Responding to “How will we live together” in 115 different ways, the 2021 Venice Architecture Biennale welcomed, physically, the large public, on May 22nd, 2021. Opening up furthermore to the world, the timeless yet context-sensitive theme engendered a collective imaginary, highlighting a world that would rather come together than stay apart. Building an architectural narrative of the present that reflects on a resilient future, the interrogation, first asked in 2019, gained more relevance with the pandemic that paused the world for a while. With a lot of optimism and love for the craft, the architectural exhibition opened its doors to a longing public and revealed recurring qualities in the showcased interventions.
Considering that “the pandemic will come and go, but issues like climate change, mass migration, inequalities, etc. will not disappear if not tackled”, Hashim Sarkis, the curator of the 17th edition of La Biennale Architettura 2021 explains the need for new spatial contracts today, in order to reach a better tomorrow. Exploring new means to convey the architectural experience, national pavilions, invited architects and collateral events took the challenge and introduced innovative projects, overlapping scales, and fields. Uncovering similar approaches, Sarkis in his opening speech, noticed that these recurring ideas can be divided into 3 main categories: the first investigates horizontality and similar levels, the second tackles the in-between and our nomadic existence and the third is more related to framing.
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Natural Elements and New Materials
The usage of natural elements and the exploration of new materials that stem from the surrounding fauna and flora as well as vernacular practices, triggered by environmental challenges, underline a “return to nature” phenomenon. In fact, the UAE pavilion “Wetland” generated an alternative for cement, creating a large-scale prototype structure by exploring sea salt as a traditional, locally-sourced building material; whereas the Danish pavilion “Con-nect-ed-ness”, focused on the element of water and created a water cyclic system that connects people with each other and with nature, underlining that “the world is one cyclic system which we all create together”.
Wood was also very central at the 2021 Venice Architecture Biennale. On the issue of housing, Helen&Hard introduced an experimental response to the co-housing problem with a wooden structure that took center stage at the Nordic Pavilion; and Luxembourg explored alternative modes of living amid the housing crisis, generating a residential prototype that challenges the understanding of the relationships established between architecture and land. The U.S pavilion, on the other hand, tackled wood-framing construction in American Architecture, creating a huge structure at the entrance of the neoclassical pavilion by Paul Andersen and Paul Preissner.
Many of the interventions focused on specific contextual issues, generating particular background-based projects that nevertheless resonate with the entire world. The National Pavilion of Chile, through “Testimonial Spaces” by Emilio Marín and Rodrigo Sepúlveda, presented very powerful paintings that illustrate raw stories from one of Santiago’s emblematic neighborhoods. Moreover, Romania’s contribution to the 17th Venice Architecture Biennale, Fading Borders, showcased a new perspective on mass migration, exploring its consequences on the built environment, by using Romania as a study case. The “Infinite house” by Gerardo Caballero, representing Argentina, is inspired by traditional Argentine houses, and reflects on the role collective housing, has played in the country's history and society. The intervention actually highlights the importance of the collective rather than the individual by showcasing a home that extends beyond one's own living space: "it is the city, the country, and even the world."
Additionally, the Mexican pavilion raises the question of "displacements", which arise mainly from adverse conditions such as evident inequalities, environmental deterioration, risk of disasters, and various types of violence, occurring at different scales of time and space that transcend borders and limits. Finally, the Serbian contribution explores the connection between a city's economy and its urban structure, by using the mining town of Bor, located in eastern Serbia, as a study case for how economic activities have not only shaped the urban environment but the forms of collectivity connected to it.
Putting the people at the center of the process, from professionals to the local residents, a majority of the projects at the 2021 Venice Biennale based their approach on engaging the community that surrounds them. In fact, Christophe Hutin for France’s national pavilion, created an immersive experience to introduce to the large public, “Communities at Work”, in Europe, Asia, America, and Africa, presenting a journey into a world where individuals transform their own living spaces, without following any formal schemes designed by an architect. Spain, on the other hand, engaged students and professionals in its pavilion, creating a catalog of architectural strategies that have been transformed to meet the future needs of housing. With “uncertainty being the only certainty”, the exhibition curated by Domingo J. González, Sofía Piñero, Andrzej Gwizdala, and Fernando Herrera, has almost 40 participants. In addition, the Italian Pavilion, tackling "Resilient Communities", also presented a vast variety of research and innovation across many fields, exploring ideas for improving the conditions of the built environment and addressing climate change.
Democratization of the Digital Realm
Another very pronounced element in this year’s biennale is the digital aspect. Some pavilions embraced the virtual world as an addition, while others went to the extreme and only “existed” virtually like the Australian pavilion. Germany, for this year, introduced a visually-emptied pavilion with only QR codes on the walls that redirect the visitors to videos. In fact, the German pavilion, “2038”, seeking to provide answers, imagines the world in the era of “New Serenity”, and tells the “story of a world in which everything has just about gone well”, an alternative future. Russia, on the other hand, opened up physically its pavilion and refurbished the 1914 building, by Russian/Japanese architecture studio KASA, while, at the same time, turning into the online world, and extending the pavilion program beyond the timeframe of the Biennale. The online project started in 2020, will continue throughout the subsequent editions of the biennial as a digital pavilion.
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