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Craft and Conquest: The 15th Venice Architecture Biennale, May 28-November 27, 2016

Norman Foster Foundation; Future Africa EPFL; Ochsendorf, Dejong & Block; Philippe Block Research Group, ETH Zürich Droneport Venice Architecture Biennale, 2016 Image Jean-Pierre Dalbéra
Norman Foster Foundation; Future Africa EPFL; Ochsendorf, Dejong & Block; Philippe Block Research Group, ETH Zürich
Venice Architecture Biennale, 2016
Image Jean-Pierre Dalbéra

Curated by Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, the 15th Venice Architecture Biennale (May 28-November 27, 2016) focused on architectures that addressed large-scale problems using vernacular techniques.1 If the implicit theme of the 2013 Venice Art Biennale had been “outsider art,” characterized by Daily Telegraph critic Alistair Sooke as both “visionary” and “homespun,” the similarly unstated theme of this 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale can be understood as outsider architecture.2

Aravena’s Architecture Biennale foregrounded the outsider in two senses. Rather than a capital-intensive architecture of improbable forms and futuristic substances, set in cosmopolitan cities of the developed West, Aravena’s exhibition emphasized natural materials and labor-intensive techniques common to the Global South. What went unspoken, however, was the relationship between architecture’s insiders and its outsiders, between capital and labor, between the developed world and its other.

Maria Reiche Image Bruce Chatwin
Maria Reiche
Image Bruce Chatwin

The image that Aravena chose for the exhibition collateral exemplified this problematic. On posters, banner ads, and catalogue covers, one found an image of an older woman on a ladder, set against a bright blue sky in an arid, unmarked landscape. In explaining the image, Aravena adopted a fable-like tone:

In his trip to South America [British travel writer] Bruce Chatwin encountered an old lady walking the desert carrying an aluminum ladder on her shoulder. It was German archeologist Maria Reiche studying the Nazca lines. Standing on the ground, the stones did not make any sense; they were just random gravel. But from the height of the stair those stones became a bird, a jaguar, a tree or a flower.3

Within the seemingly empty landscape of the Global South, a German scientist with her industrial tool (an aluminum ladder) analyzes the landscape; she “makes sense” of its secrets and potentialities. The image is an apt allegory for the current state of architectural interest in traditional or vernacular modes: non-expert architectural knowledge is extracted, repackaged and cloaked in the language of technology and sustainability, then re-learned back at its source. The problem of Aravena’s exhibition is not, though, reducible to a rather simplistic accusation of cultural appropriation. Instead, the crux of this Venice Architecture Biennale lies in its emphasis on so-called “social architecture,” even as it fails to question the socio-economic situations within which architects operate. In its implicit relationship of native, local, or vernacular resources to foreign, technological expertise, the fable of Maria Reiche undergirds the whole of Aravena’s exhibition. However, Aravena updates the fable, with the exhibition’s social architetures and vernacular forms culminating in a contemporary twist: a new neoimperial project for a network of drones across Africa.


Aravena should be commended for refusing a nostalgic or folkloric frame for traditional, “low-tech” construction techniques and materials. At no point were national mythologies or romantic visions of premodern communities invoked to validate the use of rammed earth, terra-cotta tile, the yurt, timbrel vaulting, or other “local knowledge” or “local wisdom.”4 Instead, it was the efficacy of such methods—their low cost, ready availability, renewable and/or sustainable sourcing, relative ease of construction, and sensitivity to local climactic conditions—that justified their central place in the exhibition.

Industrial materials were few and far-between in Aravena’s exhibition. Plastics erupted only intermittently, often as part of a program to promote recycling or repurposing. Polish architect Hugo Kowalski and art critic Marcin Szczelina, for example, produced a didactic display about garbage and detritus that grew increasingly heaped with visitors’ plastic water bottles as the exhibition ran. Steel beams were almost nowhere to be seen. In fact, the only memorable presentation of steel came in the entryway to the Arsenale venue for Aravena’s curated exhibition. In the theatrical opening space of the Arsenale, the former warehouse’s rough brickwork was subsumed by stacks of plaster boards (recycled shipping material from the previous year’s Art Biennale), while long metal studs (also recycled from the previous Biennale) loomed down from the ceiling, filling the gallery space from the high ceiling until a point shortly above viewers’ heads.5

Alejandro Aravena Entry to Arsenale Venice Architecture Biennale, 2016 Image La Biennale di Venezia
Alejandro Aravena
Entry to Arsenale
Venice Architecture Biennale, 2016
Image La Biennale di Venezia

The most prevalent substances were mud, rammed earth, terra-cotta tiles, and wooden piers, promoted as “local materials.”6 For example, the project of Indian architect Anupama Kundoo consisted primarily of an elegant exploration of materials. Spread across a room of tables around chest height, chunks of wood and heaped raw earth pigments looked as if they had escaped from an Hélio Oiticica assemblage. The Chinese architects Wang Shu and Lu Wenyu, of Amateur Architecture, arranged strips of reclaimed construction materials in shin-high wooden frames, organizing them in a rough grid just inside the entrance to the Arsenale exhibition. In room after room, materials drawn from the earth were privileged in place of industrial materials, e.g., (imported) steel. A collaboration among German architect Anna Heringer, Austrian architect  Martin Rauch, and German architectural critic Andres Lepik installed a womb-like, hand-molded earth and mud enclosure and a rammed-earth wall alongside a wall of infographics that traced the history of mud construction and the contemporary building codes that currently restrict its use.7

Anna Heringer, Martin Rauch, and Andres Lepik Mud Works! Venice Architecture Biennale, 2016 Image Stefano Mori, La Biennale di Venezia
Anna Heringer, Martin Rauch, and Andres Lepik
Mud Works!
Venice Architecture Biennale, 2016
Image Stefano Mori, La Biennale di Venezia

But if there was one single material that dominated the exhibition it was not the earth and clay that seemed ever-present, but concrete. Even the handful of high-rise office buildings relied heavily upon that “mongrel” material already known to the Romans.8 In a recent Russian design for a troubled, quasi-government-sponsored tech campus, reinforced concrete slabs in various shapes comprised a matryoshka doll-like shell nestled inside a pyramidal envelope, offering a lazy riff on national symbols.9 For the TID Tower complex in Tirana, Brussels-based 51N4E had to abandon their Western European reliance on standardized, pre-cast forms, and instead drew upon Albanian “magicians of cast-on-site concrete.”10

However, what went largely unacknowledged amongst this celebratory stance was that the use of artisanal materials and methods almost invariably necessitates cheap and abundant labor. When this unpaid or underpaid labor was mentioned, it was celebrated, as with Paraguayan architect Solano Benitez’ work with “two of the most available materials—bricks and unqualified labor—as a way to transform scarcity into abundance.”11 Another notable case was the installation by Ecuadorian studio Al Borde Arquitectos, which presented stacks of money corresponding to the cost per square meter of nine buildings from across the globe, with the intimation that the disparity between building costs in Europe and Latin America reflected poorly on European profligacy rather than lack of regulations, worker protections, and wage differentials elsewhere around the world.12 The sustainable and the local thus become buzzwords that papered over or assuaged the inequities of global economic flows. Behind the visible materials, one must ask: Who built it? Who paid for it? and Who profits?

