This year's Danish pavilion shines a spotlight on nature-based design solutions in the struggle against global challenges. The Danish exhibition aims to raise awareness of the dilemma between having buildings and homes near the coast and the severe effects of climate change on our coastal landscapes. Curated by Josephine Michau, the pavilion consists of research-based and innovative architectural design solutions based in nature. In this interview, we talk about the importance of production practices that have the least possible carbon footprint, how the climate crisis can very well be a crisis of imagination and what Copenhagen can do to achieve an actual equitable energy transition.
This interview is part of KoozArch's focus dedicated to Biennale Architettura 2023 - 18th International Architecture Exhibition The Laboratory of the Future, curated by Lesley Lokko and organised by La Biennale di Venezia. The International Exhibition is open in Venice from May 20 to November 26.
KOOZ Coastal Imaginaries explores nature-based design solutions in the struggle against global challenges like rising sea levels and storm floods. What prompted the project? How does the latter relate to Lesley Lokko's curatorial theme on The Laboratory of the Future?
JOSEPHINE MICHAU It has been almost a year since this journey began, and throughout that time, I have had many moments of doubt as I initially questioned the value of the Biennale concept. At the forefront of my concerns was its nationalistic and competitive structure, coupled with its tendency to prioritise spectacle. Additionally, I grappled with finding a valid justification for the evident ecological burden associated with the entire endeavour, arising from unsustainable processes of production, logistics, and international tourism.
Prior to assuming the role of curator of the Danish Pavilion, I knew that I had to address these factors thoroughly. Put simply, I had to devise a curatorial concept that effectively tackled global challenges while maintaining relevance for both Denmark and the host city, Venice. This entailed creating an exhibition that would inspire visitors to take climate action while ensuring our production practices had the least possible carbon footprint. This was the driving ethos behind the construction of Coastal Imaginaries and the criteria I want people to judge the exhibition on.
"I had to devise an exhibition that would inspire visitors to take climate action while ensuring our production practices had the least possible carbon footprint."
- Josephine Michau, curator of Coastal Imaginaries
With Coastal Imaginaries, we offer a glimpse into a different way of connecting with nature and practicing architecture Taking its inspiration from both vernacular architecture and from a past where we would read, think, and design with the landscape and natural processes, I consider our endeavour as part of a growing global movement—emerging in recent years—comprising a decentralised network of numerous "Laboratories of the Future."
If we are to create a better future, we indeed need new ways of imagining our relationship with the environment, and coastal regions serve as an acute litmus test for such a reimagining. While rising sea levels pose major spatial challenges for coastal cities, it also offers a rare opportunity to fundamentally rethink architecture. It is becoming increasingly important to prioritise the coexistence of coastal species and to work with the site-specific biological, hydrological, and geological dynamics of the coastal environment. This will require the implementation of new practices that move beyond our current anthropocentric, colonial, and extractivist paradigm, forcing us to consider the needs of all living organisms and leading to a greater awareness of the ethical dimensions of our habitation and environmental planning.
"I consider our endeavour as part of a growing global movement—emerging in recent years—comprising a decentralised network of numerous 'Laboratories of the Future'."
- Josephine Michau, curator of Coastal Imaginaries
KOOZ Specifically focusing on the coastline of Copenhagen, but with the ambition of revealing how these principles can be applied in various locations around the world, the pavilion showcases concrete principles for how nature can be utilised for coastal protection and climate adaptation. What is the value of exhibiting this within the context of the city of Venice which is emblematic of the threat posed by rising sea levels? To what extent can the solutions identified for Copenhagen indeed be applied to other cities / island states which are threatened by SLR induced by anthropogenic climate change?
