Andrea Avezzù/La Biennale di Venezia

In Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino’s postmodernist masterpiece, the character of Marco Polo confesses the truth behind his outrageous tales of far-off lands: “Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice.” However zany, however improbable his fantasy capitals may be, they are only pallid reflections of the original—the one place the great traveler cannot help but return to.

Over the last quarter century, many in the design world have come to feel the same way, albeit for different reasons. Every other year after every other year, critics and practitioners return to La Serenissima for the Venice Architecture Biennale, a ritual that has come to bear all the hallmarks of a religious pilgrimage: costly, physically taxing, and yielding mixed blessings at best for hosts and visitors alike. It has also, by now, exhausted most of the available critical takes one could plausibly cook up either to praise or bury it (including invocations of Calvino, of which the above can hardly be the first). Only the intervention of COVID-19—which pushed the 2020 Biennale back a full 12 months—has afforded this year’s edition an air of novelty, and with it, the possibility of reassessing the whole screwy endeavor.

“Catalogue for the Posthuman,” by Chicago-based Parsons & Charlesworth
Andrea Avezzù/La Biennale di Venezia “Catalogue for the Posthuman,” by Chicago-based Parsons & Charlesworth
The V&A Museum's installation
Andrea Avezzù/La Biennale di Venezia The V&A Museum's installation

The prognosis, at first blush, is not great. All the vices of Biennales past—lack of cogency, excessive scale, a cloying optimism about architecture’s social potential—seem to be concentrated in the main exhibition, which was curated by Hashim Sarkis, the dean of the MIT School of Architecture and Planning. Even his chosen theme, “How Will We Live Together?”, sounds like a parody of what an architecture biennial might be called. (One imagines the rejected alternatives: “DesignPlusNow”; “The Fundamentals of Here.”)

The Arsenale, a dark and imposing space at the best of times, has been rendered even more so. It's filled with installations that are not necessarily bad by themselves but that lose their punch by their proximity to everything else: An imagined post-apocalyptic pan-ecological dinner table, from British firm Superflux, sits within shouting distance of an extravagantly high-tech moon base proposal from Skidmore Owings & Merrill, which is within sight of a sort of wood triumphal arch by Peruvian duo Alexia León and Lucho Marcial that is meant, somehow, to symbolize shared space. Austrian-based MAEID’s “Magic Queen,” an unworldly mini-landscape built by an automated arm, bumps up conceptually against a hilarious take down of high-tech culture, “Catalogue for the Posthuman,” from Chicago-based Parsons & Charlesworth. By the time visitors reach the back of the main hall, where Reinier de Graaf and OMA have installed gurneys for watching a film on the history of healthcare spaces, the piece seems like a work of genius simply for allowing viewers the chance to lie down.

The German pavilion, empty save for QR codes
Francesco Galli/La Biennale di Venezia The German pavilion, empty save for QR codes

“The Biennale Architettura 2021 is motivated by new kinds of problems that the world is putting in front of architecture,” reads Sarkis’s curatorial statement. That’s it. That’s apparently as much philosophical impetus as could be mustered to justify a sprawling show that features 113 contributors from 46 countries and that took two years to mount if you count the lengthy COVID interregnum—which did not seem to affect the content of the exhibitions so much as the logistics of traveling to Venice and installing them. Some folks never did make it, including Czechoslovakia, whose pavilion sat empty, as well as most of the curatorial team behind the United Kingdom’s contributions (a pavilion show on public-private space and an exploration of London mosques from the V&A Museum) who were barred by their government from attending. Also conspicuous in its absence was most of the international press corps, along with the customary battalion of celebrity architects, academic makhers, and most of the fanfare and vernissages that typically mark the occasion. Local coronavirus restrictions were not too onerous, but informal architectural gabfests over pasta alle vongole were scarce, and when the nominal citywide curfew arrived at around 10 p.m., only a few stragglers remained in the Piazza St. Marco for the carabinieri to shoo away.

Sound like a bit of a drag? It was, but it could yet turn out to be a constructive one. What this year’s Biennale lacked in verve it made up for, at least in part, with a certain accidental atmosphere. While many exhibitors seemed content with Sarkis’s muffled clarion call, there was an entirely different vibe in parts of the central exhibition and especially in the national pavilions: an intellectually clearer, more engaging, and funnier one. Whether born of the pandemic or not, it was a mood perfectly suited to the moment, and it pointed a way forward for biennials everywhere—but especially for Venice's, the most vexing yet essential of the bunch.

The Russian pavilion, which was housed in a newly renovated 1914 building
Francesco Galli/La Biennale di Venezia The Russian pavilion, which was housed in a newly renovated 1914 building
The Russian pavilion
Francesco Galli/La Biennale di Venezia The Russian pavilion

Standing on the newly-reopened rear balcony of the Russian pavilion during the press preview, the co-curator of the Biennale, Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli, explained what had happened to the 1914 building in the forgoing year. “We had to completely renew the space,” he said. The project, long in the making, has removed years of misbegotten renovations that had, among other things, shut off the airy south-facing terrace. For the first time in decades, visitors can go to a national show in the Giardini and get a view of the Grand Canal, to which the exhibition zone has always studiously turned its back. The Russians scored a double coup by making the pavilion renovation the primary topic of their exhibition.

