With one more month to go before the closing date, it’s time for a preliminary wrap-up of the 2016 Architecture Biennale in Venice. No matter from which point of view I look at it, I think we can say that the ‘Reporting from the Front’ edition, curated by Alejandro Aravena, was a success. Do you agree?
Let me explain in the following paragraphs how I came to this conclusion. I will start with a brief overview of what the Biennale entailed and how the media reacted. I will then focus on how the participating countries evaluate this event. Finally, I conclude with the lessons learned from the point of view of the visitors as well as the participating countries.
The 2016 Architecture Biennale combined a wide range of very diverse events. Alejandro Aravena and his Elemental team selected 88 participants from 32 countries for the ‘Reporting from the Front’ exhibition in the main corridor of the Arsenale and in the central pavilion of Giardini. The pavilions of the 63 national participations, of which 4 participated for the first time, and 20 collateral events were spread over Giardini, Arsenale, the historical center of Venice and even in Marghera and Certosa. These are the most visible activities for the majority of the Biennale visitors. There were however also Biennale Sessions, targeted at universities or research institutes, and educational activities for children, grown-ups and students. Finally, the Architecture Biennale organized conferences and symposiums, such as the one on ‘Conflicts of an Urban Age’, together with the London School of Economics.
Alejandro Aravena asked the participating teams to think about the pressing issues in their country and to present cases where architecture was used to improve the quality of life, taking into account the scarce resources and difficult circumstances. Each participation interpreted this in its own way, resulting in an abundance of interesting exhibitions. The Jury of the 15th International Architecture Exhibition awarded Spain (Unfinished) with the Golden Lion for Best National Participation. Japan (en: art of nexus) and Peru (Our Amazon Frontline) received a special mention. My personal favorites were Spain, Peru and New Zealand, as you can read in my post ’12 exhibitions you cannot miss at the Architecture Biennale’.
The total number of visitors to the 2016 Architecture Biennale is yet unknown. The visitor number of the New Zealand pavilion are up by about 15% compared with 2014. This might be a first indication, but it’s too early to say if this is a general trend. The final number will be communicated after the closing of the event on November 27 and I will update this post at that time. Subscribe to The Venice Insider newsletter via this link if you want to be informed when this is online.
Overall, the feedback from the press on ‘Reporting from the Front’ was very positive. Hundreds of articles have been published, not only in specialist architect magazines but also in lifestyle magazines such as Wallpaper or general news media such as CNN or The Guardian. Monocle Radio even dedicated a program on its online radio channel to the Biennale.
This continuous flow of press coverage is to a large part due to the strong promotion by curator Alejandro Aravena, who succeeded in personifying the Architecture Biennale. Already from the announcement of his appointment in 2015, the press gave him a lot of credit. Winning the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize during his work for the Biennale has probably added to his popularity. He also understood how to play the international press by organizing press conferences in 6 locations across the world (Venice, Paris, London, Berlin, New York and Santiago) in only a few days time. During the whole period of the Biennale, he continued to give interviews and he has been portrayed in several lifestyle magazines. His latest cover is the one of Surface, who dedicated several pages on the person and the work of Alejandro Aravena. All this made him without doubt one of the more visible curators of the latest editions.
The presence and interest of the international press are also important for the national participations. Most pavilions received a lot of coverage, either in their local press or in the international landscape.
The goal of the South African pavilion for instance was to present a positive picture of the country and its creatives abroad. This is feasible through the international visitors, but a publication in international media quickly multiplies this effect.
Getting the attention and the critical reaction of the international media is even more challenging for pavilions that are not sited in Giardini or Arsenale. An example is New Zealand, which was located in Palazzo Bollani in Castello. Their ‘Future Islands’ exhibition was very beautiful and did receive a lot of press coverage, but this is not self-evident.
I have asked several of the national participations for their feedback on the 2016 Architecture Biennale. Every one of them looks back to the event with a positive feeling.
The most surprising element, at least to me, is that the definition of success is not only linked to the reactions from the visitors and the international media. The main criterion for success is the feedback and recognition in their home country or industry. The interaction with other Biennale exhibitors creates after all an opportunity to meet with people in the wider architectural community.
The Peruvian pavilion is dedicated to the Plan Selva, a program to build schools in the Amazon rainforest. This initiative of the Ministry of Education was unknown to the large public in Peru prior to the Biennale. When the pavilion won a Mention of the Jury, this was largely published in the media in Peru. As a result, the project got better known and even survived the change of government in July. Plan Selva is now preparing for its challenge to build 3,000 schools.
The Australian pavilion was transformed into a large pool, reflecting one of the main social places of the country. The team focused on a singular experience and did not show drawings, models or conventional architectural representations. This approach has sparked a wider debate in Australia about the concept of exhibiting architecture. They hope that this inspires future creative directors to explore new ways of talking about architecture and to engage the general public as well as the profession.
The feedback from the visitors plays of course an important role, but it is more difficult to measure. The answer I received from the South African pavilion perfectly summarizes this: ‘Comments in the press give us an idea of the way it is received. An email from an individual from another country asking questions about our work is more rewarding.’
Several pavilions (such as Germany, New Zealand and Singapore) had a guest book in the pavilion, to grasp the direct feedback from its visitors. In the book from Singapore, many guests drew something instead of writing a text. Is this due to the magical setting with the image lanterns or because the architecture interested crowd likes to draw, who knows? Anyway, as you can see on the picture, some of these are very beautiful and will be a great memory for the team.
The Australian team keeps an eye on how people engaged with the space, how it ‘performed’ for them and how they made it their own. The pavilion volunteers send regular updates to the team to evaluate this. The flow of pictures on social media of people with their feet in the pool shows that the message came across to the international visitors.
From the point of view of the visitors, I noticed that the 2016 Architecture Biennale was not only interesting for visitors with a background in architecture. Anyone interested in what’s happening in the world, in everyday life, in beautiful design and who has an open mind and is eager to learn something, should have this event bookmarked. If you haven’t visited this edition yet, don’t worry, you still have time until November 27. Alternatively, mark the 2018 edition already in your agenda.
Choosing a relatively quiet day certainly adds value to your experience. Following are some elements to take into account in deciding when to visit. There will be many journalists hanging around in the first two weeks after the opening. Weekends are more crowded than weekdays. Finally, check the calendar of events, such as the Biennale Sessions, which attract more people. If you don’t intend to attend these, you might want to avoid these days.
From the point of view of the curatorial teams, I collected some tips from the 2016 organizing teams. A great team that sticks together is a first requirement to ensure you’re strong enough to face all the challenges along the way. Make sure you raise more money than you first anticipated. If necessary, and it will be, be open for changes to your original plan and don’t be afraid (or too proud) to ask for help. Finally, make sure that the content and the message of your pavilion appeals in 5 seconds. This is the time that a visitor requires to decide whether he will visit your pavilion or not.
Overall, the ‘Reporting from the Front’ Architecture Biennale was a success. I already look forward to the next Architecture Biennale in 2018. But first, there is the 2017 Art Biennale ‘Viva Arte Viva’, curated by Christine Macel. It starts on May 13 and runs until November 26. If you want to be informed about all the participations and what will be interesting to see, follow this link to subscribe to The Venice Insider newsletter. The first set of artist names and exhibitions seems very intriguing. The Biennale will also introduce some new elements to the concept of the exhibition itself.
So, what did you think of this 2016 Architecture Biennale? Feel free to share your feedback in the comments below.
See you next year at the Art Biennale!
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