Final thoughts on the Oslo Architecture Triennale

After "After Belonging"

Final thoughts on the Oslo Architecture Triennale

English was the common language in Oslo during the opening weekend of the 2016 Oslo Architecture Triennale, curated by the After Belonging Agency (or ABA). English is, evidently, not the native language to Norway, nor is it the language of the five curators that carried a Spanish-European Union passport to cross the international border into Gardemoen Airport. One of them was coming from Barajas, although his residence is in New York and his native tongue is Catalonian, the rest had left New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport together. Two of them, and their child, left the United States as permanent residents, one did it after just having paid a visit to New York from Amsterdam’s Schiphol, the best way to travel from her current residence in Rotterdam. The last one had just secured a job in New York, granting him a three-year extension in his residence in uptown Manhattan. They spent their lives together in Oslo for a few weeks before the opening, sharing an apartment probably through the Airbnb platform, but also sharing the challenges of communication, currency exchange, or perhaps their belongings, their identities, their emotions, their ambitions and their own uncertainties. They had embarked on a project that challenged them at the intellectual but also at the personal level.

English is not my native language either, and while checking in at JFK on my way to the opening, I shared the line with three participants who were coming on the same flight; English was our common language, yet not native to any of us. An Austrian, a Palestinian, and a Spaniard, we all had to negotiate our language-based identities. We all survived the TSA machinery, boarded the plane through the retractable gate, left more than an hour late, and lost our connecting flight in Copenhagen (CPH), after an unsuccessful and frustrating attempt to run through the airport-made-shopping-mall from one end to the other. All our passports were stamped upon our entering of the Schengen zone and re-stamped in Oslo, always diverting us between lines for EU and non-EU residents. My credit card—issued by a U.K. bank, which is the namesake of a Brooklyn sports arena—was not a required document in any of these borders. However, it bought me a sandwich, a fruit salad and a beer in JFK, a cappuccino in CPH, and a seamless train ride to the center of Oslo. I am writing this text while on a nocturnal Swiss Air flight on my way to Athens, with a short layover in Geneva, to participate in Ideas City Athens, where 40 fellows from around the globe will convene, sleep, and talk about the city in a mostly vacant building while sleeping on temporary shelter pods made of wood, fabric, and an inflatable mattress. I am privileged to participate voluntarily in an event where my body will be exposed to such temporariness and precarious infrastructure in a place I do not belong, but we all know this choice is not the case for everyone.

The Oslo Architecture Triennale–After Belonging, a competition-based curatorial event, examines, as the curators have stated, the ways that we reside, and the ways that we stay in-transit. The Triennale “dissects and designs the objects, spaces, and territories involved in a transforming condition of belonging” while it questions “spatial permanence, property, and identity” or what they claim is a crisis of belonging. For many in our field, these are often seen as exteriorities; for others, like me, this is at the core of the challenges of rethinking our role, agency, and capacities while participating in the construction—physical and imagined—of the buildings, spaces, objects and territories that articulate our sense of belonging, but also our own sense of belonging to the architecture field.

The Triennale is organized around an entangled web of spaces, exhibitions, events, and publications that—for the light-hearted—will for sure be a legibility challenge, or at least hard to follow. The Triennale actually started long ago on their Facebook and Instagram feeds. Each post contained what seemed like a heavy footnote rather than a caption, illustrating their attempt to engage with complex issues. The whole project was about opening up a larger discussion rather than selecting canonical or emerging work to be lauded with a golden or silver statuette. The curatorial project seems not to be about claiming a status, but rather to inquire a status. To do this, the curators envisioned two main exhibitions, On Residence and In Residence; organized a day-long conference with international and local participants; published a book in time for the opening; organized a week-long international student gathering named “The Academy,” and organized a multiple programming of talks, book launch, guided tours, building visits, and other events.

Everything started at DoGA, the Norwegian Centre for Design and Architecture, where the On Residence exhibition is located. Here, the exhibition occupies and old and historically protected building, providing a tall and obscure space for the show, which is organized into five zones: Borders Elsewhere, Furnishing After Belonging, Sheltering Temporariness, Technologies for a Life in Transit, and Markets and Territories of the Global Home. The exhibition contains photographs, models, art-objects, installations, videos, and furniture, all supported by a gridded, yellow wire frame used—among other places—in the retail industry (like American Apparel!).

