Droneport concept by Foster + Partners - Arsenale / Designed to transport medical supplies to remote regions in Africa using unmanned flying vehicles / The vaulted form is made up of two layers of compressed earth blocks called Durabric.

Too Much Past / Not Enough Future

A view on the 15th Venice Architecture Biennale

This assessment by Pedro Gadanho of one of Architecture’s prime international events provides an astute, insightful review of the offerings on show, suitably accompanied by an articulate critique. It is concluded that the presentations fail to reveal the advances the profession has achieved and therefore leaves the visitor in the dark as to what is round the corner. The lack of ‘vanguard’ projects is prevalent, obscuring the adventurous developments that are indeed underway. Thankfully, there are a few exceptional works on display that contain vision and intelligence, thus generating the kind of excitement the writer dares to demand.

Pedro Gadanho July 2016
When one heads to the Venice Art Biennale, the thrills and frills come from the latest, unseen pieces by artists who are being pushed to the frontline in a fast-paced art world. At the Architecture Biennale, however, even if the event’s MC calls for Reporting from the Front, one is mostly sure to revisit the recent past. Call it the slowness of architecture or the architects’ longing for concrete achievements, but one usually leaves the most important architecture biennale in the world more or less clueless about what everyone will be craving to build or experience over the next couple of years. Regrettably, this year’s event was no exception. Even if economic stagnation, social unrest, and environmental crises are screaming for strong ideas that address the near future, the presentations mainly concerned news of last week’s attempts to deal with local problems. This edition was better than usual – and that surely represents a historic shift – but perhaps it was still not enough.

Sensitive to the signs of the times, the director of this 15th International Architecture Exhibition, Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, went back to the metaphors of the militant avant-garde. He challenged his peers to report from the battle lines, where architecture meets eye-to-eye with the harsh realities of our day. Contrary to the usual take on the glamorous output of a recurrent architectural elite, this became the opportunity for a 99%-driven, hands-on, and ‘marginal’ B-production to take centre stage. This was the moment for a much-needed demonstration: a time to show that, beyond mere autonomous artistry or corporate obedience, architecture can actually reconcile its aesthetic heritage with an urgent social and political commitment.
With Aravena’s practice Elemental also recently being issued the most coveted award in the profession, the Pritzker Prize, it is clear that the architect’s flash of glittering glory comes from his great ability to juggle the two major forces in current architectural think- ing. While Elemental has been extremely shrewd in re-marketing a model of cheap incremental architecture for private housing companies, Aravena has produced exquisite buildings for universities and for wealthy clients, each addressing the standards and aspirations seen emanating today from the eld’s divergent tastemakers. Between a genuine yearning to learn from the informal, and the elegant vindication of architecture’s inner codes, Aravena is everywhere you need to be right now.
Introductory Room at Venice Architecture Biennale 2016 Built with the 100 tons of waste material generated by the dismantling of the previous Biennale, it features 14 kilometers of metal studs suspended from the ceiling, with 10,000 square-metres of plasterboard dividing each space and serving to show different project information. The display is about recycling, reuse, and upcycling, while also showcasing the amount of waste material generated by exhibitions once they are finished.
Looking for a new way to balance opposite poles, Aravena’s contest for this Biennale was in fact to count the troops and understand whether enough architect contingents that normally defend an ‘immanent’ architecture quality were willing to refocus their typically inward-looking practice on very palpable ‘external’ problems: the growth of economic and social inequality, lack of resources, ecological imbalance, political instability, overpopulation, informality & favela porn, migrant fluxes, refugee crises, and so on. This provided a curious mix of presentations in which starchitects were discretely pushed to the borders of the Arsenale, while a selection of aspiring luminaries from the academic and publishing circuits joined forces with those who, until now, have been discretely working on the side- lines and dealing with the everyday architecture of scarcity and banality.