51n4e TID Tower, Tirana, Albania Images ALES Construction
TID Tower, Tirana, Albania
Images ALES Construction


Ostensibly, the TID Tower complex was included in Aravena’s exhibition due to its sensitive treatment of the tomb of Suleiman Pasha, Tirana’s founder. The tomb was tucked beneath a parabolic void in one of the complex’s low-slung concrete buildings. The central TID Tower rose from a elliptical base to a rectangular top, the TID tower maximized floorspace on the upper levels while leaving room at street level for a pleasant pedestrian walkway space set with cafe tables, or so a related promotional video depicted. The tower’s client (they paid for it) was the Tirana International Development sh.p.k., a limited liability corporation “founded in 1998, of entirely Albanian Capital.”13 At the Venice Architecture Biennale, the 51N4E installation was sponsored by the Belgian company Reynaers Aluminum (slogan, “Together for Better.”), which presented “a large scale model [of the TID Tower] with a movie and a publication which will function as an introduction to the city of Tirana, as well as to the numerous projects that emerged in the wake of the tower.”14

Aravena must have know how transparently this read as corporate promotion, as the 51N4E project was tucked in a corner of the Arsenale that was easy to miss after the drama of the exhibition’s opening rooms.  Passing beneath the dramatic hanging steel beams in the first room of the Arsenale, two temporary walls guided viewers into a space dominated by a field of low, plinth-like containers filled with the grids of building materials reclaimed by Chinese architects Wang Shu and Lu Wenyu of Amateur Architecture Studio.15 Positioned behind this chute that propelled visitors from Aravena’s cave to Wang and Lu’s spotlit plinths, the 51N4E video was thus largely ignorable.

Yet Aravena’s instincts were spot on with the Tirana project. This is not because 51N4E offered a particularly sensitive approach to local conditions, as suggested by the architects’ discussion of creating a building responsive to Tirana’s “superb and slightly surreal” Mediterranean light and Albania’s majority Muslim populace.16 In fact, reading 51N4E’s take on Tirana, one cannot help but recognize the themes of Aravena’s Biennale in the relationship between the Brussels architects and their Albanian clients and laborers. Prior to beginning the project, 51N4E assumed a level of regulation and type of professionalization lacking in Albanian construction and urban development, finding instead that, “[E]xecution drawings had little meaning in this context, other than preparing legal documents for the sake of the local municipal authorities. On the other hand the contractors had an unseen 1:1 relationship with the actual building material, which opened up new possibilities.”17 Rather than a learned and technologized relationship to construction, the Albanian laborers ostensibly had an intuitive, almost pre-technical grasp of materials, in keeping with the Biennale’s emphasis on local (vernacular) knowledge. However, “The final decision for an Albanian production facility was triggered by the need to establish a low-cost production environment. In Albania each panel costs about 500 Euro, in Belgium it would cost 1.500 Euro.”18 As one can see, the Biennale’s emphasis on local materials encompassed the use of local, low-cost labor as well.

In Aravena’s Biennale, even buildings constructed using seemingly typical materials deployed non-professional labor, in which many projects were completed by their end users. Despite the utopian potentialities of participatory design, what became clear throughout the Biennale was the extent to which “social architecture” must justify itself by incorporating the labor of its beneficiaries or inhabitants. Aravena himself won the Pritzker Prize in 2016 largely in recognition for his incremental urbanist projects in Chile, including houses in the tsunami-ravaged city of Constitución. A typical approach to social housing situates homes far from city centers and jobs, an isolation of economically marginalized populations at urban peripheries that Aravena has called “the drama of Latin America.”19 In contrast, Aravena has promoted an incremental urbanism, or “half-a-house” model, in which government subsidies are used to construct part of a residence (typically roof, kitchen, bathroom, and basic structure) while residents contribute their own resources to completing the remainder (individual bedrooms and living spaces).

One pragmatic example of incremental urbanism in Aravena’s exhibition was the “Grundbau und Siedler” [Base and Settlers] project commissioned by PRIMUS developments GmbH and Manfred König in Hamburg, Germany, as well as the Neubild—On Königsberger Strasse and Aleppoer Weg [Königsberg Street and Aleppo Way] proposal by BeL Architects of Berlin. Both the built project and proposal were intended to address the housing needs of migrants to Germany by constructing a “neutral frame of beams, slabs, and columns” that could be “completed and modified by the owner later on.”20 One can imagine—though this was not elucidated in BeL’s proposal—that the migrants’ completion of their own housing would require engagement with local vendors of building materials or possibly training in the trades that could incorporate German language learning. By constructing a “basic geometry” and “basic services such as water, sewage, and electricity,”  and allowing migrants to complete individual apartments rooted in “the cultural background of people who occupy them,” the projects thus had the potential to offer meaningful social integration for migrants for whom housing would be delivered as incremental urbanism.21

Architecture will increasingly need to be a practice of designing infrastructure rather than buildings. Within architect-designed infrastructure or “basic geometries,” non-architects (contractors or civilians) can construct shelters from available materials using vernacular techniques. Of course, this is not a new idea, since numerous architects explored similar ideas with the megastructures of the 1960s and 1970s.22 One also finds precedents for this sort of incremental urbanism in Walter Segal’s self-build model in 1970s Britain, roughly contemporaneous sweat equity programs in the U.S., and contemporary Habitat for Humanity construction.23 However, if the non-architects involved in these earlier cases typically constructed individual domestic structures or rehabbed residences within apartment buildings, one can sense a coming Metabolist future in which individuals are more generally responsible for building their own cities.24

Free Labor

But such self-build models are not without problems. Firstly, as Aravena himself points out, self-build is already a reality for some 90% of the world’s population who “are in actual fact authors of the places where they live—we call them slums.”25 More perniciously, perhaps, requiring end-users or clients or recipients of social welfare (depending upon how one wants to categorize them) to contribute their own labor to construct housing is part and parcel of a neoliberal expectation that individual willpower, entrepreneurship, and resources will eventually trump communitarian models of economic relations.

Ambivalence towards the status of the expert (the architect) is also pervasive in Aravena’s exhibition. A certain authoritarianism can even creep in, as with the Swiss village of Monte Carasso, to which architect Luigi Snozzi essentially offered his design services for free, in exchange for an exceptional level of control over the entire urban plan over the course of five decades.26 In streamlining the the town’s building codes from 240 articles to just seven, for example, Snozzi explained article three as, “Three local architectural experts must be nominated for a commission that will examine al projects. Considering how difficult it is to find experts, I propose s the commission be made up of only one expert—me.”27 This was presented with a largely celebratory tone, failing to acknowledge the anti-democratic relationship between architect and clients.

Another egregious example, this one in the national pavilion portion of the Biennale (thus NOT curated by Aravena), was the sort of millennial hipster totalitarianism of the Hungarian Pavilion.  Chosen through an juried open competition within Hungary, a studio of young architects exhibited their “sustainable model” of development, in which they remodeled a disused building in the small village of Eger into an arts space called Artistic Supply.28 What was “sustainable” about the process was its financing. After being granted a 15-year lease on the building from the local government, materials were recycled from the building itself or donated by contacts in the local construction industry.29 The actual construction work drew upon a local polytechnic high school, with youth apprentices able to train and practice building trades in the process of rehabbing the building. But these architects went one step further, involving a local prison population as laborers on the project.30 With no sense of the ethical implications of employing prison labor—for one Hungarian interviewer this signified that “the local community actually built it [Artistic Supply]”—the Hungarian pavilion sunnily showcased inmates’ delight in being able to leave confinement and enjoy satisfying work with their hands.31

Though such a stark ethical dilemma was not present in the portion of the Biennale curated by Aravena, Aravena’s exhibition largely failed to acknowledge the economic structures that enabled—or prevented—the construction of the architectural projects on display. In fact, one of the striking aspects of the Biennale was the prevalence of grade schools—the fifty schools built by architect Luyanda Mpahlwa in rural South Africa, the “open outdoor classrooms” by Chilean architectures Alton and Léniz in the Andes, and the dozen or so schools by C+S studio in northern Italy—as building projects around which it is perhaps less challenging to build consensus among governments and their tax payers.32 Overall, the types of buildings included in the exhibition were largely noncommercial, and instead one found predominantly social housing, transportation infrastructure, and schools in places with strong state investment.

Tellingly, only a single United States-based practice was featured in the portion of the Biennale curated by Aravena. This was not, however, a polemical displacement of U.S. hegemony in favor of marginalized lifeways of the Global South, but a result of Aravena’s emphasis on social architecture. Social architecture, understood as a subset of architectural practice that “foreground[s] the moral imperative to increase human dignity and reduce human suffering,” is funded predominantly by governments, charitable foundations, NGOs, and aid organizations.33 Such funding structures are often secondary or even absent in the U.S., where the market reigns supreme.

