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Visitors to the Venice Architecture Biennale breathed a collective sigh of relief as they arrived for the event’s opening in May. Finally together again and re-energised under the Venetian sun, architects, designers, curators and the world’s media congregated to consider the many challenges that our built environment faces, and what this means for all of us. And the place to discuss these questions couldn’t be more apt. “In Venice, high water is an issue; tourism is an issue, the pandemic has been an issue; the vulnerability of history is an issue,” says Lebanese-born, Boston-based architect Hashim Sarkis, who was chosen to be the curator of the 17th Architecture Biennale, which was postponed from 2020 to 2021, and will run until 21 November. Beyond the thought-provoking setting, the event’s success comes from a curator unafraid to ask tough questions but also one demanding practical responses from participants. Unlike more convoluted curatorial concepts from previous iterations (2013’s The Encyclopedic Palace was particularly vague) Sarkis’ theme for the biennale aims a very direct question at architects: how will we live together? From this comes diverse answers and also more questions for the audience to consider in response.

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Throwing shade 

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‘Material Culture: Rethinking the Physical substrate for Living Together’

For example, what will happen to the citizens of sinking Venice and the city itself? Amsterdam’s Studio LA, operated by architects Lorien Beijaert and Arna Mackic, teamed up with designer Baukje Trenning to provide a highly literal response. Their installation, City to Dust, found at the biennale’s Arsenale, sees a map of Venice beautifully realised across a tiled floor, which all begins to deteriorate when guests step across it. Offset by ghostly images that are shot by Venetian photographer Marco Cappelletti during the pandemic, the result is something paradoxical – an overly touristy Venice will undoubtedly crumble but one without visitors isn’t great either. “With over-tourism, the beauty of Venice has produced something negative,” says Beijaert. “Yet when the city is empty there’s an awful feeling about the place.”

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US pavilion curators Paul Andersen, on left, and Paul Preissner 

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In-depth discussion
Beyond the Biennale

While the event spoils architects with myriad installations and exhibitions, it also highlights design efforts in places more removed.

Aristotle Axis

Thessaloniki

Greece’s pavilion this year hones in on the urban issues the city of Thessaloniki is facing. It focuses on the convergence of different cultures and architectural styles to discuss what a modern Greek city should look like going forward. The curators display the findings through a market-style set-up where “souvenirs” – beautifully presented printed collateral on the topic – can be taken away for free.

Tambacounda Hospital

Senegal

A beautiful, breathable latticed brick wall installed at the Arsenale exhibition by Swiss architect Manuel Herz directs visitors’ attention to this unique building he’s designed in Senegal. The aim is to tell the story of the stakeholders in the project’s design process – the local builders, planners, politicians, doctors and, of course, the patients.

Barrio La Palomera

Caracas

Rather than propose a full-scale solution to improving this particular Caracas district, Elisa Silva and her team have simply realised a scaled-down version of the suburb, which highlights its many positives, including masses of public spaces and parks, as well as flower and vegetable gardens where locals extract plants to use in home-made medicines.

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Green living at the Danish pavilion

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Poland pavilion curators, Rafal Sliwa (on left) and Bartosz Kowal

While some installations are left open to interpretation, others focus on certain truths. The Danish National Pavilion’s exhibition Connectedness, for example, elegantly shows us that without water, we are without life. “There are basic elements in our world that we have taken for granted for a very long time,” says its curator Marianne Krogh. “We don’t think about them, we think water is here for us and we have plenty of it, but that’s not the case any more.” Krogh takes us through her semi-flooded space where recycled rainwater runs through the building, helping herbs to grow; they are then used to make tea. “Here you can feel, touch and smell the water but also learn about the political side of it because in many parts of the world people don’t have clean water. We’ve used water as an architectural element to propose the notion that if people can start feeling their surrounding world in a more pronounced way, they can continue this feeling into their everyday life.”

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UK pavilion 
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Nordic pavilion

It’s exhibitions like these – ones that enrich the senses and remind architects and designers of the importance of physical built environments that work best at this year’s biennale. Whether it’s breathing in the scent of timber used to construct a community-focused building or being immersed within robotically produced, fibrous building elements in a tree-like structure from the University of Stuttgart, the best installations evoke both a physical and emotional response. Venture into the Russian national pavilion and the focus is largely on the fantastic refurbishment of the space itself, deftly handled by Russian-Japanese architecture firm Kasa. In the past, such an effort might have seemed a touch lazy but considering the circumstances of 2020, when creative collaboration has seemed almost impossible, experiencing this overhaul in person is invigorating. Russian and Japanese designers and Italian builders overcoming the tyranny of distance imposed by the pandemic to create something profound – it serves as a metaphor for the immense effort participants have put in to make this event happen.

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Russia pavilion team 
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‘Architecture of Transitions’

And what about the answer to Sarkis’s question – how we will live together? Well, living together again is probably going to be a good start. On the fringes of the biennale, monocle sits down for coffee with famed Swiss curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, who has been lecturing at the event as well as catching up with old friends and scouting for new talent. “The day of yesterday felt like a month,” he says, recounting social breakfasts, walks, dinners, drinks and, of course, seeing the exhibitions themselves. “So many ideas were born, so many sparks ignited – these things just can’t happen on Zoom.” We wholeheartedly agree. Venice might not be in everyone’s travel vicinity just yet, but the ideas its biennale offers about coming together – and living together – for the greater good will benefit us all. 

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