Reporting from the Biennale di Venezia

Inside the Venice Architecture Biennale

This will almost certainly be a multi-post series as the Architecture Biennale contains far too much for a short post and our short attention spans. In this first post, some background and general impressions, and a promise to follow up with more specific accounts of the installations, research stations and national pavilions.

I first experienced the Biennale in 1985, and I remember seeing Aldo Rossi’s “Progetto Venezia” gateway and wandering through the Giardini. But then I didn’t bother with Venice again until June of 2000 when I tagged along with a journalist friend to the opening ceremonies. I knew the curator, Massimiliano Fuksas, from having worked in his studio briefly a few years earlier, but I don’t recall even seeing him there. (For that matter, I haven’t run into Hashim Sarkis in two days of the current one.) I do recall a party for the American pavilion in the garden of the Peggy Guggenheim Museum, observing a passionate discussion between Hani Rashid and Zaha Hadid. And I recall being impressed not only with Fuksas’ then radical theme “Less Aesthetics, More Ethics” but also that the jury recognized the importance of my old mentor Paolo Soleri, until then mostly ignored in high architecture circles, by awarding him the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement alongside Renzo Piano and Jørn Utzon.

Since 2000 I have been “religiously” to every single Biennale. Kurt W. Forster’s 2004 “Metamorph” didn’t leave much impression, but the following edition, “Cities, Architecture and Society” directed by Ricky Burdett was historic, launching the “urban age”. The idea that cities consist of not only fixed artifacts but also flows of capital, energy, people, resources and ideas was revolutionary at the time. This was also the first time I accompanied my architecture students which gave it all added meaning. 

Since then the pendulum has swung predictably between expanding boundaries (“Out There: Architecture Beyond Building” by Aaron Betsky) and returning to basics “People meet in architecture” by Kazuyo Sejima, finally a woman, and the radically basic “Elements” by Rem Koolhaas in 2014. It has frequently touched on the collective, such as Common Ground by David Chipperfield in 2012 and Freespace curated by Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara in 2018, and the spontanous “Reporting from the Front” directed by Alejandro Aravena in 2016. 

Each curaturial theme has spurred reflection and fired inspiration amongst my students and certainly amongst practitioners around the world. The sheer amount of work that has gone into each edition is mind-boggling when you consider all of the national pavilions, all of the fringe events. This year I was asked to submit a project and in doing so I contemplated what a huge undertaking it would have been had my (admittedly overly ambitious) proposal been accepted. Multiply that by hundreds. 

This year — although I am not exhibiting — I am privileged to be participating in the (much less stressful) pre-opening unveiling of the exhibitions. I am documenting the Biennale through videos which will be available on my YouTube channel and drafting a more analytical review to be published on CultureFuture.

My quick reaction to the overall production is this: strong ideas addressing essential issues and admirable inclusivity but in need of a stronger graphic thread tying it all together. I was reminded of Richard Saul Wurman’s book Information Anxiety which addresses our inundation with data but lack of tools and patterns to give it meaning.

I found myself clinging to Hashim Sarkis’ words on the introductory panels, those dividing each sector, and in his wonderful podcasts. There I found extreme clarity (no surprise as I recall his calm intelligence from seminars we attended in grad school decades ago). From his unpacking word-by-word of the question which is the exhibition theme: “How will we live together” to the five scales which structure the Arsenale and Biennale pavilions, a general framework stands out clearly. The question is open, looking for not one but infinite answers, and not restricted to architecture although given the context some connection to architecture is a given.

The scales addressed begin with “Among Diverse Beings” about our bodies, thinking how they interact with other bodies (the potential exchange of embraces, fluids, contaminants) and with the environment, our exposure to toxins, often invisible. Before seeing the exhibit I anticipated questions about how our bodies relate to machines, from the phone in our hand, the buds in our ears, the extensions of our nervous system and augmented aids for our senses and our muscles. Machines help us get around but they also get in our way and threaten us, not just missiles with malicious intentions but well-intentioned but distracted operators who run down pedestrians in our cities. How will we live with these machines when they begin to act autonomously, programmed to pay attention and carry out tasks with precision, but programmed by fallable humans? How will our bodies live with these machines when, like our Apple Watch, they know more about us then we do? This scale leads me to envision wearable devices, prosthetics, ergonomic furniture. But I didn’t find any of this, beyond some suggestions about wearables and restrooms and learning from bees. The most interesting exhibition for me in this area was the first of 24 research stations, An Archaeology of Disability, about making the Acropolis in Athens more accessible, and consequently more applicable, to all.

The next scale is “As New Households”, asking how we will live in setups that differ from traditional nuclear families. Here I expected projects for housing, for interiors, and for shared space in collective dwellings. As families evolve and cities densify the empty spaces can be infilled with unorthodox uses, micro-apartments for singles, shared workshops and storage, dormitories with common eating facilities, tourist facilities which can be retooled as emergency shelters, etc. 

The most interesting installation here I thought was called Rural Nostalgia/Urban Dream by Line+ Studio which documented the Dongziguan Affordable Housing village with a beautiful large physical model. I also very much liked NADAA’s projects for the Boston area which suggested new models for collective rural living in clear text and representations. And Beirut architect Lina Ghotmeh’s suggestive sculptural living tower, “An Archeology of the Future.”

Moving into the next sector called “As Emerging Communities” I expect to find how communities represent the common, shared space of multiple households, but they can also be communities of individuals and they can transcend place, as the communities of adolescents connected globally in Minecraft unbeknownst to others in their household. But of interest to architects are the places where people can share physical experience, sounds, tastes, the complexity of city life or the intimacy of pockets of quiet space in cities. How can we live such spaces rather than entering them only to document our presence there, sharing a selfie to our “real virtual” communities on line? This is not a minor question; in our online bubble it is unlikely we will meet “others” as happens in a well-considered public space. Here there are many interesting projects but I’ll just highlight a few: Enlace Arquitectura’s cataloguing of the plant species in the barrios of Caracas, Danish team Effekt’s living model of a forest in Denmark watered through a hydroponic system (can’t wait to see it in when I come with my students in the fall), and Michael Maltzan’s Sixth Street Viaduct Replacement Project in LA. The Open Collective research station addresses important ideas; like most of the exhibition content the temptation is to take note and delve into it later while seated at a computer.

The (casual?) contrast between SOM designs for lunar housing and the far more essential construction materials and details of the Tambacounda Hospital in Senegal spoke poignantly.

As I look back at my notes and the catalogue I realize just how rich this section is, as it should be. Data and maps, recalling the 2006 Biennale, appear in Rahul Mehrotra’s satellite images of India, in Beirut Shifting Grounds, and Qatar Transforming Landscapes.

The other two sectors, continuing in the expanding nested shells to address regional and global realities, will be the subject of other posts. Also, I will save for another time my commentary on the national pavilions and collateral events of which there are so many that another trip to Venice may be in order.

Spritz Time