The single U.S. practice included in the exhibition, the Alabama-based Rural Studio, is an exception that proves the rule. Focused on the U.S.’s own internal Global South, the Deep South of rural Alabama, Rural Studio is housed within and funded by a private higher educational institution, Auburn University. This mode of funding, via university tuition and fees, charitable contributions to the university, and donated labor of students, is an anomaly in the largely market-driven world of architecture in the U.S. Despite its utopian aspirations, and even marketing, Rural Studio’s participants freely admit that it fails to intervene in a longer history of government disinvestment and economic challenges in this region.34 Of course, this is perhaps too much to expect from an educational program. Of greater interest here is the way that Rural Studio exemplifies Aravena’s overall exhibition program. Like many of the projects in Aravena’s exhibition, Rural Studio remains wedded to the idea of home ownership as the ultimate goal. Moreover, it fails to acknowledge the histories that make possible the plethora of white, middle-class university students donating their labor to house impoverished rural black Alabamans, with the students themselves gaining cachet through their association with social architecture.


As with the use of materials, many architects based forms on local topographical features or climactic exigencies. Architect David Chipperfield’s visitor’s center at the archaeological site of Naqa (or Naga’a) in Sudan was a bunker-like building of compressed concrete “with local sand and aggregates using traditional techniques,” and a prefab brick-tile roof.35 With no visible power or water lines leading to, the building mockup site isolated in the midst of desert landscape, paralleling the plateaus beyond. But beyond the naturalistic relationship to topos, the project presentation was supplemented with a series of large-scale, full-body photographs and mini-biographies of Sudanese citizens of different races, ages, and social classes. This was not a window onto the building’s users, however, since many of the people stated that they were unlikely to go to the visitor’s center. Instead, local people were used to authenticate the building, with their very bodies serving to bolster narrative accounts of the Sudanese setting to exhibition goers. Here we see a classic architectural deployment of the “vernacular,” linked to the figure of “the other, a pure and natural man, in contrast to a Western man corrupted by the turmoil of the nineteenth [read twenty-first] century.”36

But if there was a single architectural form that characterized the 15th Architecture Biennale, it was the Catalan vault (also called the timbrel vault), a soaring, double-curve structure traditionally constructed in earth tiles. The roofs of these vaulted structures form dramatic curves that seem to float with no visible support (no columns). At the same time, with no angle distinguishing roof from wall, the very top of the structure is linked to the ground in one uninterrupted curve, as if the soaring roofline curve is loosely pinioned to the earth at key junctures.37 The effect is airy like the vaulted ceiling of a cathedral, but the continuity between roof and walls evokes a tent tethered to the ground.

Gabinete de Arquitectura (Solano Benítez, Gloria Cabral, Solanito Benítez) “Breaking the Siege” Venice Architecture Biennale, 2016 Image Francesco Galli, La Biennale di Venezia
Gabinete de Arquitectura (Solano Benítez, Gloria Cabral, Solanito Benítez)
“Breaking the Siege”
Venice Architecture Biennale, 2016
Image Francesco Galli, La Biennale di Venezia

In the first gallery space of the Giardini exhibition hall, Paraguayan architect Solano Benítez’ Gabinete de Arquitectura studio had pride of place with a spectacular unreinforced vault formed of brick.38 Inside the Arsenale, the ETH Zurich-affiliated Block Research Group, along with John Ochsendorf, Matthew DeJong and The Escobedo Group, exhibited an immense mortarless vault made of stacked limestone. While these were the only two true vaults contained within the gallery spaces, there were a number of other structures whose forms echoed the curved ceiling of the vault and its tent-like connection to the earth. Simón Vélez presented a soaring bamboo dome, while Anupama Kundoo exhibited models and photographs of several experiments with vaulted terra-cotta and ferro-cement structures.39 Among the tent structures were several yurts based on hybrid nomadic-sedentary housing in Ulaanbaater, exhibited by the University of Hong Kong’s Rural Urban Framework.40 Additionally, positioned just before the entrance to the Giardini exhibition hall was a tent “derived from the typical tents of the [refugee] camps” that acted as the national pavilion of the Western Sahara.41   Across disparate materials and forms, the Biennale reiterated the “concave and intimate space” characteristic of the timbrel vault, with curved ceilings and arches that reach from ceiling to floor. Throughout the Biennale, structures combined the vertical heights of sacred monumental architecture with the domestic coziness of tent structures.42

Block Research Group, ETH Zürich “Beyond Bending” Armadillo Vault Venice Architecture Biennale, 2016 Image Tom Gearty
Block Research Group, ETH Zürich
“Beyond Bending” Armadillo Vault
Venice Architecture Biennale, 2016
Image Tom Gearty

BBHMM Moo-la-lah

The 15th Venice Architecture Biennale and many of its participants also enjoyed the support of a shadow patron, the LafargeHolcim Foundation for Sustainable Construction (formerly known as the Holcim Foundation for Sustainable Construction).43 Aravena himself had been awarded a Holcim Awards Silver in 2011 for post-tsunami housing in Constitución, Chile, and he has served on the foundation’s board since 2013.44 The portion of the Biennale curated by Aravena was heavily tilted toward projects connected in some way to the LafargeHolcim foundation; many of the architects had been recognized by LafargeHolcim, and numerous projects had received LafargeHolcim awards. Aravena claimed that it came as a surprise to him, after choosing participants in the curated portion of the Venice Architecture Biennale, to find that a number of them had received awards from the LafargeHolcim Foundation.45

But an even more insidious presence at the Venice Biennale was the for-profit building materials company LafargeHolcim (trading as LHN on on the SIX Swiss Exchange and Euronext Paris, and HCMLF as an OTC trade the United States). The sole sponsor of the LafargeHolcim Foundation, LafargeHolcim Ltd, is a building materials company formed in 2015 from the merger of two of the world’s biggest cement companies, the French Lafarge SA and the Swiss Holcim Ltd.

Norman Foster Foundation Droneport mock-up
Norman Foster Foundation
Droneport mock-up

Do not, however, imagine that LafargeHolcim Ltd merely provided funding for the LafargeHolcim Foundation’s activities, which indirectly supported several practitioners included in the Venice Architecture Biennale. LafargeHolcim Ltd was itself a highly visible presence on the dock area outside the Arsenale venue of the Biennale. There, a brick tile timbrel vault visualized a new initiative spearheaded by British architect Norman Foster’s own eponymous foundation: the Droneport project.

The proposal is to create a network of drone ports to deliver medical supplies and other necessities to areas of Africa that are difficult to access due to a lack of roads or other infrastructure and the ambition is that every small town in Africa and in other emerging economies will have its own droneport by 2030.46

What made this an architectural rather than humanitarian or development project was not only because it was spearheaded by architect Norman Foster, but because of the eye catching formal statement his Droneport made. Drawing upon the historical technique of the timbrel [tambourine] vault, also known as the Catalan vault for its widespread use in early modern Catalonia, the droneport articulated a set of graceful curves against the backdrop of Venice’s waterways.47 The Block Research Group at the ETH Zurich provided their knowledge of structural engineering, leading to an “optimized vault form,” while the LafargeHolcim Foundation beneficently provided support for construction of this prototype droneport at the Venice Architecture Biennale. But it was LafargeHolcim Ltd’s R&D laboratory in L’Isle d’Abeau, France, that developed the key material substrate for the Droneport: a lightweight hand-machined compressed earth and cement tile they call DuraBric. LafargeHolcim was heralded for developing this composite, which could potentially rely on earth near each construction site for roughly 90% of its material, thus eliminating the cost and effort of importing industrial materials like steel to remote areas of underdeveloped Africa. Yet it is not LafargeHolcim Foundation that would supply DuraBrics, but LafargeHolcim Ltd.

