by Anmol AhujaJul 22, 2021
As a first-time visitor to the Venice Architecture Biennale, I was curious about the possibilities of applying an art critical lens while entering the threshold. Of late I have become an avid proselytizer of the redemptive possibilities embedded in approaching all forms of inter-disciplinary discourse through an artistic crux, be it marine biology or human geography. The ambiguity of art as a category that accommodates both research as well as production by privileging and catering, first and foremost, the imagination, makes it a viable and sustainable methodology, one that can empower viewers. Though I had little to no expectations of the Biennale Architettura, I did fancy an immediacy in terms of display. I fantasised about not having to wade through reams of text to arrive at the conceptual core of an exhibit, and some form of relaxed viewing, since I wasn’t over-invested in seeing ‘everything’. Little did I know!
As a feminist art critic, I felt frequently disappointed, especially because I had been enthused and lured by the invitational nature of the theme of the 17th Architecture Biennale, which, in the curator, Hashim Sarkis’ own words, was conceived as an ‘open question’, How will we live together? Sarkis breaks down the sentence while fleshing out its component entities to elaborate on his curatorial premise. He expands on it in the biennale brochure: “How: Speaks to practical approaches and concrete solutions, highlighting the primacy of problem-solving in architectural thinking. Will: Signals looking toward the future but also seeking vision and determination, drawing from the power of the architectural imaginary. We: Is first person plural and thus inclusive of other peoples, of other species, appealing to a more empathetic understanding of architecture. Live: Means not simply to exist but to thrive, to flourish, to inhabit, and to express life, tapping into architecture’s inherent optimism. Together: Implies collectives, commons, universal values, highlighting architecture as a collective form and a form of collective expression. ?: Indicates an open question, not a rhetorical one, looking for (many) answers, celebrating the plurality of values in and through architecture.” Sarkis justifies asking architects this question because they allegedly have the “ability to present more inspiring answers than politics has been thus far offering in much of the world” and “because we, as architects, are preoccupied with shaping the spaces in which people live together and because we frequently imagine these settings differently than do the social norms that dictate them”.
The central exhibition conceived by Sarkis is certainly elaborate and dense, with many instances of political inquisitiveness, however, even to a seasoned art critic, the language used felt opaque and frequently belittling, not just the literary syntax that manifested as wall text but also the visual terminologies that constituted the display. It was as if architects had grown so accustomed to speaking to each other, they have forgotten the etiquette of the conversational mundane. The aesthetics of data visualisation were prioritised over clarity in terms of communication, or even conveying, with utter simplicity, the heft of an idea or concept. Though the exhibition had been moved to 2021 on account of the pandemic, too few exhibits actually used the opportunity to reflect on how the last year upturned our notions of togetherness especially since ‘social distancing’ became mandatory in order to survive against the virality of infection.
Amid the instances of well-articulated communication, instead of feeling grateful, I often felt enraged by the covertly masculinist nature of most of the intellectual enterprise. Architecture, it would seem, continues to be the preserve of White, Euro-centric, cis-male thought. I was often surprised by how little effort was made to even appear to appease the killjoy feminist. Only The Netherlands pavilion catered directly to these exclusions, with an exhibit titled, Who is We? curated by Francien van Westrenen, showcasing work by Afaina de Jong and Debra Solomon that critically reflected on women’s contribution to the field.
The central exhibition ticked many boxes, but was not intersectional in its alleged diversity and didn’t really integrate either feminist or indigenous thought. The ‘architectural imaginary’ that is invoked seems indicative of ‘Manthropocene’ thinking, predicated on a hyperbolically human-centric apocalyptic vision that subsequently commandeers the narrative of ecological problem-solving through a primarily masculinist lexicon, which means that sustainability is still practised through extractive economies, where nature is separate from the kingdom of man and exists within the commons as a site for resources. This flaw is not necessarily perpetuated by Sarkis’s exhibition as much as it seems indicative of how architecture seems to be practised as a discipline.
While Sarkis’s exhibition accommodates instances of indigenous place-thought, it is not explored as a potential framework through which to imagine the ‘we’ that must co-habit through collaborative practices. Beehive Architecture, presented by Tomas Libertiny at the Slovakia Pavilion within the central exhibition, is a case in point. The architect provided bees with 3D-printed armatures, allowing for the possibility for them to frame a structure through a process he calls ‘slow manufacturing’. The attempt was to make visitors aware of the threats the species face, and yet gain, it felt like human exploitation of other-than-human labour.
Another example of impressive seeming work is the inviting oak table by Superflux, titled Refuge for Resurgence, supposedly a post-Anthropocene banquet with chairs made to seat 12 different species, from humans to reptiles, farm animals, insects, rats and wasps, at a point in the future where cities have been reclaimed by wildlife. It’s a tempting idea but even when it tries hard to ‘cater’ to the eating habits and mannerisms of each species, it doesn’t seem fully fledged in terms of how it conceives of hospitality, since the framework for hosting is still being negotiated by the human species, since the ‘etiquette’ being followed is determinedly western. There is a table, there are seats, there are plates, and cutlery, all signifiers of ‘civilising’ missions. There is still a sense of ‘order’, the terms for negotiation are set by human histories of consumptive practices. As long as the notion of the table to which some are invited and some excluded exists, we can only birth dystopias. Cannot the goal of architecture also be to dismantle the table-ness of the table, I wondered?
The global architectural imaginary, it would seem from the Biennale, isn’t yet radical enough to construct gestures of healing that can transcend the phallogocentrism of the Manthropocene, and I would dare to propose it is because architecture as a discipline possibly isn’t intersectional and feminist enough, which means its problem-solving mode is still preoccupied with managing the symptoms of racist-patriarchal-capitalist modes of destruction and domination without acknowledging the hegemonic systems of inequality that continue to oppress and marginalise. The National Pavilion of the United Arab Emirates, for instance, had an excellent project, Wetlands, that showed findings of researchers, Wael Al Awar and Kenichi Teramoto that seek to mitigate the threat that wetlands are exposed to on account of the increase in highly concentrated brine being released into the sea as the residue of desalination, especially since the UAE is the third-largest desalinator in the world. The researchers looked to salt-encrusted desserts, ‘sabkhas’ of Abu Dhabi, formed over a 7000-year period, and instances of vernacular architecture, the ‘kersheef’, a natural building material composed of salt, mud, and minerals. Could these two sources of investigation result in an eco-friendly replacement for cement?
Some other well-intentioned projects, like the Swiss Pavilion’s Oræ – Experiences on the Border, also made concerted efforts to breakdown the concept of the border through collaborative discussions with the people fated to occupy and accentuate them, but the mode of representation, white models and mapping frameworks made the project impenetrable to someone who isn’t familiar with the language of architectural rendering. It was infinitely more relatable to read small textual interventions that critiqued architecture’s over-inflated perception of its own significance and even its role in upholding the doctrine of borders. “What role does architecture play on borders?” asked one poster excerpt from the Collective Writing Forum held by Sebastien Le Dortz and Marc Auge as part of the presentation. “Architeture is directly implicated: it can either underline or blur borders. Yet, borders never disappear; they are redrawn”.
The question that remains unasked and unanswered is ‘who gets to have greater agency in determining how we live together in the present in order that we might secure us a future’. The answer cannot be cis-het-men.
Also read Part Ii: Five moments of transcendence at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2021
Click here to read more about STIRring Together, a series by STIR that introduces readers to the many facets of the Venice Architecture Biennale 2021.
(Disclaimer: The views and opinion expressed here are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official position of STIR or its Editors.)