Blueprint reviews Alejandro Aravena’s 15th Venice Architecture Biennale

Holland
BLUE: Architecture of UN peacekeeping missions

Responding to Aravena’s theme, the Dutch have focused on the very frontline of architecture - the hundreds of sites around the world that play host to the United Nations’ peacekeeping missions. Designed and built by military engineers, these bases have become isolated islands in the urban fabric, enclosed behind barbed wire and trenches, shut off from surrounding local communities.

Based on on-going research into conflict areas by architect Malkit Shoshan at the Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam, the exhibition proposes how UN bases could be designed to improve the lives of inhabitants in war-torn regions. The UN itself has a set of guidelines uniting defence, diplomacy and development, but Shoshan suggests adding a fourth ‘D’, for design. Her ambition is to see UN bases not as closed forts but as catalysts for local development, exchanging knowledge and skills and empowering local communities to reconstruct their environments themselves.

Holland’s pavilion glows bright blue, referencing the meeting of the Tuareg ‘blue people’ nomads and the blue helmets of UN peacekeepers in Mali
Holland’s pavilion glows bright blue, referencing the meeting of the Tuareg ‘blue people’ nomads and the blue helmets of UN peacekeepers in Mali

The exhibition itself centres on the case study of the Netherlands’ Camp Castor in Gao, Mali and the Tuareg nomads or ‘blue people’ (so-called for their indigo-blue robes and turbans) from which the pavilion gets its overarching bright-blue identity, developed with designer Irma Boom. The colour is used as a metaphor for the encounter between the ‘blue people’ and the ‘blue helmets’ of the UN peacekeepers. (Blue) diagrams and models, based on a series of conversations with military engineers, architects, anthropologists, economists and activists, suggest how a UN base can gradually open up, while a circular sandpit in the middle of the pavilion provides an open space for debates and talks.

While the displays don’t always do justice to the impressive amount of research undertaken, the pavilion should be praised for ambitiously shining a spotlight on a very difficult context to attempt to work with. ‘These UN bases operate as cities within cities. It is important to look at these missions and relate to them also as an urban project,’ said Shoshan at the opening. ‘To do that we need to challenge global policy and institutions. We want to explore the role of architecture and planning in this change. What if at the end of the mission, these bases could leave stronger cities behind?’ Cate St Hill

Western Sahara

(not officially a national pavilion) A tent is the traditional typology of the desert, so it’s the perfect form for the Western Sahara, a territory where sovereignty is claimed by neighbours. But in the 40 years of slow-burn conflict since Spain withdrew from it, the local Sahrawis have solidified refugee settlements into towns that are becoming the physical expression of an emerging state. German architect Manuel Hertz has been studying these places for 10 years, and he won the Golden Dragon at Shenzhen for his display about them there.

Occupying a deliberately ambiguous position, the Western Saharan pavilion stands in a no-man’s land between Aravena’s central pavilion and the national pavilions of the GiardiniOccupying a deliberately ambiguous position, the Western Saharan pavilion stands in a no-man’s land between Aravena’s central pavilion and the national pavilions of the Giardini

But the Venice pavilion (not far from the Dutch one, which also takes us into the Sahara) is different, not just because it’s a tent with two wooden support posts in its middle. Spectacular photography shares the walls with floor-to-ceiling carpets woven to show maps and representations of structures such as schools and community centres. The pavilion is a collaboration between Hertz and the National Union of Sahrawi Women, which extended to finding methods of weaving such graphics and making the carpets so large. Working together, ‘my perspective changed’, says Hertz. He points out that women ‘hold a very central role in the daily administration and the politics of the camps’.