Moreover, as architectural historian George R. Collins has asserted,

It should be noted that the elements of these [timbrel] vaults are not held together by friction produced by pressure of the elements against each other under the force of gravity . . . ; instead the tiles are simply “stuck” together by a mortar so tenacious that tiles will ordinarily break or split before the mortar parts. . . . The mortar is not simply a bed for the joints of large stone voussoirs; it is a thick blanket around and amongst the tiles, constituting approximately 50 per cent of the masonry so that the whole becomes, as it were, a sort of concrete made with an aggregate of highly regular pieces—the tiles.48

The local earth of the tiles is practically suspended in an emulsion of cement.49 Thus LafargeHolcim, one of the largest cement manufacturers in the world, and also known as an industry leader in aggregates, supports a novel construction method for what may come to be an indispensable civic building worldwide. That construction method utilizes cement and the proprietary DuraBric tile, both sold by LafargeHolcim Ltd. Beyond good publicity, this has the potential to be good business.

The beneficence of the LafargeHolcim Foundation, all the while failing to mention—or downplaying to an absurd degree—the crucial role of the for-profit LafargeHolcim company, supposedly the largest manufacturer of building materials in the world, It is the for-profit LafargeHolcim that would be responsible for making the DuraBrics for constructing DronePorts, and supplying the cement for mortaring thousands of DronePorts—not just in Africa, but around the world. No mention, then, of who would pay for the eventual construction of these thousands of DronePorts, nor the millions of francs that would flow to LafargeHolcim. A small-scale publicity stunt, a generous funding of several small DronePorts, would kick off a worldwide investment in an entirely new transportation infrastructure in which LafargeHolcim would be, if not the only supplier of a crucial building material, certainly the preeminent supplier for a long time to come. Money makes the world go round.

Aravena’s entire Biennale, then, its emphasis on “natural” materials—the omnipresence of earthen brick and tile—its insistence on the collaboration among state and humanitarian actors, all lead to the quayside behind the Arsenale, to a Catalan vault through which a starchitect advances his brand and a global conglomerate advances its sales.

But the Droneport also offer a particularly insidious relationship among architecture, international development, and warfare. The Droneport project is spearheaded by The Norman Foster Foundation and Jonathan Ledgard, a former journalist who recently stepped down as director of Afrotech, an African development research center at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL).50 As the two men describe it, this drone network will eventually span a huge swathe of sub-Saharan Africa, though current efforts are concentrated on Ledgard’s so-called Redline project in Rwanda. The Redline will consist of a system of Droneports to transport medical and emergency supplies throughout the country of Rwanda, with the Rwandan government projected to pay one third of the cost of the initial network.51 With its small land area, densely-settled population, Western-educated and Anglophone elite, extensive network of fiber-optic internet cables, and post-genocide openness to foreign investment, Rwanda would seem like a natural starting point for the Droneport project.52 However, there is also the crucial matter of Rwanda’s relationship to its eastern neighbor, the Congo.53

A resource-poor yet densely populated country, Rwanda draws a large proportion of its budget from international aid while also drawing—both legally and illicitly—on the sale of Congolese minerals, including gold, diamonds, and metals such as coltan, an amalgam crucial for smart phones.54 In 2012-2013, the United States and the United Kingdom partially withheld aid to Rwanda as a rebuke for its involvement in armed conflict in the eastern Congo.55 Yet by 2015, funding had reached new heights, with the U.S. providing $247 million in aid to Rwanda, not including military aid, while the United Kingdom contributed roughly £70 million—this compared to Rwanda’s annual tax revenues of roughly $1.1 billion in 2015/2016.56 With roughly half of Rwanda’s national budget made up of aid from the U.S. and the U.K., one might consider the Rwandan government less as an enthusiastic backer of Norman Foster’s Droneport project and more as a conduit for British (and perhaps U.S.) investment in a drone network in Africa.57

That said, the Rwandan government’s strong control on its territory—including suppression of opposition parties, voter intimidation, reeducation camps that are compulsory for university matriculants, restrictions on freedom of speech, and centralized control of the economy under the guise of a private company held entirely by the current ruling party—means that the drone network will necessarily operate with considerable government oversight if not outright control.58 One glance at the proposed Droneport map reveals that the densest network of Redline routes is oriented along Rwanda’s border with the Congo, offering a multitude of opportunities for surveillance or even deployment of drones as weaponry in ongoing small-scale incursions into the Congo.59 From the very first, it was imagined that the drone project would soon expand into the Congo.60

Of course, even if this is not a priority—and, indeed, militarization would be a horrifying thought—for international development agencies backing the Droneport project, there is still the matter of profit motive. Alongside the Redline humanitarian drone network, Normal Foster’s foundation has also mooted the idea of a commercial Blueline “that would transport crucial larger payloads such as spare parts, electronics, and e-commerce, complementing and subsidising the Redline network.”61 Here one finds the holy grail for contemporary investment, the vast untapped mass of potential consumers in Africa, now hampered not only by economic misery but also by the inability for goods to reach market. In a philanthropic sense, drones with payloads of one hundred kilograms could allow agricultural producers to send goods to additional markets and potentially earn higher incomes.62 But more to the point for Western investors, drone-backed e-commerce could instantly reach hundreds of millions of consumers in sub-Saharan Africa.

In fact, an early report on the Droneport project foregrounded its commercial prospects: “Rwanda Plans Airport for E-Commerce Drones.”63 Moreover, even humanitarian drone deliveries would likely be imbricated within the health care tech industry. Already, blood and vaccines are being delivered across Rwanda by the for-profit California-based company Zipline, paid per delivery by the Rwandan government.64 With “$19 million in venture capital from investors including Sequoia Capital, Google Ventures, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang, and Subtraction Capital,” Zipline chose Rwanda as a test site for their drone deliveries based on a tip from the Redline’s Jonathan Ledgard. Now, the U.S. government is interested in copying the model for rural healthcare. As Killian Doherty’s excellent Thinkpiece in Architectural Review describes, the Droneport thus exemplifies the problem of “humanitarian architecture that is paradigmatically prone to being heavily narrated out of context, particularly the political context, and in a manner that distorts a view of the charged spaces of development as neutral.”65

Social (?) Architecture

Thus the Droneport offers the culmination of Aravena’s exhibition: in its materials (earthen tiles), in its forms (a tent-like shelter), and in that the humanitarian aspects of “social architecture” are necessarily implicated in ulterior motives on the part of stakeholders. At the risk of finding nefarious ends wherever an architectural project involves profit, it is necessary to understand how “the logic of real estate development under capitalism” underlies much of Aravena’s exhibition.66 Here we see why—despite the presence of so much government investment—this is not properly a biennale of “civic” or “public” architecture. The term “social” muddies the water just enough, introducing priorities that may conflict with the collective as administered by a state, or that project a transnational network of people—and, by extension, capital. It is this underlying thematic that differentiates Aravena’s exhibition from its predecessor, Andres Lepik’s 2010 exhibition Small Scale Big Change: New Architectures of Social Engagement, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.67

The market is omnipresent in this Architecture Biennale, with ownership at the heart of even the most “social” architectural projects. With a project for a French social housing apartment building, the architects’ language reiterated a normative (if not entirely puritanical) cycle of the nuclear family as “living together, marriage, children, and old age.”68 The presentation even had dollhouse-like models of domestic interiors and portraits of the inhabitants amidst the stuff of their new apartments, a vision of domestic nesting embodying a petit bourgeois aspiration to home ownership.69 At a Biennale panel discussion sponsored by LafargeHolcim, Aravena himself was even more explicit about the links between social architecture and private property (which may, in fact, be less relevant in the case of French social housing). Explaining his work in Chile, Aravena situated himself as part of a lineage reaching back to the Chilean government’s formalization of squatters’ plots in the 1970s, when “Operation Chalk,” enabled people to stake ownership over plots of land using chalk lines.70 The lines established “property structure and nothing more than that, just the geometry of who would own what, meaning this will be a street, this will be a private lot.”71 Or, as The New York Times Style Magazine explained of Aravena’s recent work in Constitución, “Residents of Villa Verde [in Constitución], who had next to nothing, gain equity.”72 Within Aravena’s vision of social architecture, there is always already private property to which we should aspire. This is not to say that humanitarian or social architectures should never involve the market, but that one must remain aware of the webs of capital and political motives that allow such architectures to exist.73

In this outsider biennale, finally, the relationship between architect and non-architect was left largely implicit. One notable exception can be found in comments by Sri Lankan architect Melinda Pathiraja during a panel discussion on sustainability and security.74 Pathiraja openly proclaimed the perhaps unfashionable view that experts are a necessary part of architecture, especially in the Global South. In Sri Lanka, Pathiraja asserted, less than a fraction of 1% of buildings were constructed under the auspices of architects, leading to a number of problems in safety and durability. One can quibble with the nature of the experts who could best address this perceived lack—wouldn’t engineers be just as useful as architects in preventing structural defects?—and find fault with the power relations implicit in this call for architects. However, Pathiraja’s point is well taken. We might simply rephrase it not as a call for experts, but as a call for expertise.

