The Space Imagined. Awai in Awai.

From Giacomo Mercuriali - Singapore Pavilion, Biennale di Venezia

On the 7th September 1966 the French philosopher Michel Foucault pronounced a conference broadcasted by the national radio about the theme of heterotopies (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lxOruDUO4p8).

Here Foucault established a difference between two kinds of spaces: normal spaces – those in which human beings carry their daily activities, their biological and economical life – and special spaces – those in which happens something that breaks the flat progress of the common day. The special spaces can then be divided in two additional categories: utopias and heterotopies.

Utopia di Tommaso Campanella - La città del Sole

The first, as everybody know, are fantastic places, ideal sites that have no place but in the imagination of creatives. Just think of Thomas More or Jonathan Swift, which devoted pages and pages of literature building cities such as the perfect society of Utopia or the flying city of Laputa. These are also the kind of spaces which we are acquainted to see in the visual arts; consider, for example, the exotic landscape painted by the Venetian Renaissance artist Vittore Carpaccio in The Sermon of St. Stephen (detail), which does not represent any real building but is intended to display an imaginary urban area of Jerusalem where Occidental and Oriental architecture magically coexist.

Carpaccio, Predica di santo Stefano

Heterotopies instead are spaces which are “different” from the normal spaces in which we usually dwell, but exist in the real world. Foucault calls them «counter-spaces» and «localised utopias», giving as example, between others: gardens, graveyards, theatres, cinemas, museums and archives. Not only these sites, each of them in a different way, disrupt the «normal» urban texture, standing out as point of attraction or repulsion. They also build a different temporality, «heterochrony», for those who experience them: when we watch a movie in the cinema or assist to a play in the theatre our internal clock is stretched, compressed or twisted by plots which may us let follow the entire life of fictional characters in the span of a couple of hours; when we build a museum or an archive, we aim to preserve something valuable forever, or at least, far beyond the normal human lifetime. You might think about that very special archive located in Norway (wikipedia.org/wiki/Svalbard_Global_Seed_Vault) that is currently freezing plant seeds in order to prevent loss of biodiversity in case of a dramatic environment catastrophe that might occur on the Earth. The project could be considered as a time capsule which isolates an area and establishes, for the material there preserved, an artificial temporality separated by the normal flow of time and natural decay of lifeforms.

The city of Venice might as well look as an enormous heterotopy. Its form reminds that of a strange old fish that is swimming in the lagoon, an ancient creature whose scales are formed by compact structures and complex stratigraphies of wood, bricks, mud, salt and Istrian stone. The structure of the city, built on a hundred of canals and bridges, resists to modern urban development due to its medieval design. Venice stands out not only for the beauty and uniqueness of its space: the life in the city flows with a different time-scale compared to “normal” cities: its inhabitants move only by feet or water transport, there’s no space nor need for cars.

Sadly, in the present days Venice is assaulted by the dangers of the touristic mono-economy, whose impulses towards the normalization of spaces and economical activities operate to obliterate exactly those characteristics of the city that make it so unique and so wished for by visitors: its strong urban and cultural identity. New openings of stores operated by multinational companies let the visitors of the city taste the same food or wear the same clothes they could taste even on the other side of the world, for example in Singapore. At the same time shops and services for the residents tend to close and so the Venetian population has constantly diminished in the last century.

The result, as a recent survey by IUAV – the local university of architecture – has demonstrated (corrieredelveneto.corriere.it), is that one tenth of the city space (houses, shops, gardens, warehouses) is empty or left to abandon. But luckily young people, creatives, designers and artists are gathering their energies to imagine new uses and directions for all those spaces who are left back by the current economic trends, sometimes fighting “battles” against the public institutions in favour of the production of new micro-heterotopies.

Caicio e Circo Panico, Venezia, Inaugurazione Awai

We could take as an example a recently-born association of artist, artisans and designer called Awai (awai.info). This group of creative people has recently took over an abandoned garden in the neighbourhood of Santa Croce and organized a program of public openings of the space with concerts, theatre plays and workshops of scenography.

Giving new life to a forgotten but central area, Awai managed to set up an alternative space which stands out from the circuit of business-driven activities that normally draw the appearance of a city. The inhabitants feel a strong need for this kind of sites, so it was easy for them to set informal agreements with their neighbours in order to let the music play in the evenings.

Pubblico ad una serata organizzata dall'associazione Awai

As the seeds preserved in the Arctic archive need constant, obstinate and mindful care, the seeds of community engagement need a constant attention and must be spread, preserved and encouraged to let them grow free.