Although the 2021 Venice Architecture Biennale does not offer a compelling answer to the question of how we will live together in the post-pandemic future, it does mark a welcome shift of the fundamentals of architecture towards social and environmental questions, argues architectural historian Markus Lähteenmäki.
Seven years ago in Venice, Rem Koolhaas asked what the fundamentals of architecture were—or, rather than asked, he told us, by showing a catalog of objects and infrastructures that make the built environment. Calling them “elements” within the framework of the Biennale titled Fundamentals, it seemed that he wanted to tell us that modernity is something built out of these elements and evolving in their transformations. He positioned architecture at the heart of this story, and the architect as the agent who can direct that change by understanding and controlling those elements and their processes of transformation. In the midst of all the cataloging, he seemed to forget that sometimes architecture is more than just a building, or an element of it; that architecture, inevitably, is also about the system that conditions its being, the lives that take place in it, the small forms that don’t follow a diagram, the traditions within which modernity unfolds, and that even with the fundamental elements, there’s a lot more at play than the architect’s vision.
The 2014 Biennale was my initiation rite (working for the curators from Strelka Institute and playing a reincarnate of El Lissizky at the extraordinary Russian Pavilion of that year), but, it also more generally seems like the benchmark for the shows that came after. Looking back now, the following biennales, although in my opinion less successful exhibitions than Koolhaas’, tried to correct his narrative of a Western, technocratic modernity. Five years ago, Alejandro Aravena’s Reporting From The Front sought to refocus the scope of what we see as an avant-garde beyond the comfortable confines of the Ivy League and narratives of European success. Then, in 2018, Shelley McNamara and Yvonne Farrell were on the lookout for Freespace—which I think means the nice little things architecture does through its spatial and formal implications that make you go “ah” (don’t get me wrong, I love them too and think they are important). This year, the focus is back on the fundamentals—but rather than elements of the built, the Biennale makes an attempt to unpack the social and environmental affiliations of architecture, with the curator of the Biennale, Hashim Sarkis, already posing in the title the disarming question of How Will We Live Together? Drawing a line from the 2014 Biennale to the current one, there is an ambitious and welcome shift from working with material realities to working with questions of community, society, and environment.
The theme for the Biennale was set before the pandemic and little adjustments were made to most exhibitions that were waiting to be installed in March 2020, when the pandemic radically changed the very way in which we do live together. It is disappointing but understandable that the exhibition was not readjusted (I doubt many could commit to a second budget and effort). Still, the strength of the initial question carried over, and, if anything, was amplified by the pandemic.
The main exhibition of the Biennale sets out to map the various scales of togetherness from neighborly co-inhabitancies to questions of migration, relations between humans and nature, and all the way to (inter)planetary questions on environments, placing the architect with their changing skill set at the center of these stories. The projects displayed vary from small to large, from buildings to technologies, from art projects to documentation of social engagement, often with a mix of more than two. They include community-built projects and individual buildings acting as important societal locus points, such as the impressive new maternity and pediatric hospital in Senegal by Manuel Herz which shows how carefully designed buildings and direct engagement with communities can make a huge difference locally.
Others, such as a video installation by the group DAAR (Decolonizing Architecture Art Research), highlights issues of migration, refugee camps, and citizenship while questioning Western, unified visions of heritage and the ways to write history across territories and borders. Yet others, like the Restroom Pavilion, alter our perception of the most mundane structures around by refashioning the public toilets of Giardini and highlighting their inherent social aspects. There are many great projects and the show is full of hope, but at times raises many more questions than it gives answers. Unfortunately, it is often about mediation rather than the projects themselves.
As a whole, the exhibition appears simply confusing and overwhelming. Walking through the Arsenale felt like walking through a grad-show of an architecture school overblown as a massive trade fair. The ideas and projects might have been good, but the half-witted displays of models and posters—at times accentuated by a fragment of a material, a corner of a shelter or the like, together with a total lack of coherence and mediation when moving from one display to the next—made it difficult to grasp. Of course, there were exceptions among the participants, and even the grad-show format of models and drawings can be done well—as demonstrated by Dogma, whose installation tackles the spatial problematics of Belgium’s shrinking urban areas. This is done with a simple but accurate display of models surrounded by the office’s signature line drawings hung on the walls—something a whole generation of grad-shows has by now sought to imitate.
