The Things Around Us: 51N4E and Rural Urban Framework exhibition in Montreal explores changing notions of context
What constitutes context in architecture today? This is the central issue explored in The Things Around Us: 51N4E and Rural Urban Framework (RUF), an exhibition at the recently reopened Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) in Montreal.
The show explores the work of Hong Kong-based Rural Urban Framework and 51N4E of Brussels, and is the last in a long-running series of exhibitions looking at themes that architects are dealing with in contemporary practice.
It’s a show with global reach, looking at projects in Mongolia, China, Albania and Belgium. The idea is to consider a far broader notion of architectural context, and in doing so to reflect on the role of the architect as practices engage with this expanded meaning. Context is interpreted as going way behind the physical site conditions to take in the social, political, economic and sustainability dimensions, and much more besides.
In doing so, says CCA curator Francesco Garutti, context expands to all those involved in the negotiation of a project: ‘Context means something wholly different in today’s increasingly polymorphous, extensive and globalised urban space,’ he says. ‘It explores all the actors – human, ephemeral, physical, any figures with an agency in the architecture.’
The practices are described in the exhibition as working at the ‘seams’ of urbanisation, whether it be in China where urbanisation is transforming the rural, in Mongolia, as cities absorb settling former nomads, or in Brussels, where failed city visions are being unpicked and recast.
The Mongolian project makes for a fascinating case study. The site was the fringes of Ulaanbaatar, where nomads have recently been settling. They bring with them their traditional ger nomadic houses. These have proved problematic for the new urban setting, due to the significant pollution arising from the large quantities of coal required to heat the structure.
For architect RUF, the context included the societal shift away from nomadic traditions in tandem with changing grazing methods, the increasing desertification of the steppes and changes in land ownership that allocated everyone a portion of land. Their project developed a prototype ‘ger plug-in’ to improve the insulation properties of the gers. This thickened infrastructural wall also contains water and septic tanks, and also tested underfloor heating and a dual-fuel efficient boiler. An important part of the project was gaining the trust and participation of former nomads to test the prototype.
In Brussels, 51N4E has been working at the World Trade Centre, a 1950s project that redeveloped traditional streets to build a new office district that became, we learn, ‘a modernist ruin’. This failure was an opportunity for the architects to pursue a new direction by reinventing it for mixed-use occupation, reclaiming and repurposing materials and changing the internal environmental conditions through measures such as introducing openable windows.
In Albania, the same practice has been involved for many years in plans to create an improved civic space at Skanderbeg Square in Tirana. This was not so much a conventional design challenge, but a project about exploring national identity and the relationship between public and private space in a country still finding its feet after emerging from decades of communism. The design incorporated stone quarried from all over the country and reintroduced planting, using once-native species that were no longer found in Albania and had to be imported.
In the CCA exhibition, a key part of the installation is a long table running through the galleries. This displays what Garutti describes as objects relating to the various tools, tactics and methodologies that the two practices have employed as they negotiate the expanded idea of context, including a pocket temperature sensor used by RUF to monitor the environmental conditions in the gers, and the suitcase and waterproof map and models that they used when travelling around the community of settled nomads to persuade them to engage in their research. From 51N4E’s Albanian project, there is a simple stone model used as a tool for consultation and discussion.
Garutti feels that it’s important for the profession to take responsibility for shaping the role of the architect. ‘Today they are often involved only to simply camouflage real estate developments with a bit of sustainability, or a bit of wellbeing, instead of being able to shape structurally the space we live in,’ he says.
Instead, he advocates that architects take a more humble and strategic approach, and ensure they fully understand the ‘complex ecology of actors, dialogues, alliances, markets and collaborations within which any spatial practitioner is operating now’, before seeking to find their own position within this.
RUF, he says, sees the architect as the choreographer and enabler of the process, instead of being simply the author. 51N4E, meanwhile, is interested in the idea of decentring the architect to allow other voices in, and doing so by design rather than by acquiescence.
‘But this doesn’t mean, of course, diminishing the role and the quality of the space designed – actually the opposite indeed,’ says Garutti.
He sees part of the role of the CCA as injecting doubt into the mind of visitors and triggering reflection. This wide-spanning and provocative exhibition – and accompanying book – certainly does just this.
The Things Around Us: 51N4E and Rural Urban Framework, until 19 September 2021, Canadian Centre for Architecture, 1920, rue Baile, Montréal, Québec H3H 2S6 cca.qc.ca
The accompanying publication The Things Around Us, Francesco Garutti, ed, Montréal and Berlin: Canadian Centre for Architecture and JOVIS, is published in April 2021