The Golden Lion for the best contribution to the main exhibition went to Gabinete de Arquitectura from Paraguay. Their impressive load-bearing structure is located in the central pavilion and is joined together using the simplest of materials. Photo © Francesco Galli, La Biennale di Venezia
Architecture – daring to do more
by Florian Heilmeyer
Jun 1, 2016

Architecture, or so many say, is an instrument of the powerful, used to demonstrate their power. This can be traced from the pyramids and temples to the castles, palaces and grand townhouses, to the massive office high-rises and the gleaming private museums of today. This could also be easily demonstrated by a visit to past architecture biennales in Venice. With the exceptions of Ricky Burdett and Rem Koolhaas, in particular the editions curated by David Chipperfield, Kazuyo Sejima and Aaron Betsky were above all beauty contests of the latest projects by international star architects. During a panel discussion in Palazzo Widmann as one of the opening events, Betsky of all people commented that this Biennale is boring and ugly – and we can thus consider this basically a compliment for Alejandro Aravena. The news that he has sent by “Reporting from the Front” has already hit home.

Architecture for everyone

Aravena’s main exhibition in the Padiglione Centrale and the Arsenale is zestful proof that the assertion that architecture is a service and cannot change ruling relations in society is simply not true. The total of 88 architects he has chosen to exhibit present a colorful wealth of mostly inspiring pieces that successfully improve not only the developer’s life, but that of as many people as possible. Essentially, here Aravena addresses the old question of what exactly “good architecture” is – and fortunately he succeeds in extricating this issue from purely aesthetic, technological and formal debates. “Architecture is about giving form to the places where people live,” Aravena said during the opening, “and by giving form we can either improve the existing quality of life – or ruin it.” What form this has to be is less important.

Aravena’s curatorial approach certainly permits differences and contradictions. One could thus discuss contributions such as that made by the climate engineers at Stuttgart-based Transsolar. They have created an expansive “Light Rain” installation in Venice; its bright rays cut spectacularly through the high dark hall. If you touch the light it refracts as a colorful rainbow. It is a simulation for Jean Nouvel’s Louvre in Abu Dhabi, where such light rays will at some point fall through the holes in the huge dome – the local climate and the intense solar radiation will ensure that the light rays can be read as spotlights in reality, too. Yet although this lighting spectacle in Abu Dhabi will function with a minimum of technological inputs, Nouvel´s museum designs can hardly be considered especially sustainable. A more sharply critical appreciation by the curator would have been in order here. What remains is solely captivating poetry, when you wander through the angled cone of light in the dark hall of the Arsenale.

Although such thoughts about a more critical assessment of the contributions repeatedly cross the mind, in particular in the case of the contributions by Bureau Bernaskoni, Tadao Andos extensive model of the Punta della Dogana and Norman Foster’s “Droneports” for Africa, only rarely does one feel the exhibition has lost curatorial direction or verges on the arbitrary. Which is astonishing, for example if one views Luigi Snozzi’s urban planning rules for Monte Carasso and a few meters further on encounters a Mongolian yurt on display as a permanent element of Chinese cities – and nevertheless has the impression that these two very different themes have much in common. And in the midst of it all there are sensational presentations, such as the large model by BeL Architekten, who dish up in blue polystyrene five proposals for new, cheap downtown living quarters in five German cities, thus highlighting real ways of turning the necessity of the refugee crisis into the virtue of a new, large-scale, progressive notion of urban planning for everyone. The large fluorescent letters “NEUBAU” above the building lacks only an exclamation mark if we are to grasp it as an appeal to politicians, and not only those in Germany.

The exhibition’s sheer diversity and harmonious complexity is nowhere more tangible than in the installation by Christ & Gantenbein, whose highly dense “More Than a Hundred Years” seeks to describe permanent architecture as sustainable, and, right next to it, the marvelously colorful, exhaustive analysis by Rahul Mehrotra and Felipe Vera of what is probably the world’s largest temporary city, which is erected every 12 years in India for the Hindu Kumbh Mela festival. Over the course of 55 days the festival has to cater for more than 100 million visitors, meaning about two million a day. After which the huge city disappears as quickly as it arose. Its final remains are washed away during the rainy season by the flood waters of the Ganges and the Yamuna. Here one would gladly say both are right, the durable and the transient, and here we see that Aravena is interested in the peaceful coexistence of different notions of architecture as long as they respond appropriately to the respective context.