Perhaps this year the incoherence was partially caused by the unusual circumstances of installation, where many of the architects and designers were not able to be on location to do it. On the other hand, having had a full year to shuffle with the already envisioned individual displays, one could have curated an exhibition out of them. Now, it seems that the most basic parts of exhibition-making—such as labels, light, visual anchors, and spatial narratives—have simply been overlooked and the result poignantly lays bare that beyond all the great ideas and ambitions expressed, the Biennale, each time, inevitably, also boils down to two questions: “How should you exhibit architecture?” and “How is an exhibition made?”
The questions of display are more easily tackled on the more manageable scale of the national pavilions that this year approach the theme of the Biennale with as diverse a set of approaches as ever. They range from highlighting the importance of simple wooden structures for building our world as it stands (the Japanese, American, and Finnish pavilions) to unpicking complex historical narratives in the ways the built environment relates to our lives (the Chilean and Uzbekistan pavilions) to questions of social and racial inclusion and seclusion (the Dutch pavilion) and architecture’s interplanetary futures (the Lithuanian pavilion).
Some of the outstanding examples both in terms of content and display include shows such as Othernity in the Hungarian pavilion—a carefully and beautifully composed exhibition on alternative narratives of Eastern European modernity displayed through a mixture of contemporary practices involved with urban space, from photography to art to design. Then there’s the heartbreaking Lebanese pavilion. Through what is more of an art exhibition consisting of a few powerful works and installations, it shows the fragility of the built environment, but also the power of people and nature to prevail. In both, the involvement of a curator as someone who thinks of the whole as mediated through a constellation of objects and displays was strongly present.
The Belgian pavilion’s imaginary, miniature urban landscape displays the power of models used well, displaying a wealth of formal architectural thinking, while the first-ever Uzbekistan pavilion by Christ & Gantenbein showcases the simple power of well-made images (by Bas Princen and Carlos Casas) of strong architectural objects and communities. Displayed in the midst of a playful but powerful structure made out of a bright yellow metal frame which references gas pipes, the rich but rarely seen architectural heritage of the country is showcased together with a living heritage of urban-rural communities known as mahallas.
Many of the questions of mediation and display are specific to the context of the Biennale. It seems that what works here are displays that take an important question of the built environment, community life, or architectural practice and display it through one or a sequence of powerful spatial gestures that shift our perception of something we have seen, but never quite noticed; never problematized. Such gestures are now made, for example, in the wooden timber frame facade built in front of the American pavilion that renders visible the most ubiquitous marker of American buildings: the timber frame. The topic is then unpacked inside the pavilion with models, texts, and photographs. Perhaps the most powerful display is that in the Chilean pavilion inside the Arsenale: a simple rectangular space with all of its walls covered with a grid of 500 A3-size horizontal oil paintings, all painted in a similar style and depicting scenes of life at one housing estate. Here, visual and spatial ideas and gestures come powerfully together with a simple concept, creating a display that offers moments of joy and awe that leave a mark, while also giving touching and concrete answers to the question of how we will live together—and most importantly, both emotionally and conceptually alter our understanding of it. It renders the life of an exemplary but still typical and ubiquitous typology of the housing estate as something poetic, showing us how, by having the right curiosity and eye and asking the right questions, we can learn from where we least expect.
It is difficult to make complex exhibitions consisting of historical documents or too many exhibits to work in the Biennale, simply because of the number of shows there and the attention span of visitors. But there are always exceptions, and I think such shows have a chance, in particular outside the Giardini proper. A case in point is the exhibition about the work of Yugoslav architect Svetlana Kana Radevic (1937–2000) at the Palazzo Palumbo Fossati, which is part of the Biennale’s collateral events. The show not only shines a light on the oeuvre of a brilliant but largely forgotten architect, elevating her as a voice of her generation and a model for ours, but also acts as a reminder and demonstration that a more traditional approach to exhibiting with drawings, archival photographs, and documents can—when well done—still, in the midst of all the new media, conceptual formulas, and grand gestures, be a powerful tool to mediate architecture.
