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The Venice Architecture Biennale

An exuberant return to the beleaguered lagoon city

This article is taken from the July 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.


Can we fill the void left by the disappearance of the public toilet in unique and surprising ways?” This is one of several urgent challenges posed by the British Pavilion at this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale. The show is entitled The Garden of Privatised Delights, purportedly in homage to Hieronymous Bosch, an artist who knew a thing or two about voids.

The “dystopia of total privatisation” certainly looms large in the United Kingdom, but the solution proposed by Manijeh Verghese and Madeleine Kessler involves a pink gazebo and a bit of old carpet from Wetherspoons; the idea of maybe not voting for a party under whose governance 215 school playing fields have been sold off since 2010 doesn’t get a mention.

Collectively titled How Will We Live Together?, the 2021 Biennale offers international architects an opportunity to confront real-world issues surrounding built environments in tragically timely fashion, an engagement to which the majority of shows at Arsenale and Giardini spectacularly fail to rise.

To pluck just one example from the cornucopia of vapid, pompous, self-indulgent, meretricious inanities assembled in the pavilions is a tough call, but a strong favourite might be the “workout” posters in How to Begin Again: “Shake your left leg and say: ‘I am free from (Oppression)’. Shake your right leg and say “I am free from (Oppression)’ …” Best rush that solution to Tigray.

The sign on the wall between the Russian and Japanese pavilions that reads “This is not a wall” could also be a contender, or perhaps the visionary home furnishing at Arsenale which promises a “climatized form” of “accentuated materiality”, the object in question being a sub-Ikea pitch pine bench.

Which architectural innovator thought that the Covid-safe takeaway lunch experience would be enhanced by forcing visitors to exit the cafe through the lavatories? Moreover, why did the Danes get the idea that a really cool way to explore dynamic community spaces would be to build a plastic artificial canal in Venice?

So far, so Biennale. But there are many diamonds amongst the dross. The unmissable show this year is Caravane Earth’s Majlis on the monastery island of San Giorgio. “Majlis” derives from pre-Islamic Arabic and signifies a community meeting place, triumphantly reimagined here by Columbian bamboo architects SimÓn Vélez and Stefana Simic.

The structure is wrapped in tapestries woven by a women’s collective in the Atlas Mountains and sited in a medieval-style garden designed by Todd Longstaffe-Gowan on a former asphalt football pitch, which will remain as a permanent gift to the monastic community, which has been on the island since the eighth century.

Curated by Thierry Morel of the Hermitage Foundation, the show includes carpets, porcelain and metalware brought from Doha, Armenia, Turkey and Morocco — recalling a dialogue between Venice and the East that was operating long before art directors began to insist on the term.

For beauty and sheer intelligence, Majlis is unmatched, but perhaps the most extraordinary piece is a ten-metre long carpet which journeyed from Cairo to the Scuola San Rocco in the sixteenth century, a luminous narrative in thread that is all the more remarkable for the sparse discipline with which it is displayed.

Architecture Biennale is very fond of posing questions, less so of answering them, but two exhibits stand out for their impressive practicality. Bremer-Punkt by Lin Architects is a moveable four storey timber structure — effectively a glamorous prefab — which can be inserted into available urban space to provide swift, inexpensive housing.

Co-operative Conditions: A Primer on Architecture, Finance and Regulation in Zurich usefully does exactly what it claims by summarizing clearly and accessibly the processes of setting up a housing co-operative.

The need for such projects is emphasised by the Romanian pavilion at Giardini, which features Away, a project by photographers Teleleu, who have spent eight years documenting the Romanian diaspora. From the four adults who made a home in a Fiat Punto to the plastic shacks of strawberry pickers in Spain, the show is a chastening reminder of the extent to which Europe’s economy depends on this vast and largely marginalized group of workers, yet its stories of struggle and endurance manage to remain heartening and deeply humane.

Beyond the two main locations, one of the joys of Biennale is the huge number of shows spread over the city, many in spaces which are usually closed to the public.

Heavy hitters are in evidence at the major foundations — the 12-piece Baselitz show at Palazzo Grimani is worth it for the spectacular building if not the canvases, while Prada Foundation at Ca’Corner della Regina, always reliable for the architecture if not its contents, is showing Peter Fischli’s Stop Painting, an interrogation of the radical fractures in the timeline of the canvas tradition brought about by technological and social revolutions in the past 150 years. Pinault Collection is also focusing on the deep origins of Western art in Bruce Nauman’s Contrapposto Studies at Punta della Dogana, worth a stroll past the Guggenheim to the tip of Dorsoduro.

The tiny Alma Zevi gallery near Palazzo Grassi has been punching well above its weight for several years, and the delicate, subtle collaboration between photographer Luisa Lambri and sculptor Bijoy Jain is no exception.

But maybe the most impressive feature of Biennale this year is the sense of exuberance which has finally returned to the beleaguered lagoon city; as ever, the most ravishing exhibit is Venice itself. 

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