One of the first displays one encounters at the Venice Biennale’s 12th architecture exhibition, directed by Kazuyo Sejima, is a short 3D film of the Rolex Learning Center in Lausanne, Switzerland, completed by Sejima’s Tokyo-based firm SANAA earlier this year. Directed by Wim Wenders, If Buildings Could Talk pans lovingly through the sprawling complex, with sensuous forms that pop into space. Viewers are swept smoothly through bright rooms, pausing momentarily on pensive readers (a reminder of the dreamy library scenes in Wenders’ Wings of Desire). No matter how gimmicky or gratuitous 3D technology seems (in cinema, it always smells like a last-ditch effort to heap interest on a weak storyline), applied to architecture, it makes total sense. Finally—a solution to architecture’s perennial representation problem!

Architecture on display is always problematic because it is always a degree (or several) removed from the real thing. But what does “the real thing” mean anymore? It depends on who you ask. For the vast number of nonarchitects, the answer is clear (physical buildings), but for professional insiders, the rendering of an idea—whether in words, drawings, or some other media—has become a wholly acceptable proxy. The debate about architecture’s dependence on, or inextricability from, its representation has only gotten more complex as architects’ representational tools have grown more diverse and sophisticated, and as new media have enabled architects to blast their work, real and unreal, into the far reaches of the digital universe.

We look to the Venice Architecture Biennale—the ultimate international architecture showcase—as much to learn about the leading edge of practice and thinking as to see the latest innovations in how they are portrayed or communicated. The sheer quantity of objects and installations in the Biennale—this year, 48 participants were invited by Sejima to exhibit in the Arsenale and the International (formerly Italian) Pavilion, and were joined by 52 national contributions and 20 collateral events scattered through Venice—means that visitors can expect to encounter the full gamut of ideas and presentation tactics, from low-tech to high-tech, abstract to pedantic, minimalist to over-the-top, messy to precious, you name it. Model-making is taken to new heights. Videos have the slick broadcast quality one might see in a BMW commercial or arthouse flick. Some installations attempt to eschew materials altogether, while others are so physically intricate that they must be admired purely for the amount of manual labor they represent.

On the whole, this Biennale ranks as one of the artier and more conceptual in recent memory. Sejima’s vague, open-ended theme, “People Meet in Architecture,” combined with her directorial approach—to allot participants generous spaces and command them to self-curate—clearly liberated a good many of them to give in to their fantasies and artistic urges. Madrid-based firm Antón García-Abril & Ensamble Studio set gargantuan concrete I-beams in improbable repose—a super-scaled complement to displays of the firm’s real buildings, including models of houses that embody extreme balancing acts, either of cantilevering forms or of elements such as light and air. German climate-engineering consultancy Transsolar teamed with Tokyo-based architect Tetsuo Kondo (a former SANAA employee) to transform a 2,600-square-foot room into “Cloudscapes,” a dreamscape with a floating, spiraling ramp that ushers visitors through an artificial (and surprisingly warm!) cloud. It’s not the best designer cloud (Diller + Scofidio’s Blur Building for the 2002 Swiss expo at Lake Neuchâtel would get that honor), but the idea of engineering an atmosphere and giving visual presence to a science that’s invisible, yet so integral to architecture, is forceful.

Air is crucial to another installation, by another Japanese architect and SANAA disciple: Junya Ishigami. “Architecture as Air: Study for Château la Coste” is a near-invisible installation composed of superfine carbon fibers and filaments arranged to outline a structure, which oddly has real dimensions (about 46 by 13 by 13 feet) as well as references to real building elements, such as columns and beams. Though there’s an undeniable emperor-has-no-clothes bent to the work, it impressed the Biennale jury enough to win the Golden Lion for best project. The jury commended it for pushing “the limits of materiality, visibility, tectonics, thinness, and ultimately of architecture itself.” The setup is so delicate that the whole thing was knocked down the second day of the press opening, purportedly by a stray cat. I don’t know if the architects intended constant vigilance and maintenance to be part of the installation, but inadvertently, it alludes to the impermanence of building and our ceaseless striving to build the impossible.

A more deliberate exercise in ephemerality was Olafur Eliasson’s “Your Split Second House.” In a long, darkened hall, strobe lights capture, for alternating split seconds, the fanciful swirls of water released by free-hanging whiplashing hoses. The constant sound and smell of water splashing on the stone-block floor offset the blinkering image of water spirals, creating a mesmerizing, multisensory spectacle. The Berlin-based, Danish-Icelandic artist oversees a 35-person studio that includes architects, artisans, and an assortment of technicians, resembling very much the operation of a design firm.

Equally enchanting is the sound installation of Berlin-based Canadian artist Janet Cardiff, “The Forty Part Motet” (a reworking of “Spem in Alium” by Thomas Tallis, 1573), which is a reinstallation of a piece from 2001. Forty separately recorded voices are played on 40 speakers, arranged in the shape of an oval around a few benches. Listeners can move around the speakers to hear individual voices up close or sit surrounded by speakers and hear overlapping waves of singing coming from different directions. It’s a fantastic demonstration of the possibility to build a space aurally. Separately, these pieces all get at a similar point: that so much of what shapes architecture—gravity, light, climate, and sound—is intangible.

