Reporting from the Front: Venice Architecture Biennale

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Curator Alejandro Aravena at entrance to Arsenale exhibitions, with leftover metal studs from last year’s Art Biennale hanging above. Photo by Laila Seewang

 

This year’s Venice Biennale took the theme of “The Front” as its curatorial premise. Curator Alejandro Aravena, in his introduction, highlighted the many fronts necessary to tackle in the battle to improve the quality of the built environment: “segregation, inequalities, peripheries, access to sanitation, natural disasters, housing shortage, migration, informality, crime, traffic, waste, pollution and participation of communities,” a set of concerns reflected in his choice of exhibitors on display at the Arsenale. The first room displays the leftover metal studs from the 2015 Art Biennale as a way of introducing us — as designers, but also as clients and users — to all-too-common wasted material that often underlies artistic and architectural expression.  Although the theme is developed across scales and disciplines — from planning, infrastructure, architecture to furniture — many of the exhibitors foreground the benefits of ground-up design that result when social, environmental, and political lessons trump economic factors. In the national pavilions ‘fronts’ were interpreted more liberally, three of which are worth concentrating on in more detail.

 

FRONT 1: Technology (meets beauty)

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Christian Kerez, Incidental Space, Installation View, Swiss Pavilion at the 15th Architecture Exhibition. Photo by Oliver Dubuis

Craftsmanship has come to be expected from Swiss architecture, usually in white concrete. While this year’s Swiss pavilion confirms these material expectations, the form it takes is unexpected. Inside the simple modern pavilion curator Sandra Oehy has placed an enormous white lump that pushes uncomfortably up against the pitched clerestory roof, and it is a delightful surprise.

It is possible to enter the lump. And inside is a world that resembles what one imagines the innards of a Louise Bourgeois sculpture to be, but with the same peacefulness one would expect from more elegant Swiss architecture. The result is quietly extra-human — more crafted nature than architecture. The experience is unequivocally beautiful.

Schweizer Pavillon von Christian Kerez am 23. Mai 2016 in Venedig fotografiert. (KEYSTONE/Gaetan Bally)

Christian Kerez, Incidental Space, Installation View, Swiss Pavilion at the 15th Architecture Exhibition. Photo by Keystone/Gaëtan Bally

The front that architect and exhibitor Christian Kerez refers to is that of the architectural design process itself: specifically, the technological front by which space is conceived and produced. For the pavilion, titled “Incidental Space,” he and his students first created material compositions out of wax, sand, or nails in wood, and digitally assembled their casts into a singular form. The resulting piece was 3D printed to form a solid around which the final piece, only 2cm thick, was cast. It is hard to say whether the result is beautiful because of this tortured process or in spite of it, but against any of the descriptions the curatorial team have offered, I would say that the theme they are approaching with this project is not (only) one of design process, it is that of beauty. I asked Kerez how he chose iteration 180 out of 300: was it intuitive, or was he looking for beauty, and he was slow to answer. Architects don’t often speak about wanting to make beauty today — the risk of aiming for beauty as opposed to complexity is that it will always fail, as one person’s beauty will be another’s banality, especially if experienced amid a crowd filled with expectations after reading an entire ARCH+ issue dedicated to the pavilion’s design. Kerez smiled, and replied that he was looking for something illegible and complex.

 

FRONT 2: Environment (meets respect)

“Remoteness — like wilderness, is an imperial myth and a colonial lie. There is no frontier — no terra nullius, there never was. Canada, no matter how apparently remote, has live boundaries, edges, peripheries, thresholds and lived histories. Today there are only frontlines. Doctrines of (mineral) discovery latent in the ideologies of remote (resource) exploration are coming to an abrupt end on new fronts of action and resistance.”

Undermining Empire: A Landscape Manifesto for the Next Century.

The Canadians tackled the idea of the frontier itself, and appropriately enough weren’t even allowed to exhibit in their pavilion which was closed for extended renovations, but rather had to negotiate their territory for almost a year and a half with administration and neighboring pavilions in order to hold their landscape intervention outdoors in the Giardini. A wall of large sacks filled with gold ore extracted by a failed Canadian company in Sardinia barricades the way to the closed Canadian pavilion, eyed by biennale visitors on the first day as they walked through the area. At 3pm on Friday afternoon the crowd gathered around a circular quilt of beaver pelts, for the unfolding of the story.

