We Contributed to an International Art Exhibition

Opening night at the Irish Pavilion in Venice (Source:  freemarket_irl instagram )

Opening night at the Irish Pavilion in Venice (Source: freemarket_irl instagram)

We get a lot of interesting requests at Strong Towns. Just this week, I learned that my colleague, Kea, had received an email from a food blogger asking if we'd link to her slow cooker taco recipe in our Taco John's essay. (For those who aren't familiar, this essay uses the construction of a new Taco John's fast food restaurant to illustrate the destructive nature of auto-oriented development and has nothing to do with actual tacos.) Needless to say, Kea had to turn her down.

But last year I got a request that was much more intriguing. The Venice Biennale is one of the most prestigious art events in the world and has been held every two years in Venice for over a century. Strong Towns was contacted last winter about being part of Ireland's contribution to the architecture component of the Biennale. So far this is sounding almost as far-fetched as the taco recipe, but here's why we were invited: The theme of the Irish "Pavilion" in this year's Biennale is Free Market and it's an exploration of the loss of economic activity and livelihood in Ireland's small towns — partly as a result of auto-oriented development.

In addition to exploring this concept through images and words, the exhibition was also designed to recreate the experience of the once-lively town squares that dot Irish villages. One component of that was a newspaper, meant to echo the formerly common presence of the daily newspaper within a town, and it was to this that we were invited to contribute. 

Here's what one recent article in the Financial Times had to say about the exhibit:

Vibrant public space has become a developer’s cliché — but in most cases, it is not fully considered as part of the city but merely as an add-on to the development in question.

So it’s intriguing that the Irish pavilion at the Irish-curated Biennale concentrates on the slow death of the Irish town square. Rather than focus on the buildings, it looks at the spaces: the mostly empty places that once held markets and livestock auctions, that once buzzed with the aftermath of holy communions and processions and are now underused and unloved. [...]

The Irish Pavilion's newspaper which contains an article by yours truly. (Photo by Matthew Thompson)

The Irish Pavilion's newspaper which contains an article by yours truly. (Photo by Matthew Thompson)

The problems are local and particular, but they are not unique. The title the curators have chosen — Free Market — is smart. It hints not only at the overall Freespace theme but at the nature of these squares, which evolved for a kind of exchange that has become defunct. The question is what a new version of exchange might look like. How can civic space be intensified in a town with a tiny population? The curators hope to tour the exhibition to these towns, which mostly have market halls or buildings, to stimulate exactly this discussion.

With typical Irish modesty, Laurence Lord, the Co-Commissioner/Curator for Free Market writes: "We have been honoured and slightly embarrassed by the many kind and supportive words we have received from visitors and press to the pavilion. We fully believe in the importance of the subject matter and hope that we have handled it in a clear and engaging way."

You can see more images from the exhibit here and here

At Strong Towns, we know the power of art to shape our cities in a positive way, and to help us reflect on building better cities. We're honored to be part of an international art exhibition that does exactly that.

(Top photo by Matthew Thompson)