Works by artists, architects, and engineers intermingle comfortably. There’s noticeably less of the awkward self-consciousness that has plagued architect-made art in the past, no doubt in part because cross-disciplinary collaborations have become practically de rigueur, and the creative fields seem to absorb each other’s discoveries more quickly. The Belgian Pavilion exemplifies the capacity for an architectural exploration to rival the best contemporary art. In “Usus/Usures,” Brussels firm Rotor has collected worn, discarded remnants of common building materials, such as scratched vinyl upholstery, tatty linoleum tiles, stained wooden panels, and a chipped, peeling section of a metal staircase. Salvaged and hung in a gallery setting, they assume an affecting beauty, evoking not so much the cheekiness of Marcel Duchamp’s decontextualized readymades but the raw power of Donald Judd’s sculptures.

Several of the national pavilions also opted for singular, room-filling objects, the better to induce a contemplative atmosphere. Romania offered a room within a room—an enormous, softly skewed white clapboard box with an oculus and one peephole on each side. Called “1:1,” the object just barely leaves enough space along its edges to walk around it. The size is symbolic—it measures just over 300 square feet, the amount of land per capita in Bucharest, heightening awareness of the space in which people live. It’s a simple point, conveyed via a rather intimate experience, but infinitely more affecting than maps or data.

Canada, meanwhile, filled its pavilion with a captivating, feathery, breathing, lilting creature-environment by Philip Beesley, called “Hylozoic Ground.” Resembling the glow-in-the-dark living forests in Avatar, the delicate, complex work is indeed an interactive, organic system, with thousands of tiny white acrylic fronds triggered to wave gently in reaction to the softest breath or touch. The installation is undergirded with sophisticated sensors, chemistry-driven moisture filters, micromechanics and other technologies that Beesley has been researching for over a decade as part his investigations into responsive or living architecture.

By focusing on architecture as spaces rather than objects—as containers or backdrops for atmospheres, experiences, actions, emotions—Sejima’s theme mercifully nudges the conversation away from the mindless formalism that’s had such a strong grip on the profession in recent years. Still, something felt missing. Participants seem to have zeroed in on the “meet” part of the theme, re-creating sensations one feels in spaces. “Meet” is actually quite a passive word. People meet, and then what? For me, the more important word in the theme is “people,” but scant attention was paid to social issues, and what architecture can do not only to provide pleasurable experiences, but to improve people’s lives.

Two exceptions were the contributions of Studio Mumbai Architects and the Kingdom of Bahrain. Studio Mumbai appears to have shipped the entire contents of its studio to its allotted Arsenale hall: “Work-Place” is a complete workshop, replete with groupings of stone pavers, pigment samples, carved wooden furniture joints, and other ephemera “that [draw] from traditional skills, local building techniques, materials, and an ingenuity arising from limited resources.” The hundred-strong firm includes artisans and builders who are usually directly involved in project construction. The piece acknowledges the importance of crafts and tradition in a practice that strives to be sustainable, environmentally and culturally.

Ecology and cultural continuity are also central to Bahrain’s impressive first-time Biennale participation, “Reclaim.” Three precarious-looking wooden fisherman’s huts have been reconstructed, their interiors outfitted with carpets and benches that invite visitors to stay. A flat screen in each hut runs filmed interviews with fishermen who woefully recount their lost livelihoods and sense of selves as a consequence of land reclamations, mostly driven by high-rise developments that capitalize on postcard sea views. The Biennale jury was evidently moved by these intensely personal installations, as it awarded a special mention to Studio Mumbai and the Golden Lion for best national pavilion to Bahrain.

Cathy Lang Ho is a writer and editor based in New York City.
Stefan Jonot Cathy Lang Ho is a writer and editor based in New York City.

The U.S. pavilion, too, has an appealing activist bent, highlighting projects that cast “architects as a force for change.” “Workshopping: An American Model of Architectural Practice” gathers self-initiated projects, which tend to be driven by passion. Architect and critic Michael Sorkin has been generating his own projects for a long time, and one of the ongoing research initiatives of his nonprofit Terreform is a proposal to make New York City entirely self-sufficient. Chicago’s Archeworks presents its Mobile Food Collective; Hood Design attempts to green an underprivileged quarter of Pittsburgh; the team of Catherine Seavitt, Guy Nordenson, Architecture Research Office, and Anthony Fontenot address climate change with “soft” infrastructure. These projects deserve public airing, but their presentation is one of those conventional, piecemeal assemblages with hit-or-miss moments. (Though Italy and Austria win the prize for overzealousness, with their respective directors, Luca Molinari and Eric Owen Moss, each roping in dozens of architects to produce massive information overload.) I would love to see the U.S. pavilion give in some day to a big concept or risk being freewheeling and chaotic.

One positive consequence of the disastrous post-bubble, speculation-averse economic climate is that it has made grandiose building projects and sprawling new towns seem even more misguided and vulgar than before. This Biennale promotes a more measured, contemplative approach that can be a source of not simply immediate pleasure, but optimism for the future.