And here is where Aravena’s Biennale does a great service to the profession, in calling for a reevaluation of what constitutes expertise in the field of architecture. Rather than highlighting pre-industrial building techniques as a way to reinvigorate folkloric nationalisms, the exhibition fiercely defends the prowess of these techniques in their own right. These techniques are important not because they are native or traditional, but because they are functional.

At the same time, Aravena’s Biennale provides a roadmap for a pernicious neoimperialism in which extractive processes are applied to local knowledge as well as raw materials. Longstanding and little-monetized expertise such as the timbrel vault and Saharan tent are studied in situ, then analyzed using advanced technology (e.g., “Thrust Network Analysis (TNA), a technique developed over the last ten years by the MIT and the ETH Zurich”). Finally, they are re-imported to their sources, this time with the caveat that local practitioners need the assistance of foreign experts in order to implement what was once local knowledge. Here, then, we return to the Maria Reiche ladder story, and the problematic position of the expert—the architect—implicit in Aravena’s Biennale. In Aravena’s South American fable, a German archaeologist, with her metal industrial tool, is the one to “make sense” of the landscape, to apprehend its secrets and potentialities, and thus to re-narrate the histories of the Peruvian desert to its inhabitants. But with the Droneport, architecture offers a more insidious intervention in global flows. A British lord uses Swiss digital technology to “optimize” mud tile vaults, a humanitarian window dressing as Western companies literally remap the African continent.