Luis Callejas and Charlotte Hansson, in collaboration with artist Rodrigo Callejas, created a series of islands as physical models in black-colored clay and placed them over a black floating acrylic background representing “40 real islands under some form of territorial dispute.” Nora Akawi, Nina Kolowratnik, Johannes Pointl, and Eduardo Rega hung four pieces of plexiglass printed with refined drawings documenting (through their first-hand experiences on-site) the agents, structures, spaces, and conversations between NGO’s and refugees arriving on the Greek island of Lesvos during the past year. Kadamabari Baxi, Jannette Kim, Meg McLagan, David Schiminovic, and Mark Wasiuta created Air Drifts—a video installation accompanied by a plexiglass model documenting and modeling air pollutants through NASA-GMAO’s satellites and ground documents every six hours, visualizing but also inquiring the legal frameworks that allow those micro-agents of pollution to break through geopolitical borders. Studio Folder created an impressive installation documenting the imagery but also the imaginary created by, among others, the 45-year-old Landsat program–dissecting the images and visualizing the apparatus that shapes satellite imagery.

Desdevic studio constructed an architectural model out of the eviction process and histories that have taken place in Madrid, a strong project more critical as narrative than as object. Supersudaca maps the impact and scale of the pervasive tourism industry once hosted by the Caribbean cities, which is now all contained on the cruise ships. Laura Kurgan and Juan F. Saldarriaga from Columbia University’s Center for Spatial Research exhibited their mapping and visualization project of the internal migration of Colombia’s population over the drug war, creating an elaborate animation and drawing that makes the case for the impact of Conflict Urbanism. Andrés Jaque and The Office for Political Innovation produced a video-documentary, Pornified Homes, exploring the construction of identities of sex-workers through the imaginary of an exoticized Brazil in the city of London. OMA’s Ippolito Pestellini and Bengel produced PANDA, an app that—apparently—replicates the sharing economy’s protocols in order to subvert them: It helps connect service providers to allow them to collectively fight for their labor rights. A video shows the Google “hangout” among Martha Rosler, Pelin Tan, and Miguel Robles-Duran, among others, discussing Autonomous Infrastructure: Forms of Decay, a series of conversations about infrastructure, commons, neoliberalism, solidarity, and archives.

These are some of the projects that are aiming to be part of a spatial and conceptual constellation—as I was told by one of the curators—that simultaneously should help define each of the five zones as well as to allow some dialogue or overlap between them. We all love conceptual constellations: They allow loose and open relations, unexpected encounters, as well as a sense of inaccessibility, incomprehension, and a fragmentary construction. The fragmentary nature of this exhibition is both a challenge and, to my understanding, an inevitable outcome of compiling together cases from multiple latitudes as well as attitudes, of trying to construct discursively and objectively an extended definition for architecture. However, fragmentary is not used here as lesser quality over a cohesive whole.

It is highly probable that, to the many subjects involved in living and enacting what the invited participants articulated under the rubric of On Residence—their life-conditions, spatial practices, appropriated identities, collected objects—are not conceived or thought to be architecture or architectural products. For the curators, and the participants, these frameworks, spaces, and territories, are understood as architectural elements. There is, however, a tension and an ongoing question for us all about what constitutes architecture and what constitutes the frameworks for it, and if they can be dissociated; or if architecture, as a field and cultural-historical knowledge, will dissolve itself into the many frameworks and forces that shape it. These are important questions made possible precisely because of the intricate selection of projects, their inherent problematics, and their complicated relations. Others will prefer, as you would read on the fast-produced, short, and dismissive review of the OAT on The Guardian, to avoid these complexities by the accusation of been theory-heavy—an old trope of how that word has been used operatively in our field in order to claim the building is an isolated entity and the sole proprietor of architecture. In fact, it’s probably safer to report from the latest building museum opening in Washington D.C., or from the penthouse of a newly Swiss-designed luxury tower in Manhattan, than confronting complexity, although reporting that way might be less helpful in constructing an inclusive field rather than just reaffirm its exclusive retreats.

