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Uncovering Providencia: Gensler Goes to Venice Biennale

Image © Gensler

In April and May, Gensler made its first appearance at the La Biennale di Venezia (15th International Architecture Exhibition) and the International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam. The challenge: to envision a “living plan” for a new port town in the Amazon as a model of sustainable development—in the form of a dinner table installation.

The Rotterdam Biennale was organized around the theme of “The Next Economy,” while the Venice show (titled “Reporting from the Front” by curator Alejandro Aravena) deals with the timely issue of improving the human condition. Exhibited at both was a plan for Providencia, a new port town along the Napo River in the Ecuadorian Amazon that is an innovative model of sustainable development. Its design is not just environmentally progressive, but socially and economically as well. Providencia challenges the self-enclosed logic of trade zones like Manaus downriver (Brazil), by using the port to drive a secondary, artisanal economy drawing upon indigenous skills and knowledge—raising the standard of living for those peoples in the process.

Providencia demonstrates how dense urban development—even new development—can be a remedy for rainforest depletion, not its cause. We used a planning instrument known as Transfer of Development Rights (TDR). Typically employed only in high value real estate contexts in urban cores like Manhattan, TDR was used here as an unlikely means to incentivize the relocation of those currently engaged in deforesting activities—effectively using the new city as a decoy to counteract sprawl. Existing landowners—a mix of subsistence farmers and speculators—are offered a bundle of privileges and rights of citizenship in the new town in exchange for forfeiture (back to the government) of their land title. These include access to health care; power and water; membership in micro-enterprise cooperatives offering childcare; space in a regional market (in scarce supply) to be frequented by visiting eco-tourists; and urban land/dwelling, to name a few. The vacated agricultural parcels, or fincas, would in turn be re-consolidated by the government, and collectively replanted using principles of agroforestry, for the purposes of growing the resources needed and refined by the in-town micro-enterprises for manufacture and sale at the tourist market and for wider export. The process of land consolidation would also result in the elimination of most of the “fishboning” or existing road network whose access to the forest was the principal agent of deforestation.

Image © Gensler

For the Rotterdam and Venice exhibitions, which are seen by an estimated 250,000 visitors, Gensler joined a team comprised of cityLAB/UCLA (of which I was formerly co-director) and a similar think tank in Ecuador, Pontificia Universidad Catolica del Ecuador (PUCE)—whose work on the project is ongoing, funded by the Provincial Government of Sucumbios and Avina, an Amazon-oriented NGO. Both installations used a table as a more “viewer-friendly” format for relating the story of the project than a conventional wall-mounted display.

At Rotterdam—whose large exhibition filled a cavernous former coffee company with 100 tables of identical size and spacing—a dining table calls attention to the worldwide consumption of resources, telling through its place settings, plates, glasses and serving dishes how the design harnesses the shipping trade to instigate local means of production and improve living conditions. Chairs at the table invite spectators to consider themselves “guests,” and to linger and “digest” the project through text, pictures and maps. A tablecloth delineates global trade routes (literally woven into the fabric) as they pass through the Amazon and Providencia in particular. A series of “cake stands” support circular maps of differing sizes, sequentially zooming in to the scale of the Amazon Basin; the larger territorial plan; and the town itself. In each, a series of colors delineate the path of raw products extracted from the rainforest as they make their way from the point of extraction to that of refinement and transshipment. Each color corresponds to a particular Amazon resource of edible, medicinal or craft value, whose eventual product-for-purchase appears on placemats lining the table, along with information about the process and (on glasses) a portrait of one of the micro-enterprise workers involved.

Image © Gensler

At Venice, the dining table becomes interactive, comprised of five distinct, but repeating layers of information about the project (maps at different scales, diagrams, product information, and questions raised by the project). Each layer is subdivided into a tiled grid of “placemats” available for gallery goers to tear off and take with them as souvenirs of their ‘visit’ to Providencia. As each tile is removed, a new piece of information belonging to the layer below is revealed, so that the visitor engages—actively and literally—in the process of uncovering information about the project. This is captured on an attached time lapse video taken by a camera mounted overhead during the early days of the exhibition. By the end of the exhibition, it is estimated that roughly 7,500 people will be in possession of a piece of the Providencia story.

Watch the video below.

Gensler at Venice Biennale. Video © Gensler.

Roger Sherman, AIA, is senior project director of Urban Strategy at Gensler Los Angeles. Previously, he founded Roger Sherman Architecture and Urban Design, and was co-director of cityLAB/UCLA, where he is an adjunct professor. His work has been exhibited at international venues, and featured in Newsweek, Fast Company, CNN and The History Channel. A graduate with distinction from the Harvard Design School, he has taught and lectured widely, including at New York's MoMA and TEDx. Contact him at roger_sherman@gensler.com.