The 2021 Venice Architecture Biennale is a Timely Survey of Architecture’s Role in Building Human Connections Across Geographical and Cultural Divides

Installation view of the Austrian Pavilion, “PLATFORM AUSTRIA”, at 17th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, How will we live together?, 2021. Photo: © AFP | Andrea Ferro Photography.
Installation view of the Uzbekistan Pavilion showing Christ & Gantenbein’s “Mahalla: Urban Rural Living” at the 17th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, How will we live together?, 2021. Image courtesy Giorgio De Vecchi – Giulia Di Lenarda / gerdastudio.
Installation view of the United Arab Emirates Pavilion, “WETLAND”, at 17th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, How will we live together?, 2021. Photo by: Andrea Avezzù. Image courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia.
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COVID-19 is far from over in Italy, but the 17th Venice Architecture Biennale has opened, a year later than originally scheduled. Ironically, the biennale’s theme, “How Will We Live Together?”, was proposed by curator Hashim Sarkis before the pandemic. With a dwindled audience since attendance is still impossible for many, we ask: Is it possible to explore the world’s largest architectural event online?

 

TEXT: Herbert Wright
IMAGES: Courtesy of various

The sheer size of the 17th Venice Architecture Biennale (VAB) is overwhelming—this year, there are 61 national pavilions, 17 collateral shows, pop-up fringe shows, some art installations and a collaboration with the Biennale Danza 2021, celebrating contemporary dance. Unfortunately, tracking down what there is of VAB online is a challenge, because the official website is not quite a go-to hub for everything. Understandably it offers a guide to the real-world event, where its revenue will come from, but the organisers also offer up some videos on their Biennale Channel. These include “sneak peaks” taking you through the set-up of the Biennale in its three core zones. The videos from the Arsenale zone don’t name or explain the installations by architects which they survey, but give you a good sense of how the old shipbuilding complex provides stunning frames for the contemporary works, especially the 317-metre-long chain of halls in the Corderie building. The central zone is the Giardini, a park strewn with national pavilion buildings around the large Central Pavilion, where many exhibitors congregate. There is a new, third zone on the mainland’s Forte Marghera, where the sub-theme about playgrounds is “How will we play together?”

However, there is an alternative channel, Biennale Pavilions, with films from various national pavilions, and a programme of online events. And of course, you can find a lot more by Googling individual participants. There are numerous films which trailer the shows, and plenty of images and text, but nowhere, it seems, will you find VR versions of exhibitions. Austria gets straight to the point about the virtual world with its show “We Like”.  In their website’s  section, a visually abstract film with a Hito Steyerl-style commentary introduces their concept of platform urbanism. It says that online platforms are like cities, but we need to react to how they’re monetised.

 

Installation view of the Austrian Pavilion, “PLATFORM AUSTRIA”, at 17th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, How will we live together?, 2021. Photo: © AFP | Andrea Ferro Photography.

 

Online tours through physical pavilions are rare, such as that which whizzes us through the neo-classical building that is the British Pavilion. It hosts sometimes zany rooms in Manijeh Verghese and Madeleine Kessler’s exhibition “The Garden of Privatised Delights”, which explores ideas for public community spaces at a time when these are increasingly privatised. Meanwhile, the Lebanese Pavilion offers a complete change of tone with architect Hala Wardé’s “A roof for silence”. A sombre, contemplative film tour passes without commentary from the sunlit canals into the actual semi-dark pavilion, a palazzo in which melted glass on the floor, paintings and an enigmatic glass pavilion-within-the-pavilion culminate in wall screens showing ancient olive trees. It is a powerful experience, in contrast with the separate survey exhibition by Lebanese architects Sandra Frem and Bouhos Douaihy which features more conventional graphics, film and photos, titled Beirut Shifting Grounds.

Over half of the world’s population is now living in urban places, and architecture and urbanism are inextricably linked, so ideas about the city are never scarce in VAB. For example, architect Christophe Hutin, curator of the French Pavilion, made a film with edits of his research trips into urban communities from the United States to China for “Communities at Work”. The Uzbekistan Pavilion offers another prequel-to-exhibition film about the dense, traditional urban village settlements of the region, the subject of “Mahalla: Urban Rural Living” by Swiss practice Christ & Gantenbein. Home Ground, an installation by Alison Brooks Architects, explores living in cities with an ensemble of residential models, but above the ground floor, the representations of buildings float futuristically as forms of light. Such projects look at cities as they are, and overall VAB seems rooted in the present more than in imagined futures. The Hong Kong Pavilion, however, is one exhibit where both can be found. Commissioned films, accessible only by being there in person with your QR code scanner, include architect Tszwai So’s film E-motion-AI City. The trailer gives not just the flavour of a young family’s life in Hong Kong’s Tsuen Wan neighbourhood but underlines a question about the relationship between the digital and real world. Disclaimer alert—the film’s spoken words are mine!

Installation view of the Uzbekistan Pavilion showing Christ & Gantenbein’s “Mahalla: Urban Rural Living” at the 17th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, How will we live together?, 2021. Image courtesy Giorgio De Vecchi – Giulia Di Lenarda / gerdastudio.
Installation view of the United Arab Emirates Pavilion, “WETLAND”, at 17th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, How will we live together?, 2021. Photo by: Andrea Avezzù. Image courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia.

 

The spatial territories which participants explore go far beyond the city. A plea to re-evaluate our urban attitude to the countryside is made through stunning images in the Polish Pavilion’s exhibition “Trouble in Paradise” curated by PROLOG +1. Perhaps we need to re-evaluate the human-centric world we create, and Anglo-Indian studio Superflux’s “Refuge for Resurgence” imagines an oak table where different species can meet and eat together, which they specially crafted for VAB. On Venice’s island of San Maggiore, the Caravane Earth foundation have responded to the biennale theme with “The Majlis: A Meeting Place”, with a bamboo pavilion of ethnographical works to facilitate transnational exchange, built by Moroccan and Colombian artisans in a new wildflower garden. They will remain in situ after the biennale concludes.

Paris-based architects TVK demonstrate their proposition that “The Earth is Architecture” with a big model that looks quite geological. The exhibition “Space/Suit” by by Cambridge, Massachusetts-based designers modem focuses on the spacesuit glove, and their sneak peek film sees one floating away from a 1960s NASA spacewalk. Its message is that space is unsuitable for humans, and as we poison our delicate atmosphere, it too could become an unsuitable home. Clearly, practical solutions for the climate emergency are needed, and the United Arab Emirates Pavilion’s show “Wetland”, curated by Wael Al Awar and Kenichi Teramoto, offers one. A prototype structure made of environmentally-friendly cement has been made from the UAE’s desalination brine. Since concrete, which is derived from cement, contributes 8% of CO2 emissions, this offers a very real, practical ray of hope.

This survey represents an almost random sample of what we can find in a DIY virtual VAB, and an insight into a tiny part of the real-world biennale. Glimpsing works online can make them even more tantalising if you can’t be there. Normally, navigating the overwhelming supply of what is on view gradually builds up a picture of what lies in the biennale curator’s chosen theme. That is more difficult with scattered online snippets. Nevertheless, what is clear from surfing VAB is that architecture continues a trend of replacing the concerns of spectacle and utopian visions with those of community and co-existence with the planet. In these lie the answers to Sarkis’ challenge of how we will live together.

 

 

 
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