ANNA ASLAUG LUND In Venice, the awareness around the consequences of flooding from the sea is omnipresent. At the same time—at least from my experience from conversations with local architects and landscape architects in Venice—there is a growing attention to the role of the wetlands and the dunes in protecting Venice against flooding. That is, the role and potentials of nature-based solutions. In this way, the present “coastal imaginaries” of Venice contain a dream of creating a closer bond to the surrounding and underlying landscape of the city. The exhibition thereby establishes a platform for dialogues around the local challenges and visions of Venice as well as around global issues related to climate change. As principles, at an overall level, the nature-based solutions that we are highlighting in the exhibition can be applied in countless contexts and the different solutions can be combined in multiple ways. However, the implementation of nature-based solutions must be based on an initial reading of the landscape and the specific solutions need to be chosen accordingly. Wetlands, for example, act as a sponge that delays the waves from the sea, which is a solution that is relevant for several cities. Yet, for some urban areas, the best solution may be salt marshes; for other cities it may be mangroves, for others it may be a hybrid solution consisting of wetlands, dunes and barrier islands. In the exhibition, we present this toolbox of solutions that are exemplified by photos of international cases and through Schønherr’s design proposal. The idea is that the toolbox of design principles acts as a foundational framework for working with and understanding nature-based solutions and that the international cases open up a discussion about the spatial, architectural and ecological potentials of these solutions.
"One size does not fit all despite the shared challenges."
- Katrina Wiberg, researcher of Coastal Imaginaries
KATRINA WIBERG The solutions identified in Coastal Imaginaries represent both a shared global challenge and shared potentials. What is important, though, is to carefully read the context to then investigate contextualised solutions. The solutions suitable for a South-East Asian coastal city will necessarily be different than those of Denmark. Due to climatic differences, geological differences, different building practices and different ecosystems. And, when scaling down to the specific city and its larger region—the Veneto Region or Greater Copenhagen—the careful reading of the context becomes further important. One size does not fit all despite the shared challenges. Looking into the framework of the nature-based solutions represents a potential closing of the gap between two major, interconnected crises: anthropogenic climate change with sea level rise and biodiversity loss. Nature-based solutions may offer both protection (to some extent) while also substantiating biodiversity and coastal ecosystems. Looking into pathways that can address these (interconnected) crises by adapting to a changing climate becomes increasingly important. Facilitating interspecies co-existence too. This is a generally transferable need that we share globally. It is also an opportunity and the framework of nature-based solutions is an effort to address this.
KOOZ The research explicitly looks to examples of nature-based design, which can be found all over the planet, throughout history, and in a wide range of local adaptation traditions for living with water. How far across the world and through time did your research expand? What were for you the most interesting and relevant discoveries made which can be adopted today?
AAL In the space called the “Koch-space” in the Danish pavilion, you will find my photos from the fieldwork that I have conducted together with Gertrud Jørgensen and Ole Fryd as well as archive photos that Lisa Eikaas has found in connection with her PhD studies. These photos all show examples of nature-based solutions for coastal protection and historical solutions for living with water. The examples are categorised around the seven themes: Retreat, Elevations, Dunes, Barrier Islands, Wetlands, Floodplain Livelihoods and Aquatic Urbanism. These seven themes comprise the “toolbox” that I mentioned earlier. The cases that are exhibited through the photographs are found in various places on the globe. You will see an example from a historic Brazilian town called Paraty, which was designed to be flooded by the tides. You will see various examples of nature-based solutions from The Netherlands and a major managed retreat project in Louisiana, US. What I personally find interesting and inspiring are the multiple spatial and architectural potential qualities these cases hold. It is important that we understand adapting our coastal landscapes to sea level rise and storm surges is not about inventing new solutions. It is about learning from nature and learning from history.
"Adapting our coastal landscapes to sea level rise and storm surges is not about inventing new solutions. It is about learning from nature and learning from history."
