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Discovering the diaspora: unfolding the layers of the Venice Architecture Biennale

A powerful curatorial structure by Lesley Lokko needs to be carefully absorbed as an exhibition, a presentation and a display.

by Devanshi ShahPublished on : May 26, 2023

The 18th Venice Architecture Biennale titled The Laboratory of the Future, curated by Lesley Lokko opened to the public on May 20, 2023. Spread across the city of Venice and Mestre, the biennale opened at the Giardini, the Arsenale, and at Forte Marghera. A lot has been said about the participants of this biennale, specifically the presence of the African diaspora. While not stated explicitly, one can imagine there were large-scale apprehensions about the shift in focus, from the Eurocentricity that has often occupied the presentations at the Venice Biennale. However, a quick walkthrough of the curated section of the Biennale is quick to dispel that. What stands out more, however, is the fact that the presented works go beyond traditional architectural practice. This is perhaps why Lokko’s official press statement refers to the participants as practitioners rather than architects, designers, artists or researchers. The practitioner becomes an all-encompassing term set that allows for a far more layered presentation.

DAAR at the 18th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, The Laboratory of the Future | Venice Architecture Biennale 2023 | The Laboratory of the Future | Lesley Lokko | STIRworld
DAAR at the 18th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, The Laboratory of the Future Image: Andrea Avezzù; Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia

Before moving to specific aspects of the biennale, it is perhaps important to take a moment to understand the importance of exhibitions and events of this scale. Each biennale has been an important marker in the prevailing conversation, which is why it is necessary to distinguish whether the objects in the biennale are being presented, exhibited or displayed. While they may sound like synonyms, Lokko’s own statement—which talks about the importance of process and the idea of a workshop—elucidates the importance of being specific. Personally, based on the context and origin of the works, the overall Biennale allows the three modes of presentation, exhibition and display to coexist in different parts of the Biennale. The determining factor here is the lens through which one is observing. This is very similar to Lokko’s use of the word practitioners. It allows for a more expanded perception and reading of the Biennale.

Adjaye Associates at the 18th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, The Laboratory of the Future | Venice Architecture Biennale 2023 | The Laboratory of the Future | Lesley Lokko | STIRworld
Adjaye Associates at the 18th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, The Laboratory of the Future Image: Matteo de Mayda; Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia

Maybe that is what the Laboratory of the Future is meant to do. The curated section of the International Exhibition, which is located in the Central Pavilion at the Giardini, had an incredibly easy layout. It was refreshingly sparse, with only 16 practices featured in the Central Pavilion. The potency and depth of the works which fall under Lokko’s Force Majeure category featured the works from practices in Africa and the larger diaspora. Starting with a 360 degree video and a sound installation by Sir David Adjaye, the emptiness of the occupiable space sets the tone for the rest of the Central Pavilion. The installation is set at the top section of this room, allowing the occupiable space at the bottom to facilitate free movement. Each practice is given its own space and the video installations are not overwhelming, allowing viewers to actually connect with each exhibit. Models and drawings while present were not the only mode of communication.

  • Kéré-Architecture at the 18th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, The Laboratory of the Future | Venice Architecture Biennale 2023 | The Laboratory of the Future | Lesley Lokko | STIRworld
    Kéré Architecture at the 18th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, The Laboratory of the Future Image: Matteo de Mayda; Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia
  • atelier masōmī at the 18th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, The Laboratory of the Future | Venice Architecture Biennale 2023 | The Laboratory of the Future | Lesley Lokko | STIRworld
    atelier masōmī at the 18th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, The Laboratory of the Future Image: Matteo de Mayda; Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia
  • Olalekan Jeyifous at the 18th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, The Laboratory of the Future | Venice Architecture Biennale 2023 | The Laboratory of the Future | Lesley Lokko | STIRworld
    Olalekan Jeyifous at the 18th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, The Laboratory of the Future Image: Matteo de Mayda; Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia

For instance, Francis Kéré’s installation created an interior space for one to experience, while atelier masōmī, helmed by Mariam Issoufou Kamara, drew sketches directly on the walls of the pavilion. Olalekan Jeyifous’ exhibit, which also earned him the Silver Lion for a Promising Young Participant, was a wonderfully calm space. The entire room which takes up the mezzanine felt a bit like an airport waiting lounge, where one could wait for the future to arrive. His characteristic science fiction and Afro-surrealist visuals were accompanied by the sound of an old-time transit message board. It was a simple but effective addition. Some of the others in the Central Pavilion include Sumayya Vally and Moad Musbahi, Thandi Loewenson, and Theaster Gates, all of whom look at their own practice as art, research, building and even as teaching. This diversity of practice modalities also translated into how the exhibits were presented during the opening, for instance, Cave_bureau featured a performance interaction with their exhibit.

