Dirk Somers, founder of Antwerp studio Bovenbouw Architectuur, created a "fictional, yet recognisable" Flemish city named Composite Presence for the Belgian Pavilion at this year's Venice Architecture Biennale.
Composite Presence was constructed from 50 models of recent projects in Brussels and Flanders – a region in northern Belgium – that were completed by 45 contemporary architecture studios that are displayed at 7:100 scale.
The models have been placed together in miniature neighbourhoods that visitors to the Venice Architecture Biennale can walk amongst to experience the fantasy city.
"The scenography explores how architecture steps in those places that grew in a more informal and unintentional manner," Bovenbouw Architectuur founder Somers told Dezeen.
"We explore how architecture can compensate in places where urbanism came a bit too late," he added.
"The selection does not display a top 50. Rather we went looking for projects that stem from the informal and highly mixed cities we know in Flanders."
Some of the projects on display are new buildings while others are refurbishments, but all were chosen to represent visual themes that are common in Flanders.
"We call the model landscape a capriccio, after Canaletto's paintings that took buildings from different cities to compose fictional urban scenes," Somers explained.
"What you experience is fiction and reality in overlay," he added. "One recognizes visual themes from Belgian cities, but in a way you will never see in reality."
"In Belgium, we struggle with the label 'ugliest country in the world' after a book by modernist Renaat Braem," he continued.
"But in the scenography, we use friction and anomaly to produce a fascinating and pleasurably rich experience."
Somers pointed out that the urban design of cities in Flanders has created unique circumstances that in turn have led to innovative designs.
"The weak urban underlay of our cities generate many unusual conditions which these projects use to their benefit," he said.
"We find very narrow, very deep or very shallow plots, we see dramatic scale jumps, kinked building lines, public buildings hidden in the back of a building block, different styles and ideas on architecture next to or on top of each other."
As well as providing visitors with an architectural experience, the Belgian Pavilion also wanted to underline the role that competitions and quality tender procedures play in urban design.
Among the buildings on display a public library by OFFICE, a social housing project by Architectenbureau Bart Dehaene and an organ loft by 360 Architecten.
"We also stress the importance of the middle field in the genesis of architectural quality," Somers said.
"Many of the projects came into being through competitions and quality tender procedures," he added. "City architects and quality chambers play an important role in providing the right opportunities which good designers can plug into."
The models were all made by carpenters from processed wood and overseen and completed by Bovenbouw Architectuur between January and June 2020.
"We have used sheet material such as poplar particleboard, spruce plywood and colored MDF," Somers said.
"Materials have been left bare or have been stained, oiled, painted, sanded…to provide a rich experience of textures and colors."
The studio attempted to use FSC and PEFC-certified wood as far as possible, but couldn't guarantee that all of the wood used for construction was, as the models were also made from leftover wood and stock from different carpenters.
In 2022, the exhibition will move to the Z33 art museum in Hasselt, Belgium, after which the models will be given to the participating studios.
Composite Presence was commissioned by the Flanders Architecture Institute (VAi).
Photography is by Filip Dujardin.
Composite Presence is on display at the Belgian Pavilion in the Giardini as part of the Venice Architecture Biennale, which takes place from 22 May to 21 November 2021. See Dezeen Events Guide for all the latest information you need to know to attend the event, as well as a list of other architecture and design events taking place around the world.
In this exclusive video produced by Dezeen, Sumayya Vally of Counterspace explains how her design for this year's Serpentine Pavilion references the architecture of London's migrant communities.
She described the pavilion as "a puzzle of many different elements" informed by buildings used by migrant groups across London.
In addition, five architectural "fragments" have been dotted around the city to bring the project directly to local communities.
Vally, director of Johannesburg practice Counterspace, is the 20th and youngest architect to have been commissioned by the Serpentine Gallery for its annual architecture pavilion, which was unveiled this morning in London's Kensington Gardens.
"I became really interested in places with a history significant to migration – small spaces that birthed community and that have held forms of cultural production over time," Vally explained in the video.
Architectures of London's migrant communities
Among the spaces that influenced the design are the Fazl Mosque and East London Mosque, two of the first mosques to be built in London, and the Centerprise Publishing House, a now-closed Hackney bookshop and publisher of queer and black literature.
Other locations included the Four Aces Club in Dalston, a music venue founded in 1966 that was among the first to showcase black musicians, and the Mangrove, a legendary Caribbean restaurant and meeting place for Notting Hill's black community.
With many of these places no longer in existence, Vally says she hopes her pavilion and the research behind it will help to broaden our understanding of the architectural importance of these spaces, with the aim of protecting them from the threat of urban development in future.
