The Venice Architecture Biennale is the first major international event to take place since the pandemic broke out. Even the Academy and the Grammy Awards, although more important from an economic and mediatic point of view, took place in conditions of great isolation and remained almost exclusively American events. Therefore, to present and review this year's edition, the question we should be asking ourselves is not How will we live together? but rather “How have we started living again?”.
The first answer is “Heavenly!”. The most common and sincere comment of those who were there on the opening days was: “This is the most beautiful Biennale ever! It's so quiet and there are so few people that we can finally look at the exhibition without feeling rushed...”. It was not an elitist opening, but rather an interested and motivated participation, far from being an exhibition. Those who were there saw the floods of presential and presidential visitors disappear, the former museum directors losing their power, and got a distracted glimpse of the still important ones at the bottom of the smiling eyes of the friends that they finally met again after three long years. Thanks to the re-opening restrictions and the bad weather, which further rarefied crowds and meetings, the people in Venice were able to experience – at least a little – how wonderful this magical city has been over the past few months.
This “world without tourism” (which had already disappeared by Sunday, when the spaces were fortunately filled with the large number of tourists – which confirmed that the number of visitors will be very high even this year) was offered a Biennale that was finally “research-based”. Baratta's last legacy was the first post-archistar edition, i.e. an edition without the curatorship of a successful architect serving as an attraction, which is fundamental in order to raise enough funds to organise the exhibition.
The success of this Biennale had already been assured a couple of weeks before the opening, when the government granted 12% of the entire budget for culture offered by the relaunch decree to the Venetian event, thus recognising not only the national primacy and international value of the Foundation, but also directing those funds towards precise directions and crucial aspects that we will address later.
One of the most beautiful works in this Biennale. A circular wall made of rough and hostile wooden poles that reproduce those that were erected by the Spanish in the conquered territories to delimit a "parliament": this space will be used to make two populations who have always been in conflict talk to each other: the Mapuche and the Chileans. Specifically, sitting at this table are a Mapuche territorial organization and a Chilean forestry company. Both live in the same territory and both understand that clashes have not solved their problems.
A beautiful pavilion about the most democratic building technique in the United States: the balloon frame. Easy to build, economical and son of a migrant population. A construction system that has always been outside the architectural discourse and that finally finds its due legitimacy. A true architecture for self-determination, a triumph of the do-it-yourself philosophy.
A winning synthesis of the long process the pavilion has undergone in the last two years. "The pavilion speaks of itself, of the very idea of institutions at the Biennale," curator Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli explains. The exhibition is therefore divided into three moments: a theoretical one, with contributions from leading names on the role of institutions, collected in a volume; a practical one, with the impressive renovation of the pavilion by the Russian-Japanese studio KASA, and their poetic design proposal displayed along the walls through illustrations; and an interactive one, with multi-player videogames to play on the ground floor, putting together a physical and digital community.
Together with a team of historians and art students, the curators collected 500 testimonies of life and transformed them into 500 oil paintings representing them. The testimonies are about memories of past and present life in one of Santiago's most emblematic housing settlements: the José Maria Caro, south of Santiago's peri-urban ring road. Through painting, the messages become universal, and we thank the curators for this generous glimpse into community life.
Among the best national pavilions at Arsenale, here the Filipino-Norwegian curatorial team introduces us to a practice of self-building and community construction that happens in the Philippines, which is crucial when villages are swept away by tsunamis and hurricanes, with slow or sometimes absent administrations reacting to emergencies. The wooden library that we see set up in the Arsenale is a project realized within one of these communities that will return to its original village once the Biennale is over. Practices of this type that take place all around the world, including Norway, are taken into consideration within the exhibition.
The house of your dreams. Rainwater rivulets reminiscent of the Roman Domus, herbal teas, vegetable gardens and water tanks on which to sit and relax. An idea of holistic architecture very close to our desire for beauty to be experienced in everyday life and interiors.
One of the very few pavilions to have talked about digital platforms, platform capitalism and, specifically, platform architecture. By now apps are part of our present and architecture can't help but deal with them. Must see.
Born from a research on ancient olive trees on which it is said that the dove of the end of the Great Flood landed, the exhibition is an emotional and artistic collection of metaphors: silence, explosion, nature. Set up inside the magnificent Magazzini del Sale, it is a comprehensive exhibition that leaves nothing to chance and combines art, architecture, poetry and music. Must see.
