“The usual champagne-socialist pomposity of Venice has been drowned out by a newfound openness”

Venice Architecture Biennale review

Placing the Global South at the centre of this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale created a spirit of openness and sincerity, write Ewa Effiom, Krish Nathaniel and Aoi Phillips in this review of the event.

There are enough Pritzker and Stirling prizes to recognise built work in our industry. For the 18th iteration of the Venice Architecture Biennale, architecture’s biggest festival of ideas, curator Lesley Lokko promotes the process of architecture to the same heights as its outputs. This biennale platforms radical ideas and research from Africa and the Global South to re-energise a younger generation in the belief that architecture can address some of our most pressing challenges. Despite what some would have you think, Lokko’s biennale is far from anti-architectural.

Lokko’s curatorial focus is set around the twin themes of decolonisation and decarbonisation, with the Scottish-Ghanaian architect seeking to provide “a glimpse of future practices and ways of seeing and being in the world”. Departing from the architecture exhibition as an assemblage of finished objects, this year’s biennale positions itself as an agent of change, shifting focus to the process of architecture: the why and how, rather than the what.

Far from witnessing a “discursive self-annihilation”, what’s on show is a kaleidoscopic range of futurisms that bring new vision and direction to the profession. Central to this has been the promotion of emerging Black, Brown and Global South practitioners who stand shoulder-to-shoulder with more established names like David Adjaye and Theaster Gates.

Despite what some would have you think, Lokko’s biennale is far from anti-architectural

As always, the biennale is split three ways between the Giardini, the Central Pavilion and the Arsenale. The Arsenale’s vaulted Corderie building draws on a wealth of young practitioners’ work: a series of graphite block etchings by British-Zimbabwean academic Thandi Loewensen chart the hidden history of Kenya’s first satellite programme, while Arinjoy Sen’s exquisite triptych Bengali Song, a collaboration with the all-female Kolkata-based embroidery collective SHE Kantha, imagines alternative ways of living in the climate crisis.

Alongside national pavilions, some of the Arsenale’s more haunting pieces deal with histories of dehumanisation and exploitation, with Congolese artist Sammy Baloji‘s Aequare: the Future that Never Was exploring Belgium’s bitter legacy in the Congo through film and architectural models. A brass scale model recreates the planned Belgian exposition hall for the 1935 World Fair, a building which would have triumphantly showcased the wares and raw materials from the European nation’s depraved colonisation project.

A welcome surprise from the Giardini’s national pavilions, which have ossified the geopolitics of 19th and 20th century powers, is the presence of indigenous architectural perspectives. This is especially visible in the Nordic and Brazilian pavilions. Nordic pavilion curator, architect and artist Joar Nango, took the commission as an opportunity to platform the Sámi, Europe’s last remaining Indigenous population, in a playful and animated anti-exhibition. Children and adults climb over tree trunks and animal hides to explore Girjegumpi, a travelling Sámi architecture library.

At the Brazilian pavilion, which won the Golden Lion for best national participation, curators Gabriela de Matos and Paulo Tavares centre their theme, earth, on indigenous and Afro-Brazilian relationships to land. There was no shortage of brilliance and talent.

Amongst the weight of geopolitics and land justice, contributions that spatialise their research feel particularly uplifting

This is not to say that all national pavilions “got” the brief, which isn’t new. Japan’s contribution, which feels distinctly lacklustre and uncritical, asks visitors to simply “love architecture”, while the US pavilion’s musings on the qualities of plastic is perplexing. Other undercooked efforts include Germany’s collection of recycled and archived exhibition materials, a worthy topic to cover, but something of a reuse one-liner.

Amongst the weight of geopolitics and land justice, contributions that spatialise their research feel particularly uplifting. The Belgian pavilion’s elegant mycelium structure is a cathedral of mushrooms, communicating its premise in a uniquely architectural way.

Not far away, the hanging scaffold bridge of the Austrian pavilion by architecture collective AKT and Austrian architect Hermann Czech plays on the relationship between public and private space. Attempting to engage with the Sant’Elena district beyond the biennale walls, the pavilion documents the collaborators’ dialogue with officials and catalogue of rejected proposals. In seeking to open up the pavilion to local residents, the space probes at the tension between this walled off cultural enclave and the surrounding city.

