26 February

The Power of the Digital Event

The XXII Pan-American Architecture Biennial in Quito – BAQ2020 was […]

The XXII Pan-American Architecture Biennial in Quito – BAQ2020 was the first major architectural event held exclusively in a digital environment, due to the pandemic. In an exclusive interview, its President Maria Samaniego talks about the challenges and advantages of this format.

Attracting participants from 25 countries through an exclusive platform, BAQ2020 reached out to 57 countries through social networks. Around 1,300 people logged on to its website each day, with 77,000 visitors during the Biennial. Transmissions through social networks averaged out at 6,000 shares and 4,500 interactions.

Having also chaired BAQ2018, Maria Samaniego feels the 2020 event bears witness to its enormous ability to adapt and respond to changing realities. Check out the full interview.

               1) What were the biggest difficulties in organising the event?

For over forty years, the Pan-American Architecture Biennial in Quito has been building up an impressive track record. Launched in 1978 as a three-day regional event for the Andean countries, it attracted 100 participants, four international guests, and fifty competing projects. Since then, it has become one of the most widely recognised events in the field of architecture throughout the region. Pan-American in scope since 1996, the 2018 event – the last in-person occasion – lasted five days, welcoming 2,000 participants each day, with over 35 guests as speakers and jurors, and 650 projects entered for the Biennial Contest.

However, all this experience in logistics and organisation was of little use when faced by the new pandemic reality, with a tricky decision on whether to hold the event, despite severe uncertainties.

Although the entire conceptual framework was already established and in place, the Organising Committee conducted an in-depth survey in order to understand the wide range of digital and technological possibilities, whose availability also increased at a dizzying rate during shutdowns.

This new approach – working remotely – ratcheted up uncertainties over the short and medium terms, with decisions that were constantly changing. Without its robust structure and capacity to adapt, together with the resilience and commitment of the BAQ staff, this event would certainly not have reached the level of excellence that it achieved.

                2) What worked well digitally and why? What are the advantages of the digital format?

The Call for Academic Papers was launched at the 2018 event, through which students and universities from around the world conducted critical analyses of works of architecture exemplifying the proposed theoretical hypotheses. This Call culminated in the Academic Seminar held during BAQ week, where an assortment of actors (authors of the papers, students and practitioners involved with the Call, and architecture critics) discussed these pre-analysed works. Thanks to the excellent outcomes, this Call for Academic Papers was repeated at BAQ2020.

Together with interviews and keynote lectures, these talks are the heart of the BAQ Academic Seminar. However, remote participation raised a host of unknown factors. How should they be handled? What would be the best way to make sure that the Quito Biennial didn’t turn into just another webinar, as we had all sat through quite enough of them.

A major decision was to avoid imitating or simply transferring the live event to a digital setting. Instead, we decided to take full advantage of every available technological possibility, providing very high-value content that complemented the live broadcasts of the academic events. We were able to generate a hypermedia experience, with a set of elements and materials that were essential for promoting interactions and active use by the attendees.

This offered a wide range of supporting content to the virtual participants – planimetric images, photographs, critical analyses, diagrams, etc – while watching a live lecture or interview. This successfully replaced in-person experiences by opening up real possibilities of interactions, supplementing the mere experience of a listener.

The great advantage of the digital format is that it exponentially expands the possibility of global reach for an event. In fact, BAQ2020 attracted attendees from fifty countries all over the world, including Hungary, Germany and Japan, among many others.

Furthermore, this digital format extends the Biennial timeframe, as the hypermedia platform will be available for the next two years. This easy access to all the recorded events and the supporting content ensures wider dissemination and greater impact.

                3) What about the interaction with the city?

Biennials owe much to their host cities, and Quito follows suit. The cultural mainspring of the BAQ ensures that it extends beyond academic circles, radiating throughout the city with a variety of cultural events related to architecture, spread over different points of interest.

These activities also underwent a drastic change, prompted by the pandemic. A decision was made: if the participants are unable to travel to Quito, then Quito will go to the participants. This gave rise to a set of activities where artists and cultural actors were invited to produce digital interventions on city landmarks, using graphic and video materials. This also led to a set of three documentary videos, portraying the transformation of the city through the appearance of three of its most iconic buildings. One of them was the House of Ecuadorian Culture, which has hosted more than ten of these Biennials.

4) Will this digital format be continued in subsequent events?

Yes, it is very likely that this virtual format will be continued, due to its wider reach and better dissemination, as well as the economy of means. However, the ideal would be to have a mixed or hybrid event that could take full advantage of both formats: digital and in-person, which is increasingly more in demand.


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