Published  02/08/2016

Venice Architecture Biennale 2016: Reporting from the Front

Venice Architecture Biennale 2016: Reporting from the Front

From the poster image for this six-month-long event to the immersive installations of exquisitely resculpted waste at the entrances to the main buildings, this biennale is all about the architect’s role in solving issues caused by dwindling resources

Poster image advertising the Venice Architecture Biennale 2016. Courtesy of la Biennale di Venezia.

Venice, Italy
28 May – 27 November 2016


There is an intriguing image advertising the Venice Architecture Biennale 2016: an old lady in a cotton dress is standing atop a stepladder in the desert. Most would be hard pressed to say what this has to do with buildings, but the story behind it speaks volumes about the spirit of this, the 15th International Architecture Exhibition. It turns out to be an evocation of writer Bruce Chatwin’s reported encounter with German mathematician and archaeologist Maria Reiche as she surveyed an arid expanse of southern Peru. From the ground, the small stones and shallow grooves that patterned the site did not make any sense, but Reiche’s hunch was that, viewed from above, a greater design would be visible. Lacking a helicopter, she carried a lightweight, steel stepladder across the dusty terrain and, when she climbed it, she found a tableau of perfectly preserved ancient geoglyphs (large designs produced on the ground using natural elements such as stones) of birds, fish, monkeys, humans and flowers created by the Nazca culture around 500 BC. Thanks to Reiche, the Nazca Lines became a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1994, four years before she died.

It is a bold and poetic image with which to open the world’s leading festival of architecture. Instead of the usual attempt to dazzle us with the brilliance of each nation’s architects in matters technical, aesthetic and material (though it does that too), we are offered an unusual, but necessary, prism through which to view architecture: one that prioritises societal, cultural and environmental stewardship. This year’s curator, Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, explains in his introduction: “The modest ladder is the proof that we shouldn’t blame the harshness of constraints for our incapacity to do our job. Against scarcity: inventiveness … Against abundance: pertinence … Given the complexity and variety of challenges that architecture has to respond to, Reporting From the Front will be about listening to those who were able to gain some perspective and are consequently in a position to share some knowledge and experiences, inventiveness and pertinence with those of us standing on the ground.”

Listening: there is another radical word that architects have not, traditionally, been overfamiliar with. But, setting aside those pockets of speculative property construction through which the world’s leading starchitects and developers are disfiguring chunks of Asia, the Middle East and London, a general scarcity of work and funds over the early part of the past decade has helped to fuel a shift towards an approach that has more humility, inclusivity and openness at its core. This biennale, in my view, represents the placing of that flag right at the heart of the profession.

Starting in the leafy enclosure of the Giardini, it is no surprise to find this sensibility writ large in the Nordic Pavilion, Sverre Fehn’s sublime 1959 monument to modernism. Titled In Therapy, the pavilion features a large wooden pyramid, representing American psychologist Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (1943). Rising up this pyramid, thick pads printed with Finnish, Swedish and Norwegian projects from the past decade invite you to tear and share. They are colour coded according to their place within the hierarchy of needs, starting with the “foundational” (schools, healthcare) and rising up through “belonging” (libraries, concert halls, folk museums) to “recognition” (from luxuriously simple private homes to public art spaces such as Helsinki’s Oil Silo 468, a lights artwork and events venue created from a disused steel oil silo). Nearby, Freudian couches offer opportunities to sit and ponder human nature, in its simple and complex aspects.

In a similar vein, Nordic neighbour Denmark plays its humanist trump cards with Art of Many: The Right to Space. One half of its pavilion is dedicated to an audiovisual immersion in the words and ideas of Danish architect and public space pioneer Jan Gehl. The other half features more models and case studies than any visitor will have time to fully investigate, but all of which merit close attention for their human-centric, and planet-friendly solutions.

