The Oslo Architecture Triennale is in step with climate protesters as it tackles the need to change the way we live
I arrived in a grey Oslo a few days after the London climate strike and half way through reading Stolen by Grace Blakeley in a state of gloom and bloom – a useful phrase from Jem Bendell’s chapter in This is Not a Drill – An Extinction Rebellion Handbook – which perfectly sums up this contradictory, unsettling, exciting moment in the global psyche where we know things have to change.
Enough – The Architecture of Degrowth promotes the newish concept of ‘degrowth’ but it is very much in step with the huge global movement that is rejecting the hegemony of neoliberalism – the imperative of economic growth with its devastating environmental impact – and desires a radically different world. Chosen from a field of 71, the successful team for the 2019 Oslo Architecture Triennale are Maria Smith and Matthew Dalziel from Interrobang, critic Phineas Harper and urban researcher Cecilie Sachs Olsen.
Oslo feels like a city drowning in growth. The once solitary Opera House (which I swam to across the fjord from a little floating sauna) is now joined by two large new civic buildings. The Deichman Library by Lund Hagem and Atelier Oslo and the new Munch Museum by Estudio Herreros, due to open in 2020, are themselves bounded by the large Barcode and Sorenga districts of housing and high end restaurants. Elsewhere there is inventive reuse of existing buildings such as the wonderful Biblo Toyen, a re-imaged library for 10-15 year olds where no adults are allowed, and the FutureBuilt programme of 27 pilot projects which showcases innovative climate-neutral, high quality architecture.
Sprinkled around this ‘business as usual’ vision of a 21st century city, over the next two months, the triennale programme is offering a wide range of events around a core of four new institutions of degrowth: library, theatre, playground and academy. The festival includes elements tailored to specific audiences, such as a children’s programme or a 72 hour live action role play performance loosely based on Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. This rich mix of curatorial approaches and collaborative experimentation is to be applauded.
The rich mix of curatorial approaches and collaborative experimentation is to be applauded
The Library is an exhibition of projects and ideas celebrating sharing, de-commodification, and the democratisation of goods and ideas. The National Museum of Architecture has been transformed into a lending library where visitors can explore the architecture of a degrowth economy through models, materials, artefacts, games and devices and use their library card to borrow half of them. Here you are encouraged to touch, take, borrow, participate, sit, write and play.
Performance is used to explore core themes at the Theatre. For the opening weekend Rimini Protokoll’s Society under Construction (State 2) created a participatory building site in the National Theatre that revealed the power structures and exploitative impacts of the way global investors, construction workers and contractors, public interests and professionals create urban development. Forthcoming events include Home Planet and We Should all be Dreaming.
The Playground, at the ROM Gallery for Art and Architecture, builds on the long tradition of using play to explore and listen to the city as a site of joyful and thoughtful experimentation. We did the audio tour – it was fun, we held hands and danced in a public space. By contrast, the Academy offers a platform for serious discussion and research. The first events were the usual mixed bag; some were considered over-academic, perhaps underlining my feeling that the world must liberate itself from its bizarre internalised systems of reference and modes of communication.
A publication, Gross Ideas, replaces a conventional catalogue (although it would be useful if the website documented all the projects at the Library) and is a collection of short sci-fi stories about the reality of our degrowth future. As Phin Harper writes in the introduction: ‘Before you can build a better world you need to imagine it first.’ So this Triennale is about showcasing ideas and in particular highlighting the role architects can play in an exciting landscape of possible other futures; they already have the tools to organize, design, masterplan, communicate and create the visions that politicians and the public will need to believe this future is possible.
Before you can build a better world you need to imagine it first
As the curators acknowledge, such a change would require profound social, political and economic change. Of course there are inherent contradictions in proposing such a radical and fundamental overhaul of the whole system while still having to operate within it – globally and at the scale of this particular form of cultural production. Indeed there are also biennales this autumn at Tallinn, Sao Paulo, Chicago, Seoul, Lisbon, Santiago and Buenos Aires, and against all that cost and effort it must be questioned just how much it is affecting the real world.
So the triennale is full of good ideas and experimental curation for a new generation but many will feel they have seen it before – for example at What you can do with a City, the 2008 CCA exhibition. But now is not the moment to indulge in ennui or déjà vu but rather to feel inspired to be part of a 21st century movement, started in the 1960s and 1970s, that might finally be building to a scale of protest and new thinking that will see a revolution finally happen. The challenge for us all is to work out how to connect with other sectors to build our impact, and in particular to acknowledge the unglamorous day-to-day otherworldliness of the allotment, lunch clubs, civic societies and community projects which provide rare and fragile activities and spaces that place people and planet over profit. As Colin Ward said, these alternative moments are like ‘seeds beneath the snow’; let’s hope it is finally time for them to bloom.
Alicia Pivaro is an urbanist, artist and curator