To many, it might seem that the goals of Alejandro Aravena's 2016 Venice Biennale—as he describes it, "to understand what design tools are needed to subvert the forces that privilege the individual gain over the collective benefit"—are beyond reproach. In spite of these aims, a number of commentators nevertheless have emerged, perhaps led most vocally by Patrik Schumacher, criticizing the biennale. In this article, originally published on The Architecture Foundation's website as "Holier than thou," Phineas Harper responds to those criticisms.
The most surprising turn of the 2016 Venice Biennale was not the exhibition itself, but the reaction of its critics. Within hours of kick-off, the internet was filling up with derogatory mutterings of the show being '"worthy," "moralizing," "holier than thou," "earnest," "virtue-signaling" and "right on" (which apparently is an insult). The architectural Twitterati, it seemed, were unimpressed.
But what exactly were they hating on? The biennale principally exhibited practices which saw some form of suffering in the world and, through their work, in way or another, were trying to lessen it. How did such a compassionate brief generate such a miserly push-back?
First lets deal with the obvious; I get that this wasn't the thrill-a-minute spectacle of some mythical previous years. Venice 2016 hosted some dry pieces of research which, though clearly important in content, failed to leap from the gallery walls. It is hard for any exhibit to hold its own in an environment as overwhelming as Venice, more so in the blur of lunches and Prosecco that is the vernissage. The many vast exhibition spaces favor bold one-liner gestures and with viewers obliged to rush through galleries, each crammed with ideas, in limited time, nuance suffocates in the volume of it all. Where complexity is retained in reams of in-depth text or similarly dense exhibits, it comes across as a selfish curatorial move, demanding precious attention like a spoiled child inevitably at the expense of others.
Many of this year's curators seem to have created exhibitions forgetting the context in which they will be seen, certainly the context in which they will be reviewed. But that is true of every biennale - 2014's Arsenale, for example, plodded through a stultifying showcase of Italian cinema and regional research punctuated by impenetrable contemporary dance, yet Rem received rave reviews. My hunch is that, as is common across political discourse, those with high ethical ambitions are judged to unattainable standards. Feminists will be familiar with this – say you're in favor of women's rights but then buy a top from a company known for poor manufacturing conditions and you might as well be Philip Green himself. So in 2012 David Chipperfield can put on a warm and fuzzy melange of what his mates have been toying with recently and he gets a B+, but in 2016 Aravena ups the political ante with an attempt at something much more ambitious yet receives a D-.
The argument of this year's detractors seems to boil down to a feeling that architects ought not to try and help poor people. The thrust of it ran: Architecture isn't as effective a tool to address global inequality as infrastructure, politics or NGO-led development and therefore shouldn't attempt to. At one end of the spectrum this manifested as a "get back in the kitchen"-like call for returning to "what architects are good at," (which seemingly means cornices and structural gymnastics). From the other end we were told architects could by all means lobby the real keepers of power but that attempts to address suffering through practice itself were "hopeless."
The first response is intensely conservative but at least consistent. For its proponents, architecture is about making nice things for paying clients and there it ends. It's a view that's naive, ahistorical and boring but is what it is. The second however is more pernicious. It wraps up a cluster of problematic values in one defeatist sentiment: That the only power we hold as citizens is as small participants in a large democracy. That it is worse to try and fail than to not try. That helping the few is worthless if you cannot help the many.
What a grim worldview! The belief that is is right to not act because you are less powerful than another who could is perverse. It is like refusing to care for a sick friend because a nurse would be more qualified. It is also historically ignorant - the story of human progress is not made in sweeping decisions by powerful individuals but by complex social movements whether of the Right, the Left or neither. Political change is won through the actions, arguments and attitudes of thousands of contributing actors who cannot necessarily see the role their part has played. To insist that anybody with even the smallest agency to make the world a better place should sit idly by and wait for a messiah to intervene on their behalf is not just lazy, it is breathtakingly dull.
This biennale was not perfect. None are. And frankly I wonder whether Venice can ever be a fit venue for a serious interrogation of issues more profound than the Campari or Aperol conundrum. The vernissage is, at heart, a schmoozey, boozey networking knees-up in which the architectural great and good cheek-kiss their way down Via Garibaldi occasionally glancing in a pavilion. Arevena knew this all too well when he set out to give the festival some bite. Rather than opt for crowd-pleasing spectacle he forged ahead with a more weighty brief and, with half the time of his predecessor, has galvanized a compelling response. It isn't a jaw-dropping one-liner, but it is the first biennale I intend to return to for a closer look.