open up the palette to other possibilities. For instance, how can two different family compositions live together? The idea of community has been restricted either to neighbourhoods or cities. This has suffocated many emerging communities or disenfranchised groups to be able to express themselves. So, we’re looking to see how emerging communities can be given space, given access to public areas, given identity and dignity through architecture.

Could you give us examples?

One example is from the TUMO Center for Creative Technologies in Armenia. Its premise is in after-hour schools for underprivileged communities in Yerevan, as a way to complement public education with digital education, so that every student will know how to code and use Artificial Intelligence. These programmes were also strategically placed, physically, in these underrepresented communities, but on sites which gave access to different groups, so they became convening places, meeting points, and they became elements of improving the public access and public space. So next to one of them, therlebe would be a bridge over a sunken road, which would have otherwise divided the two communities from each other. Next to another one, there’s a park and they slowly improve the park in order to serve this underrepresented group. And TUMO has slowly grown to become not just about under-high school education, but also college education. And now this model of combining community improvement with education with urban design has the Armenian government coming to them, to improve other districts. So, I feel these are the kinds of examples that we see around the world emerging not in the Western Europe or North America, but everywhere. It requires our attention, and requires that we put them on this platform of the biennale, and see them as very potent solutions to emerging problems.

In your curatorial note, you have mentioned that the biennale is about a new spatial contract. What does it mean?

The spatial contract can be analogous to a social contract, meaning instead of the terms of living together being defined through policy, laws and social habits, they are defined through space. I am proposing that we need a new spatial contract to help us shake our social contracts, which are by now exhausted. They do not respond to our ambitions or to the problems at hand. So, how do you, through space, define how people are going to come together, live together, and use that as a way to open up possibilities for society?

Through the pandemic in India, and even the US, people have moved out of the city and into suburbs. Do you think cities no longer have those answers for living?

It’s too soon to tell. Those who have moved out could afford to. The poor are still in the cities, trying to figure a way to accommodate the life restrictions brought in by the pandemic. The desire to be together will bring people back to the city. This discussion happened during World War II as well. Cities were bombed and people left for the countryside. But, two things happened at the same time. We were rebuilding city centres and reconfiguring our relationship with suburbs and rural areas through public transport. The beautiful thing about space is that it’s simultaneous. It’s not a linear argument you could do both at the same time.

Your childhood in Lebanon has a bit of India in it. Could you tell us more?

I was born in Lebanon, in the ’60s. I grew up in a beautiful little house that my father had built with a friend of his, who was a modernist architect in Lebanon. Their magic imbued the house with an inside-outside blend. It was a modernist, colourful, playful space. People would come and enquire who made it. I was, maybe, three years old, but I declared then that I wanted to be an architect. I had absolutely no idea what that meant, maybe, till now, I don’t. But it meant for me producing beautiful things that people can admire, and come and sit in and under the shade and enjoy. But that house had a lot of India present in it. It had a lot of the Mediterranean. And that is also another idea of plurality and cultures coming together and living convivially and in port city like Beirut. It had the landscape present very strongly in it, and therefore that kind of cohabitation with nature.

But my father, who belonged to the Lebanese Socialist Party at the time, was a very strong believer in the non-aligned project. And that was led by (Jawaharlal) Nehru at the time. And my father also had a guru in India, he used to visit. He was very young, and he drove from Beirut, all the way to Delhi, with the president of the Lebanese Socialist Party, it was an amazing adventure. But at the same time, it showed that at the time, the world had aspirations to be connected. The fact that you could drive between Beirut and Delhi in a car with open borders, between Lebanon and Syria, and Iraq and Iran. Every single border that they crossed was open. When they arrived in Delhi, they were received by Nehru and the members of the Socialist Party of India. They visited industries, the tomb of Gandhi (Mahatma Gandhi’s samadhi in Raj Ghat), and their guru. In doing that trip, they were charting a third way. They brought back with them objects and souvenirs from India that till today are in our house. For me, it opened up the possibility that this international project is both architectural and political. It’s both very much about Beirut, my little house, and about the world that India represented in my childhood. These aspirations are still with me. I say this with a lot of emotion. I have yet to visit India because I promised my wife that this is one of the places that I will not go alone.

Lebanese architect Hashim Sarkis, Hashim Sarkis, Hashim Sarkis interview, Hashim Sarkis Indian Express interview, Hashim Sarkis curating Venice Architecture Biennale, Venice Architecture Biennale, eye 2021, sunday eye, indian express news Armenia’s TUMO Center for Creative Technologies’ exhibit shows the future of learning — mobile and floating workstations. (Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia)

So, is the role of a biennale to present pluralities?

Yes, I believe strongly that it is definitely the role of the biennale. Historically, it meant other things. But I think more and more in the present, it is about scouting for possibilities, as well. I don’t want to call it ideological, but maybe it is ideological, that there is no single answer to the question of how will we live together? Actually, we should not seek one answer, we should not seek one model or one book. The amazing thing about architecture is you move from one building to another, and one that takes you from one world to another. Every building suggests different ways of organisation and living together. And yet we live in them every day. You can go to a public building, which is very institutional, very hierarchical. But you somehow find something that is edifying. And then you go to a public space, which is very loose and open, and you interact with people differently there. And then you go to your house, which has a certain warmth to it, which you will never find in these other places. We move in our daily lives from one form of living to another, and some of them are nested inside each other, some of them are not. Our freedom, our identity is in the choices we make about these things. So, the analogy is about really casting the net wide, and suggesting that these are the choices of how we can live together.

What you’re suggesting is that the future can be flexible and fluid?

Yes, we tend to reduce architecture to a stylistic form, which is important, but it’s not the whole architecture. But I also think that this biennale is encouraging us to think of architecture not as being a kind of tailor-made suit to fit the needs that inhabit it. That approach of the tailor-made suit was a very important one for the modernist period to show how architecture is very functional. But you know what functions change and architecture is expensive and we’re not going to tear down the building to adjust it to the new functions. We adjust it but we don’t tear it down. Between art and architecture, there is some breathing space where life happens. To be a little more free is what I think the future seems to suggest. To be more resilient, more sustainable and, therefore, more inspiring and less imposing.

Architects usually believe that they are in the business of problem solving. But is that the only way to look at it?

We are primarily citizens. In that capacity, we are able participants in decision making, about the future of public life. We do that, both, by voting and also by finding in the agency of architecture ways in which we can advance those ideas. But we are also builders, right? To build, we need to understand professionally, technically, all of those aspects of what architecture is. And in building we solve problems. One architect from the 1970s talked about design as problem seeking first, you help define what the problem is. And that’s why many architects think of their role almost like a psycho analyst who tries to extract from the client, not what they want, but what they need. And in that dance, you define the problem, you don’t just solve that you define the problem and then solve it. And it’s an iterative process, we go back and forth between defining and seeking, defining the problem and solving it.

But, I also think that architecture is not about solving but about resolving. Because solving means that there’s one problem and one solution, but architecture is always about the user, the context, the situation of the setting, the limitations of whatever you have. So, with all of these circumstances, you don’t solve, you resolve, right? And then you improve and then you do something so that’s another dimension to architecture, which is very important.

I want to add just one other dimension, which is at one level, we solve a problem. But at another level, we act like artists and we say what if it could be otherwise? What if it could be a completely different solution to maybe how you lay out a school, for instance. It might not come from analysing the problem, it can come from elsewhere, completely out of the blue. That’s very artistic. And the combination of all these factors is what makes architecture the most amazing field you can ever imagine.

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