The 16th Venice Architecture Biennale — review

National Pavilions

Words by Francesca Perry, Herbert Wright and Ruth Lang 

Albania

Albania’s project Zero

Albania’s project Zero Space in the Arsenale shows not what can be achieved by architects, but rather by people on the ground — in this case, the ground floors of Tirana, the country’s capital.

A human-scaled continuum of street life served by independent businesses, from barbers to watch menders, is celebrated in a walk-through installation of old wooden doors below a cloud of hanging photographs of the local scene. It brilliantly captures the vitality of unplanned civic life — these ground-floor spaces have been turned into shops at the occupants’ initiative. This is a bottom-up urban transformation.

Co-curator Enri Leka, founder of Fablab Tirana, told Blueprint: ‘The question we are posing to visitors and citizens is: is it better to have a city that generates economic activity and life, or should we acquiesce to big-scale shopping centres?’ Some developers may well want to encourage variety and local life, but land values drive rents that preclude the sort of local businesses that Tirana has. So Zero Space ultimately raises political questions about property, as well as challenging architects to supply suitable environments for genuinely local commerce to thrive. That’s as big a question as any in the Biennale. HW

Finland

Albania’s project Zero

Mind-Building, Finland’s show in its blue, angular, pre-fab pavilion (1956) by Alvar Aalto is all about libraries. Internationally, despite funding cuts, the typology has been having an architectural renaissance lately, but the Finns have always been mad for them. Their function and design have held respect ever since Theodor Höijer’s stately Rikhardinkatu library (1881), featured in the show. At the heart of Mind-Building, curated by theorist Anni Vartola, are nine themes such as human potential and placemaking, each on a board around the walls.

The presentation reflects Finland’s keen, hushed enthusiasm for libraries, the earnest mood moderated by pine and relaxing soft tones. A red metal object, like a petrol pump with embedded screen, is almost like a gatecrasher. This is the iGS — Information Gas Station — which toured the country in 2000 to teach people how to use the internet. Finnish library design still strives to stay ahead of the game, as you can see in the model of the long sculptural Oodi Library in central Helsinki by local practice ALA Architects, opening this year. No one will be awed by the Finnish Pavilion, but everyone who slows down to look and read will learn something positive. HW

Portugal

Portugal’s exhibition, Public Without RhetoricPortugal’s exhibition, Public Without Rhetoric, is like ‘presenting the football team’, André Tavares, cocurator of the last Lisbon Triennale, had told me. What did he mean? At the Palazzo Giustinian Lolin by the Accademia bridge, Nuno Brandão Costa and Sérgio Mah have fielded 12 recent Portuguese-designed buildings with models, photos and drawings, including Lisbon’s Teatro Thalia. Free space is alluded to as they all contain public space, but it feels like an accidental attribute.

This is essentially a straightforward old-fashioned best-of presentation of good architecture, but without taxing screeds of text. It contrasts with the richness of the interiors of Baldassare Longhena’s 17th-century palace. On the ground floor, an uncluttered arcade that runs from a courtyard to the water-landing on the Grand Canal hosts a series of contemplative videos by Portuguese artists on monitors along its axis. In this space, classical Venice exerts its timeless serenity, and almost dismisses whatever contemporary concepts of architecture the Biennale may seek to divert us with. HW

Russia

Portugal’s exhibition, Public Without Rhetoric

Russia’s show, Station Russia, is about its railways. It’s an odd trip, starting with the mad upbeat music of The Travelling Song by Mikhail Glinka soundtracking graphics about the first Russian stations. Different rooms in Alexey Shchusev’s neoclassical 1914 pavilion flip you between the past, present and future.

In The Waiting Hall of the Future, CitizenStudio and Studio 911 model skyscraper-dominated cityscapes around railway termini — predictable but brilliantly presented, their curvy platforms floating in air with wires. For a wall about the Moscow–Kazan high-speed line, graffiti artist Anatoly Akue sketches Russian characters. In the dim-lit Crypt of Memories old suitcases are stacked, and inside 60 old left-luggage lockers from the Moskovy Station, St Petersburg, we find silhouettes of some who crossed Russia by rail, including Tolstoy, Castro and Bowie. Finally, in Aboard the Free Space, Daniil Zinchenko’s film Seven Days in Seven Minutes simply looks out from a TransSiberian train window, needing no comment.