- Anna Aslaug Lund, Researcher of Coastal Imaginaries and editor of Critical Coast (Copenhagen: The Danish Architectural Press, 2023)
KW Looking into history is essential in understanding nature-based solutions. This includes understanding urban development over time and the potential for changing practices. Historically, coastal settlements and cities were situated near the sea but on higher grounds as a general rule of thumb; the sea has always fluctuated. However, in recent history, urban development has taken speed, moving into lower terrains, taking over former wetlands and reclaiming former seabed. In the “Niche” at the Danish Pavilion, we, the Aarhus School of Architecture, present some of our research, an array of Atlas maps titled “reading the landscape”. Some of these show how we have been building into the coastal lowlands of Denmark, thus building risk while also taking up space formerly distinguished by wetlands and coastal ecosystems. One of our maps visualises the terrestrial and subsea terrains together with the urban zones of today, showing how low-lying coastal zones are built upon extensively. This represents building risk and diminishing spaces and areas very much needed for other species when the sea rises. This trajectory is transferable to the majority of contemporary coastal cities. From this departure, the need for an urban development that reads the landscape and integrates more-than-human thinking becomes vital. We have studied this and compared it to urban development in the 19th Century. It shows that the city-building practices and reading of the landscape have radically changed in the last century and offers an opportunity to learn from history. This also suggests an opportunity to change these practices towards a more sensitive landscape reading and re-learn former practices. In one of our exhibited models, we investigated how to make the sea and the groundwater visible together with the surface. One example is the “biopsy”, which shows an existing farm of Western Jutland that has been moved three times as the coast eroded and their well was affected by the salt intrusion. The farm has been moving inwards following the protecting dunes and the freshwater access, a practice of recent history that we can learn from.
"The need for an urban development that reads the landscape and integrates more-than-human thinking becomes vital."
- Katrina Wiberg, researcher of Coastal Imaginaries
KOOZ The project is a truly collaborative and interdisciplinary effort which spans from collaborations with landscape architectural firm Schønherr, a number of Denmark's leading researchers and students from various Danish institutions, including the Technical University of Denmark (DTU), the Aarhus School of Architecture (ARCH), the University of Copenhagen (UCPH) as well as the Architecture and Extreme Environments graduate master program at the Royal Danish Academy – Architecture, Design, Conservation. How important are academic institutions as laboratories for the future?
JM I agree with Amitav Ghosh's assertion that the climate crisis is also a crisis of the imagination. Consequently, I firmly believe that it is essential to prioritize free and undogmatic education and research in order to qualify and enhance our environmental imagination. This will enable us to effectively tackle existing barriers, proactively anticipate future difficulties, and generate innovative ideas. In other words: Academic institutions are crucial laboratories for the future (!!!) and some of the only formalised institutions in our Western societies whose primary objectives revolve around fostering critical thinking, nurturing curiosity, exploring ideas, and advancing knowledge.
"Academic institutions are crucial laboratories for the future."
- Josephine Michau, curator of Coastal Imaginaries
KOOZ In your press release you mention that as humans and architects "we not only have the opportunity, but also the duty, to take action and reverse [the climate crisis]". What is for you the role of the architect within our contemporary society? In what ways has the climate crisis changed this?
JMOne of the primary factors contributing to climate change and global warming is architecture. The sector is responsible for approximately 40% of global carbon emissions, resulting from both construction activities and the energy required to maintain buildings. Climate change poses an existential threat and buildings play a significant role in exacerbating it.
In Denmark, the current dominant discourse, particularly among young architecture practices, revolves around the idea of not constructing new buildings but rather focusing on the existing building stock and retrofitting it to meet present needs. The emphasis is on utilising locally harvested and regeneratively produced materials. However, we still have a long way to go in achieving this goal. Nevertheless, I firmly believe that the climate crisis can serve as a catalyst for an ethical impulse, compelling architects to transition from being mere providers of buildings to becoming custodians, caretakers and advocates for our existing building stock, natural resources, and climate mitigation.
KOOZ A month from the vernissage of the Biennale, the next world conference of The International Union of Architects will be held in Copenhagen and will invite architects from around the world to apply their knowledge and research to the ways in which architecture can create a sustainable, equitable and inclusive future for all. What are your expectations for the conference? What would this future look like if grounded in a city like Copenhagen?
