The 17th Venice Architecture Biennale’s Misguided Optimism

‘How Will We Live Together’ – curated by Hashim Sarkis – dreams of a brighter future but fails adequately to respond to the present

BY Barbara Casavecchia in EU Reviews , Exhibition Reviews | 04 JUN 21

‘How will we live together?’, the title of the 17th edition of the Venice Architecture Biennale – which just launched after being postponed for a year due to the pandemic – is an open question with an optimistic answer. Curated by Hashim Sarkis, dean of the MIT School of Architecture and Planning, the exhibition emphasizes collective and transdisciplinary research-based practices, which aim at thinking with others, be they human or more-than-human. The monotheistic cult of starchitecture seems extinct here, while the presence of a new pantheon of schools and organizations suggests that a viral multiplication of interconnected networks could prove the wisest response to the escalating complexity of the Capitalocene and climate crisis. But who will be part of these new networks?

Despite Sarkis’s suggestion that all forms of collective thinking and learning are fundamental, the majority of the biennial’s roster feels homogenous, with more than two thirds of the 112 participants coming from Europe and North America. If many ideas and practices on sharing resources in harmony with nature come from Indigenous knowledges, for instance, why are these knowledges only marginally present? As Audre Lorde warned in Sister Outsider: Essay and Speeches (1984): ‘The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.’

Achim Menges, ICD University of Stuttgart Jan Knippers and ITKE University of Stuttgart, Material Culture: Rethinking the Physical Substrate for Living Together, 2021, 1:1 material prototype, glass fibre and carbon fibre composites, 1000 × 1000 × 577 cm. Courtesy: the Venice Architecture Biennale 

When it comes to horror vacui, sensory overload and debatable design choices, the experience of visiting the biennial is – somewhat surprisingly, given the upheaval of the past year – very much business as usual. With fewer architectural maquettes and more sculptural installations, the display feels overwhelming at times, especially in the cavernous spaces of the Arsenale, which are divided in three sections: ‘Among Diverse Beings’, ‘As New Households’ and ‘As Emerging Communities’, where models of co-habitation in Addis Ababa, Beirut, Cairo, Guadalajara, Hong Kong, Pristina and Venice itself are brought together as out-of-competition participations developed by universities from all over the world. A moment of pause occurs outside, where a bronze tree by Giuseppe Penone (idee di pietra – olmo, Ideas of Stone – Elm, 2008) emerges from the water of the lagoon as a manifestation of the listening to nature that humans should practice more often.

In the Central Pavilion of the Giardini speculative exercises and cautionary tales about the future abound. The mezzanine is occupied by ‘Future Assembly’, an exhibition within an exhibition focussing on environmental rights, inspired by the 1982 United Nations World Charter for Nature, and described in the exhibition text as ‘a congregation of 50 more-than-human stakeholders’ – from bats and fungi to the atmosphere – by its co-designers: the Berlin-based Studio Other Spaces (Sebastian Behmann and Olafur Eliasson) in collaboration with Paola Antonelli, Hadeel Ibrahim, Caroline Jones, Mariana Mazzucato, Kumi Naidoo and Mary Robinson. Assembled as a ‘concert’ of voices, images and texts, which hang suspended from the ceiling above a colourful ‘ring-of-fire’ carpet, the installation reminds visitors that ‘living together is a constant renegotiation’

OOZE (Marjetica Potrč, Eva Pfannes, Sylvain Hartenberg and Marjetica Potrč), Future Island in Venice: The Time of Stone, 2017–ongoing. Courtesy: the Venice Architecture Biennale 

