Solving the World’s Problems at the Venice Architecture Biennale

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VENICE — It was perhaps inevitable that many of the questions asked of Hashim Sarkis, the curator the 17th International Architecture Biennale, during the event’s media preview, were about the pandemic.

After all, the exhibition, which opened in May and runs through Nov. 21, got bumped by a year, and various restrictions remain in place, limiting travel to Venice.

And after a bizarre 15 months that blurred the boundaries between the office and home, and challenged the very theme of the Biennale’s main exhibition — “How Will We Live Together?” — it was only natural for journalists to ask, “in a persistent and anxious way,” as Sarkis put it at the news conference, “how the pandemic changed architecture and how architecture is responding.”

Although the exhibition had been planned before the coronavirus swept the world, Sarkis, a Lebanese architect and dean of architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said that it spoke to a series of longstanding global issues — climate change, mass migration, political polarization and increasing social, economic and racial inequalities — that had contributed to the virus’s global spread.

“The pandemic will hopefully go away,” he told reporters in Venice. “But unless we address these causes, we will not be able to move forward.”

Sarkis’s show brings together a plethora of (at times confounding) projects, packed mostly into the exhibition’s two principal sites: one in the shipbuilding yard that for centuries launched Venice as a seafaring powerhouse, the other in the Giardini della Biennale, which also house pavilions where participating countries are presenting their own architectural exhibits that speak to the main theme.

Visitors expecting to see room after room of displays using the traditional language of architecture — scale models, prototypes and drawings — had come to the wrong place.

Instead, many featured projects were more like conceptual flights of fancy than plans for built environments: There were whimsical bird cages, a bust of Nefertiti made in beeswax and a chunky oak table designed to host an interspecies conference. There were projects that would have been at home in a school science fair, like proposals to feed the world with microalgae or to explore the relationship between nature and technology using a robotic arm.

The question of living together is a political issue, as well as a spatial one, Sarkis said, and several projects in the show highlight architecture’s potential in conflict resolution.

“Elemental,” an initiative spearheaded by the Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, is a striking structure of tall poles arranged in a circle that evokes a Koyauwe, or a place to parley and resolve conflicts among the Mapuche, an Indigenous population of Chile. It was commissioned by a Mapuche territorial organization as part of a rapprochement process between the group and a forest company in conflict over shared land.

Had it not been for the pandemic, representatives for the two sides would have met at the Biennale — “a neutral territory,” Aravena said — for negotiations inside the structure. It will return to Chile after the Biennale, and talks will be staged there instead, Aravena said.

A more traditional urban planning project comes from EMBT, a Barcelona-based studio, exhibiting scale models for the redevelopment of a neighborhood in Clichy-sous-Bois, near Paris, including plans for collective housing, a market and a subway station. The initiative is part of a broader initiative in Paris that will extend the city’s subway lines to better link the suburbs to the center, “to make them feel more connected,” said Benedetta Tagliabue, a partner at EMBT.

To liven up a drab neighborhood, the architects created a colorful pergola for the 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 issue of coexistence between people and other life-forms was also explored.

The New York design firm the Living has constructed a tall, cylinder-shaped room made of luffa — yes, the sponge — to showcase what the organization’s founder, David Benjamin, described as “probiotic architecture.” The room’s materials were “literally alive because of an invisible layer of microbes in their tiny cavities,” he said. “Just as we’re thinking more and more in our society about how a healthy gut microbiome, the microbes in our stomach, can promote our individual health, a healthy urban microbiome might promote our collective health,” he added.

“Yes, in a Biennale, this is a little bit conceptual,” he conceded.

The national pavilions, whose contents are selected by curators at home, rather than by Sarkis, also tackled the main show’s theme of coexistence, taking varied approaches.

The curators for the pavilion of Uzbekistan, a first-time participant in the Biennale, recreated a section of a house found in a mahalla, a low-rise, high-density community with shared spaces 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, housing between 150 to 9,000 residents, Christ said. Embodying a scale that “relates to our everyday experience,” they could be an antidote to “the anonymous solitude of citizens” and “scarcity of nature” in modern cities, Christ added.

The United States’ pavilion is unabashedly pragmatic, highlighting the predominance of timber framing in American households (90 percent of new homes are still wood framed), with a climbable, multistory timber structure that has been erected in front of the pavilion, a sharp contrast to its neo-Classical style.

“Affordable, normal wood housing is an obvious fit with the theme of living together,” said Paul Andersen, who co-curated the pavilion. Inside, photographs of undocumented day laborers, by Chris Strong, hint at the construction industry’s darker side. “Unfortunately, there is still cruelty, but hopefully more awareness,” Andersen said.

In the case of some other pavilions, like Israel’s, the postponement of the biennale by a year gave the curators extra time to develop their installation. Israel’s presentation examines the relationship between humans, the environment and animals (specifically cows, goats, honey bees, water buffalos and bats).

The curators had won a competition in August 2019 to present their multimedia project at the Biennale, which was originally scheduled for the following May. But when they set out to film bats for one of the show’s (key) videos that fall, the animals had migrated, and it was too late, said Iddo Ginat, one of the curators.

“We realized that nature has its own time and doesn’t run on that of the Biennale,” he said. “The postponement gave us a full cycle in nature.”

And in the case of Lebanon’s pavilion, the extra year allowed Hala Wardé, its curator, to integrate a tragic memento into her multimedia installation, “A Roof for Silence”: glass from the blast that devastated Beirut on Aug. 4, 2020, which was transformed by the glassworker Jeremy Maxwell Wintrebert into a tall, transparent cylindrical structure.

That structure is used as a backdrop for 16 paintings by the poet, author and artist Etel Adnan. “I chose to present Lebanon through it’s culture,” Wardé said. “It’s what is left when you’ve lost everything.”

Wardé said the project was about the need for silence, in architecture and in cities. But also, she added, “Architecture should be able to provoke this kind of emotion, just to be, and to feel good somewhere, and then be able to dream.”

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