Historically, the Venice Biennale of Architecture has given its attendees a globe-spanning take on the state of the profession. How that take is framed reflects both the moment in time and the sensibility of the curator: In 2004, Rem Koolhaas nerded out on building components, laying out the nuts and bolts of how we make cities in his central exhibition Fundamentals; in 2018, Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara presciently focused on the importance of our shared urban spaces with FREESPACE, and in 2021 – delayed a year due to the pandemic, which made us all the more dependent on each other – Hashim Sarkis asked How Will We Live Together? This year, the 18th Venice Biennale of Architecture brings us the Laboratory of the Future; curated by Lesley Lokko, it places Africa and the African Diaspora in the foreground of architectural discourse – and it sharpens its lens on decarbonization and decolonization. As much a rallying cry as a thesis, this dual theme informs both the central exhibition as well as the national pavilions on the biennale grounds as well as the collateral events and the multiple talks series and installations taking place over the course of the biennale’s six-month run throughout the city.
Here, we preview a few of the most anticipated pavilions of the biennale, which kicks off this week.
The Laboratory of the Future is the first Venice Biennale of Architecture to spotlight Africa and African Diaspora. And it does so from various vantage points. Curator Lesley Lokko brings her multi-hyphenate perspective to the ambitious endeavour. A Ghanaian-Scottish architect, Lokko is the founder and director of the African Futures Institute, which was established in Accra, Ghana, in 2020 as a postgraduate school of architecture, research centre and public events platform. Just five years prior, she had opened the Graduate School of Architecture at the University of Johannesburg. An educator, novelist and journalist – she is the founder and editor-in-chief of FOLIO: Journal of Contemporary African Architecture and the editor of White Papers, Black Marks: Race, Space and Architecture – Lokko exemplifies the hybrid term “practitioner” that she favours when it comes to describing the transdisciplinary participants in the exhibition. This inclusive term also reflects the plurality of experiences she seeks to extol.
“In architecture particularly,” she notes in her curator statement, “the dominant voice has historically been a singular, exclusive voice, whose reach and power ignores huge swathes of humanity — financially, creatively, conceptually — as though we have been listening and speaking in one tongue only.”
In amplifying the voices of African practitioners, she also outlines what she calls “the essential gesture of The Laboratory of the Future – which is ‘change.'” “How will what we say interact with and infuse what ‘others’ say, so that the exhibition is not a single story, but multiple stories that reflect the vexing, gorgeous kaleidoscope of ideas, contexts, aspirations, and meanings that is every voice responding to the issues of its time?” Beyond this geographical and cultural context, the show’s twin themes are universally relevant: decolonization and decarbonization.
Comprising six parts, the exhibition includes 89 participants, over half of whom are from Africa or the African Diaspora and many of which are from small-sized firms. It begins in the Central Pavilion in the Giardini, with a spotlight on 16 practices, among them Adjaye Associates, Cave_bureau, MASS Design Group, Kéré Architecture, atelier masōmī and Hood Design Studio, that represent a distilled “Force Majeure” of African and Diasporic architectural production. It moves to the Arsenale complex, with “Dangerous Liaisons,” where the international range of participants includes Neri&Hu, White Arkitekter, Andres Jacque, SCAPE. Then there are the “Curator’s Special Projects” and “Guests from the Future,” which provides “a snapshot, a glimpse of future practices and ways of seeing and being in the world.”
As anticipation builds for Lesley Lokko’s vision, there has recently been dismaying news. Journalist Oliver Wainwright Tweeted on May 10 that Lokko had expressed frustration with the Italian government, which was denying visas to many of her contributors. Wainwright quotes Lokko as saying that Daniela d’Orlandi, the Italian Ambassador to Ghana “has accused me of trying to bring ‘non-essential young men’ into Europe” and that while the Venice biennale’s team has tried to push back against this nonsense, “not even they can sway an ambitious career diplomat looking to make her mark with a right-wing government.”
Coordinated by Ain-Shams University in Cairo and the Mediterranean University of Reggio Calabria, and developed in collaboration with architects and architecture professors from 24 universities in 10 countries, NiLab is a space for research and discussion between Egypt and the world on issues such as climate change, water scarcity and sustainable development. Structured into six themes corresponding to different landscape sections – Nature, Agro, Urbe, Infrastructure, Industry, Archaeology – the Pavilion displays projects that reaffirm the preeminence of the Nile in the nation’s past and future identity. “The river must remain the centre of life and development in Egypt,” the curators, Ahmed Sami Abd Elrahman, Marina Tornatora, Ottavio Amaro, Moataz Samir, Ghada Farouk, explain, “through research and cooperation between countries.”
