With Unknown Unknowns. An Introduction to Mysteries, the 23rd International exhibition of Triennale Milano presents a surprising voyage into the unknown, to imagine the future of the planet. and perhaps of other places as well. the viewpoint of Francis Kéré, ONE OF THE TWO MAIN CO-Curators

The eagerly awaited 23rd International Exhibition of Triennale Milano opened its doors on 15 July. On view until 11 December 2022, this grand choral work – 23 international contributions (including Italy), a forceful presence (for the first time) of the African continent, 400 artists, designers and architects from 40 countries, together with scientists, philosophers, musicians, art historians, biologists, schools and groups – the show sets out to be “an interdisciplinary constellation of exhibitions, installations and events, urging visitors to reflect on the contemporary unknown, on mystery, on what we do not know that we do not know,” says Stefano Boeri, president of Triennale Milano, to explain the theoretical premises behind Unknown Unknowns. An Introduction to Mysteries, interpreted by eight curators and two main co-curators, Ersilia Vaudo, astrophysicist and Chief Diversity Officer of the European Space Agency, and Francis Kéré, architect, winner of the Pritzker Prize in 2022.

A trilogy of exhibitions

“This iteration stems from the idea of a trilogy of exhibitions on the theme of mending our relationship with nature. We began precisely with the issues raised in Broken Nature curated by Paola Antonelli in 2019, and during the first lockdown – in a moment of great human vulnerability – we found ourselves facing something unexpected, an unknown micro-organism that could destroy us, and we wondered about how to change the perspective: to reverse our idea of a human-centric world, to be aware of the fragile factors we represent, and of which we are a part”, says Boeri.

The challenge: mapping the unknown

“With the pandemic, the vastness of mystery came back into the foreground. After all, with respect to the universe, the oceans, the synapses of our brains, and many other fields, we know about only a tiny fraction, perhaps less than 5%. Hence the challenge: to map the unknown from various angles, always accepting it as a constant presence in life. Inside the International Exhibition, the African continent, a treasure trove of resources, cultures and worlds, represents a fundamental counterpart for this exploration of the future. The precious contribution of Francis Kéré has made it possible to have the participation not only of Burkina Faso, his native country, but also of five other states: Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda”, concludes the president of Triennale Milano.

Past, present and future

In the drive towards a universal condition in which to lose ourselves in wonder, stimulating many questions about creativity, in the parallel nature that for Ersilia Vaudo speaks the language of “particles, matter, quantum physics, mathematics and the cosmos,” the perspective of Francis Kéré (soon also to be at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2023) calls us back, by contrast, to the techniques and materials that have accompanied us thus far. Which should not be forgotten as we continue along our path. “To design the present and the future we need to first have extensive knowledge of the past,” he says. “The best thing we can do is to learn the tradition and sublimate it. This is the human pathway from which to look at innovation. Digital technology can have a value for human beings only when we learn from what has already been done,” he continues.

Finding solutions

“What is the biggest challenge facing architecture and design? To demonstrate the ability to create comfortable, positive and inspirational spaces for all, also for those who live in conditions of poverty, finding solutions to the most urgent questions: climate change, limited resources, demographic growth, increased conflict. In other words, to make design into a tool that is not just for speculation, but is capable of supporting decarbonization, the use of renewable energies in Africa, above all in agriculture, along with equality and the inclusion of woman and young people, says Kéré.

The sustainability concept

“For me, this represents the concept of sustainability: from the urban center to the most outlying village, to gather social, ecological and technological dynamics together in an integrated process. It is not an aspect related only to construction materials. Of course we have to think over the long term, to use the most local materials possible – reducing transport costs and harmful emissions, to support the local economy and the community. It is important to think along the lines of the circular economy, but it is even more crucial, before designing something new, to reflect on its necessity and the consequences of our actions. I am increasingly convinced that design should have a role of aggregation, in a ‘participatory’ approach, which does not simply mean more hands involved. It means working across generations, experience, time and space, theory and practice. This is why I continue to push the project of schools, not only in Burkina Faso and in Gando, where I was born, created in collaboration with the inhabitants: these places embody the dimension of transmission of knowledge, which is our salvation”, says Kéré.

Tradition with deep content

“Then, in the architecture studio in Berlin, I work with a heterogeneous team, very young and international, people who speak many languages and are also engaged in the metaverse, young Syrian, Italian, German, Colombian men and women. The center of my works remains the strong bond with a tradition of profound content. Stories of animals, symbols and images lead to forms, colors and lights that are all parts of the construction of a personal experience. The result is a way of slowing down the speed of contemporary time, a mechanism of greater mental comprehension of the space itself”, continues Kéré.

Neglected knowledge

“These codes of interpretation can be seen in the four projects developed for the Triennale, which have been made with natural materials, clay and wood, earthy tones overlaid on white and black, glossy finishes resistant to water. Specifically, they are an invitation to use all the senses, to remember that knowledge exists that is all too often neglected, which we have to rediscover to cope with the Unknown Unknowns. The prelude is the tower-totem with a height of 12 meters placed in front of the plaza of the Triennale: you look upward, and you understand that between us and the sky there are space, time and openings, to bring together multiple elements and to recover an energy with which to create something new”, says  Kéré.

A new sociality

The coffee tree inside the shared spaces topped by wooden seating represents the symbol of socializing, precisely like the ritual of coffee, which brings different people together all over the world. The murals painted by women and artisans of Burkina Faso also embody the idea of a shared physical and mental space: a mural that visitors are urged to co-create, inspired by motifs of the vernacular architecture of Western Africa. Finally, the installation Yesterday’s Tomorrow is another encounter between practices and representations that are revived in a new way. With the idea of operating in parallel with the dynamics of a living, mutable organism, like the city and its sounds, its noises, becoming infinite to generate relationships with the surroundings”, concludes Kéré.

Stories behind the objects

The comprehension of the unknown has a different value for Marco Sammicheli. The director of the Italian Design Museum of the Triennale, with the exhibition The Tradition of the New installed by the studio Zaven, representing the Italian Pavilion, puts the accent on the fact that material culture is part of the everyday life of everyone. His reinterpretation of Italian design and research, with precious archival contributions, extends to the body, the home, the city, fashion and materials, along a timeline ranging from the second half of the 1960s to the end of the 1990s, indicating that “from the stories behind objects we can find responses that might not be definitive, but are still extremely valid, capable of stimulating the imagination to enter into empathic contact with what lies beyond our knowledge,” Sammicheli says.

To each his own

Worlds of possibility. After all, “a wise man knows that he knows nothing,” Socrates said in one of the most famous stories from Plato. And, “he who fails to learn to know what is available and does not take it one step forward brings forth from his supposed abyss of profundity only the remnants of now obsolete formulas,” writes Theodor Adorno in Parva Aesthetica. To each his own.

Photos DSL Studio / courtesy Triennale Milano