Tania Davidge was in Venice on Parlour’s behalf. Following her excellent guest posting on Instagram, she shares her thoughts on the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale.

1. Reporting from the Front It seems fitting to be posting for Parlour from an architecture biennale visually defined by a lady precariously perched atop a very tall ladder. This lady is “reporting from the front” – the theme of this year’s Biennale. According to creative director Alejandro Aravena, “There are several battles that need to be won and several frontiers that need to be expanded in order to improve the quality of the built environment and consequently people’s quality of life.” It seems to me that equity and diversity fit perfectly into this conversation. In hindsight, where Australia’s tyranny of distance doesn’t force us to choose creative directors before a theme is announced, the short-listed Parlour led exhibition would have been a good fit. That being said I am very excited about seeing “The Pool”. I have a soft spot for the iconic stature of the pool in Australian cultural mythology and it will be wonderful to see an Australian exhibition that explores a compelling concept in depth and breadth this year. (Also, I’m a bit excited about seeing a great Aussie icon in the form of Ian Thorpe – apparently he is making an appearance. For those of you not from Australia, the Olympics are this year – you should google him!) #labiennale #architettura #BiennaleArchitettura2016 #architecture #venice #parlourinstaguest @taniadavidge

A photo posted by Parlour (@_parlour) on


It seems fitting to be writing for Parlour about an architecture biennale visually defined by a lady precariously perched atop a very tall ladder. This lady is ‘reporting from the front’ – the theme of this year’s Biennale. A biennale, like our lady reporting from the front, is precarious in nature. It is temporary and ephemeral but it can also be enduring. It is a site of public architectural discourse – it negotiates architectural values. In some ways it is easy to dismiss it as one big archi-party-slash-circus, but the conversations and disagreements that arise from the biennale set the tone for architecture culture. The Biennale is a chance to set an agenda for architecture and to provide food for thought until the next Biennale and hopefully beyond.

So, what did this year’s Biennale tell us? How did it talk to us? What will we take away and what will we leave behind?

Putting people first

‘We need a social licence to operate,’ creative director Alejandro Aravena tells the media scrum during an interview in the Arsenale. What gives architects the right or licence to operate? Typically it is those who hold the purse strings – the client or the government. However, by emphasising the social rather than capital or physical form, Aravena invites us to begin with people. The social speaks immediately about people; it is the relationships, the interactions and the communication between people that structure our communities. A social licence to operate focuses on putting people first – not the image or the object of architecture.

Rather than an object-centric biennale, Aravena has overseen a people-centric biennale and this provides both highlights and difficulties for architecture. None of this was more evident than at the US pavilion.

Provocations and resistance

The Architectural Imagination’ exhibited twelve speculative projects across four sites in the economically troubled city of Detroit. The exhibition presented work by ‘visionary’ architects such as Greg Lynn FORM, Preston Scott Cohen Inc., BairBalliet, and Marshall Brown Projects and advocated the ‘power of architecture to construct culture and catalyze cities’. In a biennale interested in presenting the difference a grass roots take on architecture can make, the US pavilion’s evident interest in sculptural form and aesthetics was displacing and disconcerting. In some respects this joy in form-making was liberating, but in other respects it was difficult. Feeling displaced and disconcerted is not a bad thing. It raises provocative and complex questions. Why is it difficult to talk about form and aesthetics in relationship to social good? Doesn’t everyone deserve beautiful architecture? And what exactly is beauty?

And the advocacy for the ‘power of architecture’ did not sit well with everyone. To counter this treatment of Detroit, an activist group, Detroit Resists, organised a virtual protest exhibition stating that, ‘ “the power of architecture” might serve as simply another name for architecture’s political indifference—the capacity of architecture to be of service to political regimes, no matter their ideological orientation. This architectural power has been manifestly apparent in architecture’s recruitments against indigenous, impoverished, marginalized, and precarious communities across the globe, usually in the name of “development” or “modernization” in the second half of the 20th century.’

These overlaid American exhibitions showcased the two architectural camps that polarised conversation at the Biennale. However, the situation is more complex than two opposing camps suggest.