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OPSYS / RVTR / Ryerson University Ecological Design Lab / Studio Blackwell / Hume Atelier, Extraction, Canadian Pavilion at the 15th Architecture Exhibition.
Photo by Laila Seewang

Part-exhibition, part-performance and part-protest, the story was about Extraction – specifically Canada’s roots as an extraction economy and its role in extraction practices around the world. Precisely positioned at the junction between the British and French pavilions, whose empires are also historically implicated in these same practices, the circular quilt was uncovered to reveal a large milled Corian inverted map of the world installed in the ground, with a cast solid gold survey stake at its center.

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OPSYS / RVTR / Ryerson University Ecological Design Lab / Studio Blackwell / Hume Atelier, Extraction, Canadian Pavilion at the 15th Architecture Exhibition.
Photo ©2016 OPSYS

In the complex entanglement between colonial politics, land occupation, and environmental impact, the Canadian story plays out with particular reference to indigenous First Nations, represented for the opening by Eriel Tchekwie Deranger from the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation in Treaty 8 Lands: one of many communities that have been affected by the scale of the practice that accompanied the transition from use-value to trade-value. It is in this sense that the European colonization of the territory of Canada can be seen as a starting point for the extraction story: the removal of valued resources from the places where they are found in order to fuel urbanization across the globe, and the construction of the very idea of territory to enable this forced removal.

06_©2016 OPSYS - Pedro Aparicio - Boram Lee - Altiplano

Pedro Aparicio, Boram Lee, Estudio Altiplano, Film Still from
A Walk in the Park of Empires, ©2016 OPSYS

Focusing on the land in this way simultaneously allows one to understand the forces that co-construct both urban and natural environments, and highlights the very physical nature of political and economic contestations. While the curators of this year’s Canadian pavilion chose to confront their own country’s darker relationships with extraction and the political, financial and social disenfranchisement that comes with it, this story could be told by many countries. The criticism that “the state operates like an open pit mine” is a provocation that should resonate with anyone looking at A Brief History of Empire, the video history of 800 years of mining told with 800 images in 800 seconds, viewed through the solid gold oculus inserted into the earth at the center of the Canadian intervention.

 

FRONT 3: Construction (meets fairness)

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Dominika Janicka, Martyna Janicka, and Michal Gdak, Fair Building, Polish Pavilion at the 15th Architecture Exhibition. Photo by Anne Kockelkorn

The ability to understand that these stories from the front, as presented by the national pavilions, are transferable across nations, is a commendable strength of this year’s Biennale.  This is most clear in Poland’s contribution, by curator Dominika Janicka, which focuses on the construction worker as the actor at the frontier of building practice. In a minimal presentation, five screens inside the pavilion give us the point-of-view of builders as they perform their daily work on a residential high-rise construction site. Hands turning, eyes gazing to the city beyond, or looking for firm footing, we become the builders for a moment. For design professionals, the primary visitors during the preview days, this is a rather uncommon vantage point. The Polish construction worker plays on a caricature certainly, but again the story is transferable to any large-scale project: one wall counts the number of unreported construction accidents, unpaid overtime, fast-track short cuts, and all the other unfair labor practices generated by global property development. The fact that “Fair Building,” the title of the Polish exhibition, is a frontier makes it sadly obvious that what should be theoretically simple is in fact rather far away on the horizon for most of the world’s designed environments.

The Biennale, in Kerez’s words, is a protected space for deviance, and there are many experimental and critical fronts on display at the Biennale this year. The three fronts of technology, environment, and construction explicitly tackled the overt concerns of the design fields at large, but it is their respective implicit fronts – beauty, respect, and fairness – that offer the best suggestions for how to open up the horizon of concerns for contemporary practice. And this is what seems to underlie Aravena’s call for experiment and criticism this year: we either have to move our values away from the financial frontiers that we have our eyes fixed upon all too often, or we should own up to our complicity in making finance the only horizon we, and the people we design for, can see. Given the importance of the Biennale for the design professions, there is hope and possibility that some of this deviance will seep out of the Giardini and into our design practice.