Blueprint reviews Alejandro Aravena’s 15th Venice Architecture Biennale

Reporting from the Front

In choosing this year’s theme, Alejandro Aravena shone a spotlight on unsung heroes, peripheral communities and no-frills architecture, showing a widening gap between big-name starchitects and emerging, socially-minded practices

Words Cate St Hill

When Alejandro Aravena selected his brief, Reporting from the Front, it was a timely call to arms - a call for architecture that makes a difference, that improves quality of life and that fights against the mediocrity, banality and dullness of the places where we live. This is a biennale not about prestigious schemes, shiny architectural beacons or vanity projects, but untold stories, sidelined communities, unsung heroes and people and places not ordinarily in the spotlight.

NLÉ’s floating school took the Silver Lion Award for Promising Young Participant
NLÉ’s floating school took the Silver Lion Award for Promising Young Participant

It shows that architecture needs to engage with the rest of the world - architects can’t work in isolation, high up on a pedestal. You can’t stage a biennale about the built environment, neighbourhoods and cities and ignore the fact that Europe is experiencing the highest level of mass migration since the Second World War or that a swathe of cultural heritage and historical buildings, not to mention whole towns, are being obliterated by ISIS.

Anupama Kundoo shows a modular building system that can be easily assembled by communitiesAnupama Kundoo shows a modular building system that can be easily assembled by communities

Instead of the attention-grabbing architectural spectacle of past biennales, in his display Aravena favours meatier issues that are not just merely the concern of architecture’s elite, but whole populations and communities; issues such as inequality, insecurity, segregation, pollution, waste, migration and housing shortages. All quite heavy stuff to mull over with a glass of prosecco, but it is an ambitious biennale with far more substance and resonance than many have attempted previously, and created in half the time of his predecessor Rem Koolhaas.

Pezo von Ellrichshausen built a labyrinthine structure in the GiardiniPezo von Ellrichshausen built a labyrinthine structure in the Giardini

Neither is it all about architects, proving that you don’t have to be an architect to make a meaningful contribution to architecture. The biennale concerns the work of people who are ‘scrutinising the horizon looking for new fields of action’, dealing with scarcity and displaying inventiveness; fighting everyday battles and pushing boundaries to slowly but surely improve quality of life in our built environment.

There are self-governed refugees creating their own public spaces in the Western Sahara pavilion; research team Forensic Architecture made up of architects, scholars, filmmakers, lawyers and scientists, mapping drone strikes in Pakistan and analysing the deaths of migrants and refugees in the Mediterranean; and even a focus on the humble builder from the Polish Pavilion. Says Aravena: ‘We would like to widen the range of issues to which architecture is expected to respond, adding explicitly to the cultural and artistic dimensions that already belong to our scope, those that are on the social, political, economic and environmental end of the spectrum.’

GrupoTalca’s viewing point is based on work with a remote community in southern ChileGrupoTalca’s viewing point is based on work with a remote community in southern Chile

This biennale illustrates that there is a role for the architect as a social figure. Activist architects like the Pritzker Prize-winning Aravena are having something of a moment, gaining in popularity and earning respect, slowly separating themselves from out-oftouch starchitects. (Indeed, the exhibits from Rogers and Piano are two of the most disappointing presentations of the biennale.) Aravena’s exhibition sequence from the Central Pavilion in the Giardini to the historic shipyard the Arsenale is a truly international mix, without many of the usual suspects and lots of new names in there too — 50 of them are participating in the biennale for the first time, while over 30 are under the age of 40.

Zhang Ke’s inhabitable models portray his work with traditional Chinese building typologiesZhang Ke’s inhabitable models portray his work with traditional Chinese building typologies

Instead of one person saying ‘this is my vision for a city’, this new generation of socially committed architects, all passionate about their cause, are collaborating with various participants in different fields, breaking perceptions and trying to do better. The most interesting projects on show are the ones making waves in much quieter, but no less powerful ways - the whispers of community-generated projects, participatory building practices, research projects, holistic, bottom-up strategies, incremental architecture and collective living - ‘the front lines…success stories and exemplary cases where architecture made, is making, and will continue to make a difference,’ as Aravena says. Equally, style-over-substance buildings, which look nice but are without agenda were quickly ticked off the shortlist.

Norman Foster exhibits a prototype for his Droneport project in AfricaNorman Foster exhibits a prototype for his Droneport project in Africa

‘We wanted to insist (until it becomes a shared minimum flotation level) on those examples that avoid trends and fashion and resisted the temptation of unnecessary frills,’ says Aravena of the selected projects on display. ‘We wanted to achieve a certain critical mass of architects, younger and older, known or less known, who were honestly in search of a certain timelessness and yet willing to respond to the challenges of our time. It was crucial that there had to be a proposal; just to raise awareness of a problem (or do research), no matter how relevant the challenge may be, was not enough.’

Several projects focus on empowering communities to help form their own architecture. South-east Indian architect Anupama Kundoo, for example, who also exhibited at the 2012 biennale, creates buildings using local knowledge and skills, along with a deep understanding of local culture and materials, to ensure that the community sees itself reflected in the work.