Russia’s best propaganda machine is the strangeness and brilliance of its culture and design. Station Russia is a charming and random ride at its edges. HW

Indonesia

Sunyata: The Poetics of Emptiness,

Sunyata: The Poetics of Emptiness, curated by Ary Indrajanto, delivers a unique, abstract free space, based on the idea that emptiness is an agent that operates in the void. Across almost the whole of Indonesia’s space in the Arsenale, 18m-long sheets of Tyvek, a white polyethylene fibre with paper-like properties, hang in great parabolic arcs, with smooth cuts that allow you to stand inside them.

It references vernacular Javanese architecture, where the scale and texture of textiles is key to the interaction of a space and its occupant, while the emptiness of the void in traditional shared spaces invites people to enter and interact. Here, the interaction is to stand within the curving surface, experiencing the emptiness above it. It is a simple, contemplative experience.

The room also hosts low plinths and QR codes linking to data about recent Indonesian architecture. They lurk so discreetly in the shade below the curving surface, you may not notice them. That was probably not the intent when a curator told Blueprint that in this elegant project ‘we’re trying to eliminate the architecture’. HW

China

With so much attention focused on the rapid development of China’s cities, the opportunities and challenges presented by shifting to a rural context are often overlooked, yet this is the realm in which the more interesting architecture appears to be developing. Projects seeking to bring innovation to rural areas through encouraging new forms of harmonisation with natural resources are portrayed in a series of immersive structures, alongside more conventionally formatted data. Curated by Li Xiangning, the work demonstrates how lessons can be learned from vastly different environments, and fruitfully transplanted — from the robotic construction of bamboo structures to the contemporary reconfiguration of buildings destroyed by earthquakes in Zhaotong.

There’s a symbiotic relationship evident that the architects bridge, reconnecting traditional crafts with technological innovation, and using contemporary platforms to reinvigorate small-scale economies. It demonstrates a value for what has been learned elsewhere in enhancing rather than obliterating the sensitive cultural structures and networks into which they’re grafted. If cities are reaching a critical mass, here is a potentially radical typological alternative. RL

Australia

Even with the provocative Freespace theme, it’s a bold move to empty out a national pavilion and celebrate a notion of architecture unrelated to building. Riffing on the title of Repair, the installation highlights the environmental concerns prevalent in the Australian psyche, considering the ‘the earth as client’ and decentralising the focus on humankind. Baracco+Wright Architects (in collaboration with artist Linda Tegg) have foregrounded the essential act of experience as integral to architectural understanding, refusing to let the ‘Instagram moment’ dictate their curatorial ethos.

The installation rebels against Denton Corker Marshall’s austere black box pavilion building, transplanting 65 native grass species from the Victorian Western Plains (of which only 1% still exist in their native ecosystem) into a footprint equivalent to the average Australian house, while the installation ‘skylight’ transforms the space into a sunlit landscape. A series of films exploring architecture’s role as an act of repair rather than destruction is screened to complement the experiential focus. RL

Turkey

The Turkish pavilion expands well beyond its bounds in the Sale d’Armi in Venice’s Arsenale. Curated by Kerem Piker and coordinated by Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts, the pavilion — titled Vardiya [The Shift] — is both a learning initiative and a space for activities. The initiative has included global outreach to architecture students, 122 of whom have been selected to undertake fully funded mini-residencies in the pavilion and use it as a collaborative learning space. The students are responding to the curators’ questions: ‘Why does the biennale exist? For whom does the biennale exist?’ Alongside invited speakers and academics, these students will run a series of workshops and meetings in the space.

