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The art of projecting together: a tour across the 17th Venice Architecture Biennale

It’s more art than a project! This is the first thought we have when we arrive in Venice to visit the seventeenth Architecture Biennale (it ends at the end of November).

Curated by Hashim Sarkis, a Lebanese architect with a curriculum dedicated to the visual arts, this year’s Biennale is more fun, inclusive, positive and above all full of installations that (if we still needed for it) merge the several creative disciplines.

Titled How will we live together, the best of this edition is in the numerous national pavilions – and in the Gardens and the Arsenale – and not so much in the general exhibition.

The themes have been the same for several years. However, in the face of the pandemic, they now have more force and urgency: the environment, without forgetting the lives of the inhabitants of many areas of the world who struggle daily; the protection of the seas, forests and our cities; the possibilities of recycling water, wood or graceless metropolitan areas; and also plural perspectives on the ends of the planet, hypotheses on how to avoid the depopulation of entire countries or the death of territories.

The most critical might complain about the repetition. On one hand, this is true. However, on some occasions – such as this Biennial – observing and understanding the works is worth more than many words: they have a great poetic force, incite reflection and, in most cases, overthrow that reproachful, negative, moralising attitude that is incompatible with men as inhabitants and an integral part of the Earth, a thought that has accompanied us on many occasions.

Human beings are protagonists and invited to rethink the present to build a better tomorrow, in an agile way, mixing knowledge, identities, based on a nature linked, but not enslaved, to new technologies.

This is what the Danish pavilion, curated by Marianne Krogh, and with the participation of Lundgaard & Tranberg Architects, teaches us. With a hydraulic system, the waters of the Venice lagoon are purified to create an environment where we can rest on sofas surrounded by small rivers, drinking mint tea made from recycled liquids.

In the Arsenale, Chile has the Biennale’s most poetic pavilion. With five hundred small paintings arranged close together, they disclose the difficult conditions in Santiago’s José Maria Caro neighbourhood. They literally paint the pros and cons of living in a community, in their interpretation of the Biennale’s theme. Without offering solutions, it clearly shows what it is like to live today in a certain latitude and under specific conditions.

The Portuguese pavilion is in the beautiful Palace Giustinian-Lolin, near the Accademia Bridge. Here, the studio DepA Architects recounts various conflicts in the country generated by contemporary architecture after the Carnation Revolution. With light exhibition structures but posing dense questions, the exhibition uses seven examples in the narration of In Conflict – the show’s title – to show how architecture generates debates, protests and utopias of change, creating social problems before solving them; and sometimes without the projects ever being materialised.

Utopia of Common Life is the title of the Brazilian pavilion. In two rooms, the yesterday and today of the project-driven utopias, that have always marked the life of the country’s many architectures, are analysed. On the one hand, we have examples of how the Brazilian people have re-appropriated impossible spaces, such as the one around the Pinheiro Bus Terminal, in Belo Horizonte; or the “Pedregulho housing complex”, north of Rio de Janeiro; on the other hand, the current challenge that requires thinking of new forms of feasible coexistence, as well as the collective experience of the pandemic and the never fulfilled utopias.

England: one of the best-architected pavilions of this Biennale! A simple and strong message, explained in its title: The garden of privatised delights. Inspired by Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, in Venice the English reflect on places, especially outdoors and deemed “public” – but which close in and become private spaces. What can we do when whole generations – of teenagers, for example – are completely forgotten and have no place to grow up in community? How can we solve the problem of even more privatised spaces, now that the pandemic has shown the importance of having access to the outdoors, to green spaces, to nature, even in an urban context?

Japan: Curated by Kozo Kadowaki, the project presents a typical Japanese wooden house that, destined to be demolished, was transported to Venice without being reconstructed. Rather, the structural elements of the house are individually arranged in a zen-like fashion throughout the pavilion. But they are residual items: most of the house pieces are scattered around the Biennale Gardens, reused in benches and other structures. The architecture of Japan becomes a narration, on a journey that does not end at the lagoon, but will continue to Norway, where it will undergo a new transformation.

Belgium has already won an award at the Art Biennale in 2019, with a special mention for the beautiful Mondo Cane project by artists Jos de Gruyter and Harald Thys. The country is again one of the most original, with the installation curated by Bovenbouw Architectuur. The study made for the show drew on fifty others to create an urban environment which, although fictitious, describes very well a typical Flemish town with its traits: historical stratifications, morphological particularities, unforeseen problems that determine the “durable and cheerful environment”, whose construction takes into account the social elements and the surrounding landscape.

Germany and Italy: the worst of the Biennale! The first pavilion is empty, except for some QR Codes on the walls, which show us on the screen of our mobile phone what life will be like in 2038. It would have been better to have it closed! As I said before, it would be preferable to think about today, so that it is not emptier or worse than our tomorrow!

On the contrary, the second pavilion has so many projects, themes, shapes, walls, captions, furniture and stories that it is almost impossible to invest just one minute of our attention. The resilient communities from which the Italian pavilion was supposed to talk about are spread without force in the Biennale’s flow; although some national participations are missing and visitors in Venice are fewer than in pre-pandemic times, they still exist. Creating a point of attention is the least feasible in the clutter of our interesting moments.

 

17th Venice Architecture Biennale, until 21 November 2021, in Venice, at the Giardini della Biennale, the Arsenale and elsewhere.

Matteo Bergamini is a journalist and art critic. He’s the Director of the Italian magazine exibart.com and also a collaborator in the weekly journal D La Repubblica. Besides journalist he’s also the editor and curator of several books, such as Un Musée après, by the photographer Luca Gilli, Vanilla Edizioni, 2018; Francesca Alinovi (with Veronica Santi), by Postmedia books, 2019; Prisa Mata. Diario Marocchino, by Sartoria Editoriale, 2020. The lattest published book is L'involuzione del pensiero libero, 2021, also by Postmedia books. He’s the curator of the exhibitions Marcella Vanzo. To wake up the living, to wake up the dead, at Berengo Foundation, Venezia, 2019; Luca Gilli, Di-stanze, Museo Diocesano, Milan, 2018; Aldo Runfola, Galeria Michela Rizzo, Venezia, 2018, and the co-curator of the first, 2019 edition of BienNoLo, the peripheries biennial, in Milan. He’s a professor assistant in several Fine Arts Academies and specialized courses. Lives and works in Milan, Italy.

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