As director of the 2016 Venice Biennale, Alejandro Aravena has sought to shift the very grounds of architecture. Rather than an inward-looking interrogation of the profession's shortcomings, as Rem Koolhaas undertook in 2014, the Chilean Pritzker Prize-winner asks us to gaze in the opposite direction—to the vast swathes of the built horizon that traditionally lay beyond the profession's purview: urban slums, denatured megacities, conflict zones, environmentally compromised ports, rural villages far off the grid.
"We believe that the advancement of architecture is not a goal in itself but a way to improve people’s quality of life," states Aravena in his introduction to event. In other words, his biennale does not ask what architecture ought, yet often fails, to be, but rather what it could, yet often forgets, to do.
While the 2014 and 2016 editions are as different as yin and yang, they make an elegant and bracing duo when considered together. Certainly this year's biennale owes one definite debt to a Koolhaas' directorship. Past biennales have often produced a hodge-podge of ideas that can make the sprawling event at once overwhelming and watered down. In 2014, Koolhaas managed to wrangle the independent national pavilions to adhere, more or less rigorously, to his theme. This year the national pavilions—and the lion's share of official collateral events—also directly engage Aravena's theme.
Aravena's Central Pavilion
In his curatorship of the Central Pavilion, Aravena does not eschew dark realities. But rather than scolding architects for ignoring them, he presents them as rich, new fields for engagement. In that light, his selections focus not on problems but actual and potential solutions, most of which can replicated in simple, low-cost, low-impact, and often beautiful ways.
As you walk into the Biennale's Central Pavilion, your eyes are immediately drawn to the frame of the huge masonry arch, winner of the Golden Lion award for Best Participant. Designed by Paraguayan architect Solano Benitez and his Gabinete de Arquitectura, the project instantly reminds attendees that more than a billion rural people will move to cities the next decade. In the vast majority of cases, their homes will be built without an architect in sight, not even a master builder.
In response, Benitez and team have designed an extremely simple, reusable template, enabling non-professional builders to create handsome, sturdy structures using locally-sourced brick. The Biennale's jury the praised the project for "harnessing simple materials, structural ingenuity and unskilled labor to bring architecture to underserved communities.”
Instead of high-tech skins and attention-seeking forms, the palette of Aravena's pavilion (indeed across much of this year's Biennale) tend to be neutral, and the shapes simple. We get squares and triangles, bricks and rammed earth. For example:
- Anna Heringer's "Mud Work!" reminds us that “three billion people on this planet live in buildings made of mud.” Her exhibit is set on a floor made of rammed earth, which looks remarkably like terrazzo (a technique, appropriately enough, invented in Venice).
- Vietnam-based Vo Trong Nghia, renowned for his innovative use of bamboo, reveals how little green space is left in his native Ho Chi Minh city. In response, he creates a meditative maze of screens, complete with shoots of live bamboo.
- Inside a blank cloth hides a welter of colorful images through which VAV Studio documents the ways Iranians have returned to traditional building processes in the face of an economic boycott.
- A moving exhibit by Eyal Weizman devoted to "forensic" architecture documents the loss of both buildings and lives—and the weapons deployed—in the Gaza Strip and other zones of conflict in the Middle East.
All this is a far cry from Koolhaas's approach. He and his team packed the Central Pavilion with a cool, almost zoological dissection of architecture's constituent parts: a wall of doors, a gallery of connecting corridors, a dome made to recede behind the kind of false ceiling that hides the functional guts of many contemporary buildings. Not known for playing nice, Koolhaas wanted to force his profession to examine its shortcomings. In setting out his theme of "Absorbing Modernity, 1914–2014," Koolhaas was clear that this process of absorption was not going to be as pleasant as quaffing a glass of Prosecco (the unofficial and omnipresent beverage of Venice Biennales).
"We didn't necessarily mean 'absorbing' as a happy thing," he said at the time. "It is more like the way a boxer absorbs a blow from his enemy."