Size matters

Since 2010, the former Italian pavilion in the Giardini has been used as an extra space for what is a ginormous main exhibition anyway – and to date each Biennale has failed to find an answer to thematically subdividing the two venues coherently within a logical curatorial concept. Only Rem Koolhaas in 2014 found a plausible response, when he voluntarily reduced his exhibition to only this location and wanted to leave the Arsenale completely empty. It was a radical concept that he sadly had to abandon under pressure from the Biennale and then with political dexterity invited other curators to put "Mondo Italia" intothe halls of the Corderie. This year it is just as sad and typical to see how Aravena’s show runs out of steam in the central pavilion. Initially, the compact line of the Arsenale halls is continued with superb contributions in particular by Forensic Architecture, by Francis Kéré with his work in Ouagadougou, the huge university by Irish architect Grafton in Lima and by LAN Architekten on their social housing projects and the inhabitants thereof in France. After which it gets more and more chaotic.

The clay cocoon of Anna Heringer and Martin Rauch are in one corner next to the bamboo structures of Vo Trong Nghia and Simon Velez and next to the bizarre chapel to the golden ecological footprint that Michael Braungart and EPEA were allowed to install here. Why? Because they are all sort of deadling with "ecology"? Yet in the very next room Raphael Zuber shows animated films of his bare architecture that would have gone down a treat at any real-estate fair. In this curatorial chaos, it is entirely unfitting that there is an “Evidence Room” presenting several reconstructions of elements from the Auschwitz concentration camp in original size. Taken by itself, this exhibition no doubt has its justification and significance, but here it is annoying, almost cynical, when two rooms further on Batlle i Roig present their brightly colored renderings showing how to renaturize landfills. No, here the boundaries of interesting contrasts have been reached, this is where it gets erratic and chaotic, as though everything that couldn’t be squeezed into the Arsenale had to be accommodated here. What we see is once again a good argument highlighting that the Biennale has long since reached the limits of its own growth and would be well advised to think about downsizing, particularly the main exhibition, in favor of greater concentration and a sharper thematic focus. It is true that size mattters, and in this case smaller might be much better.

Architects are not reporters

Perhaps Aravena relied a little too heavily here on the hope that architects are pretty good reporters on their own projects, even showing a little self-criticism now and again. In addition to his selection of the projects, his curatorial presence in the exhibition is limited to the entrance areas and the explanatory texts on each contribution on display. Precisely these brief texts provide a wonderfully personal tour of the show in Aravena’s tone of voice, who explains in few precise words what is important to him in this project and why he selected it. It’s a shame that the texts were printed so small you would think they were intended for a book. As such, they are unfortunately hard to find and, once you have found them, difficult to read to boot – given their small size and the garish lighting.

Yet these texts deliver on Aravena’s promise that architects are able to adopt the role of reporter. It is only here that a narrative is really developed that outlines something of the task set and the solutions conceived and undertakes a classification. The participants, in contrast, exhibit their projects just like architects do: self-confidently, without doubt, alternatives or failures. To say that these architects have assumed the role of reporter here would mean they have kept a critical distance and reported independently on their work, which simply doesn’t hold. If Aravena had indeed had a serious interest in true reporting, he would have needed to involve an independent authority to report parallel to the event or on the respective project in place of the architect – which could certainly be a promising approach for an upcoming Biennale. As long as architects present their projects themselves it will always more or less look like a trade fair, with one project lined up after another.

Architecture’s social responsibility

That said, this changes nothing about the fact that this Biennale is brimming with brilliant and inspirational projects, that it raises numerous architects previously unknown on the international stage onto the podium and is in part excellently staged and composed. Moreover, this Architecture Biennale sends a clear message – and here too it differs from its predecessors – to the profession to be aware of its responsibility and to face up to it. Not because architects have the duty or the skills to do so, but because each formal intervention reorganizes the complex relationships of this world – which has positive or negative outcomes. No, Aravena does not question the system. Instead he questions the validity of values: “good architecture” is intended to make the world a better place on a small or large scale, with the available means, taking into consideration local circumstances, with social and ecological responsibility. Mind you, Aravena does not give the architect sole responsibility here, something of which he has been controversially accused. Of course, architects are not singly responsible for eliminating the bad things in this world. But they can do their not inconsiderable part if they don’t shrug their shoulders and hide behind their developers or given tasks. A great many of the projects on display here demonstrate that even under adverse and difficult circumstances the architects’ influence sufficed to achieve “more”: more public space, more quality of life, more beauty, more usage options, more preserved tradition, more environmental quality.
Architecture can achieve all that, all over the world. And thus in the final analysis this Biennale does indeed show us how great the power of architecture can be – if the architects themselves believe in it.

