Arsenale Pavilion at the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale
Darrel Ronald/Flickr via Creative Commons license Arsenale Pavilion at the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale

The Venice Architecture Biennale this year must have kept model makers busy for at least a year. The counterpoint to the tsunami of flat-screen displays and pinned-to-the-walls books that inundated much of the Biennale’s official portion was a mass of models that turned quite a few national pavilions into dollhouse displays of miniature other worlds.

Danish Pavilion at the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale
Darrel Ronald/Flickr via Creative Commons license Danish Pavilion at the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale

The most extreme of these was the Danish Pavilion, in which you could find miniature versions of what seemed like just about every architect-designed structure produced there in the last few years. The quality of the design was high, with a strong tendency for most structures to display the post-OMA (and BIG) extension and deformation of modern minimalism that has become as common in Northern Europe as the Euro. More delicate and less innovative—because of their social message—were the models in the Japanese Pavilion. To my mind the models that Eyal Weisman has produced with Forensic Architecture (which you could find in both the V&A exhibition I mentioned in my last blog post and in the Israeli Pavilion), that represent the debris clouds following explosions and missile strikes in Gaza, contained the most power. Beautiful and enigmatic at the same time, they were part of a project of mapping these clouds to analyze the source of the strike and the eventual disposition of all the things, alive and otherwise, that these explosions displaced.

French Pavilion at the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale
Darrel Ronald/Flickr via Creative Commons license French Pavilion at the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale

What all these models served to do (beyond providing tons of ideas for architecture students and professionals on how to display their work beyond the tyranny of the fly-through) was to bring the human into focus, albeit in a miniature form. Dollhouses let us play house, putting everybody and everything in its proper place and then, within the limits set by the boundaries of this world, rearrange them. What you notice in them is not the framework within which they sit, which is anyhow sliced to let you view the world inside, but the decorations, accouterments, and arrangements within an architecture that, sliced and partially removed, has lost much of its power.

This was certainly true in the Taiwanese Pavilion, held, as always, on the first floor of Venice’s prison on the other side of the Bridge of Sighs from the Ducal Palace. Everyday Architecture: Re:Made in Taiwan, by David Tseng, Eric Chuang, Wei Tseng, and Sheng-Kai Tseng, argued for upcycling by showing walls made out of what had once been Starbucks cup holders and the such, but it really drew interest with its display of street scenes from cities and villages in which the “soft architecture” of awnings, coverings, and signs, along with all the alterations people make to their buildings and the ways in which life spills out onto the street. Architecture here was not planned, but actually built and continually rebuilt form.

British Pavilion at the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale
Darrel Ronald/Flickr via Creative Commons license British Pavilion at the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale

This emphasis on soft architecture pervaded the best bits of the Biennale. The British Pavilion, “Home Economics” focused on the home and new models for the front line of British architecture. Curators Shumi Bose, Jack Self, and Finn Williams presented five scenarios for shared or transforming spaces they organized according to time, not space. These were full-scale models, ranging from a bed you were encouraged to share to plastic balls in which you dove to find yourself cocooned by plastic and rolling around the room.

Australian Pavilion at the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale
Massanz/Flickr via Creative Commons license Australian Pavilion at the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale

The Australian Pavilion, “The Pool,” (curated by Amelia Holliday and Isabelle Toland) gave visitors a wading pool, arguing that the swimming pool was that country’s social condenser, both on a public level and as a place that brought families, friends, and neighbors together. Given the relative coolness of the Biennale’s opening days, it was not much used, but I can imagine that, come the dog days of summer, it would be the place to be and wonder about what really makes architecture work.

The answer to that last question seems to be that, on the front lines, as this Biennale promised, many earnest architects are working on finding better ways to use materials, create social spaces and cheap structures that can provide basic social services as well as accommodation, and conduct analyses of existing power structures that promise a more responsive, adaptable, efficient, and empowering architecture. If you stop for a moment, wipe your brow, and look back from the barricades, however, others are pointing out that there is much we can do to make what we have work better to help us understand where and who we are, and to use such spaces in a way that truly bring us together.

German Pavilion at the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale
Darrel Ronald/Flickr via Creative Commons license German Pavilion at the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale

The Germans had the right idea in “Making Heimat." The team led by Peter Schmal stripped down its Nazi-era Pavilion to its bare bones, taking down its name, removing what details of classical accouterments were still in place, and creating large openings that let you flow in and out of this otherwise closed and forbidding structure. They then unfortunately filled the walls with posters that once again spelled out the issues with immigration and how we might accommodate mass movements of people, but the point was the emptiness and the openness of this space. Here architecture stopped being a repository of materials and a monument to the past, and opened itself up to all possibilities.

See coverage of the 2016 Venice Biennale award winners and visit ARCHITECT's Project Gallery for more Biennale pavilions.