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Venice Biennale 2021

The most influential of all architecture exhibitions premiered in La Serenissima in May, a year later than planned. In the context of the global pandemic, widening political divides and growing economic inequalities, curator Hashim Sarkis’s provocative cornerstone question — “How Will We Live Together?” — became more urgent, and he set out in search of a new spatial contract. The exhibitors and curators of participating national pavilions accompanied him on that journey, translating and negotiating it to encompass a broad array of themes.

Alongside a tonal shift in content, there followed a shift in overall experience. “If you think of architecture as a kind of reference system, you like to think of the Venice Biennale as something like the centre of it,” says Nikolaus Hirsch, co-founder of E-flux Architecture and co-curator of the German Pavilion. But this edition’s opening days communicated the opposite sentiment. There were no crowds, queues or mingling in almost-deserted exhibition spaces. Some pavilions would even remain closed or covered in black plastic until the fall. The rare moments of exchange you had with others were intense and felt mutually appreciated. The whole system seemed fragmented, changing and realigning itself. How will we live together? The “we” of us actually there were so few.

But the notion that the entire world comes together in Venice has always been an illusion. Only a small and privileged part of the global architecture community can afford the journey, pandemic or not. To everyone’s benefit, this edition allowed for new formats and modes of outreach. Digital platforms were tested, online communities established and maintained. One example is “Open,” the Russian Pavilion, curated by Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli, which launched as an online journal in early 2020. The site gradually became a virtual gathering venue for a vast ecosystem of artists, architects, thinkers and curators. Among their projects is Voices (Towards Other Institutions), which is displayed in the first room of the pavilion. It gathers 28 texts around alternative ways of thinking about and programming cultural institutions.

Germany’s pavilion featured solely QR codes on white walls. This portal led to the History Channels, documenting life in the future (below). Photo: Francesco Galli

Another example is Germany’s contribution: Inviting us to meet in the year 2038, the pavilion is empty save for QR codes on the white walls, which lead visitors to a film series. On the so-called “History Channels,” experts and exemplary projects help you trace the paths of a (hi)story through the 2020s and 2030s. One of the films features two 18-year-olds who meet to explore the Venice of their childhood, their encounter offering a glimpse into how the future might feel: The world has changed, peace reigns in dimmed prosperity and personal technology helps us to better cope with complexity. The digitally focused pavilion, planned long before the pandemic, shows just how much the Venice experience could be stretched to include visitors who can’t be there.

Back to Sarkis’s question. In some ways, it is quite simple. For him, togetherness describes the human yearning “to connect with one another and with other species across digital and real space.” Of course, when interpreted through the installations gathered for his central exhibition, a more complex picture emerges. A collected rather than curated display, it is organized in five thematic sections, three of them in the Arsenale and two in the nearby Central Pavilion in the Giardini della Biennale. They range from the analytic to the conceptual, the experimental to the tried and tested, and they touch on prosthetics, typologies for communal living and Internets of things.

Your Restroom is a Battleground comprises seven models, from a Philadelphia Starbucks to a prison toilet in the U.K. Photo: Rocio Romero Rivas

But his inquiry elicits other questions fundamental to uncovering the way ahead. While there are no clear or sufficient answers — readymade solutions being facile — posing these questions in the first place is a vital exercise. And the ways in which we ask them, how we pause to learn from each other to project a future together, will inform what we need to tackle today. Among the first installations visitors encounter in the Arsenale is Your Restroom is a Battleground, by Matilde Cassani, Ignacio G. Galán, Iván L. Munuera and Joel Sanders.

It’s one of three features concerned with toilets “as architectures where gender, religion, race, ability, hygiene, health, environmental concerns and the economy are defined culturally and articulated materially.” The presentation of these seemingly quotidian spaces turned conflict zones — in places as varied as a prison in Kent, U.K., a community in Port-au-Prince, a high school in Virginia and an informal settlement in Khayelitsha, South Africa — grapples with how their very design influences the battles that play out within them. How can architects, collaborating with other disciplines, work in solidarity with marginalized communities for more equitable futures?

As part of the main exhibition, the process behind the Tambacounda Hospital in Senegal by Manuel Herz Architects is highlighted, as is the array of questions the sensitive, contextual edifice raises. Photo: Iwan Baan

A related question: Who are the stakeholders in the design process? This query resonates throughout The Many Lives of Tambacounda Hospital, in the “Re-equipping Society” section of the Arsenale. Exploring care within extreme conditions, it centres on a new maternity and pediatric clinic designed by Basel-based architectural studio Manuel Herz Architects in Tambacounda, Senegal and photographed by Iwan Baan.

