People's Station, designed by Beijing-based People's Architecture Office.
Ian Volner People's Station, designed by Beijing-based People's Architecture Office.

In addition to the main curated shows and the national pavilions concentrated in the Giardini, the Venice Biennale also includes dozens of off-site functions taking place in aging palazzi and disused churches scattered throughout the city’s islands. One of the highlights of the parallel programming this year is tucked away in a courtyard building of Venice’s famed IAUV design school: “Across Chinese Cities: Community,” the third installment in a series of shows charting the course of urbanism in the fast-growing Asian superpower.

A village library for Chengdu, designed by Milan-based Stefano Boeri Architetti, which has offices in Shanghai and Tirana, Albania.
Ian Volner A village library for Chengdu, designed by Milan-based Stefano Boeri Architetti, which has offices in Shanghai and Tirana, Albania.

“We wanted to see architecture as more of an auxiliary to other phenomena, social, cultural and otherwise,” says curator Beatrice Lanza. The former director, until 2016, of Beijing Design Week, Lanza’s role with the “Across Chinese Cities” initiative sees her examining the country as a whole, looking at projects from a group of 15 practices—some well-known and others only beginning to appear on the global architectural radar. Consonant with her aim to see design as only one part of a broader story, the projects are presented under six abstract themes (“Working Paradigms” and “The Consumer Revolution,” for example), yet the show is anything but abstract. “We only wanted projects that had been completed or are being realized” Lanza says. Though the manner of presentation makes much of the work look far-out and conceptual, it isn’t.

Boonself Youth Apartments, designed by Beijing-based MAT Office.
Ian Volner Boonself Youth Apartments, designed by Beijing-based MAT Office.

Arguably the most far-out is the People’s Station, a 3,000-square-foot community facility in the Kwan-Yen district of the northeastern Chinese city of Yantai. Assembled from pre-fabricated components, the building from Beijing-based People’s Architecture Office looks straight out of the sci-fi dreams of the 1960’s: a plug-in palace of the old Archigram variety. In another beguiling display, Stefano Boeri’s design for a village library in Chengdu province appears rendered in delicate wooden strips inside its own wooden carrying case, more like some exquisite Medieval reliquary than a conventional architectural model. Still another project, the Boonself Youth Apartment in Beijing from MAT Office, was represented by a kind of photographic sculpture, leaping from two dimensions into three to give a sense of the building’s lofty, light-filled atrium.

The guest city featured in this iteration of "Across Chinese Cities" is Suzhou, and an exhibition downstairs focuses on traditional patterns of urban life in that region.
Ian Volner The guest city featured in this iteration of "Across Chinese Cities" is Suzhou, and an exhibition downstairs focuses on traditional patterns of urban life in that region.

The new work was complemented by a separate downstairs space devoted to this year’s “Guest City,” the latest to partner with “Across Chinese Cities” and certainly the most appropriate for the setting: Suzhou, an ancient town of snaking canals often described as the “Venice of China.” Though distinctly more sober-minded and research-focused, the Suzhou section’s thoughtful analysis in photos and text of traditional patterns of urban life—and the confrontation of old and new in a country undergoing rapid modernization—seemed to rhyme perfectly with the ambitious young practices on view above. “The idea, says Lanza, “is to take out the guts of the city, and reexamine them.”