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Ricky Burdett | icon 029 | November 2005

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photo: Klemens Ortmeyer

words Marcus Fairs

Ricky Burdett has been appointed director of next year’s Venice architecture biennale. The London School of Economics professor and architectural advisor to mayor Ken Livingstone spoke to us about his plans for the event.

“The president of the biennale decided that the next one should be on the theme of cities, and the relationship between the built environment and social dynamics.

I have no idea whether I’m the 50th person they asked – I know Renzo Piano was asked and said no – but there aren’t that many people who do that sort of stuff and have a connection to the world of architecture. It has synergy with my job here.

I didn’t see the last biennale but I’ve seen the catalogue. Like many other biennales, it was a kind of survey of what is happening in the world of architecture. This one will be different. It will end up with a series of propositions about how to change the world. A manifesto effectively. Neither Dejan [Sudjic, director of the 2002 Venice biennale] nor Kurt [Forster, director in 2004] did that, but they weren’t intending to.

It will certainly provide a lot of information. The visual manipulation of data – I’m very interested in that. Like what Bruce Mau did with the Rem Koolhaas book [S,M,L,XL, 1995] – taking dry statistics and turning them into something visually exciting. Like the fact that 50% of the world’s population lives in cities; that in 20 years it will be 75%; that 100 years ago it was only 10%. That is quite a story to tell, but you have to make it visually rich so you can put it on the wall rather than in a book.

There are three or four big themes to talk about at the biennale. For instance, why are cities what they are? And what can architects do in the face of these extraordinary changes? They can work with the grain of urban change and demographic growth, or create environments that freeze urban change.

There are examples of that: in some areas of Liverpool, over 20-30 years, 35% of people moved out. The same with Pittsburgh and many other cities. They cannot absorb change.

London is such a mess but, wonderfully, it absorbs change. Where we are right now [at the GLA building on the South Bank] was, not long ago, something else. Over a very short period of time – seven years – the whole of the South Bank has become a corridor of urban intensity with the most successful contemporary art gallery in the world. No one ever thought of that; there was no masterplan.

That, to me, is very interesting. The more I’m involved with urban issues, the more I’m aware that the great “masterplan” is more or less useless. Because by the time it’s adopted and implemented, it’s out of date. An urban grid like Barcelona has a certain flexibility and resilience; a messy urban grain like London is another model.

[Dutch urban planner] Kees Christiaanse always talks about “the city as loft”. That’s a very interesting notion. How do you design a city, a framework for development, that works like a loft over 100 years? You create a basic structure with a few columns, load bearing walls and some windows but you can do a lot with it.

I think this biennale should commission proper projects: ones that use it as a platform to provoke. That’s what I’m going to work on over the next month. I’m going to bring in established architects, and less established architects, to work on projects in, say, 12 cities around the world. But I haven’t asked anyone yet. If I did, they’d just want to take over.”


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