In Residence is a different exhibition. It is the product of commissioned work for specific “sites” in Oslo, the Nordic region, and around the globe. This exhibition takes place at the National Museum–Architecture, another venue that is an ensemble of an old structure with a contemporary intervention, located closer to the city center in less than a 15 minute walk from DoGA. The selection was made in conjunction with a group of international advisers including Thomas Keenan, Nina Berre, and Yashar Hanstad, and it seeks to produce long-term projects developed at these locations, or sites, not defined by the common legal-geometrical lines of the territory, but through the understanding of site as an active, unstable condition that includes technology, border spaces, in-transit areas (so-called non-places), transnational neighborhoods, or Italian textile factories. In Residence produced reports and intervention strategies, two formats aiming to document and report on the assigned site, including the proposed strategies for those places. Research in this exhibition, as the curators claim, is not a preamble of the work, but a legitimate mode of practice. The participants in this show come from multiple disciplines, opening up even more interpretations of what a report and what a possible intervention strategy can be for architecture. Each of the ten sites have their own playful yellow metal frame that supports the report and the intervention, and following this playful nature, it seems that each module is claiming a space where we are left to navigate in-between. Fewer sites, or a double-sized room, would have benefited the exhibition’s display clarity.

Yet, when you wander around, you stumble upon a variety of rich works: printed reports, a live green-screen photo booth, a bar reconstruction, a mini techno-church with a YouTube video (plants included), an ad-hoc apple juice extractor, an extremely intriguing and unsetting video of a man explaining his relation to his Airbnb rental, and a recomposed pennant of an Italian town. This last work is the product of Matilde Cassani’s research on one of the largest Chinatown communities in Europe. Located in Prato, with 190,000 inhabitants, the city is known to carry the “Made in Italy” brand, however, the work is made by Chinese people of a local community with a strong cultural identity. The printed report beautifully documents the locations, spaces, and dynamics of the Chinese area of the city, and how they are the actors and producers of an Italian identity, while at the same time they keep reproducing theirs. Cassani engages with the workers and proposed the Coat of Arms as a site of intervention. Taking cues form their cultural activities and departing from Prato’s existing Coat of Arms, the workers created a series of drawings depicting how they would adapt it. The result is a bizarre Coat of Arms combining dragons, watermelons, and historic Italian references—a wonderful visual outcome.Another strongly provocative work is

Another strongly provocative work is Selling Dreams by artist Bêka & Lemoine (Ila Bêka & Louise Lemoine): It’s a video that shows the transformation of a couple’s life once they start to rent their home through the sharing platform Airbnb. I won’t recount what happens here, it would be too much of a spoiler if you make it to Oslo, but the video asks critical questions about how our domestic spaces are shaped as projections, simulations, or transpositions of ourselves, blurring the line between an imagined reality or location versus their imagined life in it, and evidently, where we and architecture belong in this unsettling narrative. In Residence as a collective is, as you may suspect at this point, less of a strict dialogue among sites, but a collection of projects. These are perhaps better understood as individual works first, and as a collection—not a constellation—a. In Residence does make the case for these alternative sites as critical constructs in equal capacity to a demarcated city lot, for research as a legitimate mode of practice, not as context, not the excuse for, but as the product and work itself.

There was, however, another event during the opening weekend that provided a different scenario for inquiry. A long-day conference hosted at a full-capacity Oslo Opera House, inviting guests to short presentations and others to more colloquial conversation. Speakers included a range of people, from Yasmeen Lari of the Hecar Foundation in Pakistan to Negar Azimi of Bidoun magazine, from Juan Herreros to Atelier Bow-Wow, from Michel Feher of Zone Books to Reinhold Martin of Columbia University. The conference was led off by a highly articulated performance by Hege Marie Eriksson, former director of the Oslo Architecture Triennale. The day started with the even more performative standing of everyone in the room to welcome Crown Prince Haakon of Norway, who declared the event open after making his own questions of belonging and telling a lesson of the famous Three Little Pigs folktale; the second standing ovation to let the Crown and his posse leave confirmed that kings and queens are still well up and running in 21st century Europe, as well as polarized countries, imposed austerity measures, and the closing of borders. Negar Azimi moderated, through an extremely eloquent and incisive questioning, a conversation between Amale Andraos from Columbia GSAPP and Kjetil Trædal Thorsen from Snøhetta, inquiring the role of the latter in building in the Middle East, to which there was no clear answer from the architect beyond good intentions. Reinhold Martin recited his “Art of Real Estate” language explaining the complicit role of architecture in the construction of the real estate product, by being “real,” architecture is what puts the “real” in “real estate.” Atelier Bow-Wow gave a powerful and convincing lecture about their work in a community devastated by the 2011 tsunami in eastern Japan, articulating a commendable idea for their practice: To go from an industrial network to an ethnographic network, and operate somewhere in-between; by acting like a dentist for a closely-knit small town where the doctor knows every person in town as well as the latest tech-gadget, they tried to engage with both tech-industry and cultural-locality.

