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Hashim Sarkis Introduced as Curator of Biennale Architettura 2020

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MiND met the curator of the 2020 Biennale, Hashim Sarkis, at Ca’ Giustinian in Venice to find out more about him and his view for the 17th International Architecture Exhibition titled “How will we live together?”.

Architect, educator, and scholar, Mr Sarkis is principal of ‘Hashim Sarkis Studios‘, established in 1998 with offices in Boston and Beirut. He is also the Dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology since 2015.

Can you tell us about your background and your route into architecture?

I decided to become an architect at the age of three. I had no clue what architecture was except that I grew up in this little house in Beirut, which was designed by two of my father’s friends. With a very beautiful modern style, people would come and admire the house and I wanted to do the same. So in a way I got to learn what architecture was after deciding to become an architect.

What inspires you?

I would say that has changed over the years, from one stage to another. I’m intrigued by architecture’s possibility to posit alternatives. What if we can live together differently? I guess it’s the ‘what if’ aspect of architecture that fascinates me.

Hashim Sarkis, Paolo Baratta. Photo by Jacopo Salvi. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia

The theme for the previous architecture Biennale was ‘Freespace’, which can be interpreted as referring to public spaces. Do you think there is an increasing focus on the importance of public spaces as opposed to residential ones?

That was a very well defined theme around cities and architectural typologies. I think of the 2020 theme as an extension of some of the threads from previous Biennale editions, weaving them together, but at the same time introducing new threads. That’s a process that has been well mastered by the selection of curators and continuities that President Paolo Baratta charged between the different Biennales. This exhibition is focused on living together across scales, from the spaces between individuals to the planet. It does draw not just public space in, but a variety of what I would call social equipment – schools, hospitals, public spaces, cafes, that could provide alternative models of us coming together, including housing.

I am looking at pulling in some examples of social spaces like cafes, where architecture plays an important role in enhancing the space as a discursive space where encounters and discussions can happen across society levels and across different people. An example that comes to mind is the Mos Eisley café in Star Wars, where all sorts of creatures come together. If I can’t find a good café, I will bring the Star Wars café to the Biennale!

Hashim Sarkis. Photo by Jacopo Salvi. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia

On the other hand, how do you see residential architecture evolving?

In terms of the Biennale, the notion of living together is focusing on the ‘living’, so housing is going to be very important. I think the premise here comes back to the fact that we have a diversity of family types emerging, diversities of ways of living together under one roof. For the most part, architects tend to impose a very particular model of the nuclear family house as the prevailing model for all sorts of life, all forms of family. So we’re hoping that we can encourage and bring a broader diversity of what the household could be. There is a way in which the architecture we can produce does not have to impose particular hierarchies or notions of privacy. It can guide and inspire, it doesn’t have to sequester divide, it can be more flexible.

How would you respond to this year’s theme if you were a participant?

I must admit I haven’t thought about that! I think the theme is broad enough, and I’m seeing different reactions from different architects. I would hope, if I were participating in this Biennale, as I hope the other participating architects will do, to surprise and challenge it a little bit, pushing the theme a bit further. There may be projects that fit it perfectly, but I would also like the projects to start blurring the edges, challenging certain possibilities.

Hashim Sarkis, Paolo Baratta. Photo by Jacopo Salvi. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia.

What are some ways that architects can bring together practical and visionary elements?

Every good architectural project does that. It satisfies, it expresses, it moves the constraints, but it also says what if it could go further? To be able to be in its context and also out of its context at the same time, calibrating that transition, is the beauty that architecture can bring to every form of life.

What do you think will be the biggest challenge of curating the Biennale?

I think it comes down to being able to capture a certain rhythm in the spaces and the organization of the projects. And perhaps at some point to be able to walk out of a particular sub theme or scale, to establish a position. I don’t think the curator should impose too much. It’s important to become invisible at some point, but in a good way, so I think that will be the challenge.

What advice would you give to young and aspiring architects?

Not to listen to advice (including this one!). People think that growing to be yourself is not as important as following a particular path. But the success of every architect or artist depends on their ability to become themselves, and uniquely so. There is an infinite ability for each one of us to change and transform ourselves and transform the world with us. Following a particular model means that we’re suppressing that possibility. To project our uniqueness and the uniqueness of our experiences onto the world is very enriching and it is not at all inconsistent with each one of us being part of a collective imaginary.

By: Isabelle James & Lisa Zanon
Cover photo by Bryce Vickmark