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For those who have been on the trade show circuit, the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale is a wonderful antidote – it’s about ideas, not products. The open-air museum and architectural marvel that is Venice welcomes the world for this show every two years (on alternate years it hosts the art biennale). The exhibition is divided in two: the curator’s show – called Reporting from the Front, by this year’s Pritzker Prize-winner Alejandro Aravena – and the National Pavilions.

Sixty-five countries have mounted exhibits for this year’s biennale. Some are located in the historic pavilions at the Giardini, others in the Arsenale, and still others occupy spaces throughout the centre of Venice. Our roundup here includes a few of the highlights.

The Belgian pavilion juxtaposed ideas of brilliance and scarcity in Bravoure, by Vylder Vinck Taillieu Architects, with Doorzon Interieurarchitecten and fantasy photographer Filip Dujardin. Real and photographic fragments from projects by 13 different architects create a dreamy environment that demonstrates how imagination easily overpowers means.

The rationale linking The Pool to a wider theme, suggesting it as a lens for exploring Australian cultural identity, seems a tad thin. But the Australia pavilion is still a big hit with those who stop by to cool their heels – making the rounds of the National Pavilions in the Giardini can amount to something of a marathon.

Architect Christian Kerez, together with ETH Zurich (with Benjamin Dillenburger), produced Incidental Space, a giant white cloud with a cave inside. In the same spirit of randomness as Marcel Wanders’ Snotty Vase, Incidental Space’s point of departure was a chunk of something or other cast inside a plaster block.

Parts of the cast were scanned to create a digital model that was then printed in 2,000 parts, after which a negative mold was used to cast the final shell in high performance concrete. Finally, the shell was shipped to Venice in 250 pieces and assembled in the Swiss Pavilion. Could this be what buildings will look like in 20 years?

A performance by Malinese rapper Master Soumy loosened up the dignitaries during the opening ceremony of the Dutch pavilion. Inside, the exhibition Blue, curated by Malkit Shoshan, focuses on the architecture of UN peacekeeping missions, taking as a case study Camp Castor, in Gao, Mali. Through data, models and cultural artifacts, the exhibition explores how a UN base in a conflict area can become a catalyst for local development.

The French pavilion is heralding the return of architecture to the people. New Riches – curated by Obras (Frédéric Bonnet) and Collectif AJAP14 – presents, in opposition to standardization and financially unattainable urban development, a series of projects in rural and urban conditions that demonstrate simple and effective solutions for living and working. They are strong, beautiful and simple projects – as satisfying as French wine, cheese and bread.

After last year’s influx of one million immigrants, Germany is addressing the refugee issue. The exhibition, Making Heimat. Germany, Arrival Country, takes a page from Doug Saunders’ book Arrival City.

Working with Saunders, the Deutsche Architekturmuseum formulated eight theses mapping the architectural and urban conditions needed for immigrants to successfully integrate. As logical as they are, these conditions can be tough to meet – such as “the arrival city is affordable” and “the arrival city needs the best schools.” Tall orders that, as has been seen in Europe, can result in tragic consequences when left unmet.

Called Losing Myself, the Irish national pavilion reflects on the lessons learned designing a building for people with dementia. The installation, a collaboration between Niall McLaughlin and Yeoryia Manolopoulou, seems rather alien and confusing, but perhaps that is exactly what it is meant to suggest. From the architect’s research, 16 principles have been extracted to serve as guidelines for designing space for people with cognitive impairment.

In the Japan pavilion, curator Yoshiyuki Yamana’s exhibition, Nexus, focuses on residential architecture beyond the nuclear family. The 12 young architectural teams explore alternative ideas for co-habitation that maximize the opportunity for connection.

In Nousaku Architects project for a Guest House in Takaoka (detail shown above) a traditional wooden building was renovated by lifting off the roof and removing the central area to add a guest room, a communal dining room and an inner courtyard. Originally a home for one, the renovation provided new spaces for family and friends to gather.

This evocative ghost ship is Turkey’s national entry to the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale. Entitled Darzanà, meaning dockyards, the project makes a connection between the Arsenale in Venice, where the great fleets of the former sea power were once constructed, and the abandoned shipyard in Istanbul. The ship represented is a Bastarda, a cross between a galley and a galleon, created of odds and sods from the derelict Istanbul yard.

Curators Cynthia Davidson and Mónica Ponce de León present a re-think for the shrinking city of Detroit in the United States pavilion. For The Architectural Imagination, 12 teams from all over the country imagine new futures for four sites identified by the Detroit Advisory Board. Pictured here is T+E+A+M’s proposal for the Detroit Reassembly Plant.

There is plenty of vision and enthusiasm, but the ambition appears to outstrip available means in even an extremely optimistic future. Detroit will undoubtedly benefit from the focus, but perhaps it could have benefited more by taking a cue from Aravena’s focus on making meaningful architecture with limited resources and training all this architectural talent on more achievable short-term goals.

The 15th International Architecture Exhibition Venice Biennale continues until November 27, 2016.

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