Architecture professors invited to exhibit work at Venice Architecture Biennale
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State architecture faculty members in the College of Arts and Architecture’s Stuckeman School are among the 89 architects and architectural firms from around the world that were invited to display their work as part of the 18th Venice Architecture Biennale in Italy from May 20 through Nov. 26.
Titled “The Laboratory of the Future,” the exhibition features work from Felecia Davis, associate professor of architecture, and DK Osseo-Asare, assistant professor of architecture and engineering design, in collaboration with Yasmine Abbas, assistant teaching professor of architecture.
This year’s event, which is organized at the Giardini, the Arsenale and Forte Marghera in Venice, focuses on raising awareness on the overall carbon footprint that also encompasses the mobility of the visitors. The exhibition, which has been curated by Lesley Lokko, includes submissions from 89 Participants, over half of whom are from Africa or the African Diaspora. The event is centered on “a commitment to climate action” and seeks to encourage “a more sustainable model for the design, installation and operation of all its events.”
“Textural Threshold Hair Salon: Dreadlock”
Davis’ submission to the exhibition is titled “Textural Threshold Hair Salon: Dreadlock,” and centers around a project she initiated with student researchers as the director of the Computational Textiles Lab (SOFTLAB) in the Stuckeman Center for Design Computing. The “Dreadlock Series” project focuses on art, design and architectural works that have been inspired by Black hair and its unique material properties.
“Entering the gallery space is an enmeshed digital and physical textile threshold that highlights the locking together of physical and electromagnetic spatial boundaries,” explained Davis. “The project is about those spaces that use biodata to permit or restrict access to space.”
The threshold uses machine learning trained on a designed database of global hair textures, called the Figaro 1K Database, by Muhammad Umar Riaz, Michele Svanera and Sergio Benini. Figaro 1K is one of the few publicly available databases about hair that contains examples of African hair texture and hair styles, such as braids and dreadlocks.
“Visitors are invited to sit in the hairdresser’s chair facing a large screen in the center of the space,” said Davis. “They then press a button on the arm of the chair, which triggers a high-resolution webcam to take a photo of the back of their heads. This photograph Is then cropped to 150 pixels x 150 pixels and further cropped to be compared to the ‘cropped’ photos of the hair in the database.”
The top five matches to the visitor’s hair are presented on the screen. No photos or no data are kept from the interaction and all photos are destroyed after 120 seconds. The screen closes with a thank you and lets visitors know their data is destroyed.
“On the other side of the large screen is a cabinet with small physical models and digital screens displaying examples of computational textile materials that are responsive using electromagnetic media or naturally responsive, such as Isocord models made of felted wool or dreadlocked knitted material,” said Davis.
The models and digital drawings in the space were made by Davis along with Delia Dumitrescu at the Swedish School of Textiles, and Daniel Escobar, architectural assistant. Those from Penn State who contributed to the gallery include Ian Danner, an art education student in the School of Visual Arts; Hiranshi Patel, a master of architecture student in the Stuckeman School; and Aysan Jafarzadeh, who recently graduated from Penn State with her master of architecture degree and created the hair database wall graphic in the space that shows some examples from the Figaro 1K hair crop images.
The machine learning algorithms used in the space were created in collaboration with Huijuan Xu, assistant professor in the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at Penn State, and her doctoral student Shu Zhao who designed the machine learning algorithm. Matthew Dembiczak, a computer science undergraduate student, helped construct the interface programming for the project.
Davis’ project was made possible by the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts; the Foundation for Contemporary Art; The Architect’s Newspaper; the College of Arts and Architecture; The College of Arts and Architecture Research and Creative Activity Grant Program in Racial Justice, Anti-Discrimination and Democratic Practices; the Stuckeman School; the Department of Architecture; and the Stuckeman Center for Design Computing.
Davis’ gallery space can be found in the Force Majeure section of the Central Pavilion in the Venice Giardini.
The work of Osseo-Asare, cofounding principal of Low Design Office, a design practice based in Austin, Texas, and Tema, Ghana, is also featured in the Venice Biennale. The featured project, titled “Enviromolecular,” has evolved from the Agbogbloshie Makerspace Platform (AMP) that Osseo-Asare launched in 2012 in Accra, Ghana, with Abbas as a transnational project to help bolster maker ecosystems in Africa by co-designing the reuse and recycling of materials with students and young professionals.
“AMP amplifies circular processes of (re)making with others as a mode of collective habitation,” said Osseo-Asare, who is the director of the Humanitarian Materials Lab at Penn State. “The open-source design kit builds equity by replacing paradigms of innovation with reparative praxis of renovation for spatial justice across physical and digital realities.”
The resulting work of AMP, and the starting point for Enviromolecular, is the “Fufuzela,” which are mobile, experimental adaptive structures engineered to function at the intersection of architecture and furniture while integrating biology with environmental design and engineering. The Fufuzela systems leverage a novel, bamboo-composite, steel joint mechanism to enable low-cost construction of dynamic modular spaces that allow for a hybrid or “blended” experience of physical and digital realities.
In light of the team’s interest in both material ecology and economy, as well as the curator’s call for the participants of the Biennale to engage themes of decolonization and decarbonization in real terms, Enviromolecular features some of the same components Osseo-Asare developed as the architect of the Ghana Pavilion at the Venice Art Biennale in 2022. These components were initially deployed as exhibition architecture for an international exhibit of contemporary Ghanaian artists at the Dortmunder’s U-Tower in Germany from Dec. 10, 2021 to March 6, 2022.
The installation of Enviromolecular was supported by the Stuckeman Collaborative Research Program and the ANO Institute for Arts and Knowledge. Technical support was provided by the Humanitarian Materials Lab and the Digital Fabrication Lab at Penn State, as well the architectural design and visualization firm HelenHanCreative with assistance from Allie Palmore, who produced a film for the exhibition with Abbas. Kwabena Acheampong led the fabrication team with the AMP Makers Collective in Ghana, while Ashley Heeren and Ryan Bollom were part of the installation team.
“Through my participation in the AMP open-source and collaborative project, I have focused on exploring, through design, what inhabiting a world in movement means for architecture. Inhabiting a world in movement implies a design process that enables participants to connect in a physical, digital and mental manner to the places they live in,” explained Abbas, who is the director of the Immersive Environments Lab in the Stuckeman School. “At the 2023 Venice Biennale, I explore metaphorically the entanglement of bodies and buildings by using the structure of the Fufuzela as a loom.”
Enviromolecular can be found in the Dangerous Liaisons section of the Central Exhibition in the Arsenale complex, which was the largest production center in Venice during the pre-industrial era.
“Having our faculty members from Penn State invited to be part of the Venice Biennale is a tremendous accomplishment,” said Dan Willis, interim head of the Department of Architecture. “It speaks volumes about the talent we have teaching our students, and the relevancy of their work beyond the walls of academia. We are proud to have them represent our department and Penn State in Venice.”