Highlights of the 17th Venice Architecture Biennale

Organised by La Biennale di Venezia and curated by Lebanese architect, scholar, and educator Hashim Sarkis, the highly anticipated 17th Venice Architecture Biennale announced its theme as an open question: “How Will We Live Together?”.

With its prophetic air, this year’s theme not only strikes a chord with the current global climate but also with the focus of the international architecture scene. “We live in special times”, stated Sarkis, as he urged architects to interpret the radical rethinking of human coexistence, before adding, “Today, more than ever, architects need to rethink their tools to address the complex problems at hand.”

Faced with global uncertainty and the urgency to react to the unexpected, each of the international participants has interpreted the theme and responded uniquely. This year’s Russian Federation Pavilion launches the reconstruction of its architectural and institutional structures across both the physical and digital realms. Curated by Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli and titled “Open?”, the Russian Federation Pavilion extends beyond the traditional timeframe of the 17th Biennale to include the immersive environments that we access daily, as well as the networks of individuals that populate them. In addition to the physical rehabilitation of the pavilion’s own architecture, renovated by the young Russian/Japanese architecture studio KASA, “Open?” strives to interact with audiences outside the perimeter of Venice through a programme of movie screenings and other online ventures, such as a chatbot, a video game, and an audio-visual piece. What was intended to be a physical space for encounters has been transformed into an interactive forum with visual landscapes aimed at the exchange of ideas between artists, architects, and thinkers.

Pavilion Renovation. Work in progress. ©Marco Cappelletti (Russian Federation Pavilion).
Pavilion Renovation. Work in progress. ©Marco Cappelletti (Russian Federation Pavilion).

A different approach to the theme has been taken by the 2021 Italian Pavilion, curated by Alessandro Melis. By calling for a new architectural taxonomy, the dramatic nature of the Italian Pavilion aims to shed light on pressing issues such as climate change. Titled “Resilient Communities”, the pavilion’s concept explores what resilient communities are and how they operate, starting with those already present in Italy and extending to the strategies and resources that can be put into place to positively combat current social and environmental stresses.

Italian Pavilion. Exhibition section “Peccioli Laboratory”
Italian Pavilion. Exhibition section “Peccioli Laboratory”

Among more than 60 national participants, it is worth noting the significant presence of Arab countries, which includes the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, Kuwait, Egypt, the Kingdom of Bahrain, and Iraq, with the latter being one of the countries taking part in the event for the first time. Iraq’s Pavilion, “Ark-Reimagined: The Expeditionary Pavilion”, harkens back to the country’s architectural past, honouring the Tigris-Euphrates river system’s vernacular architecture and watercraft, as well as the seminal “alphabet of making” from which early architecture emerged. According to artist Rashad Salim, the pavilion adopts the concept of gathering to respond to this year’s theme. By proposing organic and tensile-built structures, artisans from across central, southern and western Iraq work together to revive and register what is left of traditional boatbuilding, architecture and craft practices. Hence, the mission of the project is to gather resources and people, and to convene cross-cultural dialogue.

Guffa coracle with tar and adobe coating. ©Rashad Salim (2018) - (Iraq’s Pavilion)
Guffa coracle with tar and adobe coating. ©Rashad Salim (2018) – (Iraq’s Pavilion)

The pavilion of the United Arab Emirates is another striking entry, which stands out for its innovation and creativity. Curated by architects Wael Al Awar and Kenichi Teramoto, “Wetland” presents an environmentally sustainable cement prototype accompanied by photographs of UAE artist and photographer Farah Al-Qasimi. The large-scale prototype, (7 x 5 m in width and over 2.7 m in height), is constructed from over 3,000 hand-cast Mgo-based cement modules made of recycled industrial waste brine, a resource that the United Arab Emirates has in abundance. This collaborative research process not only results in the development of a material, but also helps in maintaining an emphasis on a localised architectural tradition intimately linked to the Gulf’s resources and climate. By doing so, the United Arab Emirates is reimagining contemporary architectural processes while retaining a strong, poetic sense of the region’s identity and culture.

Material research at the New York University, Abu Dhabi Division of Engineering AMBER Lab. Image courtesy National Pavilion UAE - La Biennale di Venezia and waiwai
Material research at the New York University, Abu Dhabi Division of Engineering AMBER Lab. Image courtesy National Pavilion UAE – La Biennale di Venezia and waiwai

Last but not least, titled “A Roof for Silence” and curated by architect Hala Wardé, the Lebanese Pavilion is a territorial and urbanistic approach to emptiness. By putting architecture, painting, music, poetry, video, and photography into dialogue, the pavilion’s philosophy is to challenge the addressed theme of “imagining spaces where we can generously live together” by investigating the function of empty spaces as spatial and temporal conditions of architecture. To Wardé, architectural voids and the desire to occupy these environments devoted to solitude and reflection must be considered. The proof is the pandemic, which recently showed the importance of these spaces, revealing that those who have suffered the most were those who could not have access to these environments. With the participation of Etel Adnan, Fouad ElKoury, and Alain Fleischer, and in tribute to the renowned thinker and urbanist Paul Virilio, the central space of the pavilion, treated as a manifesto for a new form of architecture, is crowned with a semi-spherical roof bordered by light, inviting people to pause and reflect.

A Roof for Silence. Alain Fleischer, Film still - Les Oliviers, Piliers du Temps, 2020. ©HW architecture & Le Fresnoy (Lebanese Pavilion).
A Roof for Silence. Alain Fleischer, Film still – Les Oliviers, Piliers du Temps, 2020. ©HW architecture & Le Fresnoy (Lebanese Pavilion).

The above-mentioned pavilions and countries are but a few of the many national participants who have responded to the theme raised by Sarkis in a subtle manner. However, with all its material, spatial and cultural specificity and diversity, the 17th International Exhibition of Venice Architecture Biennale remains to celebrate the plurality of values in and through architecture, and continues to inspire the way we socially and culturally “live” together.




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