Through images, films and a full-scale mock-up of a perforated brick wall for the curvilinear building, Herz uncovers the many processes and lives that such a building embodies, precipitates and connects to — all fundamental to the discipline as a whole. He invites many lines of inquiry: How will the project be used over its lifetime? What impact does it have on the larger community? And, perhaps the most challenging question, what other projects might the hospital inspire? Herz’s installation also gives voice to the institution’s important figures, such as Magueye Ba, the project’s general contractor, who is also a medical practitioner.

Uzbekistan’s inaugural pavilion examines the mahalla — a regional residential typology — by reconstructing an echo of the structure in bright yellow steel. Documentary photos by Bas Princen (below) animate the scaffolding. Photo: Gerdastudio

The propositions collected in Sarkis’s exhibition demonstrate how architects are rethinking their tools while trying to address complex problems and enlarging their tables to include other professionals and citizens while somehow decentralizing themselves in the process. Beyond this showcase, 61 national pavilions also attempt to answer his prompt. For Uzbekistan’s inaugural entry, Swiss firm Christ & Gantenbein initiated a multidisciplinary project dedicated to the mahalla. This neighbourhood composed of typical courtyard houses, found in Uzbek cities and beyond, exists within an urban system as a form of community life structured around rituals and traditions.

In the installation, a life-sized abstraction of a two-storey 1950s courtyard house — home to three households in 340 square metres — is complemented with a dozen photographs by Bas Princen capturing the material qualities of similar arrangements.

Under constant threat of demolition due to ever-accelerating technological, social and economic changes, must this traditional form disappear? What could replace the mahalla, which serves as an example of a vernacular architecture succeeding in an urban neighbourhood? The low-rise structure may no longer be a viable model for cities in need of high-density development, but it offers insight into how the countryside might sustain societies now opening up to a shift in community values, reviewing their relationship to the earth and dramatically changing their patterns and understanding of work. To Victoria Easton, adjunct curator and research associate at Christ & Gantenbein, “the mahalla is there to remind us that the world is more complicated than it seems.”

A disassembled Takamizawa house fills the Japanese Pavilion, speaking to the ongoing demographic shifts playing out in the country’s built environment. Photo: Alberto Strada

Could Uzbekistan learn from Japan? The inverse approach to the demolition and reconstruction of heritage is shown in the latter’s pavilion. “Co-ownership of Action: Trajectories of Elements” tells the story of the extremely “ordinary” Takamizawa House, representative of a wooden typology common in Japan. According to curator Kozo Kadowaki, a declining Japanese population has left the lion’s share of these structures vacant, and many are being demolished. The team obtained one, dismantled it and shipped it to Venice, where it has been repurposed into different objects. Parts of the roof, for example, serve as benches in the pavilion garden. Other elements are displayed inside, meticulously laid out and documented, allowing for a reading through the history of the house, its meditative everyday beauty somehow slowing down the frenetic pace of the Biennale.

The stories of Romania’s migrant workers (like Oana, shown here in a German pepper farm) are told within its national entry in Venice. Photo: Cosmin Bumbut

Demographic shifts have also deeply affected Romania. Over the past decade, more than three million Romanians have left the country and, while it has translated into individual success stories beyond the nation’s borders, this wave of migration has also caused a depopulation that is slowly impoverishing urban and rural life. “Fading Borders,” curated by Irina Meliță and Ștefan Simion, tells this story as one of tension — between those who leave and those who stay — by splitting the pavilion in two. On one side, visitors dive into the lives of emigrants such as Oana, who is photographed in the German pepper greenhouse where she works; she is the mother of two children who live with their grandmother back home. On the other, one encounters the country’s shrinking urban cores, rife with both vulnerability and opportunity.

In the British Pavilion, The Decorators’ replica of the Joiners Arms pub imagines this national icon as a space of collectivity, resistance and inclusion. Below: High Street of Exchanges by Studio Pulpo. Photo: Cristiano Corte

Inspired by The Garden of Earthly Delights, Hieronymus Bosch’s 16th-century triptych, Britain’s “Garden of Privatised Delights” returns to an investigation of a regional typology. It invites visitors into a diverse range of privatized public spaces, including toilets, parks and pubs. Curators Manijeh Verghese and Madeleine Kessler challenge the polarization of the private and public realms, which often leads to divisions within society, and call for new models. In essence, they are asking “How can architects invent new frameworks to improve use, access and ownership of Britain’s public spaces?” Potential answers are given in the pavilion’s six galleries, each by a different group of designers.

