How will humans survive in the future? How will melanin, the remains of elks, or the rubbish your office bin ensure our prosperity?
In our current state of affairs, as global political agreements collapse, resources run dry and temperatures rise, design needs to respond fast to renew and replenish a rapidly changing environment. This is the impulse behind the 2019 XXII Milan Triennial exhibition, where post-industrial landscapes, the songs of animals, and some of the world’s most innovative sustainable design meets.
To conceptualise the ways in which our relationship to nature has been irrevocably damaged, this year’s thematic presentation is titled Broken Nature: an emotive theme for an exhibition in a city that was once the centre of Italy’s automotive industry and is housed in the museum of Palazzo D’Arte, designed by Milanese architect Giovanni Muzio, who was associated with the fascist Novecento Italiano group and rationalism. Ninety years after the first Triennial was held in the Palazzo in 1936, the international showcase has taken a very different political stance.
Broken Nature (which includes works on loan to the museum as well as special commissions) foregrounds the idea of “restorative design,” presenting projects that assess our disconnect with the environment and consider the shifting way our ecosystems, both natural and manmade, might function in the current context.
There are several artistic explorations of the songs of whales and birds, but the primitive sounds of the The Great Animal Orchestra will blow you away; an astounding research project lead Bernie Krause, the world’s leading expert on natural sound who has recorded more than 15,000 animal species in some of the earth’s most remote places, the installation features some species and terrains that now no longer exist, wiped out by humans. Krause has worked on soundtracks for films like Apocalypse Now and Rosemary’s Baby, but for this project, originally commissioned by the Foundation Cartier Paris in 2016, he collaborated with the art collective UVA to create an interactive experience with spectrographic imaging set to Krause’s recordings. It is a magical installation – and one that reminds us of how fundamental listening is to survival.
There are also projects with a pragmatic approach to changing the way we do things: SECMOL’S artificial glacier in the region of Ladakh, in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, allows local people to store and access water where climate change has created dire need. Design duo Formafantasma present their Ore Streams, looking at the ways design can help correct the gargantuan problems with waste. The duo argues that we need to think of waste not as something to be thrown away but as a new material with its own potential: they demonstrate this by building a collection of office furniture using dead-stock and recycled materials. They look equally as good as Victor Alge’s chairs fashioned entirely from the remains of elks.
Meanwhile, the celebrated architect Neri Oxman, professor at MIT Media Lab, applies melanin on an architectural scale in a new commission for the Triennial. She is known for works like her regenerative death masks, drawing inspiration from the fields of ancient craft and biology.
Also included is a presentation on Elemental’s fascinating Quinta Monroy project in Chile, providing beautiful and sustainable social housing in an illegal settlement in the desert, occupied by 100 families. It’s projects like these that illustrate the real, practical possibility of change, while always emphasising the need for a new outlook that challenges the status quo. As Elemental wrote of the project: “social housing tends to look for land that costs as little as possible. That land is normally far away from the opportunities of work, education, transportation and health that cities offer. This way of operating has tended to localise social housing in an impoverished urban sprawl, creating belts of resentment, social conflict and inequity.”
“A healthy concern for the future of our planet and of our species should come as no surprise,” says the Triennial curator, Paola Antonelli. The team have been uplifted, she says, working with so many ideas and projects from all over the world responding to the global situation. “It allows us to keep believing in the power of design to help citizens understand complexity, assess risks, adopt behaviours, and demand change.”