Wednesday. 24/5/2023

The Monocle Minute
On Design

Image: Andrea Pugiotto

Structural integrity

We reflect on the opening week of Venice Biennale’s International Architecture Exhibition. From the halls of the Arsenale and the Central Pavilion in the Giardini, Monocle takes stock of presentations from top African architects and Singaporean designers, and stops in at a few of our favourite national pavilions, with Denmark, Japan and the UAE proving to be leading lights in the presentation of thought-provoking architectural concepts. First, Nic Monisse on his key takeaways.

Opinion / Nic Monisse

Strong foundations

The Venice Biennale’s International Architecture Exhibition is the event that sets the agenda for the industry. Its opening weekend, which wrapped on Sunday, is a who’s who of architecture, with exhibition curators and industry heavyweights in town to look at the work on show and exchange ideas – and party in the Lagoon city. Monocle was in that number. Here are my takeaways from the opening few days.

Simple gestures
Many of this year’s pavilions rely on text and film to explore complex topics, such as architecture’s relationship to place, politics and technology. This made those participants who deployed models and physical installations stand out from the crowd. A pick of the bunch was the Swiss pavilion, which offered a reminder of the power of simple physical gestures. Its installation, “Neighbours”, saw the fence between its structure and the Venezuelan pavilion next door removed and placed to one side, commenting on the real and perceived barriers that architects – and indeed nations – can put in place.

Context matters
“I’ve realised that the building is not the solution; in fact, sometimes it’s the problem,” Rahul Mehrotra, Indian architect and chair of the department of urban planning and design at Harvard, told Monocle. His display, which analysed his practice’s relationship between research and construction, encouraged architects to lose their ego and consider the broader context in which their work takes place.

A Pritzker
What do you call a group of Pritzker Prize winners? A “pritz” of architects, perhaps? Spotted in the grounds of the biennale were the likes of Shigeru Ban and Kazuyo Sejima, greeting fans and friends alike. Of note was an exchange between 2022 winner Francis Kéré and a young Angolan architect, who stopped the Burkina Faso-born designer in his tracks to thank him for putting African architects on the map.

Architecture as landscape
Part of the Ukrainian pavilion is an installation of mounded earthworks inspired by the Serpent’s Wall, a network of 10th-century fortifications near Kyiv. In the gardens of the biennale, the installation provided a moment of refuge from the bustling crowds and underlined the fact that architecture isn’t confined to concrete, bricks and glass.

Local economy
Which of the Venice Biennale’s flagship international exhibitions – art or architecture – do Venetians prefer? The bartenders, it seems, are leaning towards the latter. “I’ve found that architects drink a lot of wine,” says Lorenzo, chef at Vino Vero wine and bàcari bar. “At the art biennale, they usually just sit around and don’t order drinks. It’s why I prefer the architecture biennale: these people are good for business.”

Nic Monisse is Monocle’s design editor. For more from the Venice Biennale, tune in to this week's episode of ‘Monocle On Design’.

General Exhibition / Central Pavilion

Continental shift

This year the Venice Biennale has placed a particular emphasis on architects from Africa and its diaspora – those working in some of the world’s most challenging social, political and environmental conditions. Under the curatorship of Ghanaian-Scottish architect Lesley Lokko, more than half of the participants in the Central Pavilion of the Giardini were from the continent, with one section of the exhibition, Force Majeure, including works by the likes of Olalekan Jeyifous, Sean Canty and Walter Hood (pictured, from top to bottom), as well as Theaster Gates, Francis Kéré, David Adjaye and Mariam Issoufou Kamara (see Words with…). In presenting their work in Venice, all sought to broaden the African perspective of the biennale to prompt conversation about what can be learnt from those operating beyond the sightlines of the West.

Image: Andrea Pugiotto
Image: Andrea Pugiotto
Image: Andrea Pugiotto

“The architectural forms outside the Western canon are often ones where you find deep sustainability, smart circular economies and amazing use of local labour and materials,” says Gates. “This approach could in some ways protect people from the kind of challenges [we’re facing globally].” The result? A prompt for designers everywhere to venture beyond their comfort zones when seeking precedent and inspiration.

General Exhibition / The Arsenale

World of design

The highlight for many at the Venice Biennale is the show inside the Arsenale. This part of the main exhibition, a 10-minute walk from the verdant Giardini, occupies vast former shipyards on the Venetian waterfront. Visitors walk through a succession of long, darkened rooms, making for an impressive, immersive environment to display takes on the future of architecture. A highlight at this year’s Arsenale showcase is the Dangerous Liaisons section, which includes sculptural and video work by Palestine-based collective Decolonizing Architecture/Art Residency, the winners of the Golden Lion for best participant.

Image: Andrea Pugiotto
Image: Andrea Pugiotto
Image: Andrea Pugiotto

At the far end of the Arsenale are 22 national pavilions that, compared with the Giardini, are often more contained and easier to take in. The Singaporean pavilion (pictured, bottom), commissioned by the Urban Redevelopment Authority and Design Singapore Council and titled When is Enough, Enough?, looks to find intangible – and tongue-in-cheek – units of measurement for tracking the quality of life in a city, letting visitors enter answers that are then plotted on constantly moving scrolls. Further on, the pavilions of Italy and Uzbekistan make the trek to the end of the Arsenale worthwhile, while an outdoor structure by David Adjaye (pictured, centre), handsomely set against the docks, tops off the tour.

