by Devanshi ShahJun 03, 2021
The XVII Venice Architecture Biennale that was postponed by a year due to the coronavirus pandemic finally opened on May 22 and will be on view until late November. The ongoing pandemic made it very challenging for many people to attend the Biennale in person and a number of pavilions remain shuttered. Nevertheless, the Biennale became the biggest architectural event since 2018.
The Biennale’s curator, Hashim Sarkis, a practicing architect with studios in Beirut and Cambridge (USA), and the Dean at the School of Architecture of MIT has defined his exhibition’s theme long before the pandemic. For the first time it was presented in a form of a question: How Will We Live Together? Since the pandemic started, the question has become only more relevant. A variety of responses to the curator’s theme are lined up in a long display of installations and exhibitions at the former shipyards, workshops, and warehouses in Arsenale, at the national pavilions in Giardini, and at numerous palazzos, churches, museums, art foundations, and consulates throughout the city and in its surroundings.
Crossing national borders continues to be challenging and pavilions of countries such as China , Australia, Venezuela, Czech Republic and Slovakia remain shuttered. Nevertheless, during the Biennale’s opening days, the city became quite populated with architects, curators, journalists, and students from all over the world and that lively atmosphere of endless meetings, presentations, parties and exchanges of impressions that we always expect with such excitement from trips to the Biennale. But let’s focus on the Biennale’s main theme – How will we live together? It is hard not to admit the insight of the curator, as just about everyone now is being puzzled by this question. On the other hand, it is also true that it has been already almost a decade since our profession has lost its faith in the future, interest in form making (which was the main driving force of architecture throughout the 20th century), and, in general, in everything that is definitive and unambiguous. Today we are more interested in life within architecture than in architecture itself. And this life can and should assume very different forms. Hence the question mark.
The architects who were invited to present their manifestoes responded with a variety of spatial expressions. How precisely will we live together – with each other, in relation to flora and fauna, in spaces virtual and real, on different sides of national borders, and increasingly effected by all kinds of natural disasters? Among the projects presented here are ideas for a more open and socially engaging architecture, attempts to rethink models of individual housing and communal living, density comparisons in cities and suburbs, urban development projects integrated with nature, proposals for the use of environment friendly materials, examples of affordable housing, strategies of adaptive reuse, and different recommendations for creating new types of housing, not only on Earth, but also in space, and on other planets.
All these directions that set the tone for architects have long turned into a trend that the profession has been following for at least a decade. Surely, the key turning point for architecture was the 2012 Biennale curated by David Chipperfield under the theme of Common Ground. That’s when I would argue it was necessary to add the question mark and ask: What is our common ground? Because at that point there was no common ground among the architects, whatsoever. In fact, it was precisely the lack of common values in the profession from late 1990s to early 2000s, driven by the desire of architects to create ego-centric, signature-style objects, that led to a certain fatigue and even irritation of critics, the public, and the architects themselves, especially following the global financial crisis of 2008.
Since then, the refusal, especially by young architects, to compete in originality with their “fathers” and “grandfathers” has become increasingly evident. For example, one of the leaders of the new generation of architects, Bjarke Ingels (BIG), told me in our 2009 interview: “Our architecture is never guided by one event, never initiated by one author, and never defined by one handwriting." Today, this rejection of single authorship dominates the profession.
In this sense, the biennales of recent years can be divided into before the Common Ground and after. And the current one is no exception, as it was unable to reverse the vector projected by Chipperfield. And if in 2012, it seemed that architects, so different in all respects, would hardly be able to identify what their common ground was, by 2016, when Alejandro Aravena held his Biennale Reporting From the Front, it suddenly became crystal clear – common ground could be anything, but aesthetics. That’s when problem-solving united us all. And there were plenty of problems – social inequalities, ecological concerns, energy saving, efficiency, economy of means, adaptive reuse, alternative building materials, lack of regional identities, and so on. The architecture of artistic gestures is now a thing of the past and is viewed as something distasteful. It is for that reason that almost none of this year’s exhibitions are designed by famous architects. They are “banned” from the place, at least for now. And they could hardly be seen among the visitors during the vernissage. They have become irrelevant.
