Emerging Themes at the 2023 Venice Architecture Biennale: Highlights from the National Pavilions
Successfully challenging the audience to think in a different and more empathetic way, Lesley Lokko’s biennale is an authentic portrayal of a highly intricate subject. Inaugurated on May 20, the 18th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, titled The Laboratory of the Future, has already sparked worldwide discussions.
Taking a broader perspective on architecture, the exhibition shifts its focus towards the discipline rather than just the profession. It’s not “about building buildings per se”, explains the curator to ArchDaily. Instead, it seeks to question our conventional understanding of architecture, and with that, architectural exhibitions. The 2023 Biennale is a laboratory in every sense of the word, a global platform of experimentation, and a space to explore new ideas in the absence of spaces that allow us to do so. “It borrows its structure and format from art exhibitions, but it differs from art in critical ways which often go unnoticed”, states Lesley Lokko in her initial statement.
Surprised by the outcomes of the participants’ work, which surpassed any of her expectations, Lokko highlights that this 18th edition presented an authentic, sincere, and sometimes vulnerable narrative, hoping the audience takes from it a sense of openness, and a willingness to engage with the other, on their own terms.” In some senses, the Biennale has been a healing experience, a kind of closing-over of a wound, of a void”, adds Lesley. Making space for voices that historically haven’t been heard in global exhibitions, or seeing something that has always been there but hasn’t been seen, the 2023 Venice Architecture Biennale is seeking to adjust the narrative of architecture that remains unfinished. Within this context, this exhibition holds significance, today more than ever.
The 2023 Venice Architecture Biennale as a Healing Experience: In Conversation with Curator Lesley Lokko
While it’s not a given that national pavilions always align with the curators’ statement, in this 2023 edition, a significant number of them chose to respond to the main theme, going as far as deconstructing “the idea of what a national pavilion is”. Connections that extended beyond geographical boundaries are eminent at this year’s biennale, and people across borders are thinking about similar ideas and confronting shared challenges in terms of resources, politics, social economic factors, and the global context. Read on to discover more about the key themes explored in national pavilions of the 2023 Venice Architecture Biennale.
Deconstruction, Analysis, and Borders
Deconstruction took center stage at this year’s biennale, primarily concerning ideas and preconceived notions. Instead of focusing on demolition, it involved a critical analysis of the status quo, manifesting itself in various forms including methods of exhibiting, forms of expression, ecosystems, borders, concepts, and meanings.
Switzerland’s national pavilion curated by Karin Sander and Philip Ursprung is exploring territorial relationships, focusing specifically on the spatial and structural proximity between its structure designed by the Swiss Bruno Giacometti, and its Venezuelan neighboring pavilion designed by Italian Carlo Scarpa. Highlighting notions of borders, the curators sought to investigate this long-standing yet overlooked relationship between the two buildings. On another hand, Sevince Bayrak and Oral Göktaş, curators of the Pavilion of Türkiye titled “Ghost Stories: Carrier Bag Theory of Architecture” are questioning the perceptions of unused buildings in cities. Trying to deconstruct this acceptance of abandoned structures, common to the Turkish community, they are considering the opportunities and offering hopeful proposals for the future. Moreover, Studio KO curators of the Uzbekistan National Pavilion “Unbuild Together”, are bringing into focus the country’s rich architectural heritage as a potential tool and inspiration for developing a more sustainable future. Looking at the past to seek a vision of a shared future and challenge the dominant concept of modernity, the intervention puts together a collaborative group to explore and learn from traditional materials, forms, and techniques. Other pavilions also tackled deconstruction in their ways. Austria’s intervention wanted to open up one-half of the Austrian Pavilion towards the adjacent district, making it freely accessible to the people of Venice; while Unfolding Pavilion suggested unlocking the Giardini, a public land with the highest concentration of modern architecture granted to the Biennale, investigating the “paradoxical state of a public space that is not publicly accessible, through a series of site-specific interventions”.
Resources, Production, and Decarbonizing the Built Environment
“Aside from the desire to tell a story, questions of production [and] resources are central to the way an architecture exhibition comes into the world, yet are rarely acknowledged or discussed”, explains Lesley Lokko. In the midst of global resource scarcity, a climate crisis, and demands for decarbonizing our lifestyles, some pavilions tackled this subject from both local and global perspectives, employing a range of conceptual and practical approaches.
