The craft of presenting a country is on full display at the Venice Biennale this year. More than is common, countries and agencies representing some group or interest relied on the making of objects and images with care and sophistication. That is not to say that they concentrated on craft traditions or tried to argue for the beauty of what is made by hand. Instead they availed themselves of the solidity and recognizability of things rather than showering viewers with videos, graphics, and other abstract organizations of information you could experience anywhere.
There were, of course, exceptions to this focus on the real. Germany, Australia, and Canada, which often do much to provoke viewers with their installations, did not show anything at all beyond QR codes linked to online presentations. Perhaps this is in keeping with our current Zoom-based reality, but it contributed nothing to our understanding of how this technology might be integrated into our post-COVID world. Like a war, which the pandemic resembled in its effects and technological response, the crisis has produced innovations that might someday be the equivalent of the microwave, the Jeep, or any number of other advances that combat has brought to us. None of that, however, is to be found in Venice.
Instead, the pavilion the United States presented was emblematic of the prevailing responses. Curators Paul Preissner and Paul Anderson designed a three-story miracle of stud construction, obscuring the Neoclassical U-shape of the 1930 William Adams Delano and Chester Holmes Aldrich-designed building the United States uses for its Biennale presentations. The resulting assemblage is essentially a false front of the sort familiar to anyone who has watched a Western, only here enlarged in depth just enough to create three levels of verandas. This gives the structure a monumental presence that belies its simple construction and enables groups of visitors to gather and explore its interior of wood slats and floors.
The effect is stunning, especially for non-Americans, if the reaction of people I spoke to is anything to go on. I would not be surprised if the construction winds up winning the Golden Lion for best country presentation. As an American fascinated by stud construction, however, there is something amiss about the façade: Constructed by Italian craftspeople, it has none of the slapdash appearance of being thrown together almost semi-automatically by underpaid workers using wood from plantation forests that makes our houses both environmental and social horrors. Those houses are also beautiful sculptures—that is, before they are covered over with references to an imagined neo-colonial past, whether it be Spanish, Georgian, or French.
The same beauty and problems are on display inside the pavilion, where Preissner and Anderson showed off models of balloon frame houses in all their variations, along with documentary photographs of their natural suburban habitat. The models are jewels, in keeping with the doll’s house theme that pervades the Biennale, but that very craft (the work of students at the University of Illinois at Chicago) belies the mess created by this wasteful and inequitable manner of building.
The Belgians also chose to concentrate on standard construction and the environment in which it appears. But they took a different approach, creating a stage set of finished buildings that showcases the kind of vernacular minimalism that has been Flanders’s forte for the last two or three decades. The result is a display that argues that the work designed by well-known architects is but a refinement of what you might see in any Flemish city, while unconsciously it makes you realize that the under-designed urban landscape is actually more appealing.
The Austrians and the Poles, each in their own way, address similar issues. The former, in a presentation by Peter Moertenboeck and Helge Mooshammer, combine diagrams of new developments in building construction and their implementation, as well as social patterns informed by technology, with dense collages showing examples of these phenomena in real life. Hot desks and standing desks, outdoor gyms and shipping containers used as pop-ups—by now these are familiar occurrences in our urban scene, but this presentation gives them the beginnings of the typological treatment architects have developed for housing types or columns.
The Polish Pavilion, curated by a group called PROLOG, considers the issue of exurban sprawl, which this formerly Communist country is experiencing as its economy continues to outperform those of its peer countries, even as its politics veer into a nightmare of laissez-faire planning, climate change-denialism, and anti-LGBTQ “family-oriented” policies. The result is what you might expect: a miasma of mixed single-family homes, old farms, and warehouses checkerboarded throughout the flat terrain. PROLOG’s answer, presented in models and drawings in the pavilion’s center (curtains on the wall printed with site photographs illustrate the current condition) consists of the usual mix of utopian schemes for collective housing and sustainable agriculture and energy production. In this case (as in many of the others), the pavilion’s real work happens in the catalog, with excellent essays lucidly describing both the generic, worldwide problems of sprawl and the Polish variants.
The most poignant of the country pavilions, though, is the Chilean one. Not in the Giardini or gardens, where most of the former colonial powers strut their stuff, the Chilean pavilion is tucked, as always, into a crook of the Arsenale, the former navy armory that is the site of most of the “official” Biennale. The curators, Emilio Marin and Rodrigo Sepulveda, used the dark space to their full advantage, erecting a blue-painted wood house you enter through a single door. Around you are hundreds of small paintings, each just about 6 by 12 inches, depicting scenes from a neighborhood of social housing called Jose Maria Caro. Although the style is similar, the paintings were made by different neighborhood residents, who were trained and directed by a small group of activists, artists, and architects.
The scenes of everyday life, seen from tilted perspectives that evoke both Japanese prints and comic books, as well as the sheer number of them, immerse you in a place you’ve probably never visited and never will. Neither nostalgic nor clinical, cute nor abstract, the paintings highlight the scenes that unfold in this generic version of modern architecture, making you realize its assimilation into the experience of everyday forms. Like the work of Aldo Rossi (gloriously on display at Rome’s MAXXI Museum right now), but with less mordant humor or alienating distance, this is an exhibition of a sweeping and all-encompassing reality that by comparison highlights the cowardly response of those countries that stayed away from this year’s Biennale.
Usually, there is another chapter to be written about the Biennale, one that you can find spread throughout the small shopfronts and palazzos around town, where people join in the discussion about the current state of architecture with their own displays. This year, however, there were fewer such exhibitions, both because of a new law restricting the use of spaces for that purpose, and because the event was smaller thanks to the pandemic. Moreover, a few promised presentations did not open on time. I would advise those who can to return later this summer, when travel will be easier, and more venues will be open. The Biennale, for all its restrictions, remains the best survey of the state of the discipline that you can find.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.