A wooden structure welcomes visitors outside the Pavilion of China at the 15th International Architecture Biennale in Venice. This is the "Dou Pavilion", developed by Untinno and a Chinese University of Hong Kong team led by Professor Zhu Jingxiang.
The structure originates from a prefab building product - the "Checkered Playroom" - for a pre-school education program in remote northwestern China.
The word "Dou" refers to a measuring tool, the Chinese pecker, but, used as a verb, this term refers to the way the wooden pieces are interlocked one with the other to form a structure.
Around the Dou Pavilion there is the recreation of a communal garden, a non profit project by the View Unlimited design group.
The garden is originally located in a street in the old town of Beijing and aims at offering residents a space that they can share or where they can create a sense of home and belonging.
The basic materials, building techniques and purposes of these two projects perfectly fit with the title of the pavilion, "Daily Design, Daily Tao".
Rather than foreseeing a spectacularly futuristic world, the projects included this year in the Pavilion of China invite all visitors to look back at history, rediscover the past and integrate it into our lives.
Inside the pavilion there are more projects that look at traditions and heritage as the keys towards a sensible and balanced process of modernisation.
Time slows down in this space and traditions - considered by many artists and architects included here as the blood of life - are rediscovered in the hope of prompting visitors to find the strength to go on in life and discover a path towards the future characterised by the natural rhythms of life.
Architecture-wise there are quite a few projects that explore and reinvent traditional techniques, such as Qian Tong House, assembled by traditional Chinese carpenters on site with 136 separate wood components prefabricated by 5-axis CNC machine without any nail or glue.
In this way classic Oriental aesthetic is combined with a modern process, as displayed also by improved prototypes of the "fork column made", a carpentry work structure in Song style, and of a folded beam and bound column, a new combination derived from traditional timber structures that adapts to modern buildings.
Timber prevails in many of these projects, including the ones by Rùn Atelier, a studio that is heading a timber structure renaissance programme, and that is making sure that new constructions learn from local architecture.
Yet there are also projects such as Zuo Jing's, that interpret the reconstruction and renaissance themes in a more conceptual way.
In this project townships and towns are turned into places for material production and consumption, they are transformed into self-sustainable places where demands are met and resources are not overexploited.
But there are further clever solutions hightlighted in the pavilion, in particular the award-winning Courtyard House Plugin by the People's Architecture Office, a prefabricated building system for inserting modern living conditions into dilapidated courtyard houses.
These modular panels snap and lock together and are so easy to assemble that a few people can construct a complete building in one day without any special skills or training.
Another section of the pavilion looks instead at art and artisanal heritage in China.
Traditional techniques are celebrated in the book Crafts in Yixian County, looking at crafts and at the relationship between artisans, the area and traditions in the Huizhou region.
The book is also accompanied by a supplement made on a scroll using wooden movable-type printing techniques.
In this section there is also a poetical installation by artist, planner and founder of publication Local, Qun Song, revolving around the theme of food.
Qun Song has been recording the history of Xi'an, a city with three thousand years of history, for a long time and has also been collecting literature and material objects connected with it.
In the installation inside the pavilion several kitchen utensils and tools (bowls, baskets, colanders, rolling pins, rakes, sickles and so on) linked with cooking, eating, harvesting and storage are lined on wooden benches.
The objects represent a sort of inventory and together with the videos projected on a wall (interviews of 100 people relating their experiences linked with food, plus a documentary film that narrates a century-old story of hand-made wheat-based food in northern China) take visitors through a symbolic process that goes from farmland to kitchen, from rural to urban lifestyle, reminding them that many things are changing in modern China, with traditions being lost.
In this space filled with architectural and art projects it would be surprising to discover a fashion installation, but Chinese Ma Ke is not your average fashion designer.
After graduating from Suzhou Institute of Silk Textile Technology, Ma Ke went to work for a company in Guangzhou. Here she realised that fashion was about profit and business and not about improving the state of mind of the wearers. As a reaction, Ma Ke launched in 1996 Mixmind Art & Design Co, Ltd, and Exception de Mixmind, the first Chinese designer brand.
She showcased her collections during catwalk events and designed costumes in China, then founded in 2006 Wuyong (Useless) Design Studio in Zhuhai, a non profit organisation committed to the revival of traditional craftsmanship with an innovative mind.
