Understanding humans for architecture at the Biennial.

A perspective on the 3rd Istanbul Design Biennial with the theme ‘’Are We Human?’’

This past Sunday, the 5th of December, marked the end of the 3rd Istanbul Design Biennial. Usually art exhibitions with an emphasis on understanding and inquiring about human behavior tend to focus on esoteric aspects of the human nature. This year however, the exhibition presented some interesting lessons for architects.
Of course, the exhibition as a whole was an opportunity to challenge one’s perspective, to help rethink our everyday activities within a “bigger picture’’ mindset. Studio X Istanbul by Columbia’s GSAPP was a very involved sponsor and space contributor to this Design Biennial. They certainly put a lot of thought in exploring our humanity throughout the whole spectrum of the theme, but the installations I found the most interesting were the ones that added questions about how to best present our activities as a species, in addition to asking formalistic questions.
The theme provided plenty of opportunities to relate to the human scale, the technological evolution and the human viewpoint on the world we inhabit. So the installations that I picked out not only asked questions about our scale, technology and needs, but were also developed and presented in a way that enhanced their goal.
The installations I focus on were presented on the ALT Art Space, an exhibition space at the Bomontiada which is itself worthy of a whole other analysis.

The first installation that displayed all the aforementioned attributes was ‘’Objects of Daydreaming’’ by the Istanbul-based studio PATTU. This installation examines a very fundamental piece of our evolution, the Acheulean hand axe. More specifically, it is being understood for what it was, an element that allowed humans to externalize thought. The creators add that ‘’Despite its seeming functionality, this hand axe served primarily as a tool of communication. It was the first non-natural object in which human creativity was embedded, the beginning of design.’’
What is remarkable in my opinion is how this installation presents the object as a means to an end; communication. The different takes on the hand axe using our modern modelling techniques is the statement that the functionality is the key, but at the same time enquires about the boundaries we can currently set between functionality and design.
This interpretation of the tool has great and extensive applications in the field of architecture. I would probably not be without supporters in my claim that the tool could very easily be a metaphor for the role of a building in its environment. You need the building to be able to house certain functions and have certain systems in place. Once one gets past these parameters however, there exists the freedom for experimentation. The installation at once provides a case for both the needlessness and necessity of experimenting with form and for the importance of going past the resulting shape if the main goal of the tool is accomplished.

Tomás Saraceno lead a project team of ten people from Berlin to create the installation above. ‘’Hybrid Solitary Semi-Social Instrument’’ is a darkened spider web created using a suspended carbon fiber frame. According to the team, the web was constructed by a series of spiders of different species building on each other’s designs for several weeks. The installation’s message also directly suggests that the spiders are floating in the air and working like astronauts. Saraceno has quite a fascination with spider webs but this time it is unique because it goes beyond his usual direct spider web observation techniques.
The design’s presentation here is particularly interesting because of the different means of interpreting the web, along with some useful messages. Particularly interesting are the conceptual perspectives on the sides of the web highlighting certain perspectives. The projected perspectives on the model added to taking the focus out of the web itself and instead leading us to focus on the more important aspect of it, the way it was created.
The projector’s images were rotating, similarly to the spiders’ collaborative effort. It added a layer of energy and movement that stood as a reminder that this was a snapshot of the spiders’ work. The web could have very easily continued to be spun just as long and despite the fact that the artists decided to use this web, they could have just as easily used a different one made with the same intentions and patterns.
I could not help but relate to the work in multiple ways. It was a great reminder that multiple representation techniques are always welcome and sometimes necessary in order to convey the message that a form is never really absolutely set.

The artists put a lot of thought in presenting the web’s patterns, sometimes focusing a lot on the spiders’ point of view during the process. The perspectives of being lost in the web and in orienting and creating in this massive area was insightful.
I believe the parallels with the architecture profession’s process of presenting the development of a concept is quite closely related and it was refreshing to see a similar presentation pattern replicated for this installation because it provided a platform to reexamine the presentation’s inner workings.
These two installations complement each other in many ways. I can draw a parallel between the first installation providing guidelines for the structure of the building and urging us to experiment with the façade, while the second installation supplies powerful representation methods for presenting the work. The heavy undertones of the spiders’ collaborative effort are always welcome in an architecture firm too.
Overall, the Biennial did provide many instances where one could contemplate our behaviors and patterns as a species, but these two installations were particularly insightful at adding to the conversation of concept development in the architecture framework, especially when being considered simultaneously.