The large and noisy installation that stands out in the pavilion space is curated by Annex, a collective of architects, artists and urban planners. The reflection focuses on the relationship between the Irish landscape and digital infrastructures. In recent decades, in fact, the country has been progressively populated by data centers - the last surge related to Brexit - arriving today to host 25% of these facilities in Europe. Metal frames, cables for data transmission and fans define a pavilion with a strong visual impact, in which the collective's research is developed. Giulia Ricci
The pavilion that any architect can appreciate: a review in the form of libidinous paper and wooden maquettes of over 40 projects built in Flanders. The subject is common Flemish terraced buildings (Wallonia not really included).
Republic of Uzbekistan Pavilion
This year's great expectation and for the first time at the Biennale (also marked by a mega yacht docked in the Lagoon), the Uzbek pavilion relies on an exceptional curatorial team – a partnership between the Union of Architects of the Republic of Uzbekistan, the Tashkent Institutte of Architecture and Civil Engineering and ETH Zurich – to talk about mahalla-s, the agglomerations of traditional houses and community spaces that can accommodate from 150 up to 2,000 inhabitants and that are at risk of extinction with the new urbanization of the country. The ephemeral installation is made of yellow tubes representing their profiles, together with an audio work that has become a vinyl record that is already a collectors' piece and a photographic work by Bas Princen.
Picked up by the Guardian as the only example of good curating (curiously), the Victoria & Albert Museum's pavilion is an exhibition in classic form that talks about mosques in London as examples of places born from below, relatively spontaneous and communal, bringing back in Venice parts of historic mosques on a 1:1 scale.
A reflection on the inexorable privatization of public spaces in the UK, and the loss of community spaces such as the traditional pub due to Covid. The pavilion, very scenic, uses the Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch as a metaphor, a bit tortuouse, of the sense that today the privatized public space plays. A middle way between hell and heaven.
Inaugurated in very difficult days for Israel, the pavilion touches on a universal theme in a clear and touching way: the contradictory relationship with animals and with the agricultural land of the so-called "land of milk and honey", the region between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, the holy and promised land and the highly contested territory of Israel and Palestine.
"In the infinite house you do not enter, you are always inside it". With a very simple and evocative setting, the infinite house is a collage of projects – realized and not – of social houses in Argentina (but that could belong to any other country) and that represent collective living.
A succession of spectacular displays that ideally start from the human scale to reach the solar system and beyond. An accumulation of projects and researches signed by the contemporary intellectual protagonists of the architecture world: to be seen with patience since they are not always supported by easy communication. "The sense of community is eroding in the face of growing individualism, which in turn leads to further isolation, but new forms of interaction between individuals and between individuals and other species are compensating for some of this loneliness," reads the introduction.
The pavilion is converted into an international incubator of radical thinking where the school of the future (chock-full of behavioral rules) is imagined: an open, welcoming space with a carpet of hay, where you can linger in a placid paper room complete with electric outlets.
A very common and anonymous Japanese wooden house is dismantled, its parts catalogued, and sent to Venice for the Bennale. The reconstruction is bumpy due to Covid's difficulties and reinterpreted in an creative way, bringing with it this important message: "Your actions are not yours alone. Each of them, no matter how trivial, is the result of countless cumulative actions born out of our relationships with each other. Therefore, it is absurd to claim that our actions belong exclusively to ourselves."
The United Arab Emirates decide to abandon cement and ask themselves what alternative materials could be: they propose salt, an ancient building material used for example in the city of Siwa in Egypt. Salt is not extracted from the ground (a process that is not sustainable from an environmental point of view) but crystallized as it happens in the salt pans called sabkhah. The project is a research carried out by scientists from three universities: New York University Abu Dhabi, University of Tokyo and the American University of Sharjah.
What is the life of Romanian expats in Europe? A journey into the lives of ordinary people: a rapper, a communication manager, a farmer, in European countries like Spain. In 2007, in fact, 3.4 million people left the country, while the country's immigration quadrupled. What are the urban implications of this process? All told by Away, a reportage by Teleleu, by the curatorial project Fading Borders and by the research Shrinking Cities Romania.
The cultural institution in Moscow directed by Teresa Iarocci Mavica and Leonid Mikhelson entrusts its contribution to the Venice Biennale to Joseph Grima, who organized an exhibition-workshop-temporary residence called "Non-Extractive Architecture: On Designing without Depletion". The spaces of the Foundation, recently renovated, now host carpentry workshops, exhibition rooms and mobile libraries for residents invited to participate, under the banner of self-building, sharing of knowledge and, above all, reuse and recycling in architecture. The residency will last six months, while the exhibition and research project is ongoing throughout the year.