On the ground floor, the Central Pavilion is divided in two sections. In ‘As One Planet’, a heated boulder serves to illustrate the project Future Island in Venice: The Time of Stone (2017–ongoing), developed by OOZE (Eva Pfannes and Sylvain Hartenberg) and Marjetica Potrč as part of Stockholm University’s new Albano campus. Described by its authors as a ‘narrative landscape’ of rocks and plants, the island is divided into two zones: one at ambient temperature; the other heated up by five degrees to visualize the impact of global warming on ecosystems. Volcanic rocks are also installed inside a large, glass-walled display cube in Resurrecting the Sublime (2019), created by Christina Agapakis, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg and Sissel Tolaas in collaboration with a team of synthetic biologists at Ginkgo Bioworks. Visitors are invited to sit on the rocks, which are native to the island of Maui, Hawaii, and experience the bittersweet sensation of smelling the aroma of a now extinct Hawaiian flower.         

Christina Agapakis, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg & Sissel Tolaas, Resurrecting the Sublime, 2019, glass vitrine, smells, smell technology, lava boulders, ambient sound, video animation, 500 × 250 × 280 cm. Courtesy: the Venice Architecture Biennale 

Moving from the realm of speculation into our present reality, things only get more alarming. In the section ‘Across Borders’, the multichannel installation Sensible Zone (2021) by Territorial Agency (Ann-Sofi Rönnskog and John Palmesino) reminds us that we have only 30 years to reverse the effects of the past 30 years, in order to keep fossil fuels and carbon dioxide in the ground and in the oceans, whose rising salty waters, which cover more than 70 percent of the planet, play a widely overlooked role. Arcangelo Sassolino’s installation Antarctic Resolution (2020) – featuring a thundering sound work that echoes the noise of cracking ice shelves – accompanies Giulia Foscari/UNLESS’s eponymous study of Antarctica, whose melting ice constitutes around 70 percent of the planet’s fresh water.          

In times of conflict and systemic violence, the distribution, accessibility and control of resources is a pressing issue. Designed to look like a dining table, the installation Watermelons, Sardines, Crabs, Sands and Sediments: Border Ecologies and the Gaza Strip (2021), developed by the Foundation for Achieving Seamless Territory in collaboration with the Qudaih family, analyzes the endless struggles of daily life and resilience at the small farm in Khuza’a, a Palestinian village located along the heavily militarized, constantly fluctuating border of Gaza and Israel. During the opening days of the biennial, the elegant stone structure of AAU Anastas’s All-purpose (2020) hosted live sessions of Radio Alhara’s project Sonic Liberation Front (2021–ongoing), which was started by an international group of artists, activists and musicians in solidarity with Palestine.

AAU ANASTAS, All-purpose, 2020, stone, 600 × 400 × 300 cm. Courtesy: the Venice Architecture Biennale 

Other stand-out projects include Stateless Heritage (2021) by Decolonizing Art Architecture Residency (Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti), which proposes the recognition of the Dheisheh refugee camp as a World Heritage Site in order to question which histories deserve to be preserved and why, and Aesthetic Borders: Of Violence and (in) Visibility at Sea (2021) by Forensic Oceanography and Forensic Architecture, which documents the necropolitical effects of the solidification of Mediterranean marine borders and spaces on those who are refused the right to transgress them and the freedom of cohabitation on the European side of the sea. But these are exceptions, within the carefully tended landscape of the mother of all biennials, whose model is still based on a geography of nation states, the role geopolitical conflict plays in ‘living together’ is generally avoided. It seems it is easier to envision a utopian future than come to terms with the dystopias we inhabit. As Sarkis writes in his curatorial statement: ‘Our challenge is not whether to be optimistic or not. There we have no choice […] We are looking for a spatial contract that is at once universal and inclusive, an expanded contract for peoples and species to coexist and thrive in their plurality.’

'The Venice Architecture Biennale 2021: How Will We Live Together?' is open until 21 November. 

Main image and thumbnail: 'Future Assembly', 2021, exhibition view, an exhibition within 'How Will We Live Together',17th Venice Architecture Biennale, Italy

Barbara Casavecchia is a contributing editor of frieze and a freelance writer and curator based in Milan, Italy.