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Some Impressions of the Venice Architecture Biennale

On the weekend of the 20th and 21th November five ESRs of the TACK Network organised a private trip to the finissage of the Biennale in Venice. We have gathered some of their reflections and impressions.

On the weekend of the 20th and 21th November five ESRs of the TACK Network organised a private trip to the finissage of the Biennale in Venice. We have gathered some of their reflections and impressions.

Paula Strunden, Hamish Lonergan, Anna Livia Vorsel, Eric Crevels and Caendia Wijnbelt

Hamish Lonergan

Wandering through the Biennale this weekend, I encountered many of the themes I’ve observed in my TACK research. The installations echoed, for instance, issues that reappeared in my autoethnographic study of final reviews at ETH Zurich over the last year: more-than-human relationships (so many rocks, so much fungus!), material cycles, fierce political commitment, the physical dimension of the digital (QR codes, augmented reality) and a certain kind of realistic, pastel-shaded model. These themes can seem very different to my own architectural studies only four years ago — often less interested in the practice of building than pushing the boundaries of the discipline into other fields. Indeed, one reviewer called these installations a muddled pick’n’mix of arcane academic research. It’s perhaps an interesting case of the sort encounter I’m exploring in my PhD. A (still predominantly European) academic community meeting the public; the ensuing confusion revealing something of their respective, tacit expectations for an architectural exhibition. The Korean Pavilion was a welcome respite from all this tumult; the building hosted a summer school over the last year, complete with a working kitchen. Just as in my research on the ILAUD summer school, they emphasized the intensive cultural exchange, production and encounter, but also simpler moments of meals shared, and the importance of a mutually-developed “code of conduct” to manage these encounters. 

Eric Crevels

It is common enough to regard architecture as a discipline with a univocal discourse. Apparently, the field is one with somewhat homogeneous concerns that, sure, change over time, but seem to converge strongly within the discipline at a given moment. Some call it being “autonomous”; some, “self-referential”. More often, this consistency is used to identify the styles in architecture, constructing a framework for historical analysis. In a Bourdieu-style critique, this would fall into an haute-couture logic of internal fight for market dominance through trend renewal. Good old fashion-cycle scheme, a creative-industry staple.

Being at the Venice Biennale for the first time, I was indeed expecting as much, with some added caution about its European setting. While it is true that many of the installations, especially in the main exhibition pavilions, followed this logic and went into the question “how will we live together” with a clear environmental preoccupation, seasoned by the theoretical frameworks of new materialism, I was pleasantly surprised with the dissonance between the approaches in the national pavilions. Sure, there was enough talk about how fungi are essential for life on earth, paired with minimal and naïve propositions on how that relates to the built environment (bringing bugs and fungi inside domestic spaces is not necessarily a good idea, just research Chagas Disease), but still, throughout the exhibitions, it is possible to find other ways of addressing the biennale’s topic.

Particularly of interest to me was the shift in attention from the objects of architecture, to the actual processes producing it. Be it in critical analysis of the financial and economic platforms and flows that shape historic and contemporary urban environments; through experimenting with old and vernacular building techniques or discovering ways to build with local communities; or exploring alternative forms of collective dwelling and fighting for housing in unequal landscapes, these approaches add different colours to the event and counterbalance the disciplinary gravitational pull. Focusing on how architecture is made is inevitably a motion outwards, for it steers one’s gaze to the interactions between architecture and other social and cultural realms, other fields of knowledge and other communities of practice.

Interesting to note that these do not follow a particular geographic logic – amongst the ones I was able to visit, good topics were raised by Serbia, Austria, Finland, the USA, Japan, the Kingdom of Bahrain, the Philippines, Uzbekistan and (I am a bit proud to notice) Brazil. Others are sure missing from this summary. Bear in mind, it is a huge event and Venice itself is always there, competing for attention. If the architectural discourse proved itself more diverse than anticipated, the architects’ praise for Apéro sessions and their general ability to somehow converge in a single venue for obtaining it remains familiar wherever you go. A warming reassurance that not all of our traditions are fleeting or individualistic in nature.

“Echoes from the Venice Biennale TACK Visit” by Caendia Wijnbelt and Paula Strunden

Image 01 “First Image”, Serbian Pavilion, Caendia Wijnbelt
Image 02 “Another Image”, Brazilian Pavilion, Caendia Wijnbelt

PS (Paula Strunden): What did you like about the first image you sent me?

CW (Caendia Wijnbelt): That was the first moment that came to mind when I was thinking about the weekend at the Biennale. It was a detail of the Serbian exhibit that reminded me of a school near Toulouse. You know, the copper plates on the wall, these panels that go all the way until the ceiling and then curve? In the school near Toulouse they had basically filled the corridors with these panels, and the children would run through the corridor and touch the walls, and over time, leave all these imprints of their hands. It was at a completely different height to what we were used to as adults. This pavilion gives the same feeling but then instead of it being fingerprints that are accessible, they were in places that for us are out of reach, we are staring up at them, right at the top of the wall. 

PS: There is a person in the picture, that helps to get a sense of scale. It is actually quite huge!

CW: Yes, the models themselves are eye height and the panels go way up. And it is nice because the handprints are not the ones of the people who are visiting the exhibition, but rather of the people that have built it, of whom there are usually no traces. These are things that happen before you go to the Biennale. These pavilions are also sites of happening where different realities encounter each other and merge. I just sent you another image based on a hint that you gave me. I think you were the first one to say that this pavilion was also quite an incredible experience. Why did you like it?

PS: For me, the experience of standing in the Brazilian pavilion was somehow the strongest. It was super immersive through these three large projections that played back simultaneously three video recordings that, in the beginning, were quite realistic and then started to become fuzzy, like in a dream. You were sitting on a boat going down a river, and you could see your shadow and suddenly, the shadow started having a life of its own and jumped into the water, giving you this strange feeling of disembodiment. I think for me, that was so special, because of course I am used to working with VR and immersive technologies, but at that moment we were not alone in the experience, we stood there with other people in the same dreamy space experiencing the boat-ride together and sharing that one shadow between all our physical bodies. I guess, that was for me the most touching moment of the evening. 

CW: Also, we didn’t know this city before. But once leaving the room, it really felt like we shared an experience in it. We were often seeing the same thing from three slightly different perspectives, that was strong. 

PS: And Eric actually comes from the city of Belo Horizonte and recognized the place where the film was made, and we could travel with him, that was beautiful!

Anna-Livia Vørsel

I have been particularly thinking about two projects at the biennale since visiting. One in which many stories become one, and one, where one story become many, entering into dialogue with each other. One is the Chilean pavilion. A temporary wooden structure, a gallery room, is filled, floor to ceiling with 500 stories and personal narratives, painted on 33x40cm canvases. The stories are all about and from one place, a city outside of Santiago, and show in one form of visual representation scenes from lives past and present. In the space, the story of 500 individuals, their personal memories, anecdotes and narratives, together paints a picture and tells a many-facetted story of a place.

One is the Japanese pavilion. A Japanese wooden house planned for demolition has been taken apart and shipped to the biennale. Each element of the building, pillar, plaster board, vinyl flooring mat, and screw is classified, labelled and displayed on the floor of the pavilion. Alongside the history of the house and its residents, the material trajectories of each of these elements are alluded to by the age and type of wood, hints of patters and logos. The project pulls the house and its history into elements, showing the many stories embedded into its walls and floors, unpacking it to become more than the sum of its parts.