Reporting from the Front – Venice Biennale 2016

The Architecture Biennale 2016 has come to an end in Venice, after 6 months of exhibition in the famous Giardini and Arsenale venues. The event included 88 participants from 37 different countries, as well as 65 National Participations and 20 Collateral Events. Design Exchange was in Venice in September for a one-day visit of this year edition.

In the current printed issue of the magazine (#FutureForecast) we tried to tackle a very important question addressed to architects and city planners “How should the industry respond to disasters, epidemics and emergencies?” (Human Plan – Practicing architecture closer to human beings) and this question was one of the main topic developed this year by the participants of the Biennale.

If most of the 61 pavilions were focussing on the future of the Home and the refugee crisis it’s because the Biennale’s curator wanted to dig out for some actual solutions and to explore what every one of the 65 countries involved had to offer as an answer to the housing and refugee crisis. Thus, the scheme of issues to address the battles for the Architecture Biennale 2016 gathered topics like quality of life, inequalities, sustainability, traffic, waste, crime, pollution, communities, migration, segregation, natural disasters, peripheries and housing. A wide range of proposals, projects, and artworks were on display, making the 2016 Biennale a very dense and rich exhibition.

Danish Pavilion models Art of the many – Right to space ©Constance Desenfant

Alejandro Aravena, curator of the Biennale, explained his vision and aim for this year exhibition with this statement : “Given the complexity and variety of challenges that architecture has to respond to, Reporting from the front will be about listening to those who were able to gain some perspective and are consequently in the position to share some knowledge and experiences, inventiveness and pertinence with those of us standing on the ground.”

And Paolo Baratta, president of the Biennale, shared this view : “We need to engage with all the possible actors responsible for the decisions and actions with which the space of our living is realised. If architecture is the most political of the arts, then the architecture biennale must acknowledge it”. The urgency that can be felt in these statements goes beyond the need to raise awareness towards global issues – it aims to use architecture as an instrument to solve geopolitical or social emergencies and to create new tools to actually act on the ground.

Polish Pavilion – Fair-trade architecture © Constance Desenfant

The interesting thing about Venice Biennale is that it explores a theme through three dimensions: through the content and approach of the artwork or projects presented (the answer to Aravena’s theme), through the way it is displayed (spatial and graphic scenography – how the exhibitors uses the space allocated) and through the message the architect or country wants to convey. And here is an overview of a few iconic pavilions which distinguished themselves by combining quite well these three dimensions:

Poland explores a fair-trade architecture, showing builders putting themselves in potentially life-threatening situation, a largely ignored part of the building process while France counters the “Starchitects” culture. Twelve projects are on display in the French pavilion, twelve ordinary architectures on familiar territories. The concept here is to show how gentle transformations on ordinary territories (suburbs, small town in the countryside…) can create new source of wealth, increasing the value of craftsman skills, improving solidarity and human relationships. Simple, relevant and appropriate, the projects displayed offer shared answers to very humble and ordinary situations.

French Pavilion – Nouvelles Richesses ©Constance Desenfant

Germany and Finland develop their pavilion around the refugee crisis. Border Home (Finland) conveys a positive message “geography has made us neighbours. History has made us friends. Economics has made us partners. And necessity has made us allies. (…) What unites us is far greater than what divides us” and invites the visitor to think about societal activities influencing our personal behaviours.

Germany, on its side, embraces its condition of Arrival country and literally opens its pavilion as a reference to its open border and nation of immigrants. Making new openings in the historic pavilion and keeping it open day and night until it’s bricked again is a strong act and that is what Germany offers as an answer to the refugee crisis : breaking down walls instead of building new ones and making accessibility a priority. Inside its walls, the German Pavilion displays its vision of what could make a good arrival city for immigrants or refugees : “The arrival city is : self-built / informal/ a network of immigrant / close to business / a city within a city / affordable / needs the best schools”.

German Pavilion – Making Heimat. Germany, Arrival Country © Constance Desenfant

The Greek pavilion also tackles the urban and refugee crisis, proposing to open the dialogue through action-workshops. It takes Athens as a case study and develops experimental social initiatives to fill the institutional gaps generated by the crisis. It also tests the viability and durability of the city in the current context and uses collaboration as its main tool and motto.

The British pavilion ‘home economics’ explores 5 new models for domestic life. Through a direct spatial experience (1:1) and 5 time scales referring to how long a place is called a home (hours, days, months, years and decades) its curators Shumi Bose, Jack Self and Finn Williams try to understand how the housing crisis is related to a crisis of how we live : social changes, family structure, gender roles, rising wealth inequality, mass migration, ageing population etc. They look beyond standard residential typologies to develop new financial models for housing. ‘Own nothing- share everything’ relates to a home for a few hours. The essential function of a daily shelter providing Internet is represented as a portable living space. And the very functional home looks like the perfect living unit for a year while the adaptative home allows the living space to work for decades (evolution of family members – modular housing unit).

British Pavilion – Home Economics

Many topics and concepts explored in just 6 pavilions, hence the necessity to take more than one day to go through this exhibition offering a wealth of information and learning opportunities. The Biennale might be over but for those who missed it, the official catalogue Reporting from the Front, consisting of two volumes and edited by Alejandro Aravena is available. Each project is presented and individual dedicated essays introduce the architectural design, the author’s or Firm’s “approach”, describe the project’s specificities and explain the reasons that led Aravena to include the project in the Exhibition.

Once again, the Venice Biennale proves to be one of the major European cultural event of the year, bringing countries and individuals together in order to exchange ideas and look for solutions on given issues.

Words: Constance Desenfant


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