But they were hardly the only ones who arrived at the Biennale in order to—of all things—actually do architecture. “It was only fully completed yesterday,” Paul Anderson told me when I visited the American pavilion, which he had co-curated. Anderson had helped pull together one of the least intellectually pretentious, most satisfying U.S. contributions in recent memory, a paean to wood balloon-frame construction featuring a full-size structure in front of the pavilion and a show of photographs and exquisite models inside. The piece works, in part, because the three-story timber outbuilding operates not just as an object to be viewed, but as a viewing device for the gardens that surround it.

The U.S. pavilion
Francesco Galli/La Biennale di Venezia The U.S. pavilion

Even with fewer off-site exhibitions than are customary during the Biennale (notable exceptions include “Non-Extractive Architecture,” a Joseph Grima-directed show at the V-A-C Foundation; the interactive “Mutualities” installation at Spazio Ravà; and a tiny, stunning jewel box of a show about Carlo Scarpa at Alma Zevi), the American and Russian contingents helped the Biennale feel more situated, more Venetian, than it has in a while. It also felt—notwithstanding the high seriousness of Sarkis’s overall direction—surprisingly lighthearted. The Korean Pavilion is a snug domestic interior where a stray Venetian cat had taken up residence. The Nordic Pavilion, offering even more coziness and wall-to-wall wood, is a special hit with the toddler set. And the German pavilion was entirely empty save for QR codes on the walls that redirected visitors to an online exhibition, leaving the bare beauty of the structure exposed. The linked videos were a sober-minded affair, but they were introduced by a pseudo-futuristic tour guide doing a sort of flight-attendant bit, complete with overdrawn hand gestures. When the Germans are being funny, you know something’s up.

Levity snuck into the central show as well, mostly in the form of a remarkable number of installations that went beyond mere architectural model-making to become honest-to-goodness dollhouses. Sarkis’s Lebanese compatriot Lina Ghotmeh showed off her new Stone Garden tower in Beirut with a stunningly executed mock up of the tactile, earthy structure that stands nearly six feet tall. Meng Fanhao’s “Rural Nostalgia/Urban Dream,” a detailed scale miniature of a Chinese village, was alive with figures and action, affording the viewer a rush of voyeuristic pleasure. And Danish firm EFFEKT created an entire model forest community with trees composed of real growing seedlings—a Playmobil city for the ecologically conscious. After a rough year, maybe some architects just wanted to smile again: The childlike simplicity of Michael Maltzan, FAIA’s Sixth Street Viaduct model, as well as a beautifully abstracted townscape on view in the Belgian pavilion, had an oddball charm reminiscent of the work of outsider artist Peter Fritzl, whose meticulous train set-like houses were a highlight of the 2013 Venice Art Biennale organized by the brilliant curator Massimiliano Gioni.

The installation by Danish firm EFFEKT
Marco Zorzanello/La Biennale di Venezia The installation by Danish firm EFFEKT
EFFEKT's exhibit
Marco Zorzanello/La Biennale di Venezia EFFEKT's exhibit

Speaking of which: curators. If there is one chronic problem plaguing the Biennale that the current iteration seems to crystalize, it has been the reliance of the show’s Italian administrators on architects—practicing designers—to take on the chief curatorial position. It has not always been thus: Historian Francesco dal Co was responsible for the 1991 show; a critic, ARCHITECT's own Aaron Betsky, assumed the role in 2008. For the most part, however, professional curators have been locked out of the job, for reasons that likely have more to do with marketing than anything else, given the higher media profile enjoyed by most architects. In choosing Sarkis, as well as his predecessors Grafton Architects, the Biennale leadership can be credited with turning to less overly familiar names, but their strategic error is the same. The current architecture exhibit marks the first outing under newly installed Biennale president Roberto Cicutti, who took over the role from longtime incumbent Paolo Baratta early last year. In seeking to put his own mark on the institution, one thing Cicutti might consider would be to hire an actual curator to do some actual curating.

While they’re at it, the Bienniale’s Powers That Be might also consider whether the event must invariably be such a fottuta casino totale. The relative emptiness and petite size of the COVID-curtailed show had definite advantages: It was easier to navigate, more digestible, and best of all, it allowed visitors to move through Venice with more ease, to take it all in at leisure. Surely a happy medium can be found between the relative quietude of 2021 and the oppressive bustle of previous years: Namely, attendance should be controlled so it's high enough to create a little more excitement, but not so high as to burden an already over-touristed city with serious ecological, infrastructural, and quality-of-life issues. If future, slightly smaller crowds were to arrive to find a show with a tighter thematic focus, in better dialogue with its historic setting, they might remember again why they started going in the first place, and how good it is to be back.