Nearby, Spain delivers on Aravena’s mission statement with great flair. One of the most economically crippled of former European superpowers, its inspirational pavilion, titled Unfinished, presents a number of case studies placed on a “bare-bones” steel structural grid. The initial concept, by curators Iñaqui Carnicero and Carlos Quintáns, was pessimistic. It is intended to evoke the crisis in Spanish architecture since 2008, when record unemployment levels began afflicting the profession. However, the projects are so inventively and elegantly wrought that the effect is quite the opposite. With minimal resources, beautiful homes, offices, hotels, piazzas, monuments and cultural spaces have been realised, each placed under the relevant headings Infill, Reappropiation, Pavements, Naked and Reassignments. It won a deserving Golden Lion for Best National Participation.

There are, as ever, pavilions that don’t even pay lip service to the curator’s brief. We have self-aggrandisement from Russia; self-indulgence from the UK (navel-gazing installations on the physical, logistical and temporal dimensions of home); self-absorption from Australia (an elegant temporary pavilion inhabited only by a tempting triangle of shallow swimming pool, which overheated visitors gratefully paddle in, and decking, fringed with a variety of audio reminiscences on Aussie swimming experiences). Most baffling of all is the “selfie” opportunity from Romania: three mechanised structures (two of them already broken a month into the exhibition) featuring wooden puppets. The work serves little purpose other than as a photographic setting for the modern smartphone user. Its title says it all: Selfie Automaton.

Brazil, Korea, Ireland, Poland, Japan, Austria and Greece all conjure worthy, visually and physically engaging efforts to celebrate human and architectural ingenuity in their respective crisis spots, whether medical, cultural or economic. Turkey’s Darzanà: Two Arsenals, One Vessel won attention and praise for its referencing of the historic rivalry between the Ottoman and Venetian empires, by evokinga historic sailing vessel in the Arsenale, created from detritus gathered from an erstwhile dockyard in Istanbul. Though it was aesthetically stunning, and each component had a story to tell about a shared, pan-Mediterranean naval history, it told us nothing about the state of each nation now.

The pavilions that work best are those that bring you right up close to aspects of their nation’s current struggles, usually hidden from view. Japan, for example, provided an atmospheric meditation on how the country’s current crises (low growth, high youth unemployment and the mixed blessings of an ever more prevalent internet-based culture) have brought about a need to re-envisage the architecture of the future. Here, 13 young architectural firms (most unknown outside Japan), exhibit prototypes for new kinds of low cost, communal living that also generate a civic presence.

For pithy insights into the construction industry, Poland has to take the prize. Its pavilion, entitled Fair Building, is a spider’s web of scaffolding structures, arranged to form rooms, seats or screens that present the filmed, warts-and-all testimonies of various Polish builders, while enduring situations that are usually precarious, occasionally life-threatening, and unrelentingly tough. “By presenting the stories of persons directly involved in the building process we ask if ‘fair trade’ is achievable in the field,” declare the curators, Dominika Janicka, Martyna Janicka and Michał Gdak.

But to my mind, for fulfilling Aravena’s brief to the letter, the winning Giardini pavilions would have to be Spain, tied with Germany. Making Heimat. Germany, Arrival Country is curated by the Deutsches Architekturmuseum (DAM), with a design concept (by Berlin-based architectural office Something Fantastic) that sees this bombastic neoclassical pavilion opened up on four sides, declaring “open house” to all. More than 48 tonnes of brick were removed to create these generous apertures. Inside, it feels very much like a generous public space. Plenty of benches, white plastic chairs and outdoor seating encourage thinking, chatting and dwelling. Free Wi-Fi (a precious commodity in Venice) reinforces that welcome.

Inspired by Canadian-British author Doug Saunders’s 2011 book, Arrival City: How the Largest Migration in History is Reshaping Our World, there are eight subsections communicating, through large headlines, the content of each room. In addition, case studies gathered by DAM over the past year demonstrate a huge variety of low-cost, rapid-construction projects designed to house refugees, for anything from a few weeks to years.

