[Text published in art4d magazine #238]
The Venice Biennale is a huge event; architecture’s biggest. It’s so big, if we include the many so-called “collateral events” that take place throughout the city in addition to the Arsenale and the Giardini pavilions of the Biennale proper, that it’s physically impossible to see everything in three days with the attention that is required and deserving. Some exhibits simply have to be taken in superficially or skipped altogether in an exercise of instinctive architectural judgement. This problem is well-known, so in order to avoid being overlooked, publicity agencies are hired to create buzz, and exhibitions themselves are designed to attract attention using techniques that architects are particularly gifted with. As in any jungle, it’s a question of the survival of the fittest. Highly competitive, political, and exhibitionist, the Biennale represents a snapshot of the very state of architecture itself. What, then, does this year’s Biennale say about architecture?
The most immediately noticeable thing about the current Biennale, directed by Alejandro Aravena, is that it is much more diverse from a cultural, geographical, and disciplinary perspective, and that “there’s a lot of mud, brick, wood, and bamboo on view,” as one writer describes it. Make no mistake: this Biennale is a clarion call to environmental conscientiousness and social justice; indeed, to good intentions and common sense in architecture. At least on the surface, if not so much in substance, this Biennale tries to set things right; to correct architecture’s course and atone for its past excesses and its self-absorption. If it is not a definitive announcement of an ideological turn toward social and environmental justice on the part of architecture, then it is at least official recognition of concerns that have been expressed and explored at a more alternative grass-root level for quite some time now.
Ambitious and extravagant techno-avant-gardism, while still present in a handful of venues, is clearly no longer setting the architectural agenda, if this Biennale is any indication. In fact, architectural avant-gardism has never looked so backward and out of place. As can be expected, there are those who don’t like this state of affairs. The vociferous Patrik Schumacher, who directs Zaha Hadid Architects, thinks that this Biennale should be closed down because it “confuses the public”. How quaint of him to express genuine concern, for once, about “the public” rather than entrepreneurial and technological progress.
Of course, the reason that architecture has, of late, embarked on a social-environmental turn is perfectly understandable: the world is quickly becoming a very fucked up place; thanks in no small part to climate change, overpopulation, and the kind of rogue capitalism that Schumacher champions. If modern architecture is supposed to be in tune with the prevailing Zeitgeist, then here we have, actually, a perfect example. After all, many of us can sense –in many cases because we are being directly affected by– growing inequality and environmental degradation. Only someone with their head buried in the sand cannot see that what is happening to our planet is an affront to everything that modern architecture stands for.
In fact, architecture is only catching up with other disciplines such as science or sociology when it comes to being active against growing environmental decay or social injustice. Of course, whether a marginalized profession such as ours is in a position to actually do anything about the many serious problems we face rather than merely “shout politically correct slogans”, as Schumacher says, is an entirely valid question. But, as any member of Alcoholics Anonymous knows, acknowledging that there is a problem is the first necessary step toward any recovery. Perhaps this Biennale –and hence architecture– is finally taking this necessary first step of acknowledgement. Of course, coming, as it does, after a big party and an even bigger hangover, the motives might not be as altruistic as they seem. In any case, better late than never.