Venice Architecture Biennale 2021 review – a pick’n’mix of conceptual posturing

Refugee camps, ad-hoc mosques and Wetherspoon’s carpets are among the muddle of answers to the well-intentioned curatorial question: ‘How will we live together?’

A robotic arm twitches above a lumpy landscape of compacted earth, pock-marked with little hollows from which pink tufts of fungus emerge. This is an “ecosystem of empathy and coexistence”, a caption tells us, the fungal flora and mechanical limb living together in perfect harmony. Nearby, bubbling tanks of lurid green algae are apparently busy cultivating an “urban microbiome”, while a cloud of feathery acrylic creatures hover above a mysterious constellation of columns emitting an eerie hum.

Welcome to the Venice Architecture Biennale, pandemic edition, an exhibition as confusing as it is confused. All along the 300-metre length of the main exhibition in the city’s former rope-making factory, and filling every room of the labyrinthine central pavilion in the Giardini nearby, are installations attempting to answer the momentous curatorial question: “How will we live together?” In the current context of the climate emergency, changing family structures, the refugee crisis, political polarisation, the Black Lives Matter movement, and, now, Covid-19, the theme could not be more urgent. Yet very few participants seem willing to even attempt an answer.

“We can no longer wait for politicians to propose a path towards a better future,” declares this year’s curator, Hashim Sarkis, a Lebanese architect and dean of architecture and planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “As politics continue to divide and isolate, we can offer alternative ways of living together through architecture.”

His pitch is compelling, and his manifesto full of good intentions and provocations, which makes the half-baked conceptual posturing on show even more frustrating. In a muddled pick’n’mix of arcane academic research, the show jumps from moon rocks to migration, biotech to bird boxes, showcasing architects’ voracious appetite for tackling territories beyond buildings, with often dubious results.

Cave Bureau’s obsidian meteor shower.
An allegory for the Anthropocene ... Cave Bureau’s obsidian meteor shower. Photograph: Oliver Wainwright

Scented rocks in a glass case provide a memorial for extinct flowers, while a dripping ceiling is supposed to make us think about the Alps. There is a booming metal box, simulating the sound of cracking icebergs in Antarctica, and a shower of dangling chunks of obsidian, in an allegory for the Anthropocene. But there is very little in the way of concrete spatial proposals addressing how our cities and habitats might be rethought for a more equitable future. Instead, we are offered a series of projects that use global crises as the inspiration for installation art (or what architects like to call “research”), each served up with a generous garnish of inedible word salad.

Patience is occasionally rewarded with a few kernels of wheat amid the chaff. Palestinian-Italian group DAAR present a provocative film about their attempt to recognise the Dheisheh refugee camp as a Unesco world heritage site. Located just south of Bethlehem in the West Bank, the camp was established in 1949 to serve 3,000 people, and is now home to around 15,000, with an active civil society. Exploring the idea of “stateless heritage”, they question who has the right to nominate sites, what such a designation would mean for the refugees’ legal right of return, and how to value the heritage of a culture in exile. Recent events make their decade-long work even more compelling.

AAU Anastas.
Moderising traditional masonry ... AAU Anastas. Photograph: Francesco Galli/Courtesy La Biennale di Venezia

In a room nearby, another Bethlehem-based practice, AAU Anastas, present their latest experiment in structural stone vaulting, reviving centuries-old masonry traditions with modern milling techniques. Developed for a new arts centre in Jordan, the interlocking stone jigsaw pieces create an undulating ceiling of different heights, with the arrangement of columns defining a range of spaces below – used as a stage for a passionate performance by the Sonic Liberation Front during the opening.

There are some witty contributions elsewhere, like the satirical Catalog for the Post-Human by US-based British duo Parsons & Charlesworth, which imagines a future when gig-economy workers are forced to augment themselves to stay competitive. Their intravenous infusion suit, designed to pump a continuous cocktail of nutrients and electrolytes into workers’ veins, is particularly bleak.

This year’s national pavilions are the usual mixed bag, mostly deviating from the theme to show whatever they want, but with some interesting results. For once the US contribution is a triumph. Curated by Chicago-based architects Paul Andersen and Paul Preissner, it charts the ubiquity of timber framing in American construction, from 19th-century warehouses to over 90% of US homes built today. Easy, cheap and infinitely flexible, it is America’s biggest contribution to architecture, yet, the curators argue, it has been entirely overlooked. An elegant series of models are complemented by an enormous climbable structure erected in front of the neoclassical pavilion, providing elevated views across the park.

Wood also looms large in the Finnish contribution next door, which unpicks the fascinating social history of the country’s phenomenally successful Puutalo flat-pack housing system. Established in 1940 to address the Karelian refugee crisis, when some 420,000 people were displaced by war, the factory-built homes became one of the country’s biggest exports, shipped to more than 30 countries, from Israel to Colombia, where many of the distinctive bungalows still stand. Striking documentary photographs show how they have been adapted and personalised over the years.

A wabi-sabi salvage yard ... the Japanese pavilion.
A wabi-sabi salvage yard ... the Japanese pavilion. Photograph: Oliver Wainwright

The Japanese have shipped an everyday wooden house to Venice, too, although, rather than reconstructing it, they have arranged the disassembled pieces around their pavilion, creating a wabi-sabi salvage yard, alongside historical photos of the home’s domestic life over the decades. Italian craftsmen have transformed some of the fragments into pieces of furniture and other structures in the grounds around the pavilion, in a process of poetic upcycling. Given the embodied carbon of new construction, such nimble re-use will be evermore crucial.

The British pavilion, curated by Manijeh Verghese and Madeleine Kessler, tackles the testy topic of privatised public space, with six different practices variously examining the pub, the high street, common land and the gated garden. It’s a worthy topic, but the whimsy of the execution distracts from what could have been a powerful polemic. There are some nice touches in the set-dressing, such as a Ministry for Common Land wallhanging designed like a trade union banner, a spherical pink climbing frame (sadly no climbing), and a couple of Wetherspoon’s carpets framed on the wall. But overall it falls into the usual trap of too many hands, with little of substance behind the fun props.

Three British Mosques.
A beautiful story of ad-hoc adaptation ... Three British Mosques. Photograph: Andrea Avezzù/Courtesy La Biennale di Venezia

The biennale is a useful reminder that professional curators exist for a reason, and that architects, for all their other skills, might not be best equipped to do it. So coming to the contribution by the V&A, right at the end of the sprawling Arsenale, is a breath of fresh air, organised with the clarity and confidence of a museum show.

Taking the British mosque as its subject, it features 1:1 reconstructions of parts of three archetypal London mosques, from the former Protestant chapel and synagogue of the Brick Lane mosque, to the Old Kent Road mosque housed in a former pub, to Harrow Central mosque, which used to be in a converted terrace house. Recreated with forensic precision, the stage sets tell a beautiful story of ad-hoc adaptation, documenting a particular moment of grassroots, self-built places of worship, reflecting the humble majority of the 1,800 mosques in Britain, carved out of old shops, cinemas and pubs. Developed by architect and writer Shahed Saleem, and curated by the V&A’s Ella Kilgallon and Christopher Turner, the exhibition includes video interviews, photographs and 3D lidar scans of the mosques, providing a colourful snapshot of the stories behind these often temporary spaces.

It throws much of the rest of the biennale into stark relief. Like the invisible hand of a good editor, you only realise the importance of a judicious curator when it’s not there.

• This article was amended on 23 May 2021 to correct the name of the exhibit Catalog for the Post-Human.

Contributor

Oliver Wainwright

The GuardianTramp

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