Dispatch from the Venice Biennale: Uruguay’s underground, Germany’s construction site, Britain’s housekeeping and more from the national pavilions

"The New Zocalo" by Pita & Bloom at the US Pavilion. Photo by Andrea Dietz.

“The New Zocalo” by Pita & Bloom at the US Pavilion. Photo by Andrea Dietz.

May 26, 2016

Aravena’s Biennale for architecture to give a damn might imply a specific kind of project, but, after one day on the ground, it is clear that there is no one way for it to respond. For one thing, there is a truly incomprehensible quantity of material to cover. The volume alone speaks to the complex of energy and passion coming worldwide from the discipline. After an incomplete first pass around the Giardini and a tactical visit to the Arsenale, Venice’s two main Biennale sites, I am struck by the inconsistency and individuality across and within these many contributions. Noteworthy trends may, at some point, emerge from the crowd, but, for now, I can list a few, non-representative soundbites only:

The US Pavilion, “The Architectural Imagination,” gives us architecture as we have come to expect it. Through twelve proposals for four Detroit sites, it posits the speculative as the instrument of societal uplift, offering up wild thinking as the means of igniting change. It does so, however, as a collection of wall-mounted visuals and pedestaled scale models (see below). Within each team work, there are stand-out features; they are just masked by format.

In “Home Economics,” the British Pavilion stages abstractions of domestic space, reducing the residential to elemental associations oriented by time. It breaks out the basic needs and conditions assumed by the (sub)urban, middle-class, western notion of living—by hour, day, month, year (see below), and decade—in a bid to reconsider housing models. The experience that the installation provides is immersive and well-executed, but its relatability may be limited in demographic.

The Germans, reacting to the radical population shifts precipitated by the ongoing European immigration crisis, are grappling with unfamiliar informalities. “Making Heimat. Germany, Arrival Country” is a literal and figurative opening up to the possibility of new realities. By cutting substantial holes into the walls of their permanent pavilion and populating their exhibition space with rough graphics of data, profiles, and queries and everyday objects—including the materials that will be used to restore the pavilion to its whole form at the close of the Biennale—they are acknowledging the messy, preparatory efforts that go into self-reinvention.

The Russian pavilion, “V.D.N.H. Urban Phenomenon,” is a fantastically bizarre reminder of the histories and consequences of conflating ideology, culture, and form—or of suppressing one for the other. A sequence of distinct environments, it contains a funhouse of aesthetic, representational, and communication approaches. The digital black box becomes sculpture gallery becomes multi-media surround becomes contemplative hall—all in service to unfolding the narrative of an emblematic, national landmark.

Perhaps the most invigorating pavilion personally, Uruguay is, in “Rebootati,” making—without a budget—their exhibition through ruses, clever acts of appropriation and manipulation. In a news pamphlet, they disclose that they have found a tunnel (above) dug through and under their pavilion. The pavilion, meanwhile and gradually, is accumulating objects “taken” from other pavilions and Biennale attendees—by poncho cloaked agents and volunteers. These architectures, base components of survival, ultimately will journey to Montevideo (through the tunnel?) to take on new life.

Also notable, “The Work of Aires Mateus,” part of Aravena’s REPORTING FROM THE FRONTshow in the Giardini’s central pavilion, (re)asserts the aim for beauty as profoundly humanitarian. Their dark, quiet room, subtly lit from within deep, elegantly sculpted wall fissures, gifts a poignant refuge from the outlying excitement.

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