As such, along with the newcomers who had missed the previous parties, the usual suspects of the architectural world reappeared in new clothing – giving this Biennale an aura of what could be called the ‘microwave syndrome’. From the Swiss minimalists to the poverty-savvy Portuguese, from the prolific Japanese to the crisis-stricken Spanish (with a broad retrospective that won them the Golden Lion), many buildings and projects that had been around for a while in blogs and journals resurfaced in novel discursive garments, with some of them only barely customising existing formal recipes to answer the current turn of social and political awareness.
Italian Pavilion / Presented is Codice Italia, site-specific works by 19 artists from around the world who have long practiced their art in close connection with Italy, each with a proper understanding of Italian-ness.
Architects from Latin America were, of course, in their natural element. They proudly showed the work that, due to the continent’s condition, has in- deed been at the avant-garde of an alliance between a radical lack of resources and a resourceful architecture culture. On the other extreme, and even if called upon to respond to an urban disaster such as Detroit, the North American parametricists, much like the oblivious Russians, revealed difficulties in moulding their formalist mindsets to the obvious change of sensibility around them. From my personal point of view, after 2014’s Uneven Growth project, I was satis ed to see that Thomas Pickerty had caught on, and that the growth of social inequality now emerged in the opening statements of innumerable national pavilions. Moreover, one of the MoMA exhibition participants, Lagos-based Kunlé Adeyemi, was now hailed with the Silver Lion for his emergent practice. In any case, the best proposals in the Biennale were those that used their participation there to trigger new processes of investigation into specific problems. Tatiana Bilbao was one of the few invitees that, rather than reheating some old project, took the money and applied it back home in Mexico to start up much-needed local action. Curiously, the Mexican Pavilion adopted the same strategy by charting and unfurling new participatory designs around the country. The Austrian and British curators launched elegant initiatives that had teams of designers looking at the logic of current and future households. The Italian Pavilion was per- haps the most successful in nurturing initiatives that teamed upcoming designers such as Matilda Cassani and Antonio Scarponi with Italian NGOs to address local health or criminal issues – which also reveals where old, wealthy Europe is heading. In the midst of a kaleidoscope of different takes on the idea of ‘front’ – including the paradoxical return to locally sourced traditional materials as a ‘new’ paradigm of sustainability – one masterly starchitect was witty enough to show everybody why his recognition is deserved. Foster + Partners launched a project for a drone port in Rwanda, which is at the pinnacle of what current technology may offer as a solution for deprived contexts. Incidentally, the project is also financed by the architect’s own foundation. This is a show of generosity as well as an achievable feat, both in terms of the adequate architectural concept and the ideas it underlines. It goes to the source of the omnipresent refugee crisis by envisioning a possibility for African countries to take a step up the ladder without the massive infrastructural investment that led most developed countries to unsustainable levels of debt. Imagining a landing structure that allows for the transport of medicine and goods rather than people, Foster’s drone port potentially offers more democratic access than most architecture on show at the Biennale. In conclusion, the 2016 Architecture Biennale is too much about the past and not so much about the ideas that may be envisioned for the future out of the richness of our current knowledge, design intelligence, and the emerging technological possibilities. This is where the lacking curatorial drive can be identified. You may have the right mindset and a great brief as your starting point. You may be a practicing architect who has thrived to achieve a balance between sincere social commitment and disciplinary excellence. All good. But directing the participants of a major biennale to present projects and ideas that go beyond current know-how also needs more than just good intentions. The Venice Architecture Biennale runs until 27 November.
This article appeared in DAM57. Order your personal copy.
Thai Pavilion Presented is The Class of 6.3: Rebuilding Nine Schools after the 2014 Chiang Rai Earthquake, telling the story of how an earthquake in the northern province of Thailand not only led to a massive emergency reconstruction of nine educational facilities, but also afforded an entire community the opportunity to rethink the role of architecture in the shaping of Thai rural education.
Latticed brick arch as a model of low-cost construction by Gabinete de Arquitectura (Solano Benítez), winner of the Golden Lion for Best Exhibition - Central Pavilion in the Giardini An example of how cheap materials and intensive labour could "transform scarcity into abundance".
Austrian Pavilion Presented is Orte Für Menschen (Places for People), focusing on the creation of innovative housing solutions required to handle Austria’s current refugee crisis, showing three projects currently underway in Vienna, where three architect teams have been paired with NGOs to convert abandoned buildings into temporary accommodation for asylum seekers, and later, into long-term residences.
Spanish Pavilion, curated by architects Iñaqui Carnicero and Carlos Quintáns, awarded the Golden Lion for Best National Pavilion / Presented is Unfinished, focusing on incomplete construction projects left in the wake of the 2008 financial crash and 55 recent buildings that demonstrate a range of solutions to working under economic constraints by architects who are developing a 'radical' approach to rebuilding.
British Pavilion / Presented is Home Economics, tackling the front line of British architecture: the home.

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Pedro Gadanho

Pedro Gadanho is the recently appointed Artistic Director of MAAT, the Museum of Art Architecture and Technology, in Lisbon. Previously he was a Curator of Contemporary Architecture at the Museum of Modern Art, in New York. He holds an MA in art and architecture and a PhD in architecture and mass media. His book Arquitetura em Público (2011) was the recipient of the FAD Prize for Thought and Criticism.

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