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Intergenerational relationships at the heart of the struggle against climate change

Dean of the School of Architecture, Dr Adrian Lahoud, is curator of the first Sharjah Architecture Triennial, which is taking place from 9 November 2019 – 8 February 2020. Alongside Curating Contemporary Art alumna Hoor Al-Qasimi, who is director of Sharjah Art Foundation, Adrian spoke to RCA Stories about the triennial, various aspects of its theme and the need to rethink architecture beyond traditional Western European boundaries.

What is Sharjah Architecture Triennial and how does it relate to the other cultural activities in the area?

Dr Adrian Lahoud: Sharjah Architecture Triennial is the first edition of an exhibition which considers the architecture of the global south. It is the first major international platform to look at architecture in these terms. Alongside this first edition there is an institution developing which will host a series of programs and cultural activities around architecture in the region, in between each of the exhibitions.

Hoor Al-Qasimi: In terms of the way the programmes are connected to the city and the community; this is something we have focused on a lot in Sharjah. What I like about the Sharjah Architecture Triennial is that it's really questioning the idea of what architecture is and not simply showcasing the stereotypical idea of architecture – highrise, new glamorous construction buildings – that is happening in this part of the world. We try to give a more critical view of what is happening in architecture around the world. Like the Sharjah Art Foundation, hopefully the triennial will be a space to connect different institutions, practitioners and people.

AL: One of the reasons I was really excited to be part of the triennial, was to understand the work that Hoor has done with the Sharjah Biennial. The way it has created a platform for emerging voices and taken risks on people that have yet to establish themselves in the field, really resonated with the kind of work that I wanted to do in architecture.

Man climbing a tree in  Forest in Bahir Dar
Forest in Bahir Dar, August 2019, Ibiye Camp
What is this year's theme and why have you chosen to explore it? 

AL: The theme itself is not obviously architectural, in fact it raises much broader questions around the environment and the built environment in general that are urgent. The theme, Rights of Future Generations, has a few different origins. Firstly, you can see it coming out of international humanitarian law. It originally appears in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, but then it appears in the preambles of conventions, treaties and charters increasingly from the mid 1970s onwards as people acknowledge the level of environmental destruction that's taking place on the planet. A question starts to be asked: should future generations have rights in the present, and if so who would secure those rights? It’s a complex philosophical, legal, moral question in the context of climate change. We know the less this generation does to address the impacts of climate change through decarbonisation, the more we simply push responsibility down the generational timeline and leave future generations in a much worse, more complex, difficult position than we are in. The emergence of that idea within international law resonated a lot for me.

But there are also ways of thinking about the rights of future generations in which ‘rights’, ‘futures’ and ‘generations’ are understood in different ways. So we could look at various indigenous cultures and their relationship to the dead, or to their ancestors, and the importance that ancestors have with respect to caring for country or caring for their environment. That’s incredibly important, to understand the very idea of what a generation is, or what a future is, and how it is defined differently in different parts of the world. Part of the triennial is to give space for those other expressions of the intergenerational relationship to resonate.

The third element, the most simple but perhaps the most politically powerful, is that caring for future generations is something which is almost obvious to everyone. It has a kind of logic that draws us out of thinking of ourselves as individuals. One of the moves that we are trying to make is to capitalise on that popular dimension, of something that seems incredibly logical and obvious to everyone, and to see how we might be able to radicalise that through the triennial. 

What can architecture bring to these debates and how are you using the Triennial format to manifest these approaches?

AL: I think this is a really important question. The kind of education that we are producing in the School of Architecture at the Royal College of Art is incredibly broad and expansive in its understanding of architecture. It encompasses understanding architecture from an environmental perspective at its very largest scale, as something that has to do with resource extraction and its impact on the planet, but then also at a very intimate scale, thinking of the organisation of the interior and the way that domestic spaces shape our most important and intimate relationships, such as the way they create or imply certain kinds of gender roles. 

Interior of a room in Mehr, near the city of Esdahan
Mehr, near the city of Esdahan, Samaneh Moafi and Farshid Nasrabadi 2017
Architecture is always expressing forms of power, but it manifests them in a very  particular way, not as speech acts, but as the organisation of bodies and patterns of behaviour and rituals. That is why architecture is in an incredibly important position to speak on things like climate change, because of the way that it understands the way power functions. Climate change is primarily a question of power, and how it functions at different scales – from a territorial scale to the scale of a landscape, the scale of a city, a neighbourhood, a block, a building, an apartment, down to the scale a piece of furniture. Working across scales and working alongside different disciplines, is something that comes relatively naturally to architects and is part of architectural education. 

One of the things that we are doing in this triennial is to expand the idea of architecture beyond a strictly Western European genealogy, to become something that then starts to understand long term environmental modification by other societies as a kind of architectural practice, as a design act, even though it doesn’t necessarily figure within conventional histories of how architecture understands itself.

How did you approach selecting the practitioners?

AL: That was really complex. One of the things we really wanted to do was avoid giving another platform to really well established architects, as I feel like they probably have enough platforms already. Something Hoor has done with the Sharjah Biennial is to take risks on emerging practitioners and give people their first opportunities. So that was something that was important for us. 