The title of the show in the Russian pavilion—Open—highlights an extremely important and topical theme. The work of the curators in between different media, from online platforms to print to the space of the pavilion itself, is indeed resourceful. The basement of the pavilion is crammed with wonders that approach architecture’s futures through new media environments from fun and clever video games to chat-bots and other digital whatnots. The upstairs forms a stark contrast to this, with a light and open space that itself serves as the main “exhibit” here. The pavilion’s original windows have been reopened after decades of being plastered shut, and only post-card size images and some textual information documenting the construction are on display in this newly-lit space, which is otherwise quite empty making the newly configured space itself the center of attention.
Excited about the title and the pavilion’s active online presence throughout the past year, I came to the exhibition asking: “How do you exhibit openness?” “What is an open institution here?” “How do you start to move towards an open society?” While raising all of these questions is a landmark event in its own right and the exhibition has many of the right ingredients in it, it also feels like the ultra-cool and clean execution hinders its openness. With all the mixing of media and the approach of a book as an exhibition, blog as a book, and building as a statement, even I struggled to connect the points and make sense of it as a whole. But, inevitably, part of it is also the fact that openness also means inclusivity, and inclusivity means looking beyond one’s own social circle—which brings roughness, mixed feelings, and sometimes also traces of past wounds. All that seems pushed aside, hidden behind smooth and cool aluminum frames and the shiny glitter that comes with hype. “It all looked a little too much like plastic, but without being honest about plastic, without getting the importance and problematics of the plastic windows as a marker of Russian space, and that is a bit problematic,” as my travel companion anthropologist Michał Murawski said when we were in the pavilion, adding that “actually it would make a good pavilion, the plastic windows, together with concrete fences and all the recent blagoustroistvo [urban renewal] that has candidly transformed Russian public space.” In fact, we both agreed that there was a power to having the builders and scaffolding still in place on the upper floor when we first entered. Once they had left, and the openness was left alone, it was in immediate danger of being seen as merely an empty gesture, an echo of itself.
Still, the question of openness, the attempt to look towards the future rather than the past, and the mix of contributors, media and ideas, is a powerful and much-needed step in the lineage of the Russian pavilion. Beyond this, its greatest strength is that it takes the question of the digital seriously as something through which architecture nowadays inevitably unfolds. This goes for the spaces we inhabit, for the ways in which architecture is conceived, and for the culture of architecture as a whole. It is the role of exhibitions like the Biennale to try to critically make sense of the relationship between the physical and the digital, but these questions are largely missing in the show, even if nowadays they are an obvious aspect of how we live together. Here the Russian pavilion—along with some others, like the Irish pavilion, whose powerful installation rendered visible the ubiquitous presence of data in everyday environments—provides an example.
The Biennale does not offer an overall vision on how we should live together, nor does it offer a vision for post-pandemic life. But it does mark a welcome shift of the fundamentals of architecture towards social and environmental questions. The shortcomings seem to be on the side of the exhibition itself, rather than the thinking behind it. Now, the confused overall appearance of the show is in danger of presenting an architect lost in the midst of the changing world, not quite knowing where to be, having lost the ability to locate, express, and mediate the field to broader society. For the next Biennale, the challenge that remains is to find a vision for display that puts architects’ very core ability to think spatially into full use to make the overall show work as an exhibition that can grasp and mediate the richness of architecture as an ever-expanding field. Here, besides taking cues from historic biennales, such as that by Koolhaas in 2014, or the very first architecture exhibitions at the Biennale, such as the legendary Strada Novissima envisioned by Paolo Portoghesi in 1980, the secret might be to acknowledge that curating and designing sometimes need to be considered as separate fields that are complementary to one another rather than simply the same.
Cover image: Refuge for Resurgence, by Superflux. Image courtesy of Marco Zorzanello / La Biennale di Venezia