I have to admit I found some of the projects in the US pavilion beautiful and architecturally compelling. But I was also disturbed by the lack of regard for context displayed by the majority of the proposals. This disregard for context only served to emphasise physical form over the relationship of the proposals to the city of Detroit. The lack of people represented in the drawings and the models across the twelve projects compounded this difficulty. Marshal Brown Projects’ Dequindre Civic Academy and BairBalliet’s Next Port of Call thoughtfully contemplated occupation and inhabitation across drawing, collage and model, but Preston Scott Cohen Inc.’s Revolving Detroit provided simply the saddest use of model people I have ever seen. This does not bode well for an architectural project, visionary or not.

It would be easy to dismiss the American contribution to Aravena’s Biennale but perhaps it is more interesting to look at the forces that shape its presentation. The introductory text to the pavilion spoke about the architects working with a Detroit advisory board and the residents of the neighbourhoods of the chosen sites. Regardless of the level of engagement, the architectural process is a different beast to an architectural exhibition. How do you represent the interactivity of the dynamic processes that feed design? Traditional modes of architectural representation place architecture front and centre. They amplify the object and suppress context, both physical and ephemeral. Architecture negotiates a complex network of issues that are difficult to understand through second-hand presentation, even for architects. Perhaps we need to look at how architecture as a process can be better communicated?

Where and who are the people we are talking about?

There were some powerful and beautiful examples of placing people first at the Biennale. Poland’s exhibition, ‘Fair Building’, focused on the experiences of the workers on construction sites. It provided a compelling opening into the dangers and difficulties building workers face on a day to day basis. Transsolar and Anja Thierfelder created a wonderful installation of light – ‘Lightscapes’ – in the Arsenale that was both monumental and ephemeral.

In ‘Lightscapes’ beams of light are made visible through the control of the humidity, and therefore the climate, of the room. The space, as you enter, is noticeably cooler than the room you have left. There was a sense of the wondrous in this room. People collected under the light moving through it, allowing it to play on their hands and faces. The exhibit was absolutely compelling and it was further activated by the fact that this space was incredibly photogenic.

Jiakun Architects, with ‘People Mountain People Sea – a Celebration of Everyday Life’, presented an open model of their West Village leisure complex in Chengdu, China. The ramping steel model was joyously populated with figures describing a plethora of activities. In the centre of the model, standing in for the central sporting fields, Jiakun Architects created a marble race game where visitors were invited to set the ball rolling along the ramps of the model.

Life beyond investment

The Spanish pavilion presented ‘Unfinished’, which deservedly took home the Golden Lion. ‘Unfinished’ examined the effects of the recent financial crisis on Spain’s built form through a collection of provocative photographs.

The exhibition beautifully and articulately showed how Spain’s architects are responding to this crisis and the scarcity it has created through innovative architectural solutions such as flexible compact interiors and adaptive re-use. The pavilion’s central exhibition space displayed images of unfinished buildings; construction activity arrested for a lack of funds. However, not all activity in these buildings has ceased. Many of the photographs focused on the fact that these buildings, regardless of their suitability for occupation, are nonetheless occupied. One photograph shows a family opening Christmas presents in a space open to the elements consisting of a bare concrete floor, an unfinished concrete wall and two columns. In another, a girl wrapped in a towel is walking up a concrete ramp that has planks affixed for ‘ease’ of access. The walls are half-finished and pallets of terracotta bricks litter the space. These buildings are devoid of investment but not devoid of life.

The Pool

And then there was ‘The Pool’, the first Australian exhibition in its new pavilion.

Focusing on the public swimming pool as a social space, the exhibition presented the pool through the stories of nine prominent Australians – Tim Flannery, Ian Thorpe, Anna Plunkett and Luke Sales (Romance was Born), Christos Tsiolkas, Anna Funder, Hetti Perkins, Shane Gould and Paul Kelly – none of them architects. ‘The Pool’ provided a counterpoint to the Biennale, where so much information was offered up without any form of mediation.

The sounds of the exhibition drew people inside and then into the water. I must confess to having a paddle myself. The space was not quiet. The noises of the people in the pavilion were amplified by the hard surfaces and mingled with the soundscape of watery stories. ‘The Pool’ invited visitors to stay and spend a little time. And if you did, the depth of the exhibition unