The 2016 Architecture Biennale Venezia promises to be a very interesting edition. Curator Alejandro Aravena has chosen ‘Reporting from the front’ as the official title for this 15th International Architecture Exhibition and it is up to the national participations to translate it in an appealing exposition. As usual, the main venues are Giardini and the Arsenale, but the many events across the historic centre of Venice, and the special event in Marghera (Mestre), are certainly worth a few days extra. The Architecture Biennale is becoming increasingly important and has therefore been extended to 6 months, from May 28 until November 27.
In this post, I will give you some background on the Biennale, on curator Alejandro Aravena and also on the theme. I have also published a post on the curators of this Biennale and I will publish more articles with practical tips and background information.
History of the Architecture Biennale
The Venice Architecture Biennale is a relatively new event, compared to the Art Biennale which dates from 1895. The first steps were taken in 1975, when Vittorio Gregolti was appointed as director of the Visuals Arts section of the Biennale. He organized three exhibitions in the Magazzini del Sale on Zattere, and these can be considered as the precursors of the current Architecture Biennale.
The first International Architecture Exhibition, which is the official name of the Architecture Biennale, was organized in 1980. The director was Paolo Portoghesi and the event took place in the Arsenale for a period of 2 months. In the following years, different concepts were tested before the exhibition was shaped as we currently know it. It has been an annual event, but then there were 5 years in between, before it was decided to organize it bi-annually. The duration of the event has also varied from only 1 month to 5 months, back to 2 months and now it has been extended to 6 months. The theme was another topic for discussion: in 1986 for instance, the event was dedicated to one architect, i.e. Hendrik Petrus Berlage, and in 1991, it didn’t even have a theme or title. Finally, the Biennale also took place in different locations: Arsenale, Giardini, Villa Farsetti or any combination of these locations. Since the 7th Architecture Biennale in 2000, the organizers seem to have found stability with the 2 main locations in Giardini and Arsenale and a timing over the summer.
The last edition of the Architecture Biennale, ‘Fundamentals’, attracted 228,000 visitors, of which 45% were young people (under 26) and students. To give you an idea, the latest Art Biennale in Venice attracted 501,502 visitors, so more than double, and only 31% young people and students. Hence, there is plenty of room for the Architecture Biennale to grow and convince the Art visitors that Architecture is as interesting and diverse.
I think there is certainly an overlap between both Biennales and I see no reason why you should limit your visits to Venice to just the Art Biennale. I know several people who always visit the Art Biennale but don’t consider going to the Architecture Biennale, because they assume it’s too technical. But architecture is much more than only drawings and models. Let me give you an example that might convince an Art Biennale visitor that visiting the Architecture Biennale is certainly worth the time. At the ‘Fundamentals’ Biennale in 2014, the Albanian team had put a large marble pillar next to the waterfront in the Arsenale. In their pavilion, a video showed how a large block of marble was put into a cargo boat and shipped to Venice. During that trip on the ocean, they carved the stone so by the time they arrived in Venice, the Corinthian column was ready and the journey itself had become part of the creation. Even though I am not a huge fan of video art, I found this one very intriguing and their booth was always full of people sitting on the ground to watch the movie. So what do you think? Is this architecture, or is it art?
Curator Alejandro Aravena
This year’s curator is the Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena. He is a socially engaged, urban architect, with a broad international experience in private, public and educational projects in Chile, the USA, Mexico, China and Switzerland.
He leads the Elemental ‘do tank’, which focuses on projects of public interest and social impact. They are well-known for their “half a house” projects across Central and South America. These low-rise residential complexes feature units that are – by design – half finished, allowing their owners to expand them incrementally over time, according to their own needs and financial means. The group also played an important role in the rebuilding of Constitución, one of the towns that was destroyed by the earthquake and tsunami in Chile in 2010, and for which they were given 100 days to come up with a master plan, including infrastructure, public space and buildings. They worked closely with the population to come up with a solution.