Many participants are exhibited for the first time. And it is no coincidence that the Spanish master Rafael Moneo (professor of Sarkis at Harvard), who is much less concerned with finding his own style than other Pritzker laureates, was awarded the Golden Lion for lifetime achievement. In our interview at his Madrid studio in 2019, Moneo told me: “I have never aspired to develop my own method or style. I have always built up my arsenal of ideas and used a variety of strategies." Still, his retrospective of buildings at the Giardini’s Bookshop Pavilion (James Sterling, 1991) is shown in stark dissonance to this year’s all other presentations.
It is not the first time that exhibitions by single architects, studios, universities, and national pavilions are all thrown into the mix as most teams are quite international and there is no particular structure or order. Even many of the pavilions nowadays are curated and designed by curators and architects coming from all corners of the world. Still, I typically visit these presentations starting from Arsenale and proceed to Giardini. Among the most striking presentations I would name Social Contracts: Choreographing Interactions, a series of 11 installations built from 1991 to 2020 by New York-based artist and architect, Allan Wexler. The pieces include Four White Shirts Sewn into a Tablecloth, One Table Worn by One Person, One Table Worn by Four People, and Table for the Typical House. They illustrate our current isolation, how spaces could be shared, and how spaces that we inhabit could define our behavior and relationships – as friends, family members, and strangers. Nearby a project by Studio Ossidiana from the Netherlands is titled Variations on a Bird’s Cage. It proposes new architypes of the bird’s cage. The architects expand the theme of living together beyond a mere human coexistence. These curious structures rethink our traditional relationships with animals, birds, and nature in general. In relation to this project, I would like to cite the words of Stefano Boeri who I met at the Vernissage. Here is how the architect of Bosco Verticale (Vertical Forest) apartment complex in Milan reasons his green building manifesto: “A house is created for trees and birds; it can also be inhabited by humans". In other words, we don’t simply decorate our living environment with trees and birds, but the other way around – we create favourable conditions for trees and birds in the city, and only then we find our own place among them.
Also, worth noting at Arsenale is the exhibition Hospital of the Future by the Dutchman Reinier de Graaf, the partner of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, OMA. Here visitors can conveniently lay down on hospital beds provided here and watch a film about the advances of modern medicine. All kinds of questions are raised here: Will the highest technologies be able to protect us from various ailments, including viruses? What will genetic therapy be like? If we learn how to 3D-print vital organs, then won't we be able to print hospitals as well – in parts and as a whole? What will these hospitals look like? The topic of technical progress continues a fascinating installation BIT.BIO.BOT by ecoLogicStudio from the UK. The show that can be confused with a chemical lab, is an experiment to test a model of co-existence between humans and various biological organisms in the post-pandemic world. The green substance bubbling in hanging test tubes and plastic sheets is Spirulina (small spiral), an edible cyanobacteria that re-metabolises air pollutants into intensely nutritious healthy foods.
Before leaving Arsenale one pavilion not to be missed is a compelling study by the team from the United Arab Emirates, called Wetland. The country is one of the leading CO2 pollutants per capita in the world. This situation focused the attention of the pavilion’s curators, Wael Al Awar and Kenichi Teramoto, on creating a “new” vernacular architecture. And the goal here was not to find attractive aesthetics but to either invent or rediscover such building material that would help to repair the local ecology and reduce the reliance on the use of Portland cement, the world’s most widely used and yet, environmentally most destructive material. The answer was found in what is known as kersheef, a natural building material composed of salt, mud, and minerals used in regional traditional architecture. It is found in abundance in the sabkha of Abu Dhabi, a flat, salt-encrusted desert. This vernacular method not only allows to substitute the use of cement with salt but the extraction of highly-concentrated untreated brine, the residue of desalination, helps to preserve ecosystem of wetlands and marine life in the region.