It isn’t all worthiness and tub-thumping. There is spectacle, too, most notably in the Swiss pavilion where Christian Kerez offers visitors a “pure encounter with architecture”, via his billowing fibreglass cloud/cave, made with a combination of hand craftsmanship and digital processes.

The Irish Pavilion manages to combine both worthiness and spectacle. Losing Myself is a thought-provoking championing of sensitivity in an area of ever-greater medical and social concern: the growth of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in our ageing populations. Architects Níall McLaughlin and Yeoryia Manolopoulou demonstrate the way in which cognitive diseases alter spatial experience, using McLaughlin’s award-winning Alzheimer Society of Ireland’s the Orchard Day and Respite Care Centre as its point of reference. Sound installations on the ceiling throw fragments of conversation out, starting and stopping, while video projections on the floor flash past disjointedly, in an effort to convey the lived reality of the centre’s patients and care staff.

Spectacle and worthiness are provided in spades by Aravena’s dramatic entrances to both the Giardini main pavilion and the Arsenale: more than 90 tonnes of waste from last year’s Art Biennale have been deployed to create immersive installations, demonstrating by their visceral, tactile qualities, their scale and splendour, that one person’s rubbish is another’s resource.

Just beyond the Giardini pavilion’s waste-as-sculpture entrance sits the winner of the Golden Lion for the Best Participant in the 15th International Exhibition. Paraguayan architects Gabinete de Arquitectura, led by Solano Benítez, created a brick and timber arch, Breaking the Siege, demonstrating how readily available materials and unskilled workmen could provide a solution for rapid urban development. It delivers high-quality results with low-tech building techniques. Aravena commented, in the project’s citation: “The world will need to build the equivalent of a city of one million inhabitants per week with only $10,000 (£7,000) per family … Urbanisation will require building at a pace and with a scarcity of means never before seen in human history … If we don’t do so, people will not stop coming to cities; they will come anyhow, but will live in appalling conditions. So what can we do?”

Benítez’s practice is one among a generous proliferation of younger or less well-known practices. Of the 88 participating practices showing at the International Exhibition, 50 are exhibiting for the first time and 33 are under the age of 40. Aravena has declared that it wasn’t his intention to focus on youth, insisting that older architects can still offer the freshest ideas and younger architects can demonstrate great maturity. The more mature and high-profile architects present here, among them Norman Foster, David Chipperfield and Peter Zumthor, certainly don’t steal the show. Chipperfield brought an installation on his ongoing Naqa Site Museum project in Sudan, to demonstrate why a classic kind of architecture – albeit one that beds itself aesthetically, environmentally and materially into its context – is still the best approach to creating an enduring cultural building. More engaging, as a departure from the starchitect norm, was Foster + Partners’ contribution: Droneport, a full-scale prototype made of mud and designed to allow drones to be organised to transport much needed medicines and supplies to inaccessible regions in Rwanda.

Through the vast, hangar-like space of the Arsenale’s main venue, a 316 metre long, 21 metre wide, brick-columned Corderie (for five centuries a rope-making factory), it was easy to loose focus on the quality and beauty of the details in each exhibit thanks to the overwhelming quantity. The beautiful parade of projects was almost unrelentingly impressive in the artful and thoughtful deployment of resources, both material and intellectual, from ETH Zürich researchers’ elegant canopy using 399 slabs of limestone and no glue (proclaimed a “milestone for stone engineering”) to the evocative installation, Ephemeral Urbanism: Cities in Constant Flux, by architects and urbanists Felipe Vera and Rahul Mehrotra, which provokes us to imagine instant cities from a very different perspective than the usual grim refugee encampments. Fluttering multicoloured veils and bamboo scaffolding structures inspired by the Kumbh Mela, one of India’s most important Hindu pilgrimages (where 100 million pilgrims congregate over 55 days every 12 years), question our attachment to permanence in urbanism and architecture. Also standing out from the crowd was Finnish architectural practice Hollmén Reuter Sandman’s atmospheric arrangement of simple, perforated screens, showing that cheap, temporary structures can also be beautiful. And thanks to UK practice Assemble for providing some light relief and rest among all the text panels: their installation, titled The Voice of Children, was styled like a playground, complete with slides and beanbags, and showed a film of the practice’s various co-creation projects that give children’s imagination free rein in participatory place-making.

