Solving the world’s problems at the Venice Architecture Biennale
VENICE – Perhaps it was inevitable that many of the questions asked of Hashim Sarkis, the curator of the 17th International Architecture Biennale, at the event’s media preview, were about the pandemic.
After all, the exhibition, which opened in May and will run until November 21, has been pushed back for a year, and various restrictions remain in place, limiting travel to Venice.
And after 15 bizarre months that have blurred the lines between office and home, and questioned the very theme of the Biennale’s main exhibition – “How will we live together?“- it was only natural for reporters to ask,” in a persistent and anxious way “, as Sarkis put it at the press conference,” how the pandemic has changed architecture and how architecture is responding “.
Although the exhibit was planned before the coronavirus swept the world, Sarkis, a Lebanese architect and dean of architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said she was speaking to a series of long-standing global issues – climate change, mass migration, political polarization and growing social, economic and racial inequalities – which have contributed to the global spread of the virus.
“The pandemic will hopefully go away,” he told reporters in Venice. “But if we don’t tackle these causes, we won’t be able to move forward.”
Sarkis’s exhibition brings together a plethora of (sometimes confusing) projects, mostly concentrated in the two main exhibition sites: one in the shipyard that for centuries made Venice a maritime power, the another in the Giardini della Biennale, which also house pavilions where the participating countries present their own architectural exhibitions that speak of the main theme.
Visitors who expected to see piece after piece of exhibits using the traditional language of architecture – models, prototypes and drawings – were in the wrong place.
Instead, many of the projects presented looked more like conceptual flights than blueprints of built environments: there were bird cages, a bust of nefertiti beeswax and a big oak table designed to host an interspecies conference. There were projects that would have been at home in a school science fair, like proposals for feed the world with microalgae or to explore the relationship between nature and technology using a robotic arm.
The question of living together is a political one, as well as a spatial one, Sarkis said, and several projects in the exhibition highlight the potential of architecture in conflict resolution.
“Elementary”, An initiative led by Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, is a striking structure of tall poles arranged in a circle that evokes a Koyauwe, or a place to parley and resolve conflicts between the Mapuche, an indigenous population of Chile. It was commissioned by a Mapuche territorial organization as part of a reconciliation process between the group and a conflicting forestry company on a shared territory.
Without the pandemic, representatives of both sides would have met at the Biennale – “neutral territory,” Aravena said – for negotiations inside the structure. He will return to Chile after the Biennale, and talks will be held there instead, Aravena said.
A more traditional urban planning project comes from EMBT, a studio based in Barcelona, presenting models for the redevelopment of a district of Clichy-sous-Bois, near Paris, including plans for collective housing, a market and a metro station. The initiative is part of a larger initiative in Paris which will extend the city’s metro lines to better connect the suburbs to the center, “so that they feel more connected,” said Benedetta Tagliabue, partner at EMBT.
To liven up a drab neighborhood, the architects created a colorful pergola for the station, inspired by the decorative patterns of the various African migrants who inhabit the neighborhood. “Space must belong to the people,” she said.
The issue of coexistence between people and other forms of life was also explored.
The New York design agency The alive built a big, cylindrical loofah chamber – yes, the sponge – to showcase what the organization’s founder, David Benjamin, described as “the probiotic architecture”. The materials in the room were “literally alive because of an invisible layer of microbes in their tiny cavities,” he said. “Just as we think more and more in our society about how a healthy gut microbiome, the microbes in our stomach, can support our individual health, a healthy urban microbiome could support our collective health,” he added. .
“Yes, in a Biennale, it’s a bit conceptual,” he conceded.
The national pavilions, whose contents are selected by curators at home rather than by Sarkis, also tackled the main theme of the exhibition, coexistence, by adopting various approaches.
The curators of the pavilion Uzbekistan, attending the Biennale for the first time, recreated a section of a house found in a mahalla, a low-rise, high-density community with shared spaces found in many parts of Asia. Mahallas offered an alternative to “generic global architecture,” said one of the curators, Emanuel Christ.
There are over 9,000 mahallas in Uzbekistan, home to between 150 and 9,000 residents, Christ said. Embodying a scale that “relates to our daily experience,” they could be an antidote to “the anonymous loneliness of citizens” and the “scarcity of nature” in modern cities, Christ added.
The United States pavilion is resolutely pragmatic, emphasizing the predominance of wood frame in American households (90 percent of new homes are still wood-frame), with a climbing multi-story wooden structure that has been erected in front of the pavilion, a stark contrast to its neoclassical style.
“Normal and affordable wooden housing fits in perfectly with the theme of living together,” said Paul Andersen, who co-organized the pavilion. Inside, photographs of undocumented day laborers, by Chris Strong, hint at the dark side of the construction industry. “Unfortunately there is still cruelty, but hopefully more awareness,” Andersen said.
In the case of some other lodges, such as that of Israel, the postponement of the biennale for one year gave the commissioners additional time to develop their installation. Israel’s presentation examines the relationship between humans, the environment, and animals (especially cows, goats, bees, water buffalo and bats).
The curators won a competition in August 2019 to present their multimedia project at the Biennale, initially scheduled for the following May. But when they set out to film bats for one of the show’s (key) videos falling, the animals had migrated, and it was too late, said Iddo Ginat, one of the conservatives.
“We realized that nature has its time and does not run on that of the Biennale,” he says. “The carry-over gave us a full cycle in nature. “
And in the case of the Lebanon pavilion, the extra year allowed Hala Wardé, its commissioner, to integrate a tragic memory in his multimedia installation, “A roof for silence”: the glass of the explosion that devastated Beirut on August 4, 2020, which was transformed by glassmaker Jeremy Maxwell Wintrebert into a tall transparent cylindrical structure.
This structure is used as a backdrop for 16 paintings by the poet, author and artist Etel Adnan. “I chose to present Lebanon through its culture,” said Wardé. “That’s what’s left when you’ve lost everything.”
Wardé said the project was about the need for silence, in architecture and in cities. But also, she added, “Architecture has to be able to provoke that kind of emotion, just to be, and feel good somewhere, and then be able to dream.