Caught in the swarm: The changing role of the Biennale

Architectural graduate Antonia Lapwood was awarded the 2016 Warren and Mahoney International Scholarship to attend the Venice Architecture Biennale. She shares her impressions of the event.

"Inequality, migration, pollution and the production of waste are the kind of things every single citizen suffers or experiences."

​The Giardini Venue at the Architecture Biennale.

Pritzker recipient and curator Alejandro Aravena’s statement for Reporting From The Front is in stark contrast with the architectural manifestos of past Biennales. Perhaps for the first time, the recurring theoretical themes that the event is known for have been diluted and reimagined. It no longer only caters to the architecturally trained, but to a wider pool of visitors. 

Reporting From The Front does not boast conventional architectural achievements, but rather calls for nations to identify their own “front,” margins and peripheries where positive change has occurred through the implementation of architecture. A typical visit exposes one to themes of immigration, the (changing) concept of home, urbanisation, sustainability, ethical construction methods, technology, materiality and geo-politics, to name a few.

Makoko Floating School by Kunlé Adeyemi.

Rather simplistically, Aravena speaks of the rhino - the destructive nature of capitalist forces - and the mosquito, a small achievement within the margins of architectural practice that in its own way, improves the world. A single mosquito cannot disable this rhino, but a swarm of mosquitos can. This Biennale is Aravena’s swarm.

Irrespective of theme, the Architecture Biennale has always overlapped with the art world. The installations within each pavilion are sites of experimentation, provocation and commentary, liberated from the limitations of architectural function. Although art physically exists within an exhibition context, and architecture exists elsewhere, both require a representation of conceptual ideas and real world context. The event combines both of these disciplines; built ideas translated into an exhibition context.

Heroic: Free Shipping - Serbian pavilion.

The significance of this translation was not apparent to me prior to my Biennale experience. However during my visit this translation became evident, the “make or break” relationship between ideas and curation. 

Through my own frustrations as a visitor trying to understand it all, I learnt the first-hand of the importance of effective curation as a crucial method of communicating the often complex ideas. 

Failing to achieve this delicate balance often fell into two categories. Some pavilions had potential in terms of content, however the curation let them down. With certain pavilions, the visual elements upstaged the ideas.

V.D.N.H. - Russian pavilion.

In saying that, my experiential roller coaster consisted of (but was not limited to): getting on my hands and knees to look into an illusory hole in the earth, sitting inside a rainbow zorb, climbing into a concrete blob, placing my head inside papier mâché animal, interacting with wooden puppets, and a psychedelic ceiling. As much as I understood these fleeting experiences as somewhat insignificant, what they showed is that “wow-factor” tricks and grand displays feel a bit outdated at Reporting From The Front.

The Evidence Room.

Pavilions that were well curated made an effort to acknowledge the limitations of the visitor (no, a human cannot process 167,000 words in a single display!), as well as understand the inherent importance of a visitor being able to understand the pavilion enough to take something away from it, whether it be a fundamental question, a change in perception and/or understanding of a pressing topic or issue. The pavilions made the most startling and memorable provocations were not in fact national pavilions, but a part of Aravena’s own curated pavilion within the event. The Evidence Room recreates “the worst crime ever committed by an architect” – an entirely white space containing architectural evidence of Auschwitz. 

It was these sorts of pavilions that reinforced my belief that strong ideas can be communicated in contemplative and striking pavilion experiences without resorting to “gimmicks.” 

Who Made Your Building? - Polish Pavilion.

The level of social consciousness at Reporting From The Front is not limited to traditional community projects and humanitarian endeavours, as it seems at face value. It has the potential to extend beyond this, to include the visitor in a form of digital democracy - social media.

Surprisingly, it was only the Polish pavilion that asked the public to engage with their opinions via social media, in Who Made Your Building?, exposing the perils and exploitation of Polish labourers working on high-rise buildings. I feel that social media could have been utilised more, to bridge what Alejandro Aravena describes as an ever increasing “gap” between architecture and civil society.

In wondering what other ways technology can bridge this gap, today’s context needs to be acknowledged. In a digital age where we are bombarded with thousands of images daily, the speed at which we process what is presented to us is faster than ever before. With the average pavilion visit being only six minutes, it was quite common to see visitors walking in to take a couple of photos and then leave. How can digital elements make visitors stop and engage? Or how can a space capture visitors in a way that keeps their phones in their pocket, allowing them to truly engage?

Losing Myself – Irish pavilion.

A variety of digital technologies were used as communication tools at Reporting From The Front, sparingly but well. The Scottish pavilion integrated virtual reality and interactive tablets with a finely curated physical space and the Irish pavilion incorporated projections of multiple drawings of the same building, exposing the complex and under-acknowledged relationship between Alzheimer’s and architecture.

I Have Left You The Mountain -  Albanian pavilion.

Contrasting with this, the Albanian pavilion’s “lo-fi” approach encouraged visitors to sit down, put their phone away and read poetry with mesmerising polyphonic folk singing recordings, within a space that was intentionally not “Instagrammable.” Whilst neither of these approaches have preference over one another, they are both valid considerations for curators to consider within the Biennale of today. 

Simplifying and translating the complexities and inequalities of the world within an exhibition format isn’t easy. With so many nations participating it was inevitable that there would be a range of responses in relation to the theme, literal, suggestive and even acknowledging no connection to the theme at all. 

Unfinished - Spanish pavilion.
The Architectural Imagination - US pavilion.

Recipient of the prestigious Golden Lion, the Spanish pavilion Unfinished questioned the lifespan of buildings through economic constraints, and how through an ongoing evolution of architecture that creates our environments. The US pavilion exemplified a way in which cities of decline such as Detroit can be re-invigorated through combining community project models with digital innovation. Perhaps the most relevant to our own New Zealand context, the UK pavilion Home Economics devised alternative time-based models that re-think the traditional static and permanent concept of home. 

Home Economics  – UK pavilion.

Beyond these topics, what these pavilions and many others were also declaring was the shifting role of the architect. Despite a few "starchitect" cameos, such as Norman Foster's Droneport, and Peter Zumthor’s collaboration with Christina Kim for his LACMA installation, the architects behind the projects of this Biennale were pretty much invisible. Reporting From The Front replaces the starchitect with the facilitator and inventor. Utilising their knowledge, alongside the knowledge of others in their respective fields, they have influenced positive design outcomes. 

It is here, through the overwhelming problems of the world, it is most obvious that architecture does not have the ability to solve the whole world’s problems, but instead have the ability to influence it for the better through smaller scale implementations. 

Through these various provocations of these invisible architects, the public regains a bit of faith – through seeing the work of architects that are exploring and experimenting with different processes, frameworks and ways of working. Architecture here challenges the status quo and opposes systems and development models that causes many of the inequalities that this Biennale is concerned with in the first place.

Jean Nouvel at the Biennale.

I feel as though I left the Biennale with more questions than I arrived with, inspired, overwhelmed and confused. Should a successful Biennale dispense visitors with questions opposed to answers? 

The Biennale seems to be at a crossroads. Right now, it is a more “real-world” event than ever before. If the themes of the future continue in this direction - how will the exhibition format continue to adapt to prevent the ideas from outgrowing this context? Will it expand into other modes and engage visitors in other new ways?

At this intersection, Reporting From The Front establishes it is a new definition of architectural success. It is inclusive, ambitious, thought-provoking, relevant, challenging, alarming, and alluring. It is a peek into what the future of the Biennale could be, and subsequently, architecture itself. Long live the swarm.