Also noteworthy was Hilariopolis, by Romanian practice ADNBA. The large white box, containing a series of backlit vignettes told through traditional paper-cutting techniques, conjured up a magical and miniaturised urban space. At the other end of the scale – miniature components blown up large – India-based Anupama Kundoo Architects’ installation Full Fill Homes, is a full-sized prototype house that can be built in six days, using modular Lego-like blocks of a material called ferrocement. Skilled Indian stonemasons and German engineers constructed the house on site, by layering mortar or plaster over metal mesh. The blocks are hollow, offering ample storage as walls, but can also be stacked or propped up to become sleeping platforms, benches or counters. An ideal solution for low-cost, low-impact housing, the material is also designed to withstand strong winds and mild earthquakes. The prototype at the biennale was built using materials recycled from the German Pavilion at last year’s Art Biennale, and when this year’s exhibition is over, will be transported to nearby Marghera, to become a residence for homeless people.

Around the perimeter of the Arsenale site, it was a delight to see Makoko Floating School by Nigerian practice NLÉ, docked and ready for inspection (a deserving Silver Lion winner). Chilean practice GrupoTalca brought its Pinohuacho viewing point to Venice. Built as a treetop lookout to help save the forests of southern Chile and boost its tourism, the viewing platform has been drawing attention to the splendours of, and threats to, the rainforest for the past decade. Seeing it dismantled and reconstructed in Venice somehow brought the forest to the lagoon more effectively than any slick audiovisual presentation.

Portuguese architect Samuel Gonçalves, founder of architecture studio Summary, installed three hollow concrete forms along the waterfront by the Arsenale, to promote his modular housing system based on drainage pipes. His Gomos System is proposed as a solution to Portugal’s housing crisis. Because the concrete modules match the shapes and dimensions of standard concrete sewer pipes, they can be produced with minimal modifications, via existing production lines.

As for the remaining national pavilions at the Arsenale, Chile’s design, curated by Juan Román and José Luis Uribe, switched the prevailing Biennale focus from urban densification to rural enhancement. The presentation involved 15 projects aimed at transforming the daily life of rural peoples, designed by students from the School of Architecture at the University of Talca in Chile, as part of their graduation portfolio. These inventive, decorative, sculptural and practical projects used only local materials and leftover resources from agricultural processes.

China also offered a welcome contrast to the prevailing media image of a nation intent on bulldozing its own architectural heritage (cultural, religious, aesthetic) in the stampede to create faceless new cities. Back to The Ignored Front was an attempt to celebrate elements of historic Chinese design and wisdom, including the holistic concept of Tao (being in tune with nature), which have been overlooked in the rush to modernisation. This was achieved through the work of artists, film-makers and “slow architecture” practices such as Approach Architecture Studio (AAS), Jingxiang Zhu, People’s Architecture Office and Rùn Atelier.

The effect of all this cumulative ingenuity and goodwill was almost overwhelming: a call to arms, as it were, for a different way of operating. It is all given additional weight and gravitas because the curator, Aravena, also this year’s Pritzker Architecture Prize-winner, is so unafraid of radically shaking up the system. Earlier this year his firm, Elemental, released a number of his designs for low-cost “incremental” housing projects for free, as an open-source resource. He is putting his money, literally, where his mouth is. For the next curator and festival, this year’s inspirational Architecture Biennale will be a very hard act to follow.


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