1.  On the vernacular as encompassing both Volkskunst and Sachlichkeit, found on “the unpretentious farm” as well as in industrial objects of modern life, as “solutions perfected anonymously and collectively over many generations,” as well as “the anonymous developments of modern industrial society,” see Francesco Passanti, “The Vernacular, Modernism, and Le Corbusier,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 56, no. 4 (December 1997): 438-451. Yet, even as the 21st century vernacular continues to “articulat[e] the persistent hope for a natural and organic modern society, and for a natural relationship of modern society and architecture,” it does so by reinvigorating the vernacular’s rootedness in topos and the figure of “the other, a pure and natural man, in contrast to a Western man corrupted by the turmoil of the nineteenth [read twenty-first] century.” Passanti, 438. Compare the discussion below of Albanians as “magicians of cast-on-site concrete” or David Chipperfield’s use of Sudanese citizens’ portraits to authenticate the locality of a new architectural design.
2.  Alistair Sooke, “Outsider Art Challenges Conventions,” BBC, June 4, 2013, accessed December 2, 2016, See also Lyle Rexer, How to Look at Outsider Art (New York: H. N. Abrams, 2005), especially 37-38.
3.  Alejandro Aravena, “Rationale,” 15th International Architecture Exhibition: Reporting from the Front (Venice: Marsilio, 2016), 21.
4.  “56. Creating Buildings Using Local Knowledge and Using Buildings to Create Knowledge. The Work of Anupama Kundoo in India,” 15th International Architecture Exhibition, 256-259. “11. Universal Knowledge or Local Wisdom? Designing with Forces Pulling in Opposite Directions. The work of Diébédo Francis Kéré in Burkina Faso,” 15th International Architecture Exhibition, 72-75.
5.  There is a suggestive parallel between the transformation of the Arsenale gallery with low-hanging metal studs and the dismal space created in the 1938 International Surrealist Exhibition by Marcel Duchamp’s hanging coal sacks, which have been linked to trepidation about contemporaneous politics. On this topic, as well as the ideological import of the ceiling in modern exhibition spaces more generally, see Effie Rentzou, “International Exhibitions and the Simulated Global,” paper presented at Global Surrealism Convening Session, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL, November 4-5, 2016.
6.  “56. The Work of Anupama Kundoo in India,” 15th International Architecture Exhibition, 256-259.
7.  See BauNetz Media, “Anna Heringer—Architekturbiennale 2016,”, May 31, 2016, accessed December 16, 2016,
8.  It was Frank Lloyd Wright who called concrete a “mongrel” material. See Adrian Forty, Concrete and Culture: A Material History (London: Reaktion, 2012), 10-11.
9.  “The reinforced concrete structure of the building was shaped by using girder formwork PSK-Classic and the PSK-Cup patented frame girder system. The latter was used for concreting the various slab types (flat, sloping, capital), including in the construction of the Russian doll.” “The Skolkovo Symbol, MatRex, Is Being Built Using a Plywood Cage,”, April 2, 2014, accessed December 6, 2016, See also “????????????? ???? ?????????” [Architectural Sign of Innovation], SkReview (January 2013): 10-13. On the Skolkovo Innovation center more generally, see Mark Rice-Oxley, “Inside Skolkovo, Moscow’s Self-styled Silicon Valley Innovation Centre,”, June 12, 2015, accessed December 6, 2016,
10. Peter Swinnen, Johan Anrys / 51N4E, “Squaring the Circle: Building a Tower the Tirana Way,” in Re-Inventing Construction, ed. Ilka & Andreas Ruby (Berlin: Ruby Press, 2010), 195. See note 1 above.
11. “02. Working with Two of the Most Available Materials—Bricks and Unqualified Labor—as a Way to Transform Scarcity into Abundance. The Work of Solano Benítez in Paraguay,” 15th International Architecture Exhibition, 36-39.
12. “32. Architecture against All Odds. The Work of Al Borde Arquitectos in Ecuador,” 15th International Architecture Exhibition, 160-163.
13. Website of Tirana International Development, accessed December 18, 2016,
14. “Reynaers proudly supports Architectural Biennale Venice 2016,”, May 26, 2016, accessed December 5, 2016, Following the completion of TID tower in 2011, 51N4E won another competition, to re-design Tirana’s primary public space, Skanderbeg Square. “With a new, oxygenous square in the cataclysmic heart of the city, Tirana could grasp its future and come to terms with its past.” Peter Swinnen, 51N4E: Double or Nothing (London: Architectural Association, 2011).
15. “34. Using Professional Prestige to Change the Status Quo. The Work of Wang Shu and Lu Wenyu of Amateur Architecture in Fuyang,” 15th International Architecture Exhibition, 168-172.
16. Swinnen and Anrys, 189-190, 193.
17. Swinnen and Anrys, 195. 51N4E’s discussion of designing in relation to local expertise is strikingly similar to Le Corbusier’s working method in relation to the vernacular, as with the “local contractors,” “local stone,” and “ordinary masonry” involved in the construction of the de Mandrot house near Toulon (1931), and the “almost medieval level of the technology” that British architect James Stirling saw in the Maisons Jaoul in Paris (1955), which was “built by Algerian laborers equipped with ladders, hammers and nails,” and in which the only synthetic material was glass. Kenneth Frampton, Modern Architecture: A Critical History (London: Thames and Hudson, 1980), 225-226. Again, there is a conflation of artisanal labor, hand tools, and non-industrial materials.
18. Swinnen and Anrys, 196.
19. Bruce Sterling, “Replacing Slums with Half a House,”, November 10, 2009, accessed December 14, 2016, This article focused on Aravena’s earlier project for the Quinta Monroy community in Iquique, Chile, which constructed social housing and formalized ownership for 100 families who had been occupying centrally-located land. See also “Quinta Monroy / ELEMENTAL,”, December 31, 2008, accessed December 14, 2016,
20. “48. Open Incremental Architecture Able to Register the Cultural Background of Dwellers (Or Even Refugees). The Work of BeL Architects in Berlin,” 15th International Architecture Exhibition, 224. The architects seemed unaware of the potentially negative implications of the word “settlers” for English-speakers. While the term Siedler is, like the English word settler, used for Israeli settlers in the Occupied Territories, it has a longer history in relation to German migration, and was used as early as the 13th century in nationalist terms to describe German settlement in “the borderlands of the kingdom of Bohemia.” Philipp Ther, “Imperial instead of National History: Positioning Modern German History on the Map of European Empires,” in Imperial Rule, ed. Aleksei I. Miller and Alfred J. Rieber (New York: Central European University Press, 2004), 57. In English, however, the corresponding positive, chauvinist term would more likely be something like “pioneer” or “pilgrim” in historical eras, while for contemporary resettlement of people, the least pejorative terms might best be refugee or perhaps migrant.
21. “48. The Work of BeL Architects in Berlin,” 15th International Architecture Exhibition, 224.
22. See Reyner Banham, Megastructure: Urban Futures of the Recent Past (London: Thames and Hudson, 1976).
23. See Steven Weir and Gareth Hepworth, “Habitat for Humanity—Operating Outside the State and the Market,” in Reflections on Architecture, Society and Politics: Social and Cultural Tectonics in the 21st Century, ed. Graham Cairns (New York: Routledge,2017), 204-220.
24. See Zhongjie Lin, Kenzo Tange and the Metabolist Movement (New York: Routledge, 2010). A recent take on this method has arisen in response to high land prices in urban cores of the U.S. See Paulette Perhach, “Future House: 3-D Printed and Ready to Fly, The New York Times, July 20, 2016, accessed December 18, 2016,
25. “58. Questioning Authorship and Authority in the City. The Work of Assemble Studio in Great Britain,” 15th International Architecture Exhibition, 264.
26. “54. From Refusing a Commission for a School to Taking Care of the Whole Village. The Work of Luigi Snozzi in Ticino; Between Radicality and Common Sense,” 15th International Architecture Exhibition, 248-251.
27. Luigi Snozzi, “54. Studio Snozzi,” 15th International Architecture Exhibition, 442-443.
28. The term “sustainable” is found in György Szeg?, “Report from the Front – Aectivators: The Hungarian Exhibition of the Biennual [sic] in Venice,” Magyar Épít?m?vészet [Hungarian Architecture] (March 2016), accessed December 14, 2016, The architects also promoted the “recycled” [újrahasznosították] character of the project, since it renovated a doomed building and reused objects found on-site. Fábián Gábor and Fajcsák Dénes, “Az Arkt-tól az Ellátóig—a magyar pavilon nyertes kurátori pályázata,” építé [ArchitectForum], November 19, 2015, accessed December 14, 2016, For images of the building’s interior, see Bán Dávid, “Mindenki hozzátette a magáét,” építé [ArchitectForum], January 26, 2016, accessed December 14, 2016,
29. The Biennale installation also alluded to unnamed NGO sponsors of the project, but without elucidating who these NGOs were or how they supported the project. See also Aectivators, “Biennale Architettura 2016—National Participation of Hungary,” Hungary—Biennale Architettura 2016, Google Arts & Culture, accessed December 14, 2016,
30. See Bán Dávid, “Mesebeli történet – az Arkt Csoport,” építé [ArchitectForum], March 4, 2016, accessed December 14, 2016, Apparently, these young architects did not pioneer the use of prison labor in contemporary Hungarian architecture, as one of them recalls a community house built by inmates during his childhood in Balassagyarmat, Hungary.
31. See the video clip on the Hungary—Biennale Architettura 2016 page of Google Arts & Culture. This project was commended for its “humane and exemplary civic nature” [emberlépték? és példaérték? civil jellegét]. “15. Velencei Építészeti Biennále 2016: æktivátorok. Helyi aktív építészet (æctivators. Locally active architecture),” Ludwig Museum—Museum of Contemporary Art, Budapest, May 28, 2016, accessed December 14, 2016,