In Giardini, among traditionally strong pavilions of France, Holland, Belgium, Britain, and Austria were disappointing. Germany limited its presentation to its building’s restoration, leaving it entirely empty and, no more no less, decorating it with a few QR codes that direct visitors to a series of films about the life in 2038 (come equipped with your own wi-fi).
The Golden Lion for the best pavilion presentation, an intriguing and much anticipated prize, was promised to be announced by the end of May but due to the fact that many jury members still did not make it to Venice, the decision is being postponed till late August. Personally, I enjoyed presentations by Japan, Israel, Hungary, and Venice Pavilion. But the main award this year, in my opinion, should go to either the American, Russian, or Danish Pavilion. All three are about the power of transformation – one is more radical than the other. The Russian Pavilion was particularly strong. Prepared by an international team of commissioner (Russian-Italian Teresa Iarocci Mavica), curator (Italian Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli), and exhibition designers (Tokyo)-based Kovaleva and Sato Architects, KASA). The pavilion, titled Open! was described in its previews as a reconstruction of the 1914 mansion-like building designed by a prominent architect, Alexei Schusev, in the Neo Russian style. But the result is a wonderful reimagining of a traditional and highly formal, buttoned up structure, into an uncompromising modern thing with parts of floors and walls removed to bring in lots of air and light, and to allow it to be continuously reconfigured during the life of the Biennale (and possibly beyond) – out of a series of single-story rooms into variably connected multi-level dynamic spaces. In fact, the exhibition is the building itself, demonstrating the capabilities of the new space. The idea is to turn what is a mere building into a place, an environment, an atmosphere, and a world in itself. On the lower level the visitors are invited to step into the virtual space of computer games. This zone seamlessly transitions into what appears to be so real – openness, transparency, and freedom for boundless self-expression and collaboration. The boundaries are being constantly blurred here – between the virtual, the real, and the desired.
No less radical transformation is undertaken by the American Pavilion. Its curators, Paul Andersen and Paul Preissner presented their study called American Framing, about the Balloon framing, a method of wood-house building that represents 90 per cent of all single-family house construction in the United States. The technique, invented domestically in the first half of the 19th century, can be easily, quickly, and economically put together with the use of unskilled labour and the most readily available building components in the country – 2” x 4” wooden studs. This ingenious, egalitarian, yet very banal building technique, so emblematic of one-two-three-story America, typically remains entirely covered by dull vinyl siding in a hardly imaginative range of colours. What can be seen, touched, smelled, and even climbed at the pavilion is an attempt to show the hidden beauty and the potential of this very flexible system, if only more creativity was applied. The real innovation here is that the curators are not simply telling us the history of this overlooked building technique; they are challenging architects, designers, and millions of homeowners to reexamine their preconceptions and conservative expectations of the most common building type in America – a single-family home.
And finally, the Danish Pavilion’s transformation, Con-nect-ed-ness, curated by Marianne Krogh of Danish Arts Foundation and designed by Lundgaard & Tranberg Architects, succeeds in convincingly realising a true hybrid of a building. Being fused with nature it is effectively turned into a single holistic environment where you no longer see where architecture ends, and nature begins. That is such a contrast to how so many projects simply camouflage themselves with plants. One element that bonds everything so well together here is water, more specifically, the water cycle that connects people with nature and people with each other. Water is collected from the pavilion’s roof to then start its journey through a series of pipes, tanks, filters, artistic installations, and wonderfully staged interior landscapes. Its flow through the exhibition is celebrated through a series of visible and tangible settings. Visitors are offered to taste teas brewed with leaves from the lemon verbena trees planted in the pavilion. These trees are a part of the extensive cyclic system as they absorb water from it. And drinking teas makes the visitors also an integral part of the cycle and very much part of nature here, which is a revelation-like experience. The show is not just a message, not simply a manifesto, or a call for action. It is a beautiful, sensory, and poetic experience. And it is something that has become rare in our profession it is architecture as an art form, which I miss a lot.
Click here to read more about STIRing Together, a series by STIR that introduces readers to the many facets of the Venice Architecture Biennale 2021.