The German pavilion at the 18th International Architecture Exhibition, titled “Open for Maintenance / Wegen Umbau geöffnet” and curated by ARCH+ and Summacumfemmer Büro Juliane Greb, aims to shed light on ongoing discussions regarding the existing building stock and the social practice of maintaining urban fabric. In fact, it has chosen to collect, catalog, and process materials used in the Biennale Arte 2022 within its premises. The U.S. pavilion, curated by Tizziana Baldenebro and Lauren Leving, is seeking to reshape attitudes towards the use of plastic—a material that was once revolutionary but is now deeply embedded in our built environment. The pavilion accomplishes this by filling its space with plastic works created by architecture professors, designers, and artists. “Aridly Abundant,” showcased at the UAE National Pavilion and curated by Faysal Tabbarah, is exploring architectural possibilities within arid landscapes, examining how future and contemporary technological practices can be integrated into environments such as dunes, wadis, desert plateaus, and coastal plains, aligning with the biennale’s theme. In the same way, the Saudi Arabia pavilion, titled IRTH إرث, legacy in Arabic, is exploring the qualities of materials in relation to the Saudi landscape. On the other hand, the Georgian Pavilion, hosted by the art-space II Giardino Bianco, is focusing on water reservoirs and their creation, considering their impact in an era marked by rapid political transformations and climate change. The pavilion titled “January, February, March” explores the connection between the flow of time and energy. Looking also at energy, the Bahrain Pavilion is examining cooling infrastructures, highlighting the relationship between the kingdom’s extreme heat and humidity and the inherent need for comfort. Curators Latifa Alkhayat and Maryam Aljomairi aim to demonstrate how adaptive measures and resource management can maximize cooling infrastructure while minimizing its negative impact on the environment.
Decolonization, Identities, and Communities
Aligned with the ideas of deconstruction and resources, decolonization and identities were omnipresent throughout the 2023 Venice Architecture Biennale, prominently featured in the Arsenale and Giardini exhibitions as well as national pavilions. These interconnected themes were organic responses from participating teams to urgent global issues, demonstrating that people from different countries are collectively confronting common challenges and that until now, the realm of architecture has been predominantly influenced by a singular and exclusive perspective, disregarding vast segments of humanity. In fact, the Brazilian Pavilion, known as Terra [Earth], explores all of these concepts. Curated by Gabriela de Matos and Paulo Tavares, the Golden Lion winner for Best National Participation at the 2023 Venice Architecture Biennale “proposes to rethink the past in order to design possible futures “. Reflecting on Brazil’s past, present, and future, with a focus on earth as the center of discussion, the exhibition demonstrates that indigenous and Quilombola lands are the most preserved territories in the country. Covering the entire space with soil, the intervention gives visitors direct contact with indigenous and Quilombola traditions and with the Candomblé religious practice.
For this year’s edition, the Nordic Countries Pavilion representing Finland, Norway, and Sweden, is showcasing Girjegumpi—an archive that collects and shares an expanding collection of over 500 rare titles and contemporary books exploring the indigenous Sámi culture and building practices. The Sámi people have inhabited northern Scandinavia for thousands of years. The collective library project, initiated by architect and artist Joar Nango, explores the blending of traditional ways of life with the modern world. Over the course of fifteen years, Nango has assembled an archive of books and materials focusing on Indigenous Sámi architecture and design, traditional building knowledge, activism, and decoloniality. The British Pavilion, “Dancing Before the Moon,” curated by Jayden Ali, Joseph Henry, Meneesha Kellay, and Sumitra Upham, has received special recognition in this year’s edition. It celebrates the diaspora by examining people, communities, rituals, social practices, and everyday customs. By deconstructing the notion that architecture is solely rooted in buildings and economic structures, the intervention offers an alternative perspective on how cultures collectively relate to land, geography, and social activities to hold space. The Italian Pavilion, titled “Everyone Belongs to Everyone Else” and curated by Fosbury Architecture, aims to present a unique and original portrayal of Italian architecture in the international context. Through nine site-specific interventions carried out from January to April across Italy, the exhibition highlights the distinctive features of the Italian context leading up to the Biennale’s opening. Focused on social structures, the South African Pavilion explores architectural representation through an exhibition titled “The Structure of a People.” It gathers artifacts crafted by lecturers and architecture students to symbolize the structures of their respective schools or universities. Lastly, the National Pavilion of Serbia, curated by Iva Njunjić and Tihomir Dičić, examines architecture’s futures, presents, and pasts through the lens of an international Trade Fair held in Lagos, Nigeria, in 1977. This trade fair was a result of non-aligned cooperation between Yugoslavia and Nigeria.
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