In the long, darkened room of the pavilion, there are 12 ‘vessels’ — meeting hubs — created of hanging white sheet canopies bearing video and light projections, accompanied by foam-block seating. At one end of the room, a long table and theatre-like seating allow for bigger gatherings. It is a truly open, facilitatory space, and it will be exciting to see the results of the participatory programme. Turkey has created one of the more successful freespaces of the biennale, driven by the outreach and engagement undertaken beyond the physical space of its pavilion. FP

Austria

Austria offers an exceptional and relaxing conceptual refuge from the Biennale beyond. Josef Hoffmann’s 1934 pavilion hosts an open courtyard, and Innsbruck architecture practice LAAC has surfaced it with a mirror with a 256m-diameter spherical curvature. It doubles by reflection the trees and the sky above, yet bends the upside-down world it creates. After rain, the surface is refreshingly dappled with droplets, appropriate in a city of water but quite different from the murky lagoon. LAAC’s installation, called Sphere 1:50,000, is a unique, serene take on the idea of free space.

Austria’s show Thoughts Form Matter, curated by Verena Konrad, has more treats. New York-based creative agency Sagmeister & Walsh offers a futuristic, circular pink bench to watch its dreamy, seductive abstract film playing on the ceiling, in which coloured bubbles and blobs move and group and words appear while a voice explains that ‘we must never forget what beauty makes or we’ll be condemned to a world where expediency is a default’. A third installation, Layers of Atmosphere by Henke Schreieck, sandwiches a 6.75m-high wooden frame in hanging textiles. Fun to climb, but obtuse compared to the others. HW

Britain

The British pavilion is empty. That is to say, its neoclassical building in the Giardini, designed by Edwin Alfred Rickards in 1909, has been stripped bare. A welcome break from exhibition overload, the space is open to walk through, feeling like an abandoned mansion. This is not, however, the main attraction of this year’s British pavilion, curated by Caruso St John Architects with artist Marcus Taylor and bearing the title Island. Outside, a grand, tall, staircase of scaffolding rises up to the building’s roof, where a temporary platform — resembling the typology of the simple Venetian altana (roof terrace) — forms a new public space for people to gather and spend time in. Envisaged as an island-like space floating in the trees, the views alone are certainly worth the visit.

At the pavilion’s opening in May, writer and musician Kate Tempest performed a new poem that in part reflected on, as she put it, ‘the strangeness, sadness and brutality of Britishness’. One line of the poem stuck: ‘Our country’s coming apart’. Is this public space an act of trying to keep it — this isolation hungry country of islands — together? Curator Peter St John certainly hopes so: ‘In this period of Brexit,’ he said at the opening, ‘we wanted to turn the pavilion into a space where people can meet up and talk.’ It’s certainly a lovely space, but in practice just another pop-up with cafe-style tables, a nice view and lots of strangers that you don’t talk to. What’s more, because of crowds, you face the possibility of queuing for up to 30 minutes and are only allowed on this so-called free (but in reality very controlled) space for a maximum of 10 minutes. Another reminder of the strangeness and sadness of Britishness — even the best intentions stumble on practicalities. FP

Belgium

The Belgian pavilion, wall to wall, has been taken over by an amphitheatre-like auditorium structure, in the punchy hue of ultramarine EU blue. Since the opening of the 2016 Architecture Biennale, a seismic European shift has happened, as we know, with the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, alongside the rise of nationalist political parties. Belgium — with its capital, Brussels, the administrative hub of the EU — was not going to miss an opportunity to reflect on the state Europe finds itself in.

Like other pavilions, it has created a ‘free space’ for discussion; but this one — titled Eurotopie — is envisaged by curators Traumnovelle and Roxane Le Grelle as ‘a sanctuary’ for people to talk about Europe’s future. Despite the (deliberate) tendency for the space to be either overwhelmingly hot or cold, the bright blue structure of wide concentric steps is often abuzz with activity. What’s more, it is refreshing to see a pavilion ignore the English- first tendency of biennale exhibitions, producing a single brochure containing text in all the languages spoken by EU countries, and hosting discussions in an array of languages. FP

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