In 2007 Ma Ke debuted with the show "Wuyong/The Earth" at Paris Fashion Week, returning the next year to present "Luxurious Qing Pin" (meaning "Luxurious Simplicity"), a show with a profound message that went against the dogma of the fashion industry, since it called for a minimum of material possessions, a rich spiritual life and an indifference to desire for power, money or fame.
Ma Ke continued her exploration of traditional values falling into oblivion via another installation entitled "My Land, My People" in 2011 that featured clothes she had collected from peasants from poor and remote mountain areas.
The garments sparked a debate about the urbanisation of China, marginalisation and the divide between the rich and the poor and showed a passion for the culture and sense of being of the peasants that could almost be defined as Pasolinean (the Italian writer, thinker and director placed himself in the fields with the peasants, and believed in the revolutionary role of the peasantry, and so does Ma Ke).
At the Venice Architecture Biennale, Ma Ke brought back her "Wuyong/The Earth" collection, even though it would be limiting and wrong filing it under the "fashion" category or describing it merely as a "collection", since it is a lot more than just a selection of garments.
"Wuyong" was created after the designer took a trip to rural China where she discovered the rhythms and lifetsyles of people living in those areas and, understanding that their relationship with the Earth was intimate and harmonic, she tried to re-establish such relation in her designs.
When these pieces were presented in Paris, models stood on lit up rectangles wearing Ma Ke's garments; here the same jackets, trousers, sweaters, dresses and coats, often characterised by voluminous silhouettes and intricate details, are laid down on a vast expanse of soil inside the pavilion.
One gigantic coat stands in the background, almost like a splendidly gigantic regal figure. Some of the shapes and silhouettes of these garments call to mind organic forms with multi-layered skirts evoking the lamellae of mushrooms, while one dress looks like a reinvented rural version of Dior's iconic "Bar Suit" in earth tones.
All the pieces - made by Ma Ke starting from spinning the yarn, weaving, sewing and natural dyeing - retain the kind of purity that you can't achieve if you don't believe in it. These pieces represent old clothes passed on by forefathers, made with old fabrics, repaired, sewed and resewed, while the way they are arranged on the soil invites visitors to stand with respect in front of labour and in front of the earth.
Lucky media representatives were given on the Biennale press days a beautiful catalogue by Ma Ke, plus her manifesto (written in 2008) and the text of a speech entitled "Design with Conscience, Live with Simplicity" she gave in 2009 for the Icograda Beijing Conference.
Her speech is extremely detailed and, rather than looking at fashion, tackles major issues such as the ecological crisis, the rise of global population, unnecessary luxury, poverty and the end of traditional cultures.
In both her speech and in her manifesto (explained in a document entitled "My Understanding of Clothing and Designer"), Ma Ke states that, as a designer, she has three responsibilities - ecological (she's got to think about the damages that production processes can do to the environment); ethical (a designer has a social role to raise awareness, be honest and not sell his or her soul for fame or profit), and responsibility to pass on cultural hertage (traditions have to revitalize creativity). In this document Ma Ke states:
I believe clothing could be a specific creative language, and has infinite possibilities for communicating ideas and transmitting thoughts, for inspiring you and shaping your behaviour. I pursue spiritual values which are in complete opposition to today's fashion trends. In fact, it is the primitive eras of human history which attract me most, when people led a life of simplicity, with a respect for nature and a rudimentary understanding of things. Those anonymous crafts, born of daily life and without desire for fame or profit, still resonate through the millennia, and strike the modern mind. This is what I have pursued, for clothing to return to its original simplicity, and to replace our over-stimulated senses with more subtle sensibilities. Genuine fashion today should not follow the glamour of trends. It should instead uncover the extraordinary in the ordinary, for I believe that the ultimate luxury is not the price of the clothing, but its spirit (…) I have concluded that the role of the designer should be the bearer of social responsibility, a seer of the trends in society, and an ethical leader.
This is not the first time Ma Ke takes part in an architecture event since in 2005 she presented her work during the Shenzhen Biennale of Urbanism & Architecture, while "Wuyong" (Useless) by Jia Zhang-Ke, a poetic documentary contrasting the artful creation of Ma Ke's works with the lives of China's garment factory workers, won Best Documentary Award at the 64th Venice Film Festival in 2007.
The most striking thing about Ma Ke's participation in this event isn't therefore the inclusion of an artist and fashion designer in the Biennale, but the fact that the only sensible things recently said about the fashion industry are currently being stated at an event about architecture and can be found in a speech and a manifesto written 7-8 years ago. Looks like the fashion industry is not just dead, but it has also been buried under Ma Ke's gargantuan designs and black soil.
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