Entirely entrusted to Michele De Lucchi who does not betray the expectations. On display a path of wooden models to suggest visions of a future architecture dictated by order, harmony and beauty.
Taiwanese architects Divooe Zein Architects have been realizing for almost twenty years the utopia that many are only facing now. At the Palazzo delle Prigioni one of the best installations of the Biennale 2021. On display is the work of the studio, which takes a holistic approach that considers nature, art, music, science and architecture. The model in the second room is of their studio made with construction techniques they invented specifically. The space is intentionally very dark, to stimulate our animal instinct and slow down the pace.
This exhibition at the Biennale public restrooms could have fulfilled its full potential if the captions had been applied in the interior doors of the individual restrooms. That being said, sensitive issues emerge here, such as regulations, ecosystems related to water access. You're bound to see it, and it is connected to another exhibit on bathrooms as protest space set up at the Arsenale's Central Pavilion titled "Your Restroom is a Battleground."
Many believed there was no exhibit. The door was supposed to open via a QR code, but it was always closed. Interestingly, it is the architecture of the pavilion itself that is on display, covered by a green screen that investigates the distorted presence of architecture in films, documentaries and the virtual world in general. Although it is little, it is still brilliant.
Authoritative negative criticisms
Despite these favourable premises, the first reviews of the event were particularly negative. Authoritative voices such as Oliver Wainwright's from The Guardian and Carolyn Smith's from The Architectural Review literally demolished the layout and organization of the exhibition and attacked the very structure of the institution. They accused it of having organized an exhibition that fails to go beyond the curator's choice of their favourite candy, and the inability to manage an event based essentially on temporary installations without taking into account the global shift towards a more careful use of resources, including the reuse of materials and the avoidance of waste and unnecessary CO2 emissions.
And let's not even try to think of what they would have to say about the next edition of the Salone del Mobile next September. However, their shared opinion is that it would have been better not to organize a biennial at all this year, but rather to use the break to understand what our way of living together in the future will really be, starting from Venice.
To these criticisms must be added the reproaches coming from outside Venice (Italia Nostra, Associazione Bianchi Bandinelli, ANAI Associazione Nazionale Archivistica Italiana, Emergenza Cultura, who have accused the Italian Ministry of Culture of rewarding the lagoon's great centre of excellence at the expense of the smaller, more widespread realities, and of the many people in the city who have seen this funding as yet another push towards tourism, that at the same time forgets to direct resources to housing facilities and other services for the languishing lagoon.
What is certain is that the post-pandemic experience and these accurate critiques show the end of an era. The Trente Glorieuses (1990-2020) are over, and we are witnessing the end of a cycle. “Every epoch not only dreams the next, but while dreaming impels it towards wakefulness – as Benjamin puts it. With the grand opera of the upheaval of the market economy we begin to recognize monuments as ruins even before they have crumbled”.
Monuments without struggles
So, what are the consequences of seeing the monuments at the Giardini, amongst the Corderie columns, and on the Arsenale as ruins? In the meantime, a crucial issue must be pointed out: how do we relate to the new ethnic and social horizons that should allow us to break free from Western political and cultural colonialism? Twenty years after the Platea dell'Umanità/Plateau of Humankind, these questions seem to have been entirely resolved in the art biennial, but in the architecture world, we still have to ask ourselves whether Aravena's magnificent trunks are yet another act of cultural appropriation, or whether they are there to point out an exit towards a horizon in which the Mapuche community will be directly asked to participate, without the intermediary of architectural authorship (in this perspective, the splendid participation of Thailand and the Philippines, and of native Canadian architects in 2019, seem less spectacular, but certainly more appropriate). And yet, it is precisely this formidable installation that perhaps offers an initial response to the web of questions that we are all asking ourselves at the same time. In the months of the pandemic, much has been said about the jobs in the cultural sector, the need to protect them, to support them, to make them evolve, and, above all, to acknowledge them. Well, without the extraordinary work of Luigi D'Oro, that stuff would not only not exist, but it would not even stand up. Readers may wonder who he is... and we won't explain it, for the simple reason that we don't know the names of all those who put that thing together.