"The challenge with spaces like this is that they sit outside of our architectural lexicon and of what we traditionally understand to be important architectures and important spaces of gathering and community," Vally said.
"When those spaces are under threat from development and gentrification, they are not protected."
"My hope is that the architectural community will read and understand some of the spaces that have brought the pavilion into being and that those spaces are at the forefront of our conversation about architecture going forward," she added.
Reuse and reclaim
The pavilion is made up of abstracted elements and details pulled from the various locations in the architect's research.
"Formally, the pavilion is almost like a puzzle of many different elements coming together," Vally said.
The result is a pink, grey and black structure comprising a series of columns and inbuilt furniture made from a steel frame wrapped in cement-treated timber and black-stained cork panels that cover its exterior.
Aiming to create a design with minimal carbon impact, the architect used repurposed steel from the contractor's previous projects and cork reclaimed from the wine industry.
Like all past iterations, this year's pavilion will be dismantled and relocated to its permanent location at the end of the summer.
Vally has also created five smaller structures from fragments of the main pavilion and dispersed them in different areas of London with a rich history of migration, in order to increase the reach of the project.
Satellite pavilions have been placed at locations such as New Beacon Books in Finsbury Park, The Tabernacle in Notting Hill, the Albany Arts Centre in Deptford and Valence Library in Barking and Dagenham.
"I hope that people will take the time to visit the pavilion and all of its five parts and to engage with the programming that will happen across the summer," Vally said.
As always, this year's pavilion will host talks and events including a sound programme called Listening to the City featuring work by artists such as Ain Bailey and Jay Barnard.
Dezeen will live stream a talk between Serpentine Gallery artistic director Hans Ulrich Obrist and Vally at 1:00pm London time tomorrow.
Youngest ever architect to receive the Serpentine Pavilion commission
Vally, who was recently named one of Time magazine's 100 leaders of the future, is the youngest architect to receive the prestigious commission.
Delayed from 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, the pavilion will open to the public on 11 June and run until the end of the summer.
"It's a wonderful gesture from the Serpentine to commission someone from my background and as young as I am to suggest what the future can be and can look like," Vally said.
Founded in 2005, Vally's studio Counterspace is based in Johannesburg, South Africa.
In 2019, the studio designed a large-scale installation made of coloured mirrors that mimic the effect of the light created by the pollution in the city's mine dumps.
Previous Serpentine Pavilions have been built by architects such as Frida Escobedo, Bjarke Ingels and Sou Fujimoto.
Next year's pavilion is set to be designed by American artist Theaster Gates.
Photography is by Iwaan Baan unless otherwise stated.
Swiss architecture studio Herzog & de Meuron has broken ground on its transformation and extension of a decommissioned power plant on the waterfront of San Francisco, USA.
The adaptive reuse project will convert the brick structure named Station A, which was built in the early 20th-century, into offices and workspaces.
It is being designed by Herzog & de Meuron with local office Adamson Associates Architects as part of a wider 29-acre (11.7-hectares) masterplan called Power Station, which will connect the industrial waterfront site to the Dogpatch neighbourhood.
The masterplan is being overseen by developer Associate Capital and will include 2,600 residential units and 1.6 million square foot (148,600 square metres) of workspace.
Some of these facilities will be housed in two new mixed-use buildings that are being designed by Foster + Partners.
"The reinvention of Power Station will bring new life to a significant building from the city's colorful past and will anchor this area as a destination on the San Francisco waterfront," said Herzog & de Meuron's senior partner Jason Frantzen.
"We are honored to continue our work in the Bay Area and look forward to realizing this important project."
As part of the overhaul, the plant's old turbine hall will be retained and used as a large atrium-like space.
Here, the original platforms that once supported machinery will be used as walkways and lookout points.
Herzog & de Meuron will also preserve and repurpose the building's large foundations as supports for a new lightweight steel-framed structure above that will contain offices.
Externally, the new structure will be glazed and finished with shading louvres and openings for natural ventilation to reduce the need for artificial cooling.
Alongside homes and offices, the wider Power Station scheme will be complete with shops, restaurants and hotels along with seven acres of parkland.
It is expected that 30 per cent of total housing will be affordable, with 36 units dedicated to a homelessness initiative.
Herzog & de Meuron was founded in Basel in 1978 by Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron. Other adaptive reuse projects by the studio include the Tate Modern in London, the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg and the CaixaForum Madrid.
Visuals are courtesy of Herzog & de Meuron.