Architecture Measures it All: Why the Venice Biennale Should not be Postponed

Architecture Measures it All: Why the Venice Biennale Should not be Postponed

Last week the Venice Architecture Biennale announced it would postpone its opening to August 29 of this year, while maintaining the original closure date of November 29. The duration of the Biennale will thus be reduced to three months. The reason for this intervention is clear to everyone: the Covid-19 epidemic, which has threatened the usual intense preparations for the Biennale, and which, since the decision was announced, has exacerbated to a national state of emergency. The announcement of the decision reads as a lesson in common sense.

The biennale organization’s stated rationale is that the predicted travel issues will “jeopardize the quality” of the exhibition. If groups can’t properly set up their installations, exhibits risk being mediocre or non-existent.  Who can be against avoiding disappointment?

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Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia
Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia

What the biennale organization did not state, and what is equally -- if not more -- important, is the responsibility of a huge cultural and social event to take measures and prevent pandemic spread of a life-threatening disease. Instead, this responsibility has now directly been taken by the Italian government, that has locked down Venice, turning it visibly into a ghost town, a label that some critics have long been using for the city for other reasons.

However, the decision to simply postpone the Biennale is still a short-sighted and unfortunate one.

This provocative statement is not meant to undermine common sense.  Of course, organizations should at all time pursue excellence. Of course, organizations should always try to avoid the worst, not risking public health while conducting a cultural event. On the contrary: having the guts to halt action can sometimes be a sign of great wisdom.

The point is that an action still has been taken -- the action of postponement. What has been postponed is the opening date of what essentially is still the same thing: a time slot on the 2020 calendar for a show in Venice, to be kicked off with its intense vernissage days, when, so is hoped, the epidemic will be a bad memory of the spring season. In its core, the event will remain what it has been for years now: a feast for the uomini architetti of this world, to get together and show their brightest ideas, the format, approach and purpose of which should all remain identical to what we would have witnessed in the end of May. The announcement suggests that postponement is the best that can be hoped for. The corona catastrophe is considered an interruption of preparations, that’s all.

I firmly believe there can be a stronger response to this situation than simple postponement. A response which takes the current Covid-19 epidemic as a potential game changer of massive proportions. Maybe for tourists, party-goers and dignitaries postponement is the best reaction. But not for architects. They are creative. What would happen if they considered an intellectual urgency as crucial as that by doctors in hospital wards, scientists in the vaccine laboratories, and the thousands in quarantine who have to completely re-invent how they bide their time and how they live together with their loved ones. Can the epidemic, rather than “jeopardize” quality, become a source of it? Should we really wait till August 29 to bring forward our proposals regarding this issue?

Of course not. As the theme of this Biennale, set by its curator Hashim Sarkis, is “How will we live together?”, we are now facing a major calibration of the same question in the here and now. Forget about the future tense. Let’s ask the question for today.

© Hesperia Iliadou
© Hesperia Iliadou

What we see unfolding day by day are the limits of globalization in its biological consequence: humans restlessly moving around for reasons of opportunity or satisfaction. Or simply to capture the ultimate instagrammable moment, hoping to go viral.

For the first time, this restless condition is being explicitly and deeply challenged.  Not in theory, not even by finally seriously facing the consequences of our unsurmountable climate debt, but by the immediacy of a viral epidemic, a question of life, death and a direct challenge of existing societal norms.

So, even before the Biennale would have begun, we are being forced to adjust to a new way of living together. We can expect even more cities, regions, and even countries to go into quarantine. People are self-imposing social distancing on one another. We are entering a period where governments can and will use Artificial Intelligence to track not only people’s thoughts but the very movements of their bodies. This is about a profound transformation of the spatial order we live in. It’s a crisis that can not go to waste, for any architect. It is, indeed, in the words of Sarkis, a new spatial contract in the making.

So the question should be: how can the Venice Biennale, in Hans Hollein’s conception, a possible “seismograph” of our time, not only avoid this mess, but actually, on behalf of its very 2020 theme, address it.

© Hesperia Iliadou
© Hesperia Iliadou

Why not start earlier, rather than later? As in right now! Start in the midst of the current frenzy. It would have been a dramatic response. An urge to the entire architectural world to rethink how we will live together, while we are in the midst of actually completely changing how we live together. A Biennale that inspires to design well the spatial measures we should take, to establish the measure and the balance that allow us to remain human.

Why not make the Biennale reflect on this pervasive new spatial condition, by making the event immediate and ubiquitous? Why not asking all selected participants (and all others) to engage with this research period and become active and critical witnesses of the fundamental shift we are living through, that may affect the way we live together for our lifespans? Can the Biennale become the laboratory of spatial intelligence we so urgently need, while leaving the streets of Venice empty for now, allowing all protagonists to remain safe and sound and reducing the insane carbon footprint of its traditional format to zero? And in case the latter revolution, despite all the looming signs of the time, is still impossible, why not revamp the “opening” in late August as the moment in which this spring’s reflection will be presented? Why wait out disaster, when it could be designed as a blessing in disguise for a profession in the deepest existential crisis in living memory?

To paraphrase the topics of the last 10 years of Biennale, when we knew change was coming, but weren’t able to act upon it:

Today’s condition presents us with a new “common ground” for architecture (David Chipperfield)

Such format would really be about “reporting from the front”. (Alejandro Aravena)

Now it’s time to not just re-think, but re-make our “fundamentals”. (Rem Koolhaas)

To allow everyone to participate and show “generosity” to all who can. (Yvonne Farrell/Shelley McNamara)

Climate, bio-diversity, human tracking, quarantine, social distancing… the new spatial contract is now. Architecture, please.

This article is an op-ed written by an external contributor, and is not an official ArchDaily statement. All our readers can submit their opinions to be reviewed and published if approved by our editorial team.

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Cite: Ole Bouman. "Architecture Measures it All: Why the Venice Biennale Should not be Postponed" 13 Mar 2020. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884
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