Occupying a deliberately ambiguous position, the Western Saharan pavilion stands in a no-man’s land between Aravena’s central pavilion and the national pavilions of the Giardini
Occupying a deliberately ambiguous position, the Western Saharan pavilion stands in a no-man’s land between Aravena’s central pavilion and the national pavilions of the Giardini

Qualified architects have not built Western Sahara’s settlements, but as Hertz says, Sahrawis themselves ‘are practising the production of space at a very high level’. The carpets present the results clearly and simply (and two videos take you into the life of the camps). The two messages are that informal settlements naturally self-formalise without professional planners or designers, and that process, not just for the women but for all, is one of emancipation. Herbert Wright

Germany
Making Heimat: Arrival Country

Germany addresses immigration, an issue not just big on Aravena’s topic list, but something that has brought the country to an historic turning point.

Taking in more than a million asylum seekers in 2015 at Angela Merkel’s invitation has been controversial, to say the least, and the daunting challenge for the immigrants and their new hosts is profound, yet the German exhibition Making Heimat. Germany, Arrival Country is exceptional for literally bringing light and clarity to bear on it.

Openings have been knocked through the imposing structure of the German pavilion
Openings have been knocked through the imposing structure of the German pavilion

Its colourful presentation is helped by the historic structure of the German pavilion, a blocky building with hints of neo-classicism built in the dark days of 1938 by Ernst Haiger. It lets light into big airy halls through clerestory windows, and more light still from the brick-busting works that physically open the building up and out - 48 tonnes of masonry were removed. The big issue is housing, in a context of nationally rising rents and regulations that normally slow new-build.

Openings have been knocked through the imposing structure of the German pavilion
Openings have been knocked through the imposing structure of the German pavilion

Nevertheless, impressive temporary housing schemes are shown (although the questions linger, how temporary will they be, and could they become ghettoes?). Moreover, following the reappraisal of existing immigrant ‘ghettoes’ in the book Arrival City by Doug Saunders (who collaborated in the show), previous immigrant communities in Germany are shown in strong photography of, for example, their shops and mosques. Guided by the Deutsches Architektur museum in Frankfurt, Germany has hit exactly the right note in making its message accessible, and literally reflecting the country’s openness with that of the prised-open pavilion itself. HW

Egypt
Reframing Back // Imperative Confrontations

Egypt is an unexpected pleasure, even beyond the surrealistic art performance at its entrance by Giulia Currà of Traslochi Emotivià, who manically stamped paper sheets and handed them to you in slow motion. It was like a border control, but sadly, was just for the opening days.

But step inside the show and you are in a mesmerising, magical space, which also happens to be an exhibition presenting one of the highest density levels of information anywhere. The room is black but walls are covered with maps, models and text in white, sheets hang between them with architectural plans, diagrams and texts and, below the ceiling, white models of building elements are suspended in space.

At one end, a model of stacked brick housing boxes on a concrete frame rises like a ghost form in grey, the biggest object there, and actually an EHF Zurich project. A serene soundtrack plays - as Ahmad Hilal, the Egyptian commissioner explains, ‘we tried to pick up on elements from the Egyptian environment - prayers, street vendors, traffic beeps’.

The dark space of the Egyptian pavilion is hung with white sheets and covered in diagrams and models
The dark space of the Egyptian pavilion is hung with white sheets and covered in diagrams and models

So, what’s it all about? Hilal says it is a ‘dialogue between mapping initiatives and various (architectural) projects’, such as in the informal development that spreads from city edges on to desert, which is often first tamed by grids of irrigation channels that then define building plots.

In the city itself, dense neighbourhoods without public services have been hotbeds of discontent, but by finding their stories architects can intervene with the community to improve their lot. For example, the Abdelhalim Ibrahim cultural centre initiative involved community by building a buffer line of workshops between housing and a protected heritage site.

This exploration of Egyptian urbanisation and architectural possibilities is huge. The curatorial team are in their mid-20s, surely the youngest in Venice. If their meticulous work is overwhelming, just wonder and wander through the tranquillity of this extraordinary space. HW

Special Project
A World of Fragile Parts

As heritage sites across the world are threatened by natural disasters, terrorist attacks and neglect, advances in digital scanning and fabrication are opening up a whole new world of preservation. This is the subject of an exhibition presented by London’s Victoria and Albert Museum in the Arsenale, looking at the role of copies in aiding the conservation of cultural artefacts in danger of being lost forever.

