As you pass through the forested parkland on the far edge of Venice’s 12th-century naval district and enter a treed clearing, you’re confronted with the looming white stone walls and heavy columns of a fascist-era building – an inhuman-scale 1930s temple to the powers of German architecture.
Then you notice the holes we have jackhammered into its walls. These raw openings, their steel lintel beams exposed, have transformed this austere national shrine into something else entirely. Open to the elements and the passing crowds, it becomes an informal, improvised place, a teeming marketplace not just of ideas but of real-life things: Turkish street vendors we’ve brought from Berlin pouring glasses of yogurt, clusters of people seated on piles of bricks holding discussions, none of it planned or orderly.
We have turned the German pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale, which runs for the next six months, into another kind of European architecture, the kind you find in the poor immigrant districts of the big cities, fashioned by newcomers themselves from low-cost materials to suit their changing commercial and residential needs. Inside, you find an exhibition devoted to this kind of architecture, to the best ideas for using architecture to make immigrant integration succeed.
My own first encounter with this structure last month was doubly jarring. After all, it is quite literally a building-sized rendition of a book I wrote in 2010. Its walls are stencilled, in what I call an Honest Ed’s typeface, with my words, its many exhibits designed to illustrate my arguments with European architectural examples. Each room is an invocation of one of its key ideas.
That book was called Arrival City, and it looked into the inner functioning of the immigrant-settlement districts of 20 cities around the world, and chronicled the factors that make them succeed or fail. A circle of German architectural visionaries had invited me to turn this book, and my subsequent urban and migration research, into a national exhibit bearing the title “Making Heimat – Germany: Arrival Country.” (Heimat, a hard-to-translate German word, refers to a sense of belonging attached to one’s home village.)
How had my journalistic work on immigrant districts come to be the official voice of Germany at the world’s most prestigious architecture exhibition? How had Angela Merkel’s conservative government decided to make Arrival City the basis for its premiere statement about the state of architecture?
It’s a long story. But on another level, it’s also a very logical reflection of the new realities faced by Europe’s largest economy. The German cabinet ministers and government officials who chose our pavilion proposal in a competition last year were explicit about this: They needed new ideas about migration and cities, and they needed them fast.
The chairs have got to go
I am not an architecture expert, and until last year I had not thought of my work as explicitly architectural: It focuses on the way people use the buildings and urban materials around them. That changed abruptly last June, when I happened to be in Frankfurt.
In a spare moment, I wandered into the German Architecture Museum, a quiet building on the bank of the river Main, where I was introduced to its director, a goateed impresario named Peter Cachola Schmal. He grinned, told me that he’d read my books, and then insisted that I stay for a screening of a documentary about Asian housing. I’m not at all fluent in German, so understood only some of it – but as the credits rolled, Schmal told the sizeable audience, in English, that they would now hear a short lecture from me. I cannot recall what I ad libbed during those 20 minutes, but it went over well: I had passed a test.
Three months later, as I was preparing to go to Europe again, my phone rang. “Come a day early so we can fly you to Berlin for a few hours,” Schmal told me. “We’re going to sell the German government on Arrival City for Venice.”
I shortly found myself standing in a conference room with German cabinet ministers and housing officials. We were one of half a dozen architectural teams pitching designs for the Venice Biennale that day. He had teamed me with the young partners in a funky Berlin architecture firm, Something Fantastic, who would rebuild the pavilion building, and with two other architecture experts with his museum, Anna Scheuermann and Oliver Elser.
To give the pitch a truly Mad Men feel, he’d brought along several tall stacks of those white plastic chairs that seem to populate every cheap outdoor café in the world, and plunked them on the table. These, we’d decided, would be the visual motif: We’d use thousands of them, in stacks and mountains, to give visual shape to the migrant numbers.
I spoke in English for a while. The building minister, Barbara Hendricks, frowned. “That’s all good,” she said, “but those chairs – they’re very tacky, aren’t they?” She also really didn’t like the idea, self-evident to Canadians, that immigrants should be encouraged to settle in places already dense with prior immigrants. We see this as a pathway to integration; Germans tend to see it as the opposite of integration.
Two months later, we received word that ours would be the German pavilion – all the ideas had been approved, but we’d have to lose the plastic chairs.
A second Berlin
This put us at the centre of Europe’s most urgent and politically challenging crisis. In an architecture biennale that is often given over to the most abstruse and ephemeral of ideas and visions, we had been asked to create the least abstract pavilion of them all.
After all, the 2016 Biennale’s theme, selected by the acclaimed architect Alejandro Aravena, is “Reporting from the Front”: He wanted exhibitions to focus on the architecture of “the margins,” not the pricey mega-structures that tend to dominate architecture fairs.
The stuff in this pavilion is really happening. And there is real money on the table. Germany is in the midst of an enormously controversial and difficult process of settling around a million refugees who’ve fled the conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere – almost half the refugees arriving in Europe – and housing them in dozens of cities.
This has resulted in Berlin’s federal administration spending unprecedented sums on new buildings for this process: Shortly after the committee she sits on chose our “arrival city” exhibition in January, Ms. Hendricks announced that her government will fund the construction of 300,000 to 400,000 new units of social housing each year (for both refugees and established Germans), year after year, for the foreseeable future.
No other government in the Western world is spending this kind of money on housing – and it has been decades since any government has deployed architectural solutions to social problems on this scale. When finished, it will be the equivalent of having created a second Berlin, largely with public funds.
So Europe’s largest demographic and social crisis has suddenly become an architectural and urban-planning crisis: There is an urgent need to learn from the best lessons of the past seven decades of public-housing construction – and, more importantly, to avoid the many design failures of that period, the horrid “projects” and council flats and plattenbau districts, some of which led directly to impoverished and isolated immigrant districts prone to crime and extremism.
A core component of our pavilion is a database, available online, which documents more than 400 refugee-housing projects currently under way in Germany (many are intended to be turned into social or student housing once the refugee emergency abates). Some of them are awful. Some are ingenious. After standing in a room surrounded by these examples, the notion that architectural design has large-scale social consequences becomes far less abstract: These designs, for better or worse, will affect the lives and outcomes of families, communities and cities for generations.
Other rooms, and the pavilion’s main chamber, are devoted to the “eight theses of the arrival city” we developed in a series of meetings in Frankfurt. These, distilled from my research conclusions, are emblazoned on the walls and illustrated with case studies of districts and projects in European cities:
The arrival city is a city within a city. The arrival city is a network of immigrants. The arrival city is affordable. The arrival city is close to business. The arrival city is informal. The arrival city is self-built. The arrival city is on the ground floor. The arrival city needs the best schools.
For the many thousands of people who have passed through our pavilion during the past two weeks, it has been a break from capital-A architecture and a swift plunge into the most turbulent debate in Europe’s modern history. Some, like Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, have lingered to take notes. Some have started arguments, sketched designs or told us they suddenly see their city’s kebab-shop district very differently. Others have just hung out, had a bite and soaked up the simultaneous sense of comfort and unfamiliarity – in the process, experiencing a small version of the sort of place we’re chronicling here.