JM I am somewhat sceptical, but I acknowledge the positive intentions behind this initiative. Understanding the cause-and-effect relationship and dissecting the mechanics of such events is challenging. It is, of course, possible that the cumulative impact of various interconnected factors, such as the connections established and the intentions circulated in these events, may ultimately drive critical decisions needed for structural reforms. I genuinely hope that this is the case.
It's the same ambivalence I experienced at the Venice Biennale while being there. I could certainly see that there was an important exchange happening and some significant statements being made that might lead to a change in architectural practice. However, whether it evens out the carbon being emitted, and the money spent that could have been allocated differently, is difficult to say. It is challenging to determine whether similar results could have been achieved through more efficient means.
"Regarding Copenhagen, a closer look at the statistics reveals that the prevalent market-driven urban development of the past 35 years has led to higher levels of inequality."
- Josephine Michau, curator of Coastal Imaginaries
Regarding Copenhagen, it is important for me to underline that despite its reputation as a clean, green, and happy city, a closer look at the statistics reveals that the prevalent market-driven urban development of the past 35 years has led to higher levels of inequality. Moreover, Denmark's status as one of the wealthiest consumer-oriented societies places it among the top five countries in terms of carbon emissions globally. While the city may appear environmentally friendly and unpolluted, its local sustainability is based on extractive practices in foreign territories, as well as unsustainable emission levels that will have a disproportionately negative impact on the Global South. In Denmark, it is still challenging for us to recognise the essential connection between achieving a fairer global economy, promoting a green and equitable transition and embracing decolonisation and non-imperialistic perspectives. The significant focus that Lesley Lokko placed on decarbonisation and decolonisation during this year's Architecture Biennale in Venice underscored the profound interconnection between these two concepts.
Josephine Michau has a master’s degree in business administration and philosophy and is co-founder and CEO of Copenhagen Architecture Festival (CAFx). Since 2014, CAFx has communicated architecture and urbanism to the public through a program of 100-200 annual activities. In 2015 the festival received a prize from the Danish Architecture Association for its ability “…to think about the communication of architecture, highlight its qualities and diversity, and create relevant debate.” In 2019, Josephine Michau received the Henning Larsen Foundation Award for “…her tireless and fascinating commitment to understanding, communicating and engaging people in the landscape of architecture in our lives …” In the context of CAFx she has initiated and co-authored several articles, publications and film productions + conducted yearly workshops on film and architecture since 2016.
Anna Aslaug Lund (born 1983) is an architect and landscape architect MAA, PhD and assistant professor at Landscape Architecture and Planning, University of Copenhagen. In her research, Anna Aslaug Lund addresses adaptation and mitigation of urban public spaces and urban landscapes to flooding from sea level rise, storm surges and stormwater events. Within this overall field, Anna particularly focuses on ecologies, narratives and sensuous qualities of existing landscapes and imagined solutions. Methodologically her research is practice-led. Anna has been consultant for the exhibition in the Danish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale of Architecture 2023 - “Coastal Imaginaries” curated by Josephine Michau - and her research is exhibited in the pavilion. In addition, together with Jeppe Sengupta Carstensen, Anna is editor of the book Critical Coast, which is part of the exhibition in the Danish Pavilion.
Katrina Wiberg is an Associate Professor in Landscape Architecture at the Aarhus School of Architecture (AAA). Katrina is working with transformative design research / research by design in practice oriented, transdisciplinary contexts in the context of waterscapes and nature based solutions in urban landscapes. Her research departs in reading of landscapes focusing on multilayered benefits such as biodiversity, social coherence and equity, beautiful spaces and atmosphere. Katrina’s current research is on sea-level rise, coastal cities and adapting urban landscapes to changing waterscapes, focusing on potentials for transformative design via nature- based strategies with long-term perspectives. Katrina´s research is exhibited in the Danish Pavilion “Coastal Imaginaries” at the Venice Biennale 2023.