The Decorators’ Publicani, for instance, reconsiders the pub as a site of national heritage, telling its hidden story of reinvention through familiar elements like carpeting, décor and even karaoke. Standing at the bar, staring at the TV screen on the wall, you are invited to sing along to the Bee Gees’ hit “More Than a Woman,” with lyrics altered to reflect the history of The Joiners Arms, an iconic gay bar in East London that was saved from demolition and is now recognized as an Asset of Community Value: “More than a pub / more than a pub to me.” Returning the nature of the public house back to the pub could yield transformations in how these sites — so interwoven with British identity — are owned, used and understood as places for an increasingly diverse community.

Inside Chile's installation at the 2021 Venice Biennale, 500 vivid scenes capture life in the progressive José María Caro neighbourhood. Photo: Gerdastudio
Inside Chile's installation at the 2021 Venice Biennale, 500 vivid scenes capture life in the progressive José María Caro neighbourhood. Photo: Gerdastudio
Inside Chile’s installation, 500 vivid scenes capture life in the progressive José María Caro neighbourhood. Photo: Gerdastudio

Social harmony can also evolve from major divisiveness, as Chile’s pavilion illuminates. Emilio Marín and Rodrigo Sepúlveda’s cobalt-blue edifice “Testimonial Spaces” is a cabinet of storytelling. Its 500 rectangular paintings depict scenes from José María Caro, a Santiago enclave that has become emblematic for its progressive social movements and integration processes. It was actually established by a housing plan at the end of the 1950s and designed with the ambition of bringing together different social class groups, from informal settlements and independent and middle-class workers to government employees. The painted episodes — which communicate a multitude of emotions, from joy and sorrow to pain and fear — imply different responses to the Biennale’s central question. One of the most beautiful, human and poetic of all the exhibitions, the showcase overwhelms with its generosity of intimate moments. Living together is a collective effort, this neighbourhood tells us.

Standing apart from all these conceptual ruminations, one of the most surprising — and analog — Biennale highlights was presented under the guise of convention: as a straightforward architecture exhibition. “Skirting the Center” is a delightful (if diminutive) show dedicated to the work of Montenegrin architect Svetlana Kana Radević (1937–2000). Questioning what is “marginal” and what is “central,” or what is included and what is left out in architectural discourse, curators Dijana Vučinić and Anna Kats have brought together original drawings, photographs and correspondences from Radević’s personal archive — a trove of recently recovered materials that make it possible to contextualize and historicize an exceptional and overlooked figure of postwar architecture.

A collateral exhibition at the 2021 Venice Biennale illuminates the expansive oeuvre of little-known Montenegrin architect Svetlana Kana Radević (shown below accepting an award in 1967). Photo: Luka Bošković
A collateral exhibition illuminates the expansive oeuvre of little-known Montenegrin architect Svetlana Kana Radević (shown below accepting an award in 1967). Photo: Luka Bošković

Although peripheral, as part of the 17 collateral events of the Biennale around the city, the exhibition resonates profoundly. Radević’s path between Yugoslavia, America and Tokyo in the context of postwar globalization and her relationship to vernacular practices feels of a piece with many of the themes arising throughout the rest of the Biennale.

Maybe, then, what this edition is about more than anything is listening — to each other, to the environment — as we move forward together. Certainly, it reveals how curatorial practice and tools have changed. Over the coming months, many conferences, workshops, screenings and other events will take place, both in Venice and online, which might indicate a direction for how to make better, more sustainable use of cultural encounters, conversations and collective moments of reflection in the future.

As Kozo Kadowaki, curator of the Japanese Pavilion, put it to me, “What do we learn most from this pandemic edition of the Biennale? The curators have been discussing that solidarity, not competition, is what is important. What I learned this time is that the Biennale can be a place where countries can learn from each other. This will give us a big hint as to the future.” Perhaps now is the time for all of us to start listening to each other’s questions and responses, just as the Catalan Pavilion’s polyphonic Aria — with lyrics about the invisible pandemic of air pollution — beckons guests to pause and grapple with the issue at hand.

The Venice Biennale Has Us Asking Many Questions

In an exhibition exploring the spaces and places that unite us, the central query of “How will we live together?” is amplified and multiplied.

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