VENICE – It was perhaps inevitable that many of the questions asked by Hashim Sarkis, curator of the 17th International Architecture Biennial, during the event’s media preview revolved around the pandemic.
After all, the exhibition, which opened in May and runs until November 21, has been postponed for a year and various restrictions remain that limit travel to Venice.
And after a bizarre 15 months that blurred the lines between office and home and challenged the real theme of the main exhibition at the Biennale – “How will we live together?” – it was only natural for journalists to ask “persistently and fearfully”, like Sarkis it formulated at the press conference “how the pandemic has changed architecture and how architecture reacts to it”.
Although the exhibition was planned before the coronavirus hit the world, Sarkis, a Lebanese architect and dean of architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said it addressed a number of longstanding global issues – climate change, mass migration, political polarization, and increasing social, economic and racial inequalities – that had contributed to the spread of the virus around the world.
“The pandemic will hopefully go away,” he told reporters in Venice. “But if we don’t address these causes, we won’t be able to move forward.”
The Sarkis exhibition brings together an abundance of (sometimes confusing) projects that are mostly housed in the two main locations of the exhibition: one in the shipyard that Venice founded for centuries as a maritime powerhouse, the other in the Giardini della Biennale, which also houses pavilions where the participating countries present their own architectural exhibits addressing the main theme.
Visitors who expected to see room by room displays in traditional architectural language – true-to-scale models, prototypes and drawings – were in the wrong place.
Instead, many of the projects featured were more conceptual flights of fancy than plans for built environments: There were quirky birdcages, a bust of Nefertiti made of beeswax, and a chunky oak table designed for an interspecies conference. There were projects that would have been at home at a school science fair, such as suggestions to feed the world with microalgae or to explore the relationship between nature and technology with a robotic arm.
The question of living together is a political, but also a spatial issue, said Sarkis, and several projects in the exhibition underline the conflict-solving potential of architecture.
“Elemental”, an initiative by the Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, is a striking structure made of tall poles arranged in a circle, reminiscent of a koyauwe or a place for negotiating and resolving conflicts between the Mapuche, an indigenous population of Chile. It was commissioned by a Territorial Mapuche organization as part of a rapprochement process between the group and a forest company in conflict over land.
Without the pandemic, representatives of both sides would have met at the Biennale – “a neutral territory,” said Aravena – to negotiate within the structure. It will return to Chile after the Biennale and hold talks there instead, said Aravena.
A more traditional urban planning project comes from EMBT, a Barcelona-based studio that is exhibiting scale models for a redesign of a neighborhood in Clichy-sous-Bois near Paris, including plans for communal apartments, a market and a metro station. The initiative is part of a broader initiative in Paris that will extend the city’s metro lines to better connect the suburbs with the center, “so they feel more connected,” said Benedetta Tagliabue, partner at EMBT.
To liven up a dreary neighborhood, the architects designed a colorful pergola for the train station, inspired by the decorative patterns of the various African migrants who live in the area. “The space has to belong to the people,” she said.
The question of coexistence between humans and other forms of life was also examined.
New York design firm The Living built a tall, cylindrical room out of loofah – yes, the sponge – to show what the organization’s founder, David Benjamin, called “probiotic architecture”. The materials of the room are “literally alive, as there is an invisible layer of microbes in their tiny cavities,” he said. “Just as we in our society are increasingly thinking about how a healthy gut microbiome, the microbes in our stomach, can benefit our individual health, so a healthy urban microbiome could benefit our collective health,” he added.
“Yes, at a biennale it’s a bit conceptual,” he admitted.
The country pavilions, the content of which is selected not by Sarkis but by curators in Germany, also took up the theme of coexistence at the main show with different approaches.
The curators of the Uzbekistan Pavilion, who attended the Biennale for the first time, recreated part of a house in a mahalla, a low, densely populated community with common areas found in many parts of Asia. Mahallas offered an alternative to “generic global architecture,” said one of the curators, Emanuel Christ.
There are more than 9,000 mahallas in Uzbekistan, home to between 150 and 9,000 residents, Christ said. Since they embody a scale that “relates to our everyday experience”, they could be an antidote to “the anonymous loneliness of citizens” and “natural scarcity” in modern cities, Christ added.
The United States Pavilion is unabashedly pragmatic, underscoring the dominance of half-timbered construction in American households (90 percent of new homes are still framed), with a climbable, multi-story wooden structure erected in front of the pavilion, a sharp contrast to his neoclassical style.
“Affordable, normal wooden housing obviously fits the theme of living together,” says Paul Andersen, who co-curated the pavilion. Inside, photographs of undocumented day laborers by Chris Strong point to the dark side of the construction industry. “Unfortunately there is still cruelty, but hopefully more awareness,” said Andersen.
For some other pavilions, such as that of Israel, the postponement of the biennial by one year gave the curators additional time to develop their installation. Israel’s presentation explores the relationship between humans, the environment, and animals (especially cows, goats, honey bees, water buffalo, and bats).
The curators won a competition in August 2019 to present their multimedia project at the biennale, which was originally planned for the following May. But by the time they set out to film bats for one of the show’s (key) videos that fall, the animals had emigrated and it was too late, said Iddo Ginat, one of the curators.
“We realized that nature has its own time and not that of the Biennale,” he said. “The shift has given us a full cycle in nature.”
And in the case of the Lebanese pavilion, the additional year enabled curator Hala Wardé to incorporate a tragic memento into her multimedia installation “A Roof for Silence”: glass from the explosion that devastated Beirut on August 4, 2020, which was made by the Glass worker Jeremy Maxwell Wintrebert transformed into a tall, transparent cylindrical building.
This structure serves as the backdrop for 16 paintings by the poet, author and artist Etel Adnan. “I decided to present Lebanon through its culture,” said Wardé. “It’s what’s left after you’ve lost everything.”
Wardé said the project addresses the need for silence in architecture and in cities. But also, she added, “Architecture should be able to provoke those kinds of emotions, just be and be comfortable somewhere and then be able to dream.”