We did a lot of work to find voices that were speaking to the themes of the triennial in a way that resonated for us. That was difficult because all of the institutional infrastructure that confers value on architectural practice are dominated by English speaking Western European frameworks; that’s true of everything from education through to publishing. Therefore, to try to uncover other kinds of practices that have not been given space within those Western European frameworks was really challenging. It meant a lot more research to find the right people, and not simply depend on networks of people we knew already.

HA-Q: You also didn’t limit yourselves, you took risks and decided to look at other platforms – to look at music, film, researchers. That was important, not to be narrow minded when trying to figure out the difference between an architecture and an art triennial, or biennial.

AL: I worked for an artist, Richard Goodwin, when I graduated from university, whose practice was somewhere between sculpture, urban design and architecture. As a consequence of that, I don’t think I’ve ever held to disciplinary distinctions. I don't even see the work as interdisciplinary, to me there is such an obvious relationship between these different practices. A lot of the artists that I’m interested in are working spatially, in ways that say very profound and important things around architecture or the environment. In the same way a lot of people who would describe themselves as architects, are working in a kind of artistic mode. The fluidity between those two things is something I’m really comfortable with.

In terms of the triennial itself, it’s somewhere between a UN meeting, a music festival and an exhibition. Something which is also really important is the working group that has been set up. This allows the political aspirations and the various sites of social struggle from across the global south that are represented within the triennial to resonate at a different scale and in a different mode.

HA-Q: It shows the seriousness of you choosing that title – Rights of Future Generations. It’s not just about claiming the right, it is about doing something, talking to people, trying as much as possible to make a change.

Film Still of Coffee Ceremony in Forest
Film Still of Coffee Ceremony in Forest, Ibiye Camp August 2019
AL: I’m not a curator, so when I was first accepted to do the triennial my understanding of curation was that I’d get to have all these interesting conversations with people whose practice I like. But it turns out it is actually way more complicated and far more difficult. If you are going to decolonise an exhibition, you have to decolonise the institutional structure as much as the content, in fact the two things are inseparable. 

As soon as you expand that frame to include people who exist outside of the sphere of cultural production, to include people that have nothing to gain from being in exhibitions, architecture or otherwise, then you are confronted by something extremely important: what forms of reciprocity can you build between those communities that you might be working with and the exhibition, such that you do something for them in return for them giving you the permission to show the work? 

Architectural exhibitions might be important to architects, but they are certainly not important to everyone. How you get an exhibition to do that political work outside, demands a reflection on the institutional infrastructure. That has been the most fascinating and surprising aspect of the whole exhibition

The music programme is also really fundamental. There is nothing worse than an intellectual activity that has had the life sucked out it and become almost dry and academic. There is something obviously libidinal about the kinds of music I have programmed alongside Ma3azef, which is really a fundamental part of the opening programme. That is to do with giving people space to just enjoy themselves and to socialise in new ways, and create new kinds of sensations and experiences in continuity with an intellectual and political discussion.

HA-Q: But it is also about bringing different audiences together; the people that would come to the more academic conferences might not necessarily come to this, and vice versa. It draws different publics and brings them together, which is something we also do at the Sharjah Art Foundation by having a variety of exhibitions.

AL: How you break out of those conventional audiences is really important. When we started we did a lot of research into histories of the postcolonial exhibition. I was looking at everything, the first biennials in the Arabic speaking world, but also the first time a postcolonial critique was incorporated into the international exhibition in a formal way, so let’s say in Cuba in the 1980s. The architecture exhibition has never really thought through postcolonial conditions seriously at all.

As its gone on, I feel the triennial has more in common with festivals that were produced in which you might have Duke Ellington next to Sun Ra, next to Nelson Mandela, or other people from the ANC, or Fanon appearing, or Fela Kuti. I don’t think they were ever done with the intention of being interdisciplinary, it was just acknowledged that there was a natural relationship between popular forms of political expression and intellectual work. That for me is also something that I’ll be thinking about a lot after the triennial.

Adrian how does your approach to curating the Triennial cross-over with your role at the RCA?

AL: I think they relate to each other a lot. On a really practical level, Dr Godofredo Pereira, who is a colleague at the RCA will be giving one of the keynote presentations at the opening programme. He will look at the exhumation of bodies and the history of environmental activism in a lecture called Caring for the Dead. There is a commissioned project on Etheopian church forests by a graduate of the School of Architecture, Ibiye Camp, and then there is Feifei Zhou, also a graduate of the School of Architecture, who is participating in a big collective project called Feral Atlas. The exhibition design is by Dyvik Kahlen (Christopher Dyvik and Max Kahlen), who run a studio on the MA Architecture programme. 

Atacama ancient path between Quillagua and Calama
Atacama ancient path between Quillagua and Calama, Juan Gili
From the perspective of the different themes and interests, one of the things that has been motivating the School of Architecture since I’ve been leading it, is to take the challenge of climate change very seriously. You can see that refracted through every single studio in the MA Architecture programme. I also developed a new programme in Environmental Architecture, which Godofredo is leading, currently looking at lithium extraction in Chile and palm oil plantations in Indonesia. That is a direct consequence of engaging with the questions that climate change raises at a large scale. 

Those kinds of themes resonate throughout the entire triennial. In fact, one of the main claims that the triennial makes is that intergenerational relationships are at the heart of the struggle against climate change. We need to understand our social, political and economic existence through an intergenerational lens, if we are to have any hope of redressing some of the destruction that is currently being wrecked on the planet as a consequence of the intense carbon economies that we’ve been in for the last over 100 years.

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