Picture credit: Ömer Koç, DHA

The Venice Architecture Biennale

Geopolitical challenges produce impressive art

This article is taken from the August-September 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Architecture is both a discipline and an art, according to the president of La Biennale di Venezia. “And we see it as a lesson.”

Roberto Cicutto was speaking to a crowd at the opening reception for one of hundreds of installations at the eighteenth edition of the architecture biennale, the largest and most prestigious architecture event in the world. His words seemed chosen to anticipate the critics’ arguments that architects have given up on showing buildings at the biennale.

Sure enough, in the weeks after the opening, commentators complained about too many lessons in Venice. The biennale, they argued, was now more interested in didactic films, abstract art installations and interminable research. 

The most prominent critic was Patrik Schumacher, principal of Zaha Hadid Architects, who, in a Facebook broadside, worried about a profession at risk of “discursive self-annihilation”. He said he “gave up” on the show after “seeing no architecture in 12 out of 12 pavilions”. 

Certainly, the biennale’s sheer size is daunting. Its first site, the Giardini, holds 29 country pavilions, first laid out in 1907 to reflect a contemporaneous rigid world order, and a central pavilion where this year’s curator, Scottish-Ghanaian architect Lesley Lokko, set out her theme, the “Laboratory of the Future”, with a focus on Africa as a global testbed of ideas. Inside that, 16 practices represent “a distilled force majeure of African and Diasporic architectural production”. 

The second site unfolds in the vast, sixteenth century halls of Venice’s Arsenale, where a further 37 entrants showcase more conceptual work, and more national pavilions for countries without a permanent home in the Giardini.

the biennale’s critics are not looking hard enoug

There is a lot to absorb. But the biennale’s critics are not looking hard enough. Much of it is excellent, and the pavilions belonging to countries undergoing geopolitical upheavals, or reflecting on them, are particularly rich. Some of the most rigorous and eloquent displays can be found here. 

Take Turkey, where the increasingly illiberal Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has just won another five years in power. 

The Turkish pavilion, curated by architects Sevince Bayrak and Oral Göktaş, takes its “construction-addicted” government to task, with a rich and somewhat anxious display documenting the scale of the country’s empty, useless buildings — shopping malls, amusement parks, housing developments — some built just months before they were abandoned. 

“Every city in Turkey has these,” Göktaş tells me. “We build for economic needs, not people’s needs. We are a construction-addicted country.”

Building more stuff, they argue, is a near impossible habit to break. The value of construction to Turkey’s GDP escalated from 190 billion Turkish lira ($9 billion) in 2015 to 721billion lira in 2022 (about $34 billion).

How many buildings are abandoned and why? Data is unreliable, so the duo asked Turks to send photographs of empty structures in towns and cities all over the country. The curators call these photographs of entropy “ghost stories”, and many of them are on display in Venice.

Ankapark in Ankara was meant to be the largest theme park in Europe when it opened in 2019. A few months later it shut down, mired in a tangle of legal, financial and technical struggles. Seventeen haunted roller coasters now sit on a swampy site the size of 120 football fields, awaiting some new fate. 

Even more startling is Burj Al Babas, the crazed, failed luxury real-estate project of 732 identical mini French chateaux, 200 km west of Ankara. This empty fantasy world was intended for migrant workers from the Gulf, until the developer went bankrupt in 2018. All those useless turrets, repeating into the distance, are stranger than anything AI could ever imagine. 

Turkey is extreme. But Bayrak and Göktaş point out that other economies, including the UK, share its appetite for construction. The home counties may not be littered with deserted sham-castles, but we have more empty retail parks and department stores that we know what to do with.

Bayrak and Göktaş urge us to imagine how we might use seemingly useless buildings, with an animated film showing Turkey’s ghosts morphing into life again. With the help of digital rendering, an empty house becomes a health centre; a supermarket becomes a school, and so on. They are imagined, not real. But they are more realistic than 732 identical chateaux. 

