Unified Construction

The 2016 world-renowned event redefines architecture in the face of contemporary concerns as a socially and politically engaged practice.

A woman stands at the top of a ladder surveying a not-quite-urban landscape below. With this compelling and enigmatic photograph, the 15th Venice Biennale of Architecture, sets out its mood and atmosphere. Managing to suggest at once urban desolation and the optimism of a ground zero or starting position, this image characterises a biennale that eschews iconic buildings by “starchitects”, focusing instead on an individual using a structure for a specific purpose.

Entitled Reporting from the Front, this year’s International Exhibition is curated by the Pritzker Prize-winning Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena. It looks at architecture as a fundamentally political and social practice, and considers it in relation to the most pressing of contemporary concerns, from inequality and segregation to housing shortages, migration, pollution, traffic and waste. Whilst big name architects from Alexander Brodsky to Norman Foster and Rogers Stirk Harbour are represented, above all, the approach taken by the Biennale this year is to fuel and seed connections between architecture and the practices of society, politics and community. As Biennale President Paolo Baratta comments: “We need to engage with the public and with all possible stakeholders in the decisions and actions whereby our living spaces are created, both as individuals and as communities. As architecture is the most political of all the arts, the Biennale Architettura must recognise this.”

With this theme in mind, politics is at the forefront of many of the exhibitors’ work. In the case of Austria’s pavilion, curated by Delugan Meissl Architects, Orte für Menschen (Places for People) offers three projects currently underway that

focus on the development of innovative housing solutions to tackle the current refugee crisis. Looking at improving living conditions for migrants, the three architects behind each project have been paired with NGOs to adapt existing spaces, such as abandoned buildings, into temporary accommodation for asylum seekers, and blueprint ways these can in turn be adapted to long-term residences.

Indian architect Anupama Kundoo presents Full Fill Homes, a prototype for an ultra cost-and time-efficient house that takes just six days to construct. The material that enables Kundoo to design such a house is ferrocement, mortar layered over mesh, creating hollow blocks. These are then designed in a Lego-type construction model, meaning minimal environmental and financial costs. The structure, which takes only one day to dismantle, has also been engineered to withstand mild earthquakes and strong winds.

Meanwhile, Chinese architects Wang Shu and Lu Wenyu contribute their work from a project to preserve traditional buildings in Fuyong, which have been under threat from rapid urbanisation and redevelopment. Their experimental work, running tests on the materials, is at the heart of a new Fuyong National Museum and is concerned with sharing knowledge about preservation techniques and building conservation around local towns and villages. The display for the Biennale consists of illuminated trays filled with traditional tiles, laid out to suggest an abstract mosaic, connecting historical context and the lives of those currently living in the area directly to buildings, Shu and Wenyu propose architecture as a communal, connected activity.

Strategies for local building regulations and a response to increasing urbanisation is also a theme of South Korea’s pavilion, although the response itself contrasts radically. The FAR Game: Constraints Sparking Creativity defines the front line of architecture as the regulations that govern FAR (floor aspect ratio), perhaps the most important constraint that influences architecture in Seoul. The works collected speak to the intense desire and demand for living space in a hyper-busy environment, where most clients and landowners pay for the invisible quantity of the building, not the visible quality of the architecture. This results in an attitude to building that is very different to other places, where the average life-span of a building is shorter than that of a human being.

The Forests of Venice, a contemplative wooden space made up of a crisscross or lattice design, curated by Jan Åman, focuses on an ecological approach to architecture. For this piece, which pays tribute to the sustainability of wood as a building material, the Swedish firms Kjellander + Sjöberg and Folkhem have installed a wooden pavilion between the Venice Biennale venues, in tribute to the 10 million trees used to build the city’s foundations. Situated beside a greenhouse from 1894, it is remarkable in its minimalism and its response to the material. However, the architects have also attempted to invert the structure of the Doge’s Palace in a democratic response to inherited political structures.

Conservation is a prominent theme of one of the special projects at this year’s Biennale, A World of Fragile Parts, developed in collaboration with the V&A and curated by Brendan Cormier. This exhibition focuses on the huge challenges of preserving cultural monuments and global heritage sites. From ecological threats to international conflicts, terrorism and the burden of increasing tourism, many of the world’s most valued heritage sites are at risk. This exhibition looks at how copying can be used to safeguard them and raises questions around the values we place on authenticity. Especially in light of new scanning and fabricating technologies, this exhibition asks whether we need to reconsider for the 21st century, as Walter Benjamin did for the 20th, the work of art in the age of digital reproduction.

