Venice Architecture Biennale 2021: lost in tokenism

The pandemic edition of the biennale is designed around the curatorial question “How are we going to live together?” still offers visitors some practical solutions

Bold questions about architecture naturally find their place in Venice: the city has long defied and embodied the dogmas of town planning, with its ancient stones seemingly floating on the waters of the lagoon and its narrow pedestrian-only streets intersecting with a capillary network of channels.

But there is fat, and then there is no consequence. Much of the twice-delayed 17th Architecture Biennale, which has just opened in the northern Italian port city, often passes through the latter. Participants from 46 countries addressed the difficult and broad question posed by Hashim Sarkis, the Lebanese-born dean of architecture and planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who organized this edition: “How are we going to live together?” “

(Clockwise from left) An exhibit by Kenyan architects Cave_Bureau;  an overview of Arsenal, the United States flag, an image of the Great Britain flag, an overview of the Chile section

(Clockwise from left) An exhibit by Kenyan architects Cave_Bureau; a preview of Arsenal, the United States flag, an image of the Great Britain flag, a preview of the Chile section | Photo credit: Andrea Avezzù and Francesco Galli

“We are asking architects… because we are not happy with the answers that come out of politics today,” Sarkis said. “We need a new space contract because we cannot have a social contract. Regardless of the huge problems we face, we cannot bring society together. “

But the terms of the question are so general that they transcend the boundaries of the discipline. Even the specification added by the curator – living together among diverse beings, as new homes, as emerging communities, across borders, as one planet – extends the Biennale’s mandate to virtually every aspect of the reality. This loophole has an advantage, however, as it acts as a sophisticated poll to assess contemporary concerns.

Hashim Sarkis

The visitor has a sense of impending doom, with numerous rooms and installations addressing the unprecedented challenges that humans face on the planet. Climate change, the depletion of natural resources and overpopulation form a common thread that surrounds the exhibition which takes place in Giardini Park, Arsenale Park and Forte Marghera. In the central Giardini pavilion, a truck-sized metal box produces thunderous explosions of noise at random intervals, giving exhausted visitors a reliable indicator of what it looks like when the sea ice cracks in Antarctica. Nearby, drops fall from a model of the Alps hanging upside down from the ceiling, a not-too-subtle reminder of the dizzying speed at which glaciers are melting. Upon entering a glass box, the visitor can smell the scent of a plant that no longer exists. It’s artificial, because this rich blend of floral, balsamic, sweet and sweet accents has been lost forever.

Stone Garden, the project of Parisian architect Lina Ghotmeh

Miss the point

A trade-off between breadth and depth is inevitable, and the world’s largest architecture exhibition prides itself on leaving the reins loose on architects’ necks, freeing them – albeit momentarily – from the ever-present constraints they face in terms of budget, of space, of taste. But the goal of architecture must remain to organize the space inhabited by humans, and attributing universal concerns to it leads to a tokenism. In the Corderie, the 300-meter-long factory where workers braided ropes for ships in Venice, visitors look puzzled as they walk past “ Maternity Mensware, ” a garment that explores pregnancy. non-feminine and transgender, and “ Catalog for the Post-Human ” an ironic series of objects designed to improve the productivity of the workers of tomorrow. The questions raised here are certainly relevant, but the context makes them unnecessary.

The Victoria and Albert Museum, the three British mosques in London

The Victoria and Albert Museum, the three British mosques in London | Photo credit: Andrea Avezzù

One would certainly not expect the Biennale to stick to too narrow a goal: a building materials fair, it does not. At the same time, however, presenting the flaws of contemporary urbanization as “the product of the dominant capitalist dogma which promotes endless growth and concentration of wealth” risks slipping away from one of the main missions of architecture. : find practical solutions to practical problems. Architecture already has a lot to do: the buildings and construction sector accounted for a third of final energy consumption and nearly 40% of CO2 emissions related to energy and processes in 2018. A large part of it resulted from the manufacture of building materials and products such as steel, cement and glass. To achieve net zero, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has estimated that direct CO2 emissions from buildings should halve by 2030, equivalent to an average reduction of 6% per year. This is already a big challenge, and if the architects do not commit to it, who will?

The most interesting parts are indeed those where the contributions remain close to the materiality of the practical problems and, fortunately, the Biennale also offers a lot. A hospital of the future video, which is shown to an audience lying on simulated hospital beds, explains how new technologies, such as remote surgery and data-driven personalized care, are revolutionizing the needs of space for healthcare and make the most of today’s infrastructure. obsolete.

A video shows four-story modules designed by the European Space Agency that will be used to build a human colony on the Moon. The inflatable egg-shaped constructions look airy and comfortable, and do away with the idea of ​​alien life.

Singapore flag

Meanwhile, at the pavilions

National pavilions show that architects can make bold political statements while staying in their own domain. A large hall filled with round tables set up for lunch reminds visitors that in Singapore – one of the richest countries in the world – more than 80% of the population lives in government-owned buildings where the shared capital is shared. space is the norm.

Some national Giardini pavilions also show ways to problematize relevant issues without being too literal. A stream of water flows through the Danish pavilion, with pipes collecting rainwater from outside and leading it on a closed-loop journey through the exhibition. While the facility does not go into the technical aspects of water harvesting, it leaves visitors free to be part of the cycle system by drinking a cup of tea infused with herbal plant leaves that absorb the water of the ring system.

At the Japanese pavilion, a wooden house in Tokyo was dismantled and shipped

At the Japanese pavilion, a wooden house in Tokyo was dismantled and shipped | Photo credit: Francesco Galli

The Japanese Pavilion celebrates reuse and renovation, offering the story of a post-war house that was dismantled and transported to Italy. By celebrating the beauty of modest materials – scaffolding pipes, trellises, blue tarpaulin, bathtub – the exhibition finally questions with relevant grace the durability of architecture.

The United States is celebrating the timber frame with a 12-meter monumental wooden installation that covers the country’s neoclassical pavilion. Bringing the ubiquitous softwood structure – which still supports 90% of domestic construction in the country – outside for everyone to see, makes a compelling point about sustainability and acceptability.

The American entrance celebrates the timber frame with a 12-meter wooden installation that covers the country's neoclassical pavilion

American Entrance Celebrates Timber Frame with 12-Meter Timber Installation Covering Country’s Neoclassical Pavilion | Photo credit: Francesco Galli

India does not have a pavilion, but there is a small room in the Arsenal, which addresses issues related to the country’s tumultuous urbanization. The video features renderings of brilliant skyscrapers and pristine pathways of the smart cities the government plans to build against the reality of the rapid, messy and organic growth of small towns such as Sriperumbudur, in Tamil Nadu, or Chakan, in the Maharashtra. Showing footage of poor migrant workers returning home during the first pandemic lockdown last year, he implores city planners to consider their needs, instead of pursuing the chimera of world-class monumental cities.

India’s superficial and minimal contribution has the merit of showing – by its sheer existence – that architects and planners still have a lot of work to do.

Venice architecture The biennial is until November 21, 2021


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