“Its geographical dimension,” they state “shapes natural and anthropic landscapes, feeds cities and productive systems, reserves and agricultural landscapes throughout its basin.” Leading visitors through a riverlike “grand tour” – which includes the recreation of a Sun Boat used in ancient times – the Pavilion reveals recent transformations along the River as well as future scenarios “capable of re-establishing balances between nature, artifice and history, together with visions that…represent new conditions of living.”
Entirely filled with earth – in order to “put the public in direct contact with the tradition of Indigenous territories, Quilombola dwellings, and candomblé ceremonies” – the Brazilian Pavilion is curated by the architects Gabriela de Matos and Paulo Tavares and includes contributions from Indigenous groups such as the Mbya-Guarani peoples and the Tukano, Arawak and Maku peoples, as well as artists, design practitioners and collectives.
As well as considering earth from various perspectives – as soil and territory but also in its global and cosmic sense – the exhibition looks at the past and “at heritage to expand the field of architecture in the face of the most pressing contemporary urban, territorial and environmental issues,” say the curators. Elements of popular Brazilian dwellings (such as fences with the sankofa symbol) at the entrance to the pavilion contrast with the building’s modernist features and kick off a dialogue about how we value ancestral building heritage versus modernity. To wit, the first gallery, named “De-colonizing the canon,” shows how Brasília, long portrayed as having been built in the middle of nowhere, was actually created on land from which Indigenous and Quilombola inhabitants had been forcefully expelled.
In the second gallery, dedicated to “Places of Origin, Archaeologies of the Future,” projects informed by Indigenous and Afro-Brazilian knowledge demonstrate that Indigenous and Quilombola lands are the best preserved territories in Brazil. Thus, they teach us how the biennale’s twin themes of decolonization and decarbonization go hand in hand.
The Italian Pavilion (unlike the nation’s government) is all about embracing community. Rather than focusing on completed projects, the Spaziale exhibition acts as a launching pad for projects tied to particular communities across the country by nine practices led by Italian architects under the age of 40. The curatorial team, Fosbury Architecture, states that “a substantial portion of the public funds allocated to the pavilion were used to initiate new processes or to bolster existing projects by adding a new chapter.”
Via the transdisciplinary nature of these undertakings, participating firms, which include (ab)Normal, Capcha Architecture, Post Disaster and Studio Ossidiana, are paired with such other talents as visual artists and performers, experts in food systems and artificial intelligence, writers and filmmakers. For instance, on the Venice mainland, one of the firms, Parasite 2.0 with Elia Fornari, will work on democratizing recreational activities. In Cabras, Sardinia, the group Lemonot will work with Roberto Flore on the sustainable transition of food systems. In Librino, Catania, Studio Ossidiana will collaborate with Adelita Husni Bey to regenerate the urban peripheries. “The nine projects,” the architects contend, “will shape the stages of a new geography, becoming symbolic destinations of a renewed Italian Journey.”
This cheekily named exhibition for a place predominantly recognized for its geopolitical history explores “new methods for architectural and urban design that emerge from the intersections of space and time.” The Pavilion specifically hones in on how modernist urban planning effectively erased most of Kuwait’s historic built fabric and how rethinking transportation and accessibility – through the lens of decarbonization and decolonization – can inform future developments. It features various studies that explore transitional spaces in the city that range in scope and scale.
Dancing Before the Moon, the British contribution to the Venice biennale, presents a series of installations featuring new work by six artists and designers – as well as a new film and soundscape – that promote the idea that “everyday rituals (from growing food and cooking to playing games and dancing) are tools for diasporic communities to establish spaces and present new ways of thinking about architecture and the built environment.” Through this emphasis on how people use constructed spaces – and, specifically, the community-building social practices that play out inside architecture – curators Jayden Ali, Joseph Henry, Meneesha Kellay and Sumitra Upham hope to influence the evolution of British architecture towards the collectivity. Within the Pavilion, the galleries will focus on objects by five UK-based artists and architects – Yussef Agbo-Ola, Mac Collins, Shawanda Corbett, Madhav Kidao and Sandra Poulson – with a focus on materials and making.
