15th Venice Architecture Biennale


From now through the fall, visitors to Venice will likely catch a glimpse of archaeologist Maria Reiche perched high atop an aluminum ladder, peering downward at the Peruvian desert. The photograph, taken by writer Bruce Chatwin circa 1975, has been rolled out across the entire graphic identity of the fifteenth International Architecture Exhibition of the Venice Biennale, titled “Reporting from the Front” and directed by Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena. For Aravena, who expounds an up-by-your-bootstraps worldview, the image is a talisman: He admires Reiche’s resourcefulness, the modesty of her means.

Even his curatorship is an object-lesson in making-do. Solicited just ten months before the opening, Aravena, a dutiful citizen, stepped up to the challenge, undaunted by the long shadow of its previous curator, Rem Koolhaas. Aravena is everything that Koolhaas is not: suave, easygoing, anti-intellectual. Aravena is a doer, and he is not afraid to get other people’s hands dirty. Elemental, his Santiago-based “do tank,” is renowned for low-cost housing that trades on ideas of community empowerment and incremental self-construction. He has the ear of Chile’s political and business elite, and the bleeding hearts of American architecture critics. For his do-gooderness, he has been heavily medaled, receiving the Silver Lion for “promising young talent” at the 2008 biennial and, this past April, the Pritzker Prize.

“Instead of complaining and lamenting, just do something,” implored Aravena during last Wednesday’s press walkthrough of the central exhibition. There was lots of ingenuity and entrepreneurialism on display—creative responses to cruel circumstances—but the uglier side of self-sufficiency was never far away. As The Guardian reported, between that morning and the conclusion of the vernissage on Friday, more than seven hundred migrants were believed to have drowned in the Mediterranean, asylum seekers taking matters into their own hands in the absence of any governmental resolve (forgive my lamenting). Migration was one of many “battles” Aravena placed under the umbrella of “Reporting from the Front”—along with waste, crime, inequalities, natural disasters, segregation, and a handful of other urgent issues. Some in attendance wanted a more political show; others wished there was a stronger emphasis on architects. My expectations kept being thwarted. Aravena’s curatorial strategy is capable of odd contortions and sudden inversions, making twin sisters, as neoliberalism does, of the grassroots activist and the global starchitect. Bottom-up projects are spitting distance away from showpieces by top names—and Aravena’s fellow Pritzker laureates—like Richard Rogers, Tadao Ando, Kazuyo Sejima, and Peter Zumthor (who contributed a large-scale model of his design for LACMA).

On Thursday evening, crowds swelled the Peggy Guggenheim Collection garden to wish the American pavilion well. Curators Cynthia Davidson and Mónica Ponce de León made remarks, then John Phillips, US ambassador to the Italian Republic, got on about the history of Detroit, “a powerhouse of industrial muscle” and the subject of this year’s pavilion. “And then Detroit became an arsenal of democracy,” boomed Phillips, as he moved into the World War II part of the celebration. Corks popped, and guests fetched prosecco to make the patriotism more palatable. “I need to leave,” muttered Pedro Gadanho, the former MoMA architecture curator who recently retreated to his native Portugal. I stayed, consuming enough hors d’oeuvres to tide me over until the British party, which offered dinner and dessert. With lentils still on my plate when caterers hauled out boards full of whipped cream and meringue as informe as Christian Kerez’s cavernous confection in the Swiss pavilion. Spoonfuls of white stuff were passed around, sugar to get us through the DJ’s hour-long a cappella set, then three more at the Bauer Hotel bar, where ÅYR, the four-architect art collective formerly known as Airbnb Pavilion, was hosting an afterparty.

ÅYR contributed two inflatable spherical pods fit for freelancers to the British pavilion. Its curators tackled the transformation of domestic space and homeownership models in light of new technologies. They and other participating youngsters embodied a spirit made plain by DJ Ashland Mines, aka Total Freedom, who slipped into Venice earlier in the week, performing late-night at the Bauer, after tenth-anniversary festivities for Felix Burrichter’s biannual magazine, PIN-UP. “I hate 5 star hotels,” wrote @TotalFreedom, tweeting like a true modernist. “I don’t need marble and brass accents in my room, I need good wifi and USB charging points.” The German pavilion, devoted to the country’s refugee crisis, offered both of the latter, plus fresh ayran and Haribo treats. The Serbian pavilion, nothing but a royal blue half-pipe outfitted with electrical outlets, gave drained bodies and low batteries a place to recharge.

On Friday afternoon I ran into Istanbul Biennial director Bige Örer and curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. They were enjoying the relative freedom of conversation at the architecture biennial compared to its art counterpart. Christov-Bakargiev told me she liked the Albanian pavilion, an iso-polyphonic sound installation addressing migration and, in her words, “rendering stupidity” (a compliment). I told her I liked Pezo von Ellrichshausen’s matte-green maze, a bunch of intersecting cylinders that rendered me stupid (a compliment), offering momentary escape even right there in the center of the biennial.

Leaving the Giardini, I came upon a loose cannon. It was Zaha Hadid Architects director Patrik Schumacher, boiling despite the comfortable daytime temperature. I’d heard he wanted to shut the biennial down. “Yeah, right away,” he confirmed. “Before the damage is done. You can record that.” I did, noting the irony of reacting to the insufficient representation of architects’ work—the result of an overemphasis on “topics” in his opinion—with complete and total censorship. Schumacher fulminations are more at home on Facebook feeds, but he was in Venice to open a Hadid retrospective at Palazzo Franchetti, a striking show organized in a hurry following the Dame’s sudden death two months ago.

Was Aravena’s militaristic exhibition title responsible for the spike in testosterone levels? It seemed like every fifteen minutes—at roundtables and book launches somewhere in the Giardini or Arsenale, or at a myriad other collateral events—a man was dissertating, not least on infrastructure, which the biennial convened a headlining event with an all-male panel (no exceptions!) to discuss. A lack of official invitations to exhibit inspired the most conspicuous shows of male ego. Koolhaas protégé Bjarke Ingels hosted a party on board a pirate ship (which I did not attend, but trolled on Instagram, where his stage-managed antics are documented, to the delight of his rabid followers). Meanwhile, on Friday night, Koolhaas protégé Fernando Romero secured the Bauer terrace—which, being the son-in-law of Carlos Slim, the world’s second-richest person, actually meant heavier-than-usual security. Aravena and Romero paraded in together, affecting nonchalance even as they scratched each other’s backs. They filtered through the crowd and a pop-up exhibition of Romero’s work, at ease among other guy’s guys like Koolhaas protégé Kunlé Adeyemi, this year’s Silver Lion winner.

Where did Maria Reiche, the modest lady on the ladder, go? I passed her wheat-pasted image at least ten times the next morning, walking to the Baltic pavilion, an off-site display that is first-rate. Later, on the way to catch a train, I saw the biennial’s biggest star floating along the Grand Canal, on advertisements affixed to vaporetti. I don’t know what she would have thought about her inclusion in this circus. But look closely at the picture and you’ll see that she couldn’t even be bothered to face the camera.