Anh-Linh Ngo, curator of the German Pavilion at the Architecture Biennale '23, on his understanding of sustainable building

Unthinking desired

The German Biennale contribution of “Open for Maintenance” is dedicated to the spectrum of repair, restoration, and maintenance of the built environment. The concept acts as a kind of best-practice laboratory, thereby taking up Lesley Lokko’s guiding theme of the Biennale: The Laboratory of the Future. We spoke to curator Anh-Linh Ngo about the necessity for everyday building management, his understanding of sustainable building and, of course, about the German Pavilion and what we can expect there in the coming year.

Mr Ngo, we are trying to get to the bottom of the many aspects and dimensions of sustainability in the series of interviews in this magazine. So I would like to ask you very directly at the outset: what has been going on in the architecture and construction industry over the last five years?
The construction industry is very slow to change because construction takes so long. As a rule, changes generally do not appear until much later in the actual built environment. The new generation of architects is committed to sustainable building practices. A start-up for the digital inventory of the materials and components used, such as Concular, is campaigning for the circular economy and is trying to combat abandoned properties and demolition. Or architects are getting involved in professional associations and politics. That gives me a sense of optimism.

What impact does construction have on the development of our society?
Architecture manifests and shapes social relationships. It forms the material framework for community or anonymity, integration or exclusion, public life or privacy. But the fact that the construction and maintenance of buildings accounts for about 40 % of the world’s CO2 emissions requires swift and systematic action if the construction transition is to succeed.

And to what extent do scarce resources affect our cities?
Contemporary developments clearly point to the value of existing building materials, such as the demolition moratorium recently called for by various climate initiatives and professional associations, including the Confederation of German Employers’ Associations (BDA). The appeal, which I also supported as one of the first signatories, states: “Every demolition requires approval to serve the common good, i.e. an examination of the social and ecological environmental impact.” This demonstrates once more the spatial interconnection of ecological and social issues. Admittedly, maintaining the existing building stock cannot halt the gentrification of entire neighbourhoods, but it can at least slow down the process.

What opportunities do you see for architecture and urban development in the next 20 years?
Sustainability and social aspects are mutually dependent. In order to achieve a sustainable future for all, the social relationships of the people involved in the creation of the space also need to be realigned. This also includes the people who look after and maintain the building stock. Users’ behaviour also needs to change. Architects need to pay attention to the neglected spaces and infrastructures that enable everyone within the social fabric to get involved. The chances of a social architectural practice, such as this, could lead to new ways of us considering form, design and social interaction together in future – this is what we want to encourage with the German contribution.

Congratulations again for your selection to the team of curators of the Architecture Biennale 2023. How did this come about?
In 2021, Arch+ published an edition entitled “Contemporary Feminist Spatial Practice”. Maintenance and care of buildings within architecture was one of the issues on which we presented our “San Riemo” project. The work group Summacumfemmer and the architectural practice Büro Juliane Greb designed the entrance foyer of the community building as a care work centre for residents. It’s a place where you can wash, potter around and your children can be looked after. A flagship project! That was the verdict of the judging panel of the DAM Architecture Prize, which awarded the prize to the “San Riemo housing project” in 2021. My colleague Christian Hiller and I then invited the work group to apply to curate the German contribution with us.

We are curious: what can we expect from the pavilion and what are your objectives?
First and foremost, we are focussing on the Biennale and its sometimes unfavourable impact on Venice. Every year, resources are used on a large scale for the exhibition architecture, which are then disposed of as worthless waste. We want to contribute to an appreciation of the work of the people who look after and maintain the green spaces, pavilions, sanitary facilities or works of art. The many “Collateral Events” attract masses of tourists, which increasingly crowd out local residents. Housing and public spaces are also coming under increasing pressure.

That is our starting point: by converting the German Pavilion into a functioning infrastructure, we are creating a platform. We are therefore giving people the space and voice to fight back against this development. A further objective is the networking of Venetian and German initiatives working on similar problems.

How does your concept support “The Laboratory of the Future”?
We are giving Venetian and German projects a platform and are bringing them together. As they deal with pressing questions of the future, such as the circular economy, water shortages, care work, the right to the city, or self-empowerment through people’s own initiative. That’s exciting! Projects are not communicated traditionally with words and photos, but rather as experiential spatial principles within a functioning infrastructure.

How do we make society – all of us – aware of the need to act in a more sustainable way?
We are using the Biennale to present a wide range of interventions, positions and collective forms of organisation. We are becoming increasingly accepted in the architecture and construction sectors as well as by the general public. We are drawing attention to options for action by strengthening people and initiatives, some of whom have been successfully fighting for this for decades. These are good examples of taking positive action.

But I also think of a quote from Alfred Andersch’s story “The Cherries of Freedom” as being very fitting. The first ARCH+ issue printed it back in January 1968: “I hope that I will always refuse to persuade people. You can only try to show them the options which they can then choose from.”

Interview: Ute Latzke


Anh-Linh Ngo is an architect, author and editor-in-chief of the architecture magazine ARCH+. Among other things, he was the co-curator of the bauhaus project (2015–2019) and Cohabitation (2021) projects, which were funded by the Federal Cultural Foundation. He sits on the Board of Trustees of the International Building Exhibition (IBA) 2027 Stuttgart Metropolitan Region, the Board of Trustees of the Academy Schloss Solitude foundation, and the Advisory Board of the Goethe Institute. He has been a member of the Academy of Arts since 2022. He is also part of the team of curators of the German Pavilion at the 18th Architecture Biennale in Venice 2023, which includes editorial members of ARCH+ and other architects: Anne Femmer, Franziska Gödicke, Juliane Greb, Christian Hiller, Melissa Angela Alemaz Koch, Petter Krag, Anh-Linh Ngo, Florian Summa.