Cave_bureau at the 18th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, The Laboratory of the Future | Venice Architecture Biennale 2023 | The Laboratory of the Future | Lesley Lokko | STIRworld
Cave_bureau at the 18th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, The Laboratory of the Future Image: Matteo de Mayda; Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia

The idea of performance as an introduction to an exhibition was seen throughout the Giardini including in the National Pavilions. For instance, the Nordic and German Pavilion incorporated performances during the opening and the opening days. The Nordic Pavilion’s Girjegumpi: The Sámi Architecture Library had a traditional form of song in Sámi music performed. While the German Pavilion’s Open for Maintenance – Wegen Umbau geöffnet featured an interpretive dance performed by differently-abled dancers. Engagement with presentations has become an important aspect of these large-scale festivals and events. Whether it is watching a scheduled performance, or interacting and contributing to the display, as was the case with the Canada Pavilion, it seems to have been important that people take away more than just the display of objects.

German Pavilion at the 18th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, The Laboratory of the Future | Venice Architecture Biennale 2023 | The Laboratory of the Future | Lesley Lokko | STIRworld
German Pavilion at the 18th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, The Laboratory of the Future Image: Matteo de Mayda; Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia

The Arsenale, a notoriously difficult space to work with, does not have the same calm and ease of display as the Central Pavilion. While not as overcrowded as previous iterations, the displays do feel more like presentations than exhibits. The variety of Arsenale's display should not be under-appreciated either. Spanish studio Flores Prats recreated their studio in the middle of the Arsenale. Using old models and process sketches the studio invites us into their process of making. Further down, one would encounter Gbolade Design Studio, whose graphic network map invites us into their process of thinking. Then there is Serge Attukwei Clottey’s installation that invites us on a journey. Displayed in two parts, one inside the Arsenale building and one on the water outside, Clottey’s Time and Chance has travelled a long distance and was even displayed in Mumbai during the Mumbai Urban Arts Festival.

  • Flores & Prats Architects at the 18th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, The Laboratory of the Future | Venice Architecture Biennale 2023 | The Laboratory of the Future | Lesley Lokko | STIRworld
    Flores & Prats Architects at the 18th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, The Laboratory of the Future Image: Andrea Avezzù; Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia
  • Gbolade Design Studio at the 18th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, The Laboratory of the Future | Venice Architecture Biennale 2023 | The Laboratory of the Future | Lesley Lokko | STIRworld
    Gbolade Design Studio at the 18th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, The Laboratory of the Future Image: Marco Zorzanello; Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia
  • Serge Attukwei Clottey at the 18th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, The Laboratory of the Future | Venice Architecture Biennale 2023 | The Laboratory of the Future | Lesley Lokko | STIRworld
    Serge Attukwei Clottey at the 18th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, The Laboratory of the Future Image: Andrea Avezzù; Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia

One of the ideas that emerged through this laboratory, which looks at the African diaspora and the African continent, is to study how ideas of reclaiming culture and reclaiming lost narrators can have a larger impact on the language of our conversation. Twentieth century architecture looked to create an internationalism within its built language, in doing so not only did it take over the vernacular architecture of the colonised world, but it also took over the language of the local European architecture. Perhaps it is a stretch but, as the global majority continues to rediscover its own roots, it is contributing its methodology, its hermeneutics and its language to a world attempting to undo the problematic developments of its past. While there will continue to be claims of the biennale "not showing any architecture", it stands to reason that there is perhaps merit to the fact that visuals of 'traditional architecture' are missing. Maybe we have built enough. Maybe architecture as a practice has a larger scope to practise beyond construction. Maybe the main purpose of events such as the Venice Architecture Biennale is to probe thinking and not celebrate what already exists.

What do you think?

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