In the architecture world, we still have to ask ourselves whether Aravena's magnificent trunks are yet another act of cultural appropriation, or whether they are there to point out an exit towards a horizon in which the Mapuche community will be directly asked to participate, without the intermediary of architectural authorship...
And it is not to simply acknowledge their presence, but because they have put in their experience acquired over time, their inventive capacities, their “tacit knowledge”, as Polany would say, that they should be named. Suffice it to say that in the present edition, apart from the photographs in the contradictory American pavilion – especially the very effective ones by Chris Strong – and something (but not much related to construction work) in the Romanian pavilion and in some rooms of the central pavilion at the Giardini, it is surprising how absent the theme of work is. In all these years (I may be missing something, and I'd be more than happy if the readers helped me to remember all the examples I have left out) only the 2014 Polish pavilion represented and discussed the theme of work in the construction industry, in the construction of buildings and spaces, and in the maintenance of interiors and exteriors. This means that the crucial issue in our society and its consequences have been entirely neglected by the exhibition, not only today but over the decades... It is certainly not the Biennale institution's fault if, in the face of an overexposure of refugees and immigrants, we have an extraordinary underrepresentation of the world of work and of the people working in architecture.
Cambridge style display
Amidst the glare of an exhibition that, since Richard Burdett's time, has returned to being interested in planning, engineering, and urbanism to save the world, there is something that does not work, something purely related to what it means to exhibit an investigation, a study and its encounter with the inescapably “aesthetic” dimension of architecture (in the sense of art of perception, rather than taste for beauty).
The curator's choice was to bring the style of the exhibitions that can be found in the halls of Harvard Graduate School of Design or the MIT, where these kinds of exhibition diagrams and info-techno-logical installation inventions appear. Usually, they're one or two at a time, and for the duration of a few weeks, before being integrated into huge academic volumes.
But if you have hundreds of them (we have counted and read – yes I have read them all! – no less than 800 texts in the form of posters and long captions to be read if you want to understand the whole exhibition), the visitor will be overwhelmed by a universal exhibition-like phantasmagoria. Of course, all tastes are catered for, of course the experience is involving and all-encompassing, of course the idea is that you will come back to the exhibition again and again (even if you have to pay 25 euros every time... and even with the discounts, it does not really suit all post-pandemic pockets)… but let's go back to the starting point: if you want to save the world, why are you doing it by making masses of objects and people move without taking into account how these people travel and how these objects are created?
In this phantasmagoria, one loses awareness of the partiality of the globalism represented. Few seem to have realised that all the world's largest countries are missing from this year's exhibition: China (perhaps a temporary absence?), India, Canada (the pavilion is closed, but the programme is online), Russia (whose participation is essentially centred on the important restoration of the pavilion and the display of publications of the research carried out during the year-long break), not to mention all the African and Oceanic countries (except for Australia, whose exhibition is also essentially online, and Egypt, although no one went there to remember Patrick Zaky's or Giulio Regeni's story).
In short, once again it is not only the Western bloc that is explaining how we should live but also the Atlantic one. What emerges is a proposal for a logic that is almost reminiscent of post-war modernism, where for the umpteenth time we are asked to embrace technologies and logics without verifying them. And yet, if the century of biennials has taught us anything, it is that you cannot constantly present innovations and prospects, make demonstration projects, denounce issues and never provide proof that they work, or that they might bring about serious contradictions over time.
True innovation is not to suggest the hypothesis of something new, but to consolidate in the market (of goods, of research, of everything) something capable of establishing itself as convenient under given conditions. It must not say 'some left-wing stuff' – it must do something useful, wise, practical, beautiful, economical, aware of the consequences with respect to the already existing! It should not fill halls with plastic and plexiglass to show that there is plastic in the seas, and that “this is a problem!”.
There is an obvious loss of credibility on the part of architecture and a clear confusion of roles if you make an exhibition on non-extractive architecture – probably the most radical statement in Venice at the moment – produced by a gas extractor; or if you claim to recreate the rural habitat of the Uzbek mahalla as an ecosystem “to be opposed to mega-cities”, and then your client comes with a 73-metre-long, five-storey-high Plan B docked on the Sette Martiri bank.
The Biennale institution is not responsible for all these aspects either, but its people, those who work there, those who have contracts, subcontracts, and so on, until the end of the night... these people are the greatest experts in the history of exhibitions: they know how to clean them, assemble them, dismantle them, switch them on, turn them off. They are the vanguard of the future, they are the intercontinental standard that deserves 12% of the entire Italian cultural budget (and in our opinion, it is not much!).