32. “75. Do Not Forget the Countryside. A Network of Remote Schools in South Africa: The Work of Luyanda Mpahlwa,” 15th International Architecture Exhibition, 332-335. “08. Learning from Nature about How to Survive Marginality and Urban Violence. The Open Outdoor Classrooms by Elton and Léniz in the Chilean Andes,” 15th International Architecture Exhibition, 60-63. “60. Public Buildings As Public Goods. The Schools of C+S for the Veneto Region,” 15th International Architecture Exhibition, 272-275.
33. This definition of social architecture is explored in Anthony Ward, “The Suppression of the Social in Design: Architecture as War,” in Reconstructing Architecture: Critical Discourses and Social Practices, ed. Thomas A. Dutton and Lian H. Mann (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), 27-70. On the meanings of the phrase “social architecture” in contemporary practice, see also Paul Jones and Kenton Card, “Constructing ‘Social Architecture’: The Politics of Representing Practice,” Architectural Theory Review 16, no. 3 (2011): 228-244.
34. Many participants in Rural Studio freely admit their pragmatic understanding of, and even frustration with, the program’s limitations. See Jones and Card. On the representation and branding of Rural Studio, see also Anna Goodman, “The Paradox of Representation and Practice in the Auburn University Rural Studio,” Traditional Dwellings and Settlements Review 25, no. 2 (2014): 39-52.
35. “Naga Site Museum,”, May 22, 2014, accessed December 14, 2016,
36. Passanti, 438, see footnote 1 above.
37. Indeed, at the “feet” of these vaults, curved metal tension ties contain their lateral thrust, as described by Philippe Block of the Block research group at ETH Zurich. See Andrew Ayers, “A Robust Construction,” AA Perspectives, “The Droneport Project,” special issue of AA: L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui (November 2016): 40-42, and see photograph on 38.
38. On the timbrel vault, also known as the Catalan vault or boveda tabicada, see Dietrich Neumann, “The Guastavino System in Context: History and Dissemination of a Revolutionary Vaulting Method” APT Bulletin 30, no. 4, “Preserving Historic Guastavino Tile Ceilings, Domes, and Vaults” (1999): 7-13.
39. “56. The Work of Anupama Kundoo in India,” 15th International Architecture Exhibition, 256-259.
40. “39. Sedentary versus Nomadic: Cities Should Be Able to Host from Modern to Archaic Ways of Living If They Want to Properly Tackle the Migration of People Towards Them. The Work of Rural Urban Framework in Mongolia,” 15th International Architecture Exhibition, 188-191.
41. “01. Western Sahara—Redefining the Architecture of a Refugee Camp As the Identity of a Nation (Yet to Be). By Manuel Hertz and the National-Union of Sahrawi Women,” 15th International Architecture Exhibition, 32-35.
42. The idea of “concave and intimate space comes from David López López, Marta Domènech Rodríguez, and Mariana Palumbo Fernández, “‘Brick-topia’, the Thin-tile Vaulted Pavilion,” Case Studies in Structural Engineering 2 (2014): 39.
43. In 2015, the French cement and concrete company Lafarge merged with the Swiss building materials company Holcim to form LafargeHolcim. The foundation’s name changed accordingly.
44. On the process of rebuilding Constitución, see Cristina Guadalupe Galvan, interview with Camila Cociña Varas, “One Year Later: Reconstructing Chile after Tsunami,” DAMn°magazine 28, Reconstructing Chile (April 2011): 16-22; and Gideon Long, “The Rebuilding of Chile’s Constitución: How a ‘Dead City’ Was Brought Back to Life,” The Guardian, February 23, 2015, accessed December 3, 2016, See also Felipe Vera, “Cuando la reconstrucción está en manos de privados,” Sentidos Comunes, December 15, 2010, accessed December 4, 2016,
45. Alejandro Aravena, Jonathan Ledgard, Milinda Pathiraja, and Robert Mardini, “Reporting from the Front: Sustainability vs. Security,” panel discussion sponsored by LafargeHolcim Foundation, 15th International Venice Architecture Biennale, Venice, Italy, November 25, 2016, accessed December 20, 2016, Among the architects included in the Biennale who had been recognized by the LafargeHolcim Foundation are Anna Heringer, Diébédo Francis Kéré, Christian Kerez, Milinda Pathiraja, Wang Shu and Lu Wenyu (Amateur Architecture).
46. Press release, “The Norman Foster Foundation: Making the Droneport Prototype,” Foster + Partners, May 27, 2016, accessed December 5, 2016, See the promotional video, The Normal Foster Foundation, “Making the Droneport Prototype,”, May 26, 2016, accessed December 16, 2016,
47. George R. Collins, “The Transfer of Thin Masonry Vaulting from Spain to America,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 27, no. 3 (October 1968): 176-201.
48. Collins, 177.
49. A interesting challenge arose when the team of architecture students who had constructed a Droneport prototype in the relatively dry setting of Madrid first attempted to construct the Droneport on the docks in Venice. The mortar, which had been more than adequate previously, was not up to the muggy Venetian climate, and the Droneport prototype required a layer traditional clay tiles plus two layers of DuraBric, rather than the expected two layers of DuraBric. See Andrew Ayers, interview with Ivan Serclérat, “We’re Working on a Level of Technology That’s as Light as Possible,” AA Perspectives, “The Droneport Project,” special issue of AA: L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui (November 2016): 48.
50. “The Norman Foster Foundation promotes interdisciplinary thinking and research to help new generations of architects, designers and urbanists to anticipate the future.” “Website coming 2017,” The Norman Foster Foundation, accessed December 18, 2016, While The Norman Foster Foundation was established as a registered charity in 1999, the British Charity Commission only lists financial summaries for the past five years (since 2011), during which time the Foundation’s income and spending have remained below £70,000, in most years hovering between £0 and £5,000. The Norman Foster Foundation, “Financial Statements for the year ended 31st July, 2011,” received by the United Kingdom Charity Commission 11th May, 2012, accessed December 18, 2016, “1078282—he Norman Foster Foundation,” United Kingdom Register of Charities, accessed December 18, 2016, According to the UK Register of Charities, the activities of the Foundation are, “the advancement of education generally and in particular by conducting and promoting the study of and research into all aspects of architecture especially modern architecture and also by publishing the useful results of such research.” Prior to the Droneport project, The Norman Foster Foundation’s activities seem to have largely consisted of funding architecture exhibitions, such as Bucky Fuller & Spaceship Earth at Ivorypress (an art publishing house run by Foster’s wife, Elena Ochoa Foster) in Madrid in 2010, the Royal Academy of Arts’ Building the Revolution: Soviet Art and Architecture 1915–1935 in London in 2011-2012, and Foster’s own participation in the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale. “Bucky Fuller & Spaceship Earth,” Ivorypress, September 1, 2010, accessed December 18, 2016, Royal Academy of Arts, “Annual Report 2012” (London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2013), 14. “Venice Architecture Biennale—Common Ground / Foster + Partners—Venice Architecture Biennale: Common Ground,”, August 28, 2012, accessed December 18, 2016, One 2010 fluff piece also mentioned that The Norman Foster Foundation has funded school construction in Sierra Leone, but this was not able to be corroborated.  Rowan Moore, “Masdar City, Abu Dhabi: The Gulf between Wisdom and Folly: Norman Foster shows our critic how his developments in Abu Dhabi aim to marry modern innovations and centuries-old Islamic building practices,” The Guardian, December 18, 2010, accessed December 18, 2016, Additionally, as of 2010, The Norman Foster Foundation was set to build its headquarters in Beijing. Matteo Poli, “Brainstorming. Fondazione Foster a Pechino: Con Norman Foster ed Elena Ochoa nel quartiere di Caochangdi a Pechino a visitare gli edifici che diventeranno la Fondazione Foster,” Abitare 507, December 3, 2010, accessed December 18, 2016,; see the English version at Ellis Woodman, “Foster Plans New Beijing Headquarters As Base for China Expansion, Building Design, August 12, 2011, accessed December 18, 2016, It is not clear what, if anything, resulted from these plans in China.
51. Aravena, Ledgard, Pathiraja, and Mardini, “Reporting from the Front: Sustainability vs. Security,” 0:53:03-0:53:12.
52. On internet access in Rwanda, see Alex Ntale, Atsushi Yamanaka, and  Didier Nkurikiyimfura, “The Metamorphosis to a Knowledge-Based Society: Rwanda,” in The Global Information Technology Report 2013, ed. Beñat Bilbao-Osorio, Soumitra Dutta, and Bruno Lanvin (Geneva: World Economic Forum, 2013), 119-125. In the 1990s, Rwanda underwent a pivot toward the United Kingdom and the United States, and away from its historical ties to France, due both to the perceived complicity of the French government in the Rwandan genocide, as well as the Anglophone leanings of the Uganda-raised rebels (including current Rwandan president Paul Kagame) who took over Rwanda after the genocide. James Tyler Dickovick, Africa 2013 (Lanham, MD: Stryker-Post Publications, 2013), 192-194. Jessica Walker-Keleher, “Reconceptualizing the Relationship between Conflict and Education: The Case of  Rwanda” in PRAXIS: The Fletcher Journal of Human Security 21 (2006): 35-53. Denise Bentrovato, Narrating and Teaching the Nation: The Politics of Education in Pre- and Post-Genocide Rwanda (Göttingen: V&R Unipress, 2015), 111-112.
53. Many thanks to Izabela Steflja for helping me grapple with contemporary Rwandan politics and international relations.
54. See the section “Rwanda’s Involvement in DRC Conflicts,” in Alexis Arieff, “Democratic Republic of Congo: Background and U.S. Policy,” Current Politics and Economics of Africa 7, no. 2 (2014): 113-142. On the global trade of coltan, including coltan originating in the Congo and routed through Rwanda, see Daniel Moran, Darian McBain, Keiichiro Kanemoto, Manfred Lenzen, and Arne Geschke, “Global Supply Chains of Coltan: A Hybrid Life Cycle Assessment Study Using a Social Indicator,” Journal of Industrial Ecology 19, no. 3 (June 2015): 357-365. See also United Nations, “Final report of the Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of the Congo,” S/2011/738, December 2, 2011, accessed December 20, 2016,
