Ahlquist Invited to the 17th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia

Sean Ahlquist, an associate professor of architecture at Taubman College, is currently exhibiting his “Social Equilibria – OrchidsPlayscape” installation for the 17th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, curated by Hashim Sarkis.

The Biennale Architettura 2021, titled How will we live together?, will run May 22 to November 21, 2021.

The 17th International Architecture Exhibition includes 112 participants in competition from 46 countries. The Exhibition is organized into five scales: Among Diverse Beings, As New Households, As Emerging Communities, Across Borders, As One Planet.

Ahlquist — a computational design and material systems expert and one of the few architects in the world who creates structures out of large-scale CNC knitted textiles — is part of How will we play together?, a new section of the Biennale dedicated to children’s play, which is located in Forte Marghera, Venezia. 

Ahlquist has done extensive research in creating playscapes for children, especially for those with autism spectrum disorder like his daughter, Ara, to explore the connection between sensorial experience and social engagement. “OrchidsPlayscape” is inspired by Ara’s unique engagement with the world. Now 11 years old, her particular non-verbal nature triggers a novel creativity that uses many facets of the world around her to communicate. People, objects, and technologies all become part of a multifaceted language. The genesis of the term “orchid” in behavioral science is expressed through Ara’s inextricable linkage to the nuances of her environment. While the dandelion thrives ubiquitously, the orchid outshines them all when immersed in the most fitted of conditions. Ahlquist’s combination of personal experience and professional research is the basis of a search for the distinctive relationships between environment, behavior, and communication that generate social opportunities for diverse and differently abled individuals like Ara.

Ara communicates through her remapping of play onto normative objects and environments. A field of bubbles or a piece of luggage becomes expressions of thinking, creativity, motivations, likes, and dislikes. It also elicits an autonomy over environment — shedding convention and etiquette to create agency in shaping its fitted-ness and functional relevance to her. The bespoke knitted textiles in this project offer the ultimate sense of tinker-ability within the context of play. The individual’s exploration — of enclosure, tactility, movement, stretchability, transparency, sound, and pattern — becomes the sense of autonomy and communication of creativity. Each individual – disabled or non-disabled – has the freedom to profess meaning and define their own orchid-ness within the environment. 

Structural engineering: Prof. Evgueni Filipov and Maria Redoutey
Design and fabrication: Tracey Weisman, John Hilla, Yi-Chin Lee, Ruxin Xie, Yingying Zeng, Xixi Chen, and Motong Liu

With support from the University of Michigan – Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning and University of Michigan – Civil and Environmental Engineering


Faculty: Sean Ahlquist ,