We are sure that it is crystal clear to them that today certain representation mechanisms are no longer effective and perhaps not even acceptable, and that the problem is not the seduction of infographics and the power of the display, but rather to reflect on the encounter with the interlocutor of the discourse.
We really don't know what could be clearer than the fact that denouncing and demonstrating phenomena is useless. Let's think of Giulia Foscari's magnificent research (here is an excellent suggestion for the next curator, enfant prodige of the Venetian tradition of welcoming people): could it ever have consequences and an audience among the Antarctic researchers that her work concerns? Arcangelo Sassolino's works on disruption and collapse do not seem to have bothered them for a decade. Does all this “architects for architects” talk, starting from the point of view of architects and “architecture as a medium that makes a difference”, really catch the attention of all the other disciplines and professions involved, acclaimed, and evoked in aid and reference?
There is really a lot to be done to understand what should be shown, how it should be shown, for what purpose, for whom, for how many, when... We only know that it will have to be something necessary and low-impact. And we also know where it will need to be shown: here in Venice, at the Biennale, between the Arsenale and the Giardini.
It is fundamental that you come and visit this exhibition because it is the last one before the Biennale stops going to Cambridge or Massachusetts looking for answers. From now on, we are all convinced – as last year's “extraordinary” exhibition organized by the new president has already shown – that its starting point will once again be its formidable archive, and that it will become the research exhibition centre that everyone expects. Endowed with unsurpassed exhibition know-how, it will reconstruct in a fertile and correct way the relationship with manual work and create a different way of understanding maintenance, time, and visits.
It will show and highlight the workers – without distinctions of gender and rank – who are now in the background, wearing dark uniforms and thick shoes, and highlight their knowledge and material skills. Then, it will make clear that when you intervene here – in a city that is an example of the possibility of living together in nature – you must be careful to take all possibilities into account, to make your passage on earth as light and sensible as possible, and to pay close attention to the consequences of your every action on all living beings, both visible and invisible.
It will recall – without regrets, but with a profound awareness that there's a goal to be achieved – that when the Beaubourg needed to create the fruition model of its library it drew inspiration from the Historical Archive of Contemporary Art (ASAC), which at the time was a jewel of innovation for the first multimedia archives. And it will highlight its history, suggesting to the V&A curators that there was no need to bring TV sets here, when there had already been the far more radical experience of the mosque installed by Christoph Buchel in the Chiesa della Misericordia.
Thanks to the money coming from the recovery fund, the spaces in the Arsenale and in the Giardini will be renovated and used – as already announced – to finally bring the archives back to the lagoon, fighting the process of exploitation of temporary Venetian spaces through dubious companies, who are in fact functional to trigger the real estate and tourist market.
It will have workers that live in the city, and it will give life to a different way of understanding the way of organizing exhibitions, thinking about transforming EVERYTHING into a new art system! It will create an alliance capable of highlighting the greatness of the art of time, that of maintenance and care, offering all this and its places to welcome tangential, removed, emerging personalities, peoples and characters that must be defended and understood.
It is fundamental that you come and visit this exhibition because it is the last one before the Biennale stops going to Cambridge or Massachusetts looking for answers.
Representation of the research
The Biennale will also be able to choose from a variety of exhibition models other than the current pre-packaged candy collections or architectural models. Speaking of which, let's recall the Fundamentals model (2014), a double general research articulated in clear and defined topics directly controlled by the two curators, and assigned and developed in collaboration with a group of “researchers”, who then exhibited the topics within a strongly characterised setting that was perhaps intended to reflect the different sections of the Biennale (art, dance, cinema, and so on.). Let's also remember People meet in Architecture (2010), a succession of installations/spaces/architectures whose content is not necessarily relevant, but which have the effect of a sensory and atmospheric experience that restores the essence of architecture as a spatial and phenomenological art. In other words, in the future, there will be exhibitions that will not exhaust the visitors, but that will allow them to understand that architecture, urbanism, planning, and design can be cumulative knowledge and not some kinds of entertainment among a collection of narcissisms created to replace the sense of guilt that comes after a gondola ride...
Opening Image: Architecture Biennale, Venice 2021. Central pavilion. Photo Giulia Di Lenarda, Giorgio De Vecchi