55. “UK stops £21m aid payment to Rwanda,, November 30 2012, accessed December 20, 2016, Additionally, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, passed by the U.S. Congress in 2010, included a “Conflict Minerals” provision, section 1502, which required publicly traded companies to report their sources of conflict minerals, including coltan. This provoked a major restructuring of mining in eastern Congo, putting many artisanal miners out of work and effectively enabling the Congolese government to militarize mines in the area. This further allowed the Congolese government to assure the Rwandan government continued access to minerals in the area, though political scientists point out that Rwanda is still likely a way station for smuggled Congolese minerals that lack proper documentation (whether or not they are in fact “conflict minerals”). See Laura E. Seay, “What’s Wrong with Dodd- Frank 1502?: Conflict Minerals, Civilian Livelihoods, and the Unintended Consequences of Western Advocacy,” Center for Global Development Working Paper 284 (January 2012), n.p. See also Katrina Manson, “The Quest for Clean Hands: Central Africa,” Financial Times, December 19, 2012, 9.
56. U.S. Agency for International Development, “Rwanda 2015,” USAid, accessed December 14, 2016, United Kingdom Department for International Development, “Operational Plan 2011—2016 DFID Rwanda,” December 2014, accessed December 20, 2016, Repubulika Y’u Rwanda Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning, “The National Budget: A Citizen’s Guide for 2015/2016,”, October 2, 2015, accessed December 16, 2016, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, “Details of Public Revenues—Rwanda,” OECD.Stat, accessed December 16, 2016,
57. It is difficult to pinpoint the exact percentage of Rwanda’s annual budget that is made up of foreign aid. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), in 2012 Rwanda had a 1:1 ratio of tax revenue to Country Programmable Aid (CPA), meaning roughly 50% of the country’s annual revenues came from international aid. Calculations of CPA exclude more unpredictable sources of development assistance, such as humanitarian aid and debt relief. See Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, “2014 Global Outlook on Aid,” OECD, accessed December 16, 2016, Today, it is estimated that only about 1/3 of the Rwandan state’s operating budget is derived from foreign aid, down from more than 3/4 of its budget in the aftermath of the genocide. Kenneth Agutamba, “Where Will Rwanda’s Rwf1,174 Trillion Budget Come from?” The New Times, June 14, 2015, accessed December 18, 2016,
58. “The government of Rwanda has supported the development of drone operating systems in the country. In the case of Zipline [see below], it granted land and offered cooperation with its Ministries of Health, Defense, and Civil Aviation Authority.” Jake Bright, “Rwanda’s Tech Initiatives Prove African Governments Can Catalyze Innovation,” TechCrunch, October 31, 2016, accessed December 21, 2016, On the Rwandan government’s repressive tactics against internal dissent, see Michela Wrong, “Rwanda Is Sliding into a New Tragedy. And This Time We’re Funding It: British Taxes Support a Regime That Even Allies Admit Uses Murder to Crush Political Challenge,” The Spectator, January 9, 2016, accessed December 18, 2016, See also Hilary Matfess, “Rwanda and Ethiopia: Developmental Authoritarianism and the New Politics of African Strong Men,” African Studies Review 58, no. 2 (September 2015): 181–204. As Redline proponent Jonathan Ledgard admits, “There are some democratic issues there [in Rwanda].” Aravena, Ledgard, Pathiraja, and Mardini, “Reporting from the Front: Sustainability vs. Security,” 0:52:55-0:52:59.
59. On developments in military uses of drones, see David Hambling, “How Islamic State Is Using Drones,”, December 9, 2016, accessed December 14, 2016, On the relationship of Rwanda’s security policy to its international donors, one study asserts that, The Rwandan regime “frequently refused to ‘open up the books’ on their defence spending to donors during budget discussions, even at times [2008-2010] when donors have directly funded over half of government spending.” The authors conclude that, “By proactively excluding donors from security decision-making, but including them prominently in other areas of policy, [the Paul Kagame regime in Rwanda has] been able to secure continued funding for [its] military budget[] and security sector[]—either directly or through diverting aid intended for other purposes—without unwelcome western oversight or management of these activities.” Jonathan Fisher and David M. Anderson, “Authoritarianism and the Securitization of Development in Africa,” International Affairs 91, no. 1 (2015): 144, 145. See also Devon Curtis, “Development Assistance and the Lasting Legacies of Rebellion in Burundi and Rwanda,” Third World Quarterly 36, no. 7 (2015): 1365-1381. On the imbrication of the military and national investment in Rwanda more generally, see Pritish Behuria, “Centralising Rents and Dispersing Power while Pursuing Development? Exploring the Strategic Uses of Military Firms in Rwanda,” Review of African Political Economy 43, no. 150 (2016): 630-647.
60. Discussing “the future of the projected Redline trans-continental network,” it was explained that Rwanda’s “central location could allow easier expansion to neighbouring countries such as Congo, saving many thousands more lives.” Karanja Samuel, “Foster + Partners Ventures into Rwanda with a Droneport Project to Save Lives,” ArchiDATUM, October 13, 2015, accessed December 16, 2016,
61. The Norman Foster Foundation: Making the Droneport Prototype.”
62. The payload of drones on the Redline humanitarian network tops out at 10kg, while the Blueline commercial network is anticipated to use drones with payload capacities of up to 100kg. “Red Line,” Afrotech-EPFL, April 12, 2016, accessed December 18, 2016,
63. Helen Nyambura-Mwaura, “Rwanda Plans Airport for E-Commerce Drones,” Bloomberg, October 18, 2015, accessed December 18, 2016,
64. Bright.
65. Killian Doherty, “Drone Ranger: Complexity and Contradiction in Rwanda,” Architectural Review, December 1, 2016, accessed December 16, 2016,
66. Reinhold Martin, Jacob Moore, and Susanne Schindler, eds., The Art of Inequality: Architecture, Housing, and Real Estate A Provisional Report (New York: The Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture, 2015), 20-21. Aravena’s own architecture studio, Elemental, is a for-profit enterprise focusing on social housing. Chilean oil company Empresas Copec owns a 40% stake in Elemental, while the other 60% of Elemental is split among the Universidad Católica de Chile, Aravena, and his business partner, civil engineer Andrés Iacobelli (who was Deputy Minister of Housing and Urbanism in 2010-2011 when the rebuilding of Constitución commenced). In the case of the rebuilding of Constitución following the 2010 earthquake, the company Celulosa Arauco (a wood pulp and forestry company that is a subsidiary of Empresas Copec) “donated” a master plan for the new city, where Celulosa Arauco’s largest wood pulp processing plant had been located. Celulosa Arauco (whose parent company, Copec, has a 40% stake in Elemental) commissioned Elemental to design this new master plan for Constitución. Galvan, 21. See also Long, 2015.
67. Lepik’s 2010 MoMA exhibition shares a number of individuals and projects with Aravena’s 2016 Biennale, including Anna Heringer, Diébédo Francis Kéré, and Rural Studio, as well as Aravena’s own Elemental. See Andres Lepik, Small Scale, Big Change: New Architectures of Social Engagement (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2010).
68. Umberto Napolitano and Benoît Jallon, “05. LAN: Bégles: Imagining a Space of Possibilities,” 15th International Architecture Exhibition, 410.
69. While the dollhouse mode of presentation provides an easy mark, this project is actually quite a lovely and admirable approach to public housing by the Local Architecture Network. “05. Improving the Quality of the Already Built Peripheries As a Way to Deal with Anger and Resentment: The Work of LAN (Local Architecture Network) in France,” 15th International Architecture Exhibition, 48-51.
70. On Operación Tiza in relation to earlier social housing programs such as Operación Sitio, see Alan Gilbert, In Search of a Home: Rental and Shared Housing in Latin America (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1993), 57-81. See also Gideon Long, “Story of Cities #33: How Santiago Tackled Its Housing Crisis with ‘Operation Chalk,’” The Guardian, April 26, 2016, accessed December 21, 2016,
71. Aravena, Ledgard, Pathiraja, and Mardini, “Reporting from the Front: Sustainability vs. Security,” 1:06:09-1:06:53.
72. Michael Kimmelman, “Alejandro Aravena, the Architect Rebuilding a Country,” The New York Times Style Magazine, May 23, 2016, accessed December 14, 2016,
73. As Adolphe Reed, Jr. has written, “This sort of public-private, outsourced, marketized or semi-marketized activity is a node in an ever-expanding and reorganizing array of opportunity structures generated through neoliberalism and that contribute to its legitimation as everyday reality. More accurately, this activity and the individuals and organizations that participate in it constitute neoliberalization as an evolving political-economic, cultural and ideological order. More accurately, this activity and the individuals and organizations that participate in it constitute neoliberalization as an evolving political-economic, cultural and ideological order. People reproduce their material existence, not to mention pursue the entrepreneurial dreams that attest to the extent of Thatcherite ideological victory, through such nooks and crevices in the social administrative apparatus, whose public and private extrusions become ever more difficult to disentangle.” Adolph Reed, Jr., “Splendors and Miseries of the Antiracist ‘Left,’”, November 6, 2016, accessed December 4, 2016,
74. Aravena, Ledgard, Pathiraja, and Mardini, “Reporting from the Front: Sustainability vs. Security.”