The Challenge of the Future Is in Living Together

No Walls, No Divisions: The Director of Biennale Architettura 2020 Gives Us a Preview of His Idea of a More Hospitable World—Like a Mediterranean City, Where the Mix of Cultures Is Irresistible

by Mara Accettura

“The world is presenting architecture with new challenges. I look forward to working with colleagues from all over the world, to imagine together how to deal with them.”

“Together” is a key concept in understanding Hashim Sarkis. With eyes surmounted by bushy eyebrows and a face framed by a thick white beard, the next director of the Venice Biennale Architettura (May 23 to November 29, 2020) is basically a man of bridges and connections between different peoples and different worlds. His life is split between his hometown—the cosmopolitan Beirut, divided into Christian and Muslim quarters—and the United States, where he emigrated at the outbreak of the civil war and where he alternates between his practice as an architect (with his Hashim Sarkis Studio) and his academic career. His working method is very much in line with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)—the university where he is dean of the School of Architecture and Planning, where the emphasis on complex problem solving is team-based.

It’s no wonder that the title he has given to the next Biennale is “How We Will Live Together?”—a reference to a methodology of solving increasingly global problems, a manifesto of common humanity, and a counter to the tendency to raise walls and to defend and segregate oneself against the other.

Architecture has responsibilities: it has not escaped the exacerbation of differences.

It is no surprise that architecture has contributed in part to exacerbating divisions: we see it in many cities where entire sectors of the population are ignored, invisible, or set aside. The celebration of power and wealth, and the ideology of real estate, matters in the construction of new luxury skyscrapers, new shopping centers, and new compounds for the rich.

“Architecture has responsibilities: it has not escaped the exacerbation of differences,” Sarkis admits diplomatically. “However, I have worked hard so that this discipline may better explain the ways in which people find themselves together in the space of a house as a family, in the space of a neighborhood as a community, of a city as citizens, and of a country as a nation. Unfortunately, togetherness is celebrated less and less, and the civic role of architecture diminishes. People meet in the privacy of their own homes or in commercial spaces. Even public spaces are rarely designed to bring people together.”

“We need a new spatial contract,” he maintains. “Places like parks, schools, cafes, and squares must return to being important for people and for architecture. In the Biennale, for example, we will see a team of Turkish architects, anthropologists, and artists who propose a series of public spaces and programs to mix rich and poor, refugees and citizens, young and old.”

To reflect a changing society, houses must also be designed ad hoc. “The house has long been modeled on the nuclear family and organized around notions of privacy and hierarchy,” he continues. “But that family has aged over the years, its needs have changed, and it has never been the only form of living together. There are extended families, elderly families that host grandchildren, students who live and work together, and the case of refugees. Architecture must support and legitimize these new aggregations.”

Togetherness is also expressed at the macro level. New issues, such as migration and the environment, can no longer be addressed by individual disciplines or individual states. “The Amazon forest knows no political boundaries. It crosses over many states and connects them. To cope with its destruction, it is not enough for Brazil to implement a national policy. It is necessary that various countries work together and that there is pressure from the international community for this to happen. I believe in collective action.”

“This is why it is necessary to overcome the mythology of the ‘starchitect’ designing spectacular projects,” he says. “The role of the architect must be rather that of guarantor of the contract: a synthetic figure that coordinates structural engineers and landscape artists and different points of view. The role of architecture is also to host and orchestrate other forms of the arts, from painting to sculpture and decorative arts.”

These are great challenges for a discipline that, in its own way, is also among those responsible for environmental impact. “From the consumption of energy and resources to poor population distribution, the environmental control system is inefficient. We are definitely part of the problem. We also want to be part of the solution. Questions such as ‘What can we do since the world is one? How can we solve the problem of waste or deforestation? How can we change the shape of certain features of the earth to make this happen?’ may be considered megalomaniac or visionary, but architecture must have the ability to imagine and visualize solutions.”

We must also invent new types of cities that are able to reflect the geography, economy, and culture of every place in a different way.

The son of a progressive socialist, Sarkis decided to become an architect at the age of three. “My parents had many friends in the fields of politics and architecture, including Poland’s Karol Schayer and his Lebanese partner Watheq Adib. They designed our house on the outskirts of Beirut. It was a small two-bedroom chalet, but it had a modern layout with colorful walls and furniture as was fashionable in the 1950s, and even the carpets were not in the eastern style but had contemporary patterns. A lot of people came to admire it. I myself was fascinated and so, to those who asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I replied: I’ll be an architect. This is how it started.”

His first project, for a nongovernmental organization, consisted of a fishing village in Tyre, in southern Lebanon. “As a sign of gratitude,  they gave me five kilos of fish; it was very good,” he recalls. Beirut has greatly influenced his vision. “It is a modern city whose buildings are very similar to those of a city like Milan. But what I really like is the creative chaos, a chaos held together without degenerating into a mess. And then there is also another aspect: the linguistic mix on a very small scale. This creates a particular rhythm of the city, a certain pulse. Beirut is not monotonous. Shops, houses, offices mingle in the city plan as well as in the buildings’ section. This mix has greatly influenced my architectural thinking.”

Sarkis believes that a new language is needed to talk about cities: “Density, multiplicity, diversity are essential elements of urban life. However, we have focused too much on the centralized metropolitan model: a center, a residential belt, the suburbs, and the countryside. There are so many things that do not fit into this oppressive grid. Some cities might develop along the coast and need to be interpreted through different logics or relationships, no longer center-periphery but right-left. We must also invent new types of cities that are able to reflect the geography, economy, and culture of every place in a different way.”

We need a new spatial contract. Places like parks, schools, cafes, and squares must return to being important for people and for architecture. 

Sarkis is in love with Mediterranean cities, including Venice—his studio participated in the 2004 and 2010 Biennales, and in 2016 he was a member of the jury—and he hopes for the emergence of a global Mediterranean that can also include New York, Mexico City, and London. Perhaps a somewhat bizarre concept, given the absolutely disparate geographies—but not for the idealist in him, who aspires to a common world with universal values.

“I not-so-secretly want this world to look like a Mediterranean port. Beirut, Alexandria, Venice, Izmir, Thessaloniki, Barcelona are places where you find whole worlds, different communities connected to each other, all speaking different languages. When we talk about globalization, we think of the great economic hegemony of those corporations that govern the world by homogenizing it. We should instead value the pluralism promoted by port cities.”

His ideal city? “I would like to say Beirut, because it is already on the international design scene, and art and architecture interact because of new talents there. But I won’t, or at least not yet. I’d rather say Marseille, Mombasa, Istanbul. Le Corbusier called ports “balconies onto the world” and they really are, partly because of their geographical location, partly because of their unique way of living. They celebrate diversity, mixing, differences. They make you feel like a stranger in your own home, and this is a beautiful and important condition of urban life.”

This article appeared originally in Italian in the November 2019 issue of DLui, a magazine published by La Repubblica, under the title, “La Sfida del Futuro Sta Nel Vivere Insieme.”

Photo: Bryce Vickmark
Translation: Andrea Vesentini