But contrary to the spirit of these works, there is often a lack of generosity afforded to the casual visitor, a lack of any displays that require anything less than the commitment of full engagement. In the grand spaces of the Centrale, pavilion works are lost at times, aided only by tiny captions on the wall written in “archi-speak”. As a consequence, some projects are likely undersold, obscuring the depth of meaning that had no doubt led to their selection.

As a biennale that departs so much from previous years by giving practitioners from the Global South centre stage, it does seem to have caught the architectural media off-guard

With complex and intersectional topics to cover, parts of Lokko’s biennale often steer clear of the visual maximalism of past years, in favour of more composed mediums, with many contributors making use of film to showcase their work. But the sheer quantity of film media is at times both overwhelming and esoteric. Expecting visitors, many of whom will be students, to watch multiple 30-minute documentaries on sometimes niche aspects of architectural practice is a tall ask.

Curatorial optimism aside, there was ample reward for engaging with certain film pieces. Longer form documentaries such as the Applied Arts Pavilion‘s Tropical Modernism film, Theaster Gates’ Black Artists Retreat and Killing Architects‘ harrowing investigation of Uyghur detention camps, which drew criticsim from the Chinese government, all play to the strengths of the medium.

But as a biennale that departs so much from previous years by giving practitioners from the Global South centre stage, it does seem to have caught the architectural media off-guard. The response from many critics and publications has been relatively muted, with some reviews wilfully disengaged from the substance of the exhibitions to merely comment on a lack of models or plans. This lack of resonance might be a symptom of a broader issue in our design press, as very few publications sent any critics of colour to cover the event.

But comments from the likes of Patrick Schumacher inadvertently raise an essential question: what is an architecture exhibition for? Schumacher’s view of an “anti-architecture biennale” fails to recognise the challenge that past curators (beginning with Alejandro Aravena in 2016) have tried to grapple with: the crises of climate, biodiversity and late-capitalism.

One of the most unique qualities of this biennale was also its most intangible – its atmosphere

These crises, which are integral to, and sadly often caused by, our industry (ahem, concrete) all require responses “beyond the building”. By not retreating behind the 20th-century crutch of form and function, Lokko has avoided the usual conceit of architecture and delivered something less ostentatious, but no less potent. By contrast, the Neom exhibition, conspicuously adjacent to the biennale seems oddly archaic, airbrushing all its environmental and human rights challenges in favour of a hero image. More expansive than before (and the richer for it), the Laboratory of the Future has drawn supposed edges to the centre, rebalancing discourse with visions from the global majority.

For its opening weekend, one of the most unique qualities of this biennale was also its most intangible – its atmosphere. The city felt transformed with a visibly global community present throughout its islands. The usual champagne-socialist pomposity felt drowned out by a celebratory buzz and a newfound openness, cheer and sincerity. For the young practitioners we spoke to, this year’s biennale also provided inspiration for how to go beyond the confines of practice and use their architectural skillset more broadly. Given that a large contingent of visitors to the biennale will be on university and school trips, this is no bad thing.

Of the 89 participants Lokko selected, half are women and half are from the African continent and its diaspora, a landmark in redressing a global imbalance in our profession. More than providing a spotlight on architectural histories, narratives and visions which have previously been obscured, Lokko has provided a window into a future where the practice of architecture is democratised.

In the central hall of the British Pavilion, a film created by its curatorial team explores the cultural histories of Black and South Asian people in Britain, from Southall to Bradford. On the screen, a James Baldwin quote holds meaning for the whole event: “There is reason, after all, that some people wish to colonise the moon, and others dance before it as an ancient friend.”

The biennale is not exempt from the recent trend of Western cultural institutions’ reckoning with both decolonisation and the climate crisis. If the Venice Architecture Biennale wants to be more UN and less Eurovision, it needs to look and feel like more of the globe. The biennale isn’t a trade show, and while not the most conventionally architectural, this is surely the most global biennale yet – reason enough for optimism.

Ewa Effiom is a London-based Belgo-Nigerian architect, writer and producer who has written for publications including Architect’s Newspaper, Architects’ Journal, ICON, Wallpaper and Frame.

Krish Nathaniel is an urban designer, writer and artist based in London. His work has been published in newspapers and magazines including The Observer, It’s Freezing in LA! and The Architectural Review.

Aoi Phillips is a co-founder of the collective Afterparti. She currently works at Roach Matthews Architects, balancing practice with writing, graphic design and teaching. She has contributed to the Architects’ Journal, the Architectural Review and for Gestalten publishing house.

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