Alejandro Aravena knows the city of Venice and the Architecture Biennale quite well. In 1991, he participated at the Venice Prize of the 5th International Architecture Exhibition. He returned to the city in 1993 to study History and Theory at IUAV (university Venice) and engraving at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Venezia. In 2008, he won the Silver Lion for a Promising Young Architect at the ‘Out there: Architecture Beyond Building’ Biennale. In 2012, he presented, together with his Elemental team, The Magnet and the Bomb installation at the ‘Common Ground’ Architecture Biennale.
He was recently awarded the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize. The jury highlighted his dedication to improve urban environments and to address the global housing crisis. “Alejandro Aravena is leading a new generation of architects that has a holistic understanding of the built environment and has clearly demonstrated the ability to connect social responsibility, economic demands, design of human habitat and the city. Aravena has meaningfully expanded the role of the architect, which is now being challenged to serve greater social and humanitarian needs.”
If you are interested to know more about Alejandro Aravena, you can have a look at his main projects, with pictures and lots of details, on the website of Architecture Daily or listen to his TED talk (Technology, Entertainment and Design) in 2014.
Theme Reporting from the Front
The theme ‘Reporting from the front’ has been set by curator Alejandro Aravena and is completely in line with his background as an urban architect and the social strategy of his Elemental do tank. The front has a military connotation and refers to the place where architects fight a daily battle to improve the quality of the built environment and hence, the quality of life. More and more people in the world are looking for a decent place to live and the conditions to achieve it are becoming tougher. He has therefore asked the participants 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 these scarce resources and difficult circumstances.
The Biennale has chosen the image of an old woman standing on a ladder for their campaign and I really love it. It refers to archeologist Maria Reiche, who walked around a vaste landscape with a ladder, to have a good view on the Nazca lines in Peru. The underlying message is that you have to take a broad perspective to fully understand and admire something. The Biennale wants to give the visitors this new point of view on architecture. So, when you visit the Biennale, remember this image, keep an open mind and grasp as much inspiration as you can.
Even though the theme might seem rather strict, you can be sure that each of the 62 participating countries will interpret it in a different way. There are however some broad topics which seem to pop up regularly, such as the current political situation, the housing problem of individuals and urban planning in a rapidly changing environment.
POLITICAL: Several countries, such as Germany, link the overall theme to the current problem of the refugees. Albania will display their own theme of displacement and migration, taking the Albanian history as a base, while the Netherlands will bring a series of narratives for architecture in conflict areas.
HOUSING: Others, such as the United Kingdom and Australia, reflect on the history of their family houses and the role of the house and pool as a way to build social relationships. The United Arab Emirates will highlight the Sha’abi social housing, which is similar to the half-a-house program of curator Aravena, where families start with a partially built house and complete it later on their own terms. Ireland takes a very specific angle and investigates the quality of life for those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
URBAN PLANNING: The United States will focus on the city of Detroit and its transition as a post-industrial city, with conceptual architectural projects for 4 sites in the Motorcity. In their first participation in the Biennale, the Philippines will address the relationship between iconic buildings and the city’s cultural identity. The special project at Marghera (Mestre) reflects on the impact of the introduction of container shipping and the subsequent displacement of logistics and port functions out of the city on the attractiveness of port cities and on their inhabitants’ quality of life.
There are also many other interesting topics, which are more difficult to classify in a specific category. Canada for instance takes the concept of scarce resources more literal and will profile itself as a global resource empire with extractive industries and minerals. Turkey aims to compare the Arsenale in Venice with the historic Istanbul shipyards, similar to what they have presented at the ‘Istanbul – Antwerp. Two ports, two cities’ exhibition in the MAS museum (Belgium) as part of the Europalia event. And Belgium will investigate how crafts(wo)manship, with a close collaboration between designers, creators and users, can be a stimulus for social cohesion in urban communities, when people involved in a collective project of building and manufacturing are making the city together.
I cannot mention all participations in this post, but I can tell you that it promises to be a very diverse exhibition. But no need to worry that you miss out on something, as you can already find several short previews on these country participations on my site and on my Facebook and Google+ pages, and more will be added on a weekly basis.
I will also publish larger articles with tips and practical information closer to the opening of the Architecture Biennale, so you can start planning your visit. Shortly after the opening, I will publish additional details on each pavilion and on all the hidden treasures I discovered myself at this year’s event.
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