The highlight for me was Michel Feher’s presentation “Where Credit Belongs: Politics in the Age of Asset Management,” where he elaborated and traced neoliberalism transformation from the homo oeconomicus to the profit seeker, to creditworthiness, to the construction of a subject that seeks credit-asset management, to trust bonds based on credit and confidence, to the discredited person product of the latest neoliberal trick of an asset-based subject. The conference ended with everyone walking to Oslo’s city hall building, a spectacular 1930s (although finished in 1950s) building of massive brick volumes designed by Arnstein Arneberg (who also designed the interior of the U.N. Security Council in NYC) and Magnus Poulsson, whose social-democratic murals cover the walls of an immense interior hall that we crossed to a having warm reception by Mayor Marianne Borgen. She greeted each of us with a handshake and, after giving a highly progressive speech about city policy and city making, invited all of us for drinks and hors d’oeuvres.

If at this point, this architectural event does not resonates to you in the need to consider—at large—the multifaceted issues that shape architecture and architectural production as they articulate a sense of belonging, and an expanded version of our field, I will invite you to consider these words, as Felicity Scott put it in the preface of the book: “Beyond conceiving of architecture as the provision of buildings, spaces, or shelter as such, that is, the discipline has been and remains proximate to, and at times informs, technologies, markets, laws, policies, informations, goods, media, and other forms of regulation and governance. It is from such an expanded conception of the discipline, one that I share, that After Belonging Agency invited participants to collaborate on this project of thinking belonging otherwise, manifesting the desire for identifying and forging practices that remain tactically out of sync with the violence born of neoliberal capital.” The questions about the extents of the field of architecture and its curatorial reach remain active with After Belonging. How much the expanded field informs the practice, and how much that expanded field is the practice itself, are questions that some of us have been trying to work with for a while, precisely out of the discomfort with the models that remain the active reproductive organs of a rotted, neoliberal system.

However, at times, the exhibition seems to extend the ambitions of “belonging” to many sites, locations, or imaginaries, and it prompts a question of how much belonging served as the spark and path, but not necessarily the actual road. Each project branches in and out of belonging, having a dialogue with it while also focusing on something else beyond belonging. Without a doubt, it claimed many territories, but it would be critical to acknowledge that perhaps those territories do not exclusively “belong to belonging,” but to the many conceptual constructions we articulate with the relations we establish with spaces, objects, and territories.


An incomplete architectural work as a condition is productive in this event, and it is visible in the After Belonging exhibitions and programs. There are no wholes, just pieces and fragments that try to establish meaningful and significant relations. Atelier Bow-Wow’s diagram trying to explain a paradigmatic shift from an industrial network to an ethnographic network makes a great case for the relevance of the ambitious challenge taken by the After Belonging Agency, and its capacity to engage those who operate in-or-out of, or without borders, as many of us would aspire to do. Hans Hollein declared in the late sixties that “Everything is Architecture,” critically inquiring the field’s fixation with buildings. The Oslo Architecture Triennale seems to declare something similar: Everything moves, everything belongs. As such, After Belonging does not exist only as an urgent and current discussion in our field, but as an extension of concerns that have haunted our field for a long time.

On the way back from Oslo, a different group of friends coincided on the train on our way to the airport. In that same trip, I had the chance to visit a cousin, my very own childhood cousin, who moved to Norway at age eleven, the same age that I moved to Puerto Rico from Chile more than 25 years ago. For someone who has lived longer in territories different from where they were born, these ideas create both personal and professional inquiries. I discovered that my cousin is a respected lawyer and children’s advocate, including for those seeking asylum—an accomplished woman in a country that was not hers and that she now belongs. At the airport, the New York-based American checked in at the automated machine, while the U.S. permanent resident with a Chilean passport based in New York and the Australian with student-visa based in New York studying in New Jersey checked in with an unexpected host: A Chilean–Norwegian airline representative who said she had never had a Chilean at that desk before. It seems like for some of us, daily life and this Triennale, resonate more than for others. In the attempt of creating less clear networks rendered visible with and through architecture, there is the hope of creating solidarity, which, in the end, is all that is left.

For more on the Triennale, see their website here. After Belonging runs through November 27, though events continue through December 1.