The Brazilian pavilion, this year’s Golden Lion winner, was another examination of past architectural hubris. Part of Gabriela de Matos and Paulo Tavares’s exhibition is given over to asking how indigenous Brazilians might inhabit Brasília, the country’s modernist, emblematic capital. 

Their theme, the curators told me, was heightened by elections last year that saw the far-right president Jair Bolsonaro lose to leftist Lula da Silva, another result that split the country pretty much in two. 

In the 1950s, Brasília was the future. A planned and prescriptive city, it was conceived by architect Oscar Niemeyer and planner Lucio Costa in the futuristic style devoid of the fussy, colonial-era architectural legacies of baroque Rio de Janeiro, the old capital. One of the biggest statements of intent in the world, a clean start manifested in an entire city. “A modern conquest of the interior,” as De Matos and Tavares describe it, built ex nihilo, “out of nothing”. 

Indigenous nations of central Brazil were collateral. Many were cleared by force, though they also supplied the labour to build the city, documented in Brazil’s Venice pavilion in a series of jarring photographs in the reportage style of crowds of indigenous labourers, hundreds boarding buses in front of the pristine concrete superstructures they had just built, to be sent home when construction ended.

Brasília is a Unesco world heritage site. But to many Brazilians, “modernism is seen as an elitist style whose discourse is not understood by indigenous people,” de Matos says. “I don’t see that, today, they feel a connection.”

De Matos and Tavares have come up with a counter-narrative to the idea of a progressive, expansive Brasília. Can indigenous Brazilians live in and with the city that, sixty years ago, excluded them from the future? 

“Yes, because it’s happening now,” says Tavares. “We have a minister of indigenous peoples [Sonia Guajajara] in the city for the first time, the first moment of racial equity since Bolsonaro.” One of its oversights is the demarcation of indigenous territories in wider Brazil. And the ministry’s offices are in Brasília.  

Modernism came under scrutiny again in the Arsenale with Tropical Modernism: Architecture and Power in West Africa — a small but immaculately curated display in film and photography by London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. 

It charts, in part, the 1960s state-run architectural programmes of Kwame Nkrumhah, Ghana’s first prime minister after colonial independence in 1957. Nkrumhah embodied his Pan-African ideology and international ambitions in a series of monumental concrete universities, schools, hospitals, emblems of a free and forward-looking continent. 

Nkrumhah was expanding on the style developed in a 1940s architectural adventure by the Architectural Association in London led by Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew, where European architects were taught to work in the colonies and trained a new generation of post-colonial African architects. 

Curators Christopher Turner, Nana Biamah-Ofosu and Bushra Mohamed propose that modernism was first a tool to support colonial rule, before morphing into an emblem of excitement and independence. Ultimately the experiment ended when Nkrumhah was driven out of power in 1966. But many of the buildings and the techniques developed for cooling and air circulation — brise soleil patterned walls, for example — remain effective. 

Perhaps the biennale is too sprawling, its themes too general

Perhaps the biennale is too sprawling, its themes too general; its exhibitors pushed to grab attention rather than risk boring visitors with exhibits that are overly cerebral. You could make a case for all three. It certainly takes time and patience to absorb the cacophony and find the best stuff. 

Ukraine’s “Before the Future”, for example, attempted to articulate the impossibility of building while its present infrastructure is under attack. Its curators, Iryna Miroshnykova, Oleksii Petrov and Borys Filonenko, read out their speeches in a darkened room by the light of their mobile phones, to represent how Ukrainians have lived within architecture for the past 18 months. It sounds crude; it was surprisingly affecting.

Inevitably in such a huge show, some discourse is weak. But there are countless exhibitions in Venice, and finding the best demands time and patience. The lesson? Perhaps head for the country pavilions whose curators face geopolitical challenges at home. And don’t give up. 

The Venice Architecture Biennale runs until 26 November

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