Her Full Fill Homes are speedy and affordable housing units made of low-tech, prefabricated hollow-block units that can be easily assembled on site in six days. Kundoo sees them being applied as immediate shelters, disaster relief homes, youth hostels and student housing. ‘By helping communities to fabricate a set of simple building components, we can build knowledge and bring housing back to the people,’ she says.

Full-size installations are the order of the day, from Chilean Pezo von Ellrichshausen’s poetic, labyrinthine installation in the Giardini - not trying to be anything but a beautiful object - to NLÉ’s Makoko Floating School created for a slum in Lagos and reproduced for the water of Venice, for which it won the Silver Lion for Promising Young Participant. As well as an educational and place-making tool, the school pragmatically responds to Makoko’s unmanageable changes in water level, a challenge that is equally applicable in the often water-deluged Venice. Chilean practice GrupoTalca has been working with a small community in the southern mountains of Chile to help retain its inhabitants in the midst of mass rural-urban migration.

It created an observation viewpoint, reproduced overlooking the canal at the end of the Arsenale, that integrates and strengthens local knowledge in the construction process.

Another project recreated at the Arsenale is the Warka Water Project in Africa by Italian practice Architecture and Vision. This tall, low-tech, latticed bamboo tower not only functions as a water collector by capturing condensation that comes into contact with an internal plastic mesh, it also acts as a social space and a source of identity for a village. Norman Foster, meanwhile, shows a 1:1 test module for his Droneport project.

Gabinete de Arquitectura uses cheap brick and unskilled labour to engage communities in architectureGabinete de Arquitectura uses cheap brick and unskilled labour to engage communities in architecture

The first project for the Norman Foster Foundation, it proposes using drone routes to create ‘a highway in the sky’ to deliver urgent supplies quickly and cheaply to remote areas in Africa. Each droneport, imagined as a kit of parts assembled by the community, would become a new civic building and social hub, with a post office and market. Built in four weeks, the prototype in Venice is a high-strength, vaulted shell-structure made of 18,000 customised earth-based bricks, developed with ETH Zurich, MIT and the universities of Madrid and Cambridge. Since announcing the Droneport project early this year, Foster has been developing the idea of ‘solarbricks’ with artist Olafur Eliasson to power LEDs on the internal face of the vault for communities without access to electricity. They are also considering leaving the vault as a permanent legacy at the Arsenale.

Other practices also show inventiveness with materials. Paraguay-based Gabinete de Arquitectura, which won the Golden Lion for Best Participant, has stolen the show with a giant arch in the Central Pavilion. It is part of its work to bring architecture to poor communities using versatile, cheap bricks and unskilled labour. Also in the Central Pavilion, German architect Anna Heringer is championing the use of mud. Low cost and readily available, mud has incredible and undiscovered potential for the future Heringer believes: ‘Currently, more and more mud structures are being replaced with materials that require non-renewable resources that consume energy and create high levels of carbon dioxide pollution. Simply put, the planet does not possess enough resources to build seven billion homes out of concrete and steel,’ she says.

Off site at the Space, Time, Existence exhibition at Palazzo Mora, ETH Zurich chimes a similar tune. Dirk Hebel and Felix Heisel believe that in the future we will be able to grow our own homes and compost them after use. They display a vitrine of alternative building materials that don’t deplete the planet’s resources, from agricultural waste panels and paper tiles to self-healing concrete and the cultivation of fungal material.

There is even a proposal for Venice’s tiled squares to be replaced by mycelium blocks that could adjust to changing water levels. Elsewhere, architects are fighting against the status quo of mass production and monotonous standardisation, as Aravena warns: ‘The difficulty of the circumstances (scarcity of means, ruthless constraints, urgencies of all kinds) is a constant threat to the delivery of quality.’ In China, Wang Shu and his office Amateur Architecture insisted on preserving a group of old, forgotten villages before it would accept a commission to design a new museum in Fuyang City.

14km of metal studs are recycled for the Arsenale entrance14km of metal studs are recycled for the Arsenale entrance

Using traditional building techniques and learning from the past, Wang Shu hopes ‘citizens experience the value of the country and in turn the villagers regain confidence in a disappearing culture’.

Similarly, Zhang Ke, who shows inhabitable 1:1 models of his buildings, has been working with a traditional Chinese housing typology called the Hutong as a reaction against the common practice of razing everything to the ground and rebuilding the city with homogenous high-rise buildings. Breathing new life into the old, his structures centre around a communal courtyard that functions as a social space for gatherings and interaction.

Aravena’s theme is all about gaining some perspective and sharing knowledge, experiences and lessons learned from the front lines. Unlike many biennales, which are a mash-up of architectural styles and approaches jostling for attention, the projects on display here share a common thread; they’re all dealing with similar issues, all fighting for the same thing.

Neither are they simply reiterating age-old problems or lecturing to the passerby, they are actively taking steps to come up with creative solutions. Aravena has big ambitions for architecture, to turn attention away from the West, shift the debate, rethink architecture and engage with other disciplines. The biennale shows that this has to be a collective effort.

4 of 5

Progressive Media International Limited. Registered Office: 40-42 Hatton Garden, London, EC1N 8EB, UK.Copyright 2024, All rights reserved.