Solution-focused Architecture at the Venice Biennale

Architecture as an agent of change: that’s a concept the MIT community can easily embrace. And embrace it they did at the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale that opened in May, featuring more than 15 installations and exhibitions by MIT faculty, researchers, graduate students, and alumni. The selected works epitomize MIT’s drive toward real-world analysis and impact, echoed in the Biennale’s own theme, “Reporting from the Front.”

“Our faculty, students, and alumni do not shy away from hard problems,” said Hashim Sarkis, Dean of the School of Architecture and Planning. “Their numerous installations in Venice reflect the breadth of the MIT community’s efforts to apply the tools of architecture and design to build a better world.”

For example, associate professor of architecture Alexander D’Hooghe and his firm, OPM, used a system of modular concrete panels to create an open, welcoming urban market for immigrants in Brussels. And John Ochsendorf, the Class of 1942 Professor of Architecture and professor of civil and environmental engineering, collaborated with MIT alumni Matthew DeJong SM ’05, PhD ’09, Philippe Block SM ’05, PhD ’09, and internationally renowned firm Foster + Partners on a “Droneport” prototype. The full-scale earthen masonry shell was constructed on site to demonstrate the economic and environmental advantages of compression vaults, while suggesting an infrastructure by which drones could reliably deliver medical supplies and other necessities to communities throughout Africa.

Ochsendorf is an expert on such masonry structures, which have deep historical roots. And his team was not the only participant using history as a lens through which to view present-day challenges. For example, associate professor Gediminas Urbonas, director of the MIT Program in Art, Culture, and Technology, and MIT research affiliate Nomeda Urboniene used their installation to trace the economic and cultural impact of the 4,000-kilometer Druzhba oil pipeline built in 1960 by the Soviet Union, revealing “mechanisms of power and submission that rightfully belong to the past but persist even today.”

Other MIT installations bridged nature and technology. Take the working beehive created by Kevin Slavin, director of the Playful Systems Group in the MIT Media Lab, which was modified to capture “bee debris” for genetic sequencing. Much as scientists’ growing understanding of the microbiome in our own bodies is opening new possibilities for human health, Slavin’s project aims for an urban-scale portrait of the invisible yet teeming networks of microbes that help to shape where we live.