15th Architecture Biennale Venice
runs until November 27, 2016
Two-volume catalog on the main exhibition with 668 pages, 78 euros

Transsolar and Anja Thierfelder demonstrate in their 1:1 simulation how the light will shine through the dome of Jean Nouvel’s new Louvre in Abu Dhabi when completed. Photo © Jacopo Salvi, La Biennale di Venezia
In the entrance areas of the Arsenale and the main pavilion, Aravena has used the plasterboards and aluminum runners that were left over from the previous exhibition. However, it is unclear whether his Biennale will produce less waste.
Photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark
The Chinese studio ZAO/standardarchitecture uses beautiful little models and 1:1 installations to present strategies to revitalize traditional hutongs. Aravena describes this as a “fight against the tabula rasa in China”.
Photo © Italo Rondinella, La Biennale di Venezia
Large model by BeL Architekten, who dish up in blue polystyrene five proposals for new, cheap downtown living quarters in five German cities.
Photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark
It is above all Swiss and Austrian studios that are responsible for the topic of durability in this exhibition, here Marte.Marte with a few wonderfully heavy model blocks primarily of their infrastructure projects. Photo © Italo Rondinella, La Biennale di Venezia
Chinese Pritzker Prize-winner Wang Shu’s Amateur Architecture Studio makes use of traditional, local materials for its building, typified by small rooms.
Photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark
The Block Research Group at ETH Zurich also presents a shell structure, a 16-meter-long and just five-centimeter-thick arch made of unreinforced limestone.
Photo © ETH Zurich/Iwan Baan
The “Teatro of the Useful” by Rural Studio does not produce any waste: They asked a social center in Venice prior to the event what they could use and then made their installation from it. The bedframes, lockers and mattresses will fulfil their true purpose after the end of the exhibition. Photo © Italo Rondinella, La Biennale di Venezia
It was unfortunately impossible to tell from which front Tadao Ando was reporting with his project for the Punta Della Dogana in Venice. His large model however was excellently executed. Photo © Italo Rondinella, La Biennale di Venezia
In the outside area Alexander d’Hooghe’s "Organization for Permanent Modernity" shows a system made of concrete elements that can be assembled like a construction kit to create ever larger structures. Photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark
Norman Foster has the go-ahead to present his controversial proposal to cover Africa with a network of these shell structures as “Droneports”, designed to improve cargo supplies to remote areas. Photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark
The Silver Lion went to Kunlé Adeyemi (NLÉ) for this reconstruction of his floating school in Lagos. Photo © Jacopo Salvi, La Biennale di Venezia
Towards the back of the central pavilion Aravena’s curatorial style seems to increasingly lose its way. Behind this piece by Designworkshop (South Africa) we find office presentations by Rogers Stirk Harbour and Renzo Piano.
Photo © Francesco Galli, La Biennale di Venezia
A few rooms further on Christian Kerez shows how, with Swiss thoroughness, one can break an informal settlement in Brazil down into its individual architectural components – and into wonderful models. Photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark
Considering Liu Jiakun’s ginormous model we initially believe it is fictional, but it is in reality a huge project that has been realized in Chengdu, around which a wide ramp creates public spaces and good views. Photo © Francesco Galli or Andrea Avezzù, La Biennale di Venezia
An attractive, bright space in the middle of the pavilion is reserved for the bamboo structures by Simón Vélez (Columbia) and Vo Trong Nghia (Vietnam).
Photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark
Looking at EPEA/Michael Braungart’s contribution, we don’t really know if it is supposed to be satirical or a serious statement on sustainability. Photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark
Details of the model by Liu Jiakuns.
Photo © Francesco Galli oder Andrea Avezzù, La Biennale di Venezia