Aravena's curatorship is not necessarily less. He decries the "banal, mediocre and dull built environments" that result from "the greed and impatience of capital or the single mindedness and conservatism of the bureaucracy." Still, as he writes in his introduction to the event , he sticks to "stories and exemplary cases where architecture did, is and will make a difference."
Variations on a Theme
The national pavilions and official (and unofficial) collateral events have, for the most part, clung more or less closely Aravena's theme of "Reporting from the Front.” For example:
- The Spanish Pavilion was awarded the Golden Lion for a National Pavilion for its exhibition "Unfinished," which examines the legacy of Spain's building boom in the early 2000s, followed by the devastating bust (and abandonment of so many unfinished projects) that began in 2008. The pavilion demonstrates how select architects have "understood the lessons of the recent past and consider architecture to be something unfinished, in a constant state of evolution and truly in the service of humanity," explain curators Iñaqui Carnicero and Carlos Quintans.
- Having carved out four new doors in its pavilion (and removed 48 tons of bricks in the process), the team from Germany positively embraces the reality of immigration, especially in the wake of the mass influx of Syrian refugees since 2015. The curators from the Deutsches Architekturmuseum lined the walls with stories of cities and neighborhoods highly impacted by immigration, redefining "problem zones" into fields for opportunity.
- Occupying some of the largest rooms in the sprawling Arsenale, the Italian Pavilion takes as its theme "Taking Care: Designing for the Common Good." Curated by TAMassociati, the exhibition explores ways "architecture can and should prompt Italians to live the spaces of contemporary life with greater focus and more courage."
- Literally reporting from the frontline of the war, Ukraine's exhibition tells a particularly poignant story. The show is curated by IZOLYATSIA, a cultural foundation exiled from its home in Donetsk. Their building in Donetsk, once a thriving center of creativity, now serves as a prison. IZOLYATSIA's exhibit combines maps, video interviews, data visualizations, and architectural models to tell the stories of cities that lie along the volatile de facto border between the two sides in the conflict.
- Venice's own pavilion is dedicated to Marghera, its highly polluted and largely abandoned port. Proposed projects include repurposing abandoned buildings for green activities—and an ingenious plan not simply to remove toxic soil and dump it elsewhere, but to encase it safely in a series of beautiful towers rising from the site itself.
Where Are the Household Names?
If you want to see the kind of highly funded, high-profile projects that often dominate architectural exhibitions, you can—though they have largely been pushed out to peripheral events. Near San Marco, a gallery inside the Louis Vuitton shop hosts "Building in Paris." A series of evocative models and drawings by Frank Gehry and team document their process as they move toward the final design of the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris.
At the Palazzo Franchetti, a retrospective honors the late Zaha Hadid. Three of her projects garner particular attention: the Vitra Fire Station in Weil am Rhein (1993), the Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati (2003), and the MAXXI in Rome (2009).
However, Sir Norman Foster has snuck into the main event with a project for building low-cost droneports in Africa. Drones can provide the rapid delivery of medicine and other urgently needed materials in a continent with a woefully inadequate transportation infrastructure. His droneport is designed as a “kit-of-parts.” The basic formwork and brick-press machinery is delivered to the building site, while raw materials, such as clay for bricks and boulders for the foundation, can be locally sourced. The pilot project is set to begin in Rwanda later this year.
Ranging from favelas to dehumanized middle-class neighborhoods, from poisoned ports to bombed cities, Aravena's theme of "Reporting from the Frontline" could have been fruitlessly broad, unrealistically aspirational, or simply depressing. So far, critical reactions affirm the fact that he has managed to steer clear of all three dangers. Reviews are largely positive, if more muted than those (both positive and negative) garnered by Koolhaas. Yet in spite of focusing his lens in in an utterly new direction, Aravena, like his predecessor, manages to get under the skin. Without offering definitive prescriptions, he challenges the architectural world to go beyond business as usual, to consider brand new fields for active engagement.