How can we look to nature for solutions to rising global sea levels? The Danish Pavilion presents a number of innovative approaches – mechanisms for landscape resilience, carbon sinks, cultivation areas, materials banks, biodiversity, and new natural spaces for socializing and recreation – alongside large-scale dioramas that employ theatre-production-quality 3D scenography.
One of the major features is a proposal by landscape architecture firm Schønherr called “Copenhagen Islands,” which replaces the city’s current urban development plan (dating to 1947) with one that foregrounds the islets that arise in a delta between seawater and rainwater. The project is based on seven methods that can be combined in hybrid forms: retreat, wetlands, land elevations, aqua urbanism, dune landscapes, barrier islands and delta landscapes.
Another exhibition room is devoted to a dramatic coastal landscape of the future created by set designer Christian Friedländer; a dramatized version of the relationship between wet and dry, water and land, nature and culture and their interdependence, it invites visitors to experience climate change on a 1:1 scale.
Like the Italian Pavilion, Portugal’s contribution does not begin and end with the biennale. And like the Danish Pavilion, its main concern is water. “Fertile Futures,” curated by Andreia Garcia with Ana Neiva and Diogo Aguiar, shines a light on the issues plaguing water resources in seven Portuguese “hydrogeographies” – including the International Douro, the Alqueva Reservoir and the Madeira Streams – in order “to stimulate thought about a fertile, sustainable and equitable future.”
In a collaborative approach, the participating architects worked with experts in other disciplines to present new approaches at the pavilion, where the central hall is organized by a water line – “its flow emanating from a gesture that evokes symbolic and metaphorical dimensions, in a sensory and emotional experience.”
But the dialogue takes place beyond the confines of Venice, to include a series of talks called “Assemblies of Thought” in Braga, Faro and Porto Santo, Portugal, through the run of the biennale. Also, the curators have organized an international seminar in July 2023 in Fundão, a municipality “deeply affected by water scarcity and highly intensive agriculture, fires and desertification” which will be the site of workshops and installations that seek to help local communities mitigate these immense problems.
Home as a vital necessity – a place of essential shelter, belonging and comfort – versus home as commodity. That is the all-too-familiar dichotomy at the heart of Estonia’s contribution to the Venice biennale. Curated by Aet Ader, Arvi Anderson, Mari Möldre (b210 Architects), the exhibition will be hosted inside a rental apartment near the Arsenale complex. A stage upon which the various narratives of housing takes place, the apartment will be the literal home (for a month each) to the Estonian performers commissioned to play out both scripted and non-scripted scenes – wherein “dreams collide with reality, owners with tenants, sellers with buyers, coziness with alienation.”
“One of the performers,” explains Möldre, “is intrigued by how issues of invisibility, such as care, aggression, and loneliness, contrast and accelerate in tandem with the vast visibility of real estate, which especially in Venice is driven by hyper-tourism and gentrification.”
For visitors, the journey starts from the open street where four wooden daybeds invite them to take a rest before stepping into the apartment. Throughout the six months, the white entrance wall will be painted, then repainted by each subsequent performer. The living room and kitchen will house a cabinet of curiosities with personal effects and “peculiar kitchen tools;” the bedroom will have a mirrored ceiling; and the bathroom will feature “a fountain of sinks” that dance and spray at each other. “Lastly,” the curators explain, “visitors will find themselves in front of a closed door that will be unlocked to welcome them into an empty room save for four vacuum cleaners blowing dust bunnies around.
What if we collectively rejected the concept of property and the financialized form of architecture that it implies? Architects Against Housing Alienation, the curatorial collective behind the Canadian Pavilion’s Not for Sale! exhibition is putting forth ideas that merge art, architecture, social justice, and economics to show what a much more equitable alternate reality might look like. By centring the rights of Indigenous people, Not for Sale! also calls for the decolonization of housing.
More important, AAHA, made up of Adrian Blackwell, David Fortin, Matthew Soules, Sara Stevens, Patrick Stewart, Tijana Vujosevic, has issued a set of demands that boldly establishes how we move forward: “To end housing alienation in Canada,” they proclaim, “we demand: (1) Land back! (2) On the land housing! (3) First Nations home building lodges! (4) Reparative architecture! (5) A gentrification tax! (6) Surplus properties for housing! (7) Intentional communities for unhoused people! (8) Collective ownership! (9) Mutual aid housing! (10) Ambient ecosystems commons!”
