Now open to the public, the Venice Architecture Biennale is in full swing. Azure had a chance to preview the exhibition, which presents a kaleidoscope of reflections on decolonization and decarbonization and interrogates the role of modern architecture and development – and the machinations of capitalism – in the erasure of Indigenous and ancestral ways of space-making. Largely through the works of African and African Diaspora practitioners, the main exhibitions at the Central Pavilion and the Arsenale embrace visions for a future that sustains local communities and economies rather than globalized interests. Here, we review five major themes that emerge at the Venice biennale.
In one of the first installations visitors encounter in the Central Pavilion, Sumayya Vally and Moad Musbahi imagine a landscape of steel columns that together comprise the African Post Office – a communication system of “channels across Africa without having to relay to any point north of the Mediterranean as was previously our unfortunate European predicament.” The speculative project is augmented by evocative soundscapes and wall-mounted official letters to the “six deities of the winds, spiritual beings and atmospheric phenomena,” updating them on the APO’s progress.
Like the APO, Olalekan Jeyifous‘s African Conservation Effort is a rich, multi-layered vision, this time for a “network of sprawling low-impact, zero-emissions travel complexes situated off the coasts of major ports throughout the world,” fueled by renewable and sustainable energy production. As part of his concept, temporally situated in the wake of the Pan-African movement and African decolonization, Jeyifous created a departure lounge alive with video and sculpture – as well as job ads and commercials for the ACE.
Land Narratives – Fantastic Futures, by urban american city (urbanAC), features plinths topped with 3D-printed clay objects that are motion-activated to play pre-recorded stories of Black Chicagoans’ memories of growing up on the South Side. On the wall, a map illustrates how vacant land in the city could be imagined as Black space and wealth if the featured storytellers collectively controlled it.
DAAR (Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency) looks back at the attempted erasure of the local community of Syracuse, Sicily, by the Entity of Colonization of Sicilian Latifundia – a homeland version of similar organizations that the Italian fascist government had set up in its colonies of Eritrea and Ethiopia. The ECSL officially viewed Syracuse as “backward, underdeveloped and empty.” The installation, which has won the Golden Lion, reproduces the village’s “modernist-colonial-fascist” architecture, deconstructed into 15 pieces laid out as seating modules that have been transported around the world for decolonization dialogues.
One of the most powerful exhibitions at the Venice biennale is the Nordic Countries Pavilion, where Joar Nango has recreated his Sámi Architecture Library. A joyous reading room of wondrous structures filled with over 500 books on “Sámi architecture and design, traditional and ancestral building knowledge, activism and decoloniality,” it also features a tentlike structure that doubles as a screening room for his Post-Capitalist Architecture-TV series.
Indigenous ways of knowing were also at the core of Peru‘s pavilion, where an A-Frame structure clad in a textile printed with 64 community calendars illustrates how the country’s Indigenous walkers organize their sense of time alongside the productive cycles of the seasons.
Brazil‘s pavilion, its floor paved over in red earth, sensorially immersed visitors in Indigenous space-making. The most compelling aspect of the Terra exhibition, which won the Golden Lion for Best National Participation, is a documentary that corrects the record on how Brasilia was built – on land that is ancestral Indigenous and Quilombola territory. It was one of the many indictments throughout the biennale of mid-century modernism’s narrative of progress, which in actuality was achieved at the expense of a pre-existing culture and identity.
The Austrian Pavilion was a favourite for many who appreciated its critical take on the Venice biennale itself, which has grown exponentially in regards to both its physical space and its visitor numbers. This inexorable expansion has taken place to the chagrin of locals, who increasingly resent the privatization of the ticketed event. To visualize and reconcile this chasm between the event and the city, the Austrian team set out to create an actual bridge over the wall that cuts the biennale grounds off from its surrounding neighbourhood in hopes of allowing passersby free entry. The city, obviously, forbade them – and, so, theirs is a half bridge, illustrating an impasse, with a very compelling exhibition inside the pavilion showing what might have been.
Germany also had much of substance to say about the Venice biennale – namely, how its pavilions over the years have created tonnes of waste. Its exhibition collects all of this dead stock and stacks it in visually satisfying ways throughout. The pavilion also includes a sewing room, where visitors are invited to choose from panels of discarded fabrics to create their own bags and knick knacks by following provided instructions.
Inevitably, at a Venice biennale where performance, video, art and activism are being generously celebrated, there have been laments about the dearth of actual architecture. And yet there was plenty. Atelier Masōmī‘s work is on glorious display in the Central Pavilion; models of its projects beautifully grafted onto the wall of the exhibition room provide unusual perspectives on its carefully considered space making.
Adjaye Associates is a huge presence at the Venice biennale, where it has installed the Kwaeε, a perforated pavilion, near the Arsenale. The firm also curated one of the special projects there and filled an entire room at the Central Pavilion with its architectural models. Elsewhere in town, Adjaye Associates is part of a group show on the myriad architectural visions that comprise The Line, the controversial development in Saudi Arabia that seems at odds with everything that the Venice biennale seems to champion.
A much humbler contribution, Studio Sean Canty Edgar’s Sheds at the Central Pavilion is an homage to two sheds – “steeped in Black vernacular” – that the architect’s great-grandfather built in Elliot, South Carolina. “One shed is a home of joy, belonging and struggle. The other is a juke joint filled with smoke, rhythm and blues.”
Walter Hood also honours the Black vernacular of South Carolina with his Arts Lifeway. Planned for the native cultural landscapes of Charleston, where the wetland is increasingly being developed into suburbs, the network of pavilions crafted from wood sourced from the “overgrown” are inspired by the basketmaking techniques of locals who have sold their sweetgrass-woven wares throughout the area’s history. They will also provide contemporary basketmakers a hub to make and sell their works to locals and tourists alike. Hood Design Studio created a scale version installation of the structures in the Central Pavilion’s garden.
One of the biennale’s most jarring pavilions – in a wonderful way – belongs to Uruguay, which produced a video opera that interrogates a forestry law that transformed the nation into a leading exporter of cellulose after it was enacted in 1987. This seemingly niche focus demonstrates how the identity of a country “with four cows per inhabitant” can change overnight into an industrial powerhouse – but to the benefit of whom?
The Dutch also take a look at a resource synonymous with the Netherlands – namely water – as a metaphor for wealth. A series of illustrations by Carlijn Kingma map the “flows and pipelines of resource distribution, to illustrate the workings of capitalism and its deeply embedded mechanisms.” A pair of ladders placed before one of her intricate wall drawings allows visitors to get up close to the fine details.
By showing how it has been shaped by minerals extracted from Africa, to the detriment of the continent’s local communities, Andrés Jaque and Office for Political Innovation makes a powerful case against the “shiny modernism” embodied by Hudson Yards. He renames the New York megaproject Xholobeni Yards, after the titanium mine in South Africa that provided the shimmer for its facades, which are constructed of stainless steel sourced from chromite extracted from the Great Dyke of Zimbabwe. Cobalt from Zambia also enabled the developers to raise the development above the railways. The whole project, then, is the result of “transnational extractivism” and all the damage that these processes entail.
From the decolonization of natural resources and the celebration of Indigenous ways of knowing, here are five major themes at the Venice architecture biennale.