Today copies are not merely used to educate museum visitors, nor are they always frowned on as acts of forgery; they have become political statements and art installations in their own right, opening up culture to a universal audience.

Among more traditional 19th-century plaster casts and electrotypes on show are contemporary projects pushing the boundaries of digital technology and responding to the global threats of destruction we face. London-based Forensic Architecture, for example, used social media images of bomb clouds — ‘architecture in gaseous form’ made of everything a building once was — to create 3D models frozen in time. Aside from being the surprisingly beautiful objects they are, the studio hopes these can then be used to help estimate the date and size of bomb strikes in conflict zones, and aid legal cases.

The V&A’s display looks at the role of copies in digital fabrication and cultural preservation
The V&A’s display looks at the role of copies in digital fabrication and cultural preservation

Another project by the Institute for Digital Archaeology has created a facsimile of a segment of Palmyra’s Triumphal Arch, partially destroyed by ISIS last year, by processing hundreds of photographs to produce a 3D file, while artists Nora Al-Badri and Jan Nikolai secretly scanned the bust of Egyptian queen Nefertiti, held at the Neues Museum in Berlin since 1924, using a Kinect Xbox controller. The copy bust was exhibited in Egypt for the first time and a digital file has since been shared as a downloadable torrent for others to use. Elsewhere, Sam Jacob Studio has created a 1:1 scanned replica of an ephemeral Calais ‘Jungle’ refugee shelter, home to Abu Said, originally from Sudan. Rendered in CNC-milled synthetic stone, the copy transforms a fragile moment in flux into a sculptural monument and a symbol of the refugee crisis.

The exhibition seems particularly prescient set in Venice: if we can copy fragments and objects, can we reproduce whole cities? When everything has sunk and is underwater, will there be a copy of Venice left? CSH

Baltic
Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania

Tucked down a quiet calle, away from the Giardini and Arsenale, is a gem of a pavilion. In the very antithesis of Venice’s pretty palazzos, in a brutalist sports hall - the Palasport Giobatta Gianquinto - the exhibition unites Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania for the first time at the architecture biennale.

The Baltic’s vast show is spread out on the concrete steps of the brutalist Palasport centre
The Baltic’s vast show is spread out on the concrete steps of the brutalist Palasport centre

The steps of the vast, windowless concrete space, designed by Enrichetto Capuzzo in the Seventies, host a horizon of artifacts, proposals, spatial interventions and images, exploring the shared built environment of these three separate states as a common space of ideas. A sweeping canopy of white fabric, punctured by openings, restructures the cavernous hall, bringing sightlines down to the intriguing items on display.

Models of nuclear-power plants, geological core samples, mineral forecast maps and atlases tell of the ‘transformative efforts at play that are reprogramming an inert region’, depicting the environmental threats, geopolitical developments and infrastructural changes the countries are facing together.

The Baltic’s vast show is spread out on the concrete steps of the brutalist Palasport centre

On show for example is a set of poker cards by Reinis Petersons and Viesturs Celminš, created to make the Environmental Impact Assessment of the vast, new €4bn railway project Rail Baltica - linking Finland with the Baltic States and Poland - more accessible to the public.

The Baltic’s vast show is spread out on the concrete steps of the brutalist Palasport centre
The Baltic’s vast show is spread out on the concrete steps of the brutalist Palasport centre

And an intricate map by Muriz Djurdjevic and Thomas Paturet shows a pan-optic view of the threats to the Baltic Sea as one of the world’s most polluted seas. Other pieces, from a psycho-geographical reading of the Druzba, the world’s longest pipeline, to models of gigantic, decommissioned nuclear facilities and reactors, portray three nations in a power struggle between past and present: coming to terms with their Soviet Union past and relatively recent independence, and finding a future in the unity of the EU. CSH

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