Never before has such a galvanizing rallying call emerged from the Canadian pavilion – and we at Azure are excited to see how its challenge is taken up by society and government, globally. As the curators note, “More than 1.8 billion people around the world do not have adequate housing, an estimated 15 million people are forcibly evicted every year, and over 150 million more are living in homelessness around the globe.” Read our full story here.
Curators Sevince Bayrak and Oral Göktaş make their case for the “Carrier Bag Theory of Architecture” – the thesis behind Turkïye’s “Ghost Stories” presentation – in a roundabout way. The notion is derived from anthropologist Elizabeth Fisher’s Carrier Bag Theory of Evolution, which posits that the first cultural device used by humans was the humble carrier bag – rather than the heroic hunting tools – which allowed them to transport their gathered vegetables; Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1986 essay, The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, expanded on it.
Applied to architecture, this sensibility exalts abandoned buildings rather than successful – or heroic – ones. As part of their research, the curators put out an open call to compile recent documentation of unused buildings across Türkiye and received data on “hundreds of residences, building complexes and abandoned production sites, partially or completely empty skyscrapers, hotels, schools, hospitals, restaurants and recreational facilities.”
Bayrak and Götktaş argue that these structures form “the laboratory of the future,” and only require novel tools and methods for transforming them – rather than destroying them.” The urgency to “reinforce and reuse existing building stock” has only grown, the duo say, after the devastating earthquakes in Kahramanmaraş, which affected 13.5 million people and left thousands in need of temporary housing.
The problem of plastics is a font for creativity in the U.S. pavilion, called “Everlasting Plastics” and curated by Tizziana Baldenebro and Lauren Leving. The duo invited five artists and designers — Xavi Aguirre, Simon Anton, Ang Li, Norman Teague and Lauren Yeager — to create site-specific works exploring plastic as a single, enduring material with infinite forms. “In doing so, Everlasting Plastics invites a discussion about the ways that plastics both shape and erode contemporary ecologies, economies, and the built environment, while also suggesting possible alternatives and necessary re-imaginings for the ways in which plastics are deployed.”
Nine women-led practices around the world – including Canada’s own Dubbeldam Architecture + Design as well as Canadian, UK-based practitioner Alison Brooks, Chicago’s Studio Gang and Uganda’s Adengo Architecture – present new ways of thinking about housing, an area in which these innovative firms are pioneering. Citing the global housing crisis, particularly in the urban centres where 80 per cent of the world’s unhoused populations live, the group promotes permanent shelter solutions that are informed by community, identity and livability. Staged at Palazzo Mora, European Cultural Centre, in the Cannaregio area of Venice, the show presents a diverse range of projects that explore the particular phenomena of their surrounding built fabric, including “building typology, climate, and economic and cultural factors, while embodying a shared commitment to social and environmental sustainability.”
In the Marinaressa Gardens, near the Arsenale, WXY architecture + design together with SITU, Design Trust for Public Space and (Un)Common Public Space Group have created a public seating installation called Palaver Bench. It’s named after a shady tree in African societies under which people would gather for an extended discussion, “usually between persons of different cultures,” and it’s purpose is to highlight the ECC Italy’s biennial architecture exhibition, Time Space Existence. It will feature a series of programming and events that consider how public spaces play a crucial role in fostering communication among diverse populations – and yet are becoming less accessible and inclusive.
Providing insight into critical issues of urbanity and identity – from the macro to the micro – this exhibition in 11 “sets” at Campo de la Tana includes everything from Hong Kong’s climate action plan to the development of new, 3D printed ceramic techniques. Among its major features is a deep dive into the Northern Link, a major transport infrastructure expected to deliver communities not only accessible, eco-friendly mobility but also to “encourage the exploration of the infinite possibilities of the northern New Territories in Hong Kong.” There are also explorations of East Kowloon Cultural Centre, which merges housing needs with cultural needs, and the redevelopment of the Victoria Harbour.
At the Venice Biennale of Architecture 2023, curator Lesley Lokko shines a light on Africa – and on the twin theme of decarbonization and decolonization.