Back to basics at the Venice Architecture Biennale

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Exhibitions by international architects, artists and designers continue to attract record crowds at the 12th Venice Architecture Biennale this week. The biennale, which opened on Aug. 20 and runs through Nov. 21, features an impressive program of exhibitions, lectures and performances.

The Architecture Biennale is an offshoot of the Venice Biennale, which has been held bi-annually since 1895. This year’s biennale curator is Kazuyo Sejima, the Pritzker Prize-winning architect, with partner Ryue Nishizawa of the New Museum in New York and the EPFL Learning Center in Lausanne. Sejima is co-founder of the Japanese architecture firm SANAA.

This year, the exhibition hosts works from over 54 countries at famous locations in Venice, including the Giardini Gardens and the Arsenale. In addition to its main focus on architecture, the exhibitions at the biennale explore art, cinema, dance and music. The most famous ‘alternative’ exhibition is the Aperto.

Held at Venice’s Arsenale, the hub of the imperial Venetian Navy, the Aperto began in 1980 as a different space for exhibits of emerging ideas by artists and architects from countries without a national pavilion to display their work. The Aperto has now become a vibrant forum for young architects to exchange ideas during the biennale.

Sejima chose to call this year’s show “People Meet in Architecture,” a name that highlights the architect’s desire to go back to the basics. In the past, exhibits have veered away from traditional architecture and further into increasingly abstract territory, but this year is different: Curator Sejima is bringing the focus back towards practical architecture while incorporating elements of other disciplines that show architecture’s function in a wider context.

This back-to-basics approach to architecture is appropriate, given the changing attitudes of many architects in the wake of the financial crisis. This year’s exhibits have moved away from the towering skyscrapers and luxury homes of past years to focus on the humanity that underscores the process of creating and building a piece of art. It spurs one to question what architecture could be were it not bound by the forces of global capitalism.

The atmosphere is highly experimental; Sejima is interested in the ways in which experiential spaces can be formed, and this focus comes through in many of the exhibitions on display. The scale of the exhibition allows for actual displays of architectural structure which move beyond plans to take the form of quasi-installation pieces.

These exhibits are about sensory experience rather than rational understanding of the design principles behind a work; the visitor to this year’s exhibition will experience the biennale as a walk through a city with all senses alerted and responding to the structures, materials and colors around them.

Egyptian architecture firm Mito Studio has contributed an exhibition to this year’s biennale. Entitled “The Search for Salvation,” the exhibition was created by Ahmed Soliman, Ayman Lotfy, Amer Abd Al-Hakim Abbas, Nevine Fargaly, and was commissioned by Ahmed Mostafa Mito.

The Golden Lion award for best national pavilion has been awarded to Bahrain this year. Architects Noura Al-Sayeh and Fuad Al-Ansari curated a display of three traditional Bahraini fishermen’s huts, which were transplanted from the coast to the Biennale. This display, entitled “Reclaim,” demonstrates the rapidly vanishing simplicity and functionality of traditional, elemental construction.

Other noteworthy exhibits include the British national pavilion, which invites visitors to observe rather than interact, and the Hungarian national pavilion, which shows videos of both young and old architects’ hands drawing, thus highlighting how fundamentals can ground and inspire during times of upheaval.

This year’s biennale is a refreshing return to the elemental aspects of great architecture. Curator Sejima and participating architects have managed to create an exhibition that is fresh, experiential and escapist, without being extravagant or pompous. There are certainly lessons to be learned from this year’s showing in Venice, and they are sure to be reflected in new projects from the hands of top global architects in the coming years.


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