An installation by David Adjaye, Hon. FAIA, at the Venice Biennale.
Aaron Betsky An installation by David Adjaye, Hon. FAIA, at the Venice Biennale.

Every Venice Biennale has a presiding presence—figures whose work is present in various exhibitions, but whose approach, ethos, or even style permeates many other displays and presentations. This year, that presence was David Adjaye, Hon. FAIA, with Francis Kéré, Hon. FAIA, as a shadow or an alternative. A wood-slat pyramid painted black that Adjaye designed marked the point where you turned from your long march past endless exhibitions and pavilions at the Arsenale, the Venetian navy’s former base and the Biennale’s main venue, toward the area’s garden. Pierced by oval cut-outs, in one instance framing a crane that once serviced the boats moored nearby, the object stood as a literally black alternative to a history of white geometries at the core of the western architecture tradition. Open, slightly deformed, and enigmatic, it also offered an alternative to the standards of monuments that have anchored that tradition and most Biennales. Kéré’s contribution, meanwhile, included both an undulating clay wall and graphics meant to evoke the shops and street life in his native Burkino Faso.

This year’s curator, Lesley Lokko, has made Africa and the Black experience, but also a wider global set of realities, the focus and theme of the event, and she was largely successful in changing the Biennale’s traditionally Eurocentric nature. It might sound trivial, but after attending the opening events for these massive exhibitions for more than a quarter of a century in the presence of white, black-clad people like me, it was a delight to come down to breakfast in my hotel (used by the Biennale to house invitees) on the first day and find myself surrounded by fellow hotel guests of whom at least half were non-white.

Above/Below: Installations by Francis Kéré, Hon. FAIA.
Aaron Betsky Above/Below: Installations by Francis Kéré, Hon. FAIA.
Aaron Betsky

The question is whether that focus really made a difference beyond opening up the audience and the location of many of the projects you can see there (the Biennale is available to the public until November 26). Even Adjaye’s other displays were considerably more conventional than the pyramid: They were wood models turned out by a combination of computers and human hands showing buildings that deviated from what a European architect might build on that continent or in the United States only through a few gestures or deformations. Adjaye is certainly a good architect, but does his Blackness matter or even show in his work?

The only reason to ask that question is because the Biennale posed it. The answer, in most of the exhibitions it commissioned for both the Arsenale and its other main venue, the Central Pavilion of Exhibitions in the Giardini, or municipal gardens, was that Blackness, colonization and decolonization, the African (and Latin American, Arabian, and Asian) condition, and other related issues were argued out through texts, tables, maps, and other information that you could just have easily have absorbed in a magazine, a book, or in a documentary.

The quandary of how you escape from the pretty models and drawings of buildings that by necessity have little to do with reality—they are tiny-scale versions without any of the life of the actual building, evidencing only the architect’s ambitions and style—or display texts, charts, and photographic reproductions is not new. For the last few decades, almost every Biennale has seesawed between nice models (the ones directed by David Chipperfield, Hon. FAIA, and the duo Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara for instance) and screeds (Ricky Burdett, Rem Koolhaas, Hon. FAIA). Only a few have tried to find other modes of presentation (Koolhaas again, Alejandro Aravena, Kazuyo Sejima, and the one I ran in 2008), and have not always been successful in the site-specific installations or forms meant to be evocative, rather than descriptive, they have commissioned. This Biennale had both models and screeds, but not as much life or beauty as I would have liked.

Part of an installation by Olalekan Jeyifous.
Aaron Betsky Part of an installation by Olalekan Jeyifous.

Several of my colleagues have picked out projects that they have liked on this site in other missives, and certainly there is always plenty to see at an event of this scale—the official exhibition encompasses close to 200,000 square feet. I was particularly taken by the Afro-Futurism of Olalekan Jeyifous, which he meted out in giant posters covering the walls of the one upstairs room at the Central Pavilion. Evoking a mix between Wakanda, Disney’s EPCOT, and a 1970s brochure for a new urban development, the collages showed the continent outfitted with the latest clean technology, superfast transportation, urban development integrated with the landscape, and community services at every turn.

Part of an exhibit by Andrés Jaque.
Aaron Betsky Part of an exhibit by Andrés Jaque.

The other side of such optimism about a future that might be the past, or might exist in a parallel universe, but that serves as an alternative to what we have built so far, was the trenchant analysis Columbia architecture dean Andrés Jaque constructed back at the Arsenale. It showed the dependence of the West’s shiny constructions on messy, exploitative, and destructive extractive technologies. Using a large-scale cut-away model of Hudson Yards, the multibillion-dollar forest of skyscrapers that has risen over Penn Station’s train yards in Manhattan, as well as examples of elements such as its titanium-tinted windows, he demonstrated that the very slickness of the forms depends on the mining of rare minerals in Africa. The positioning of these giant buildings over train tracks, their architects’ desire to present them as fragments of abstract geometries at the scale of the Gods, and the mechanisms that heat and cool all of that construction depend on mines and manufacturing processes that enslave or endanger thousands of people many miles away from this high-priced oasis.

A scene from Liam Young's film.
Aaron Betsky A scene from Liam Young's film.

There were enough other such moments spread throughout the official Biennale to keep me interested and merit a visit from all those who seek to expose themselves to different perspectives on contemporary architecture. Of particular note was the point made by many of the participants on the relation between sustainability and the fight against the colonial past and present. I tended to like those exhibitions that presented a vision of what could be, rather than just stating or modeling the problem. Liam Young’s movie showing a future of giant extractors sucking carbon out of the air on the North Sea and sun-panel arrays in the Namibian desert was particularly sublime. Perhaps architects can contribute to architecture that builds on other traditions, such as those of Africa, and confronts problems we all share to make a better world. If this Biennale showed a few examples of that, it was more than enough.

The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.

Looking for additional Venice Biennale coverage? Click here.

Read more: The latest from columnist Aaron Betsky includes looks at the work of Las Vegas architect Eric Strain, designs by Arkansas-based architect Marlon Blackwell, and sculptures at Montana's Tippet Rise Art Center.