One architect whose work for the Biennale connects directly to what might be called 21st century problems is Norman Foster. His idea is for Droneports, structures that would enable cargo transfer in hard-to-reach places, without the need for large-scale physical infrastructure. With a pilot project based in Rwanda, Foster’s vision is to utilise drone technology for cargo transfer around isolated villages. The implications of this project could potentially be huge, especially in relation to transporting urgent medical supplies.

Whilst Foster’s focus is global, many of the exhibitors take a more local approach. The exhibition Project North, in Scotland’s pavilion, for example, explores how architecture can be employed to rearticulate the locus of culture, reorienting Scotland in relation to its northern neighbours. Presented by the architects Lateral North, Dualchas and Soluis, it explores how architecture connects to the way countries narrativise their cultures. Meanwhile, the British pavilion Home Economics, curated by Shumi Bose, Jack Self and Finn Williams, concerns the domestic environment. Structured around different approaches to time (hours, days, months, years and decades), the presentation provocatively reconfigures how we consider architecture in relation to temporality, and has exhibits that address changing lifestyles, such as Wi-Fi networks and a surprising reimagining of temporary lodging from Dogma and Black House.

The Belgian pavilion also takes a more local and everyday stance. Curated by De Vylder Vinck Taillieu, interior architects Doorzon, and photographer Filip Dujardin, the pavilion focuses on specific details of structures in 12 buildings in Belgium. These details have been rebuilt with painstaking care and attention. For example, one item is a single door frame, and yet what may seem to be mundane is also, when considered in depth, a fundament of building structures.

Of course, one of the things that makes the Venice Biennale special, is the variety of national contributions in the iconic pavilions of the Giardini, at the Arsenale and in the historic city centre of Venice. This year sees a number of countries participating for the first time: the Philippines, Nigeria, the Seychelles and Yemen. The Yemen Pavilion is particularly notable for here, the issues of conservation and preservation are perhaps most urgent. The “front”, of the exhibition’s title is a literal one as Yemen is war-torn and buildings are at risk of destruction on an ongoing basis. The presentation draws upon traditional vernacular structures, from the ancient buildings of the capital Sana’a, some of which are remarkably intact, to more mundane and everyday structures, all of which suggest the precarious nature of built environments.

There is also a breakthrough for the Biennale, with the rst pavilion by a nation in exile, the Western Sahara Pavilion. With the intertwined topics of sovereignty, migration and asylum so important globally, the Biennale has devoted a National Pavilion to the Western Sahara, a country located in West Africa and occupied since 1975 by Morocco. Much of the former population of the territory, the Sahrawis, live in refugee camps in Algeria and have done since 1975. For the pavilion, architect Manuel Herz and the women of the National Union of Sahrawi Women provide a source of documentation, including photographs, tapestries and films of the structures they have developed in the camps, includ- ing ministries, parliament and schools. Whilst of course the buildings respond to urgent need, they also show an invest- ment in the aesthetic, with subtle decoration and form.

Connecting the practice of architecture directly to quotidian lived experience, community practice, political agency and tradition, the Western Sahara Pavilion is remarkably uplifting in the way it asserts a vision of autonomous democracy in action through architecture. It is perhaps this exhibition that most thoughtfully responds to the potential for optimism in the image, something that president Baratta also stresses. “Is this a sign of optimism? We have often deplored, in previous Biennale exhibitions that our present time seems to be characterised by increasing disconnection between architecture and civil society. Previous exhibitions have addressed this in different ways. This time, we wish to investigate more explicitly whether and where there are any trends going in the other direction – towards renewal.”

This year’s Biennale crystallises the many different directions in which architecture is heading, from the humanitarian to the domestic. It also has a youthful and global perspective, with 30 architects under 40 years old. If there is a cause for optimism, perhaps it is in the global connections the Biennale helps to forge, reminding us not only of the ways that architecture underpins our everyday experience but presenting us with a vision of an art form that responds directly to social, political and aesthetic purpose.

Words Colin Herd

Biennale Architettura. Until 27 November. www.labiennale.org