8. August 2023, by Dr. Hannes Swoboda (President of the Club of Rome – Austrian Chapter)

This year’s Venice Biennale is focused on building in the face of climate catastrophe and social and economic inequalities. But this time the focus is not so much on building itself, but on the social conditions and consequences of building. It could almost have been inspired by the last report to the Club of Rome! Instead of “Earth for All”, one could give the Biennale the heading “Housing for All” or “Decent Living for All”!


In view of the curator with European and African roots, Lesley Lokko, it is not surprising that the examination of colonialism plays a major role. The exploitation of people and nature that went hand in hand with – capitalist – colonialism destroyed many traditional livelihoods and enriched the colonial countries, and there again especially a special class of owners and traders. In an impressive video, the capitalist “modernization” of the “Belgian” Congo, the slash-and-burn agriculture and the great advantages of the exploitation and processing of mineral resources are shown. One could almost get the impression that colonialism only served to tame or develop the “primitive” population and the wild landscape.

In reality, however, global inequality was extremely increased. Inequality also increased in the colonial countries themselves, although a part of the broad classes benefited from the exploitation in the colonies. And it is precisely this – albeit limited – sharing in the fruits of colonialism that has always aroused great resistance to changes in global imbalances, and even more so today. Especially because the lower and middle classes in the richer countries feel that it is they who must bear the brunt of redistribution.

De-fossilization as population grows

Closely linked to the development of modern capitalist economies is the increasing consumption of fossil fuels, especially for energy production. The CO2 bound in the earth has been increasingly released and now massively pollutes the atmosphere. This applies not least to the construction sector, which is a major contributor to CO2 emissions. What we need in the future is a reduction in our dependence on fossil fuels. So it’s a matter of de-fossilization and not, as mistakenly – also at the Biennale – always called for, decarbonization. We will still need hydrocarbons in the future, but they must not be the basis of our energy system.

In addition, there is an essential factor that is often overlooked: Not only has fossil fuel consumption increased, but so has the earth’s population, and the two developments are closely related. One can now discuss what is cause and effect. Has economic development – neglecting social problems – led to strong population growth or has this caused economic development and thus also ecological undesirable developments? Probably both are true. Even if, globally speaking, population growth will slow down in the long term and then – toward the end of the century – there will also be a population decline, none of this will lessen the urgency of an active climate policy.

And now we face the great challenge of how to meet the economic, social and environmental challenges – simultaneously. And not only in the rich countries themselves, but also globally. A climate policy focused purely on the richer countries can only achieve partial success. But given the global climate changes we all experience every day, that will be of little help. It is the global challenges of inequality, massive deforestation, exceeding temperatures for a decent life, etc. that compel us to act quickly. Using many examples and in many impressive presentations, many participants:inside the Biennale argue that much can be learned from past methods of building and respecting the natural foundations of life. Even if not all arguments are convincing, global development must certainly be at the center of our climate policy and we should in any case look without prejudice at “old” methods of building and doing business.

Now this does not mean that – as some conservatives and reactionaries demand – the rich North could or should comfortably continue to live as before. A globally effective climate policy must be shared by all. First, parts of the “local” measures also have positive local effects. Second, those who are mainly victims of climate change can only be convinced of the necessary changes if those who were – and still are – mainly polluters are themselves actively involved in the changes. This is true globally, but also for the richer regions and countries as well. The ecological footprint of the rich is disproportionately higher than that of the middle and lower income groups.

Radical change in construction

As mentioned, construction has a high ecological footprint due to the use of land and due to the use of many industrially manufactured products, often even in operation. If we are to meet the “adequate” housing needs of all people – of a still growing world population – radical action will be required – especially given the extreme inequality of income and wealth. We need to be much more economical with land. We need building materials that require less CO2 in their production and ensure a balanced climate in buildings. We need to enforce the principle of “renovate before building new.” In addition, we would have to rely heavily on recycling or the reuse of materials that have already been used. This is pointed out, for example, by the German Pavilion, which has collected the material “left over” from the last Art Biennale and is trying to recycle it.

New technologies can certainly help us with this. For example, the Belgian pavilion presented building material grown from mushrooms. Of course, the technologies must also be applied. For example, the Romanian pavilion presented some sustainable technologies that were developed early on but have not been implemented or have not caught on. These included a battery-powered tractor developed in 1910. One should also not rule out the possibility that clay construction will also be used in our latitudes. There were also references to this at the Biennale as well as at the exhibition on the Pakistani architect Yasmeen Lari at the AZW, the Vienna Architecture Center.

It certainly cannot be about a general return to old building forms and materials. We have many more alternative techniques and materials available to us today. But still, we can learn from old and simple building methods. Last but not least, shading and greening should once again play a greater role in the development of residential areas. So we need to look back to look forward.

Closely related to climate-friendly settlement development, energy and transport policy has its work cut out for it. In addition to the expansion of solar and wind power plants, there is also a need for the expansion of grids and massive research efforts in storage technologies. But given the problematic environmental and social impact of mining the rare earths and metals still needed for batteries in conventional technologies, massive investment in alternative technologies is also needed here.

The obstacles to an ecologically sustainably produced and sufficiently available energy supply that currently still prevail also have implications for the de-fossilization and electrification of the transport sector. In this sector, there will have to remain a mix – modal split – of the different types in the future. Certainly, however, the shares of climate-friendly modes of transport must increase. And in parallel, settlement development must contribute to generating less traffic.

In terms of substance, these new developments must be set in motion immediately and implemented quickly. The reasons for the slow transformation of our societies are, on the one hand, bureaucratic structures and tardy politicians, but above all, growing resistance among the population. Many habits would have to be abandoned. If we really want to set in motion the developments necessary to combat climate change, the political and economic weight must be shifted in the direction of the poorer countries, and here above all in the direction of Africa. And for many, that is an additional change that is difficult to digest.

Architecture as the pivot of ecological development

It is a great progress that today no occupation with architecture can take place in a serious way without also talking about climate policy and global developments. In the case of the 2023 Biennale, the focus is primarily on our neighboring continent of Africa. And the Biennale reminds us in Europe of our great responsibility – also, but not only, in view of the many wounds we have inflicted on this continent and its people. At the same time, the great disappointment about the injuries inflicted by many African politicians and businessmen themselves cannot be concealed. Often the chance of an independent development of the future heritage was not used.

Now, as far as architecture as a discipline is concerned, this Biennale makes it clear that architecture is a very hybrid affair. For example, the curator of the Biennale said in an interview that “the study of architecture fits our times perfectly: it brings different pieces of information into one framework. Architecture is much more than building houses.” If more and more architecture students – as teachers at the Vienna University of Technology recently told me – no longer want to build at all, this is explainable in view of the climatic threats. But it is the wrong conclusion to draw from a very complex situation. The crucial thing is to bring together all the information about today’s world in such a way that building becomes part of a sustainable climate policy. In this context, it is the task of politics to bring together the various elements of sustainable building and ultimately to anchor them in law as planning requirements for settlement development and building.