Words with... / Mariam Issoufou Kamara, Niger

Living heritage

Nigerien architect Mariam Issoufou Kamara runs Niamey-based design studio Atelier Masōmī. It’s a practice that works on people-centric projects, imbuing them with a strong sense of place by working with the communities and locally produced materials. Selected by curator Lesley Lokko to feature as part of Force Majeure, a section of the biennale dedicated to African architects and those from the continent’s diaspora, Kamara tells us about the installation, Neolithic cave drawings and her winding path to a career in architecture.

Image: Andrea Pugiotto

Your installation is titled ‘Process’. What does this name refer to?
It is about the process of making architecture that my studio has developed working in Africa but which has also become a more general approach to architecture. It’s a process that is about looking at the situation in which we’re in and understanding that there won’t necessarily be orthodox precedents. It’s about the process of discovery that yields an architecture that somehow feels true to the place it’s meant for.

The installation entails enlarged technical drawings painted on the walls, juxtaposed with models of projects. What inspired this move?
It’s about introspection. Growing up in the Sahara, my family would visit caves that had these Neolithic carvings on them showing animals and people, which gave me a sense of my heritage. This installation nods to that memory by putting on the wall these symbols of architecture that predates coloniality.

You studied computer science and worked as a software engineer in the US before studying architecture. What was it that prompted you to make the switch?
I always wanted to be an architect; I just didn’t really feel that I could allow myself to do that. Coming from Africa and having the opportunity to study in the US, it seemed that the reasonable thing to do was to study something such as engineering but the desire to be an architect never really left me. A few years after starting my career as a software engineer, I started realising all the additional dimensions that architecture has and touches on, in terms of how it shapes our environment but also how it shapes the way we see ourselves. To me, it seemed that this incredibly powerful tool was being used in countries in Africa that are trying to develop a new identity for themselves and progress just by looking Western. I was interested in what contemporary architecture could be if it was anchored in the world that Africans know. That is a fascinating question for me. So I went back to school, obtained my degree and embarked on this adventure.

For more from Mariam Issoufou Kamara, tune in to this week’s Venice Biennale-themed episode of ‘Monocle On Design’.

National Participation / Denmark

Hot topic

Copenhagen, a city mostly built on low land, is thought to be one of the world’s most vulnerable to rising sea levels – a predicament that the curators of the Danish pavilion sought to address with their national installation. “We wanted to select a theme that is understood and shared by our host city,” says curator Josephine Michau, head of the annual Copenhagen Architecture Festival. “Venice, like Copenhagen, is well aware of the imminent risk of flooding and rising seas caused by a changing climate.” Titled Coastal Imaginaries, the installation shares visions and ideas for tackling climate-related issues through nature-based solutions.

Devised in collaboration with artists, leading researchers and landscape-architecture practice Schønherr, the exposition unfolds over two distinct sections. One offers a data-based analysis for tackling floods by looking at how Copenhagen’s topography can be harnessed to create natural protection, while the other features a diorama of the imagined Mermaid Bay illustrating the consequences of rising sea levels on Copenhagen’s coastline. The showcase aims to emphasise the Danes’ emotional connection with the sea, which has historically been a great source of inspiration for the country’s artists and designers. “We are constantly reminded about climate change in a way that makes us almost apathetic,” says Michau. “Our pavilion is about inspiring us to work together with nature and not against it.”

Image: Andrea Pugiotto
Image: Andrea Pugiotto
Image: Andrea Pugiotto

National Participation / UAE

Dry run

The United Arab Emirates was long considered the poster child for a country in denial about its own climate, as it built glass skyscrapers and boulevards lined with tropical plants, and imported sand for artificial islands. But the country’s architects are working to transform these construction norms. Case in point is the UAE’s national participation at the Venice Biennale, Aridly Abundant, which explores what can be learnt from traditional architecture and ways of life in desert areas. “This is not to say that aridity is fantastic,” says curator Faysal Tabbarah (pictured). “It’s just to say that aridity is nuanced.”

Image: Andrea Pugiotto
Image: Andrea Pugiotto
Image: Andrea Pugiotto

The research for Aridly Abundant focuses on the Al Hajar mountains in the east of the country. The fieldwork involved both a study of traditional techniques of stone construction in the region, as well as dispatching cultural researchers and fiction writers on reporting trips across the mountain range. In the pavilion, stone walls and columns surround a lounge area, where visitors can delve into both fictional and technical takes on what it means to build in a desert climate – a topic that is becoming more relevant beyond the UAE’s borders.

National Participation / Japan

Brick by brick

Architecture, a Place to be Loved – When Architecture is Seen as a Living Creature is an apt, if long, title for the exhibition at the Japan pavilion this year. Curated by Tokyo-based architect Onishi Maki, the installation is a celebration of the pavilion building itself. Designed by postwar architect Takamasa Yoshizaka and completed in 1956, the structure sits next to a stepped garden and is a favourite of visitors to the Giardini, with its light-filled boxy structure sitting on pilotis, creating a perfect outdoor area for resting and gathering.

To pay tribute to the building, Maki partnered with creatives who specialise in textiles, ceramics, design, editing, metalwork and animation to install elements that would bring out the best in Yoshizaka’s work. A tent roof has been attached to the façade, creating a pleasant, shaded microclimate in the garden; the undercroft area has been transformed into a bar; and models and revised books telling the building’s story are presented inside. This combination brings an abundance of activity to the building and helps to emphasise that architecture is at its best when it is used and loved.

Image: Andrea Pugiotto
Image: Andrea Pugiotto
Image: Andrea Pugiotto


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