Aaron Betsky here, “Reporting from the Front“—that being the title of this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale, which opened to the public on May 28. I am still in the trenches, or rather in the alleys and exhibition rooms that by now spread through this not-so-serene city, but I can tell you this: The best part of this year’s Biennale is its emphasis on what is not new. Rather than showcasing novel buildings or advanced design techniques, it brings to the forefront what I think is the most important mandate that faces all of us in the field of architecture, namely, what to do with what we already have: How to reuse, rethink, and remake our existing structures, cities, and materials to make them more available and beautiful for all.
Alejandro Araneva, this year’s Biennale Director (and Pritzker Architecture Prize laureate), starts with a bang in an opening room for the Arsenale, the main exhibition venue under his purview, that consists of stacks of plaster fragments recycled from the last (art) Biennale, above which an array of the twisted metal studs that helped make that plaster into walls hangs overhead. The room also, unfortunately, introduces the two main problems with this Biennale: the excessive reliance on flat television screens, which are here scattered along the plaster stack walls and tell the story of the making of this Biennale itself, and the cleaning up of some of the messy bits that make up the world out there.
The epidemic of screens is not new, but the cheapness of these display devices and the fact that generations of architects have now grown up presenting their work in PowerPoints and with fly-throughs, means that they have become an easy, mindless, and not always effective, mode of presentation. The real problem is the one that is endemic not only to the Biennale, but to all architecture exhibitions: That of how to show architecture that is not physically there. Drawings and models might be too analytical, but these kind of animated photographs are too often postcards “From the Front.”
The other big moves in Aravena’s portion of the exhibition are fragments of construction that show alternatives to the expensive and monumental modes with which we usually build, and whose cost and endurance mean that they are available to few and rigid in their uses. Instead, warped domes and adobe huts—such as the one by the Block Research Group in Zurich and another by Norman Foster, Hon. FAIA—abound throughout, showing experiments in construction in just about every continent and every mode of non-standard, non-mechanized construction. They are often beautiful, but all look out of place here.
Within this constellation, the “trash wall” assembled by a team under the direction of Marcin Szczelina and Hugon Kowalski ironically refreshes with the directness of its approach. “Let’s Talk About Garbage,” the curators propose, and focus their case study on the Mumbai slum of Dharavi, where a million inhabitants have become skilled at recycling the most seemingly worthless materials, from cardboard boxes to plastic bags. Neither the place nor their lives are pretty, and the exhibition is equally rough, but as such it reminds us of the creativity and lack of utopian sheen that has to be at the heart of actually reinventing our world.
Beautiful, but difficult to understand in terms of its meaning, is the "Lightscapes" installation by Transsolar with Anja Thierfelder, which uses lenses to focus the sunlight outside to create spotlights that pierce the Arsenale’s gloom. They have become the ultimate selfie spot, leaving most of us to search for the tiny texts that are hidden away throughout the exhibition to find the significance of being able to bundle the sun with such power.
The most forceful reminder of the importance of reuse is the small collateral exhibition organized by Brendan Cormier of the Victoria and Albert Museum right next to the main Arsenale exhibitions. Entitled “Infinite Copies,” it asks us to directly question the value of the original by pointing out that through new technologies we can reproduce things absolutely faithfully, and that the making of copies is sometimes a better way to preserve heritage than just keeping things in ruins. If the Dharavi project raises the question of how to remake our world, rather than continually replacing it, this exhibition gets at the philosophical roots of the question of what it means to make and to create.
In Aravena’s other showpiece, the Exhibition Pavilion in the Giardini (gardens), architects from around the world propose different ways of making and remaking that focus on providing social services, places of community, and affordable houses in ways that escape from standard construction methods and argue for investment in these area. What they do not provide, on the whole, are forms, images, or spatial sequences that excite or delight. Too often, the exhibition reminds us that such pleasure in place is still something we seem to only be able to construct for the wealthy. There has to be a way in which reinvention and the opening of social possibilities partakes of beauty.
In some of the exhibitions organized by countries (including the United States, which this year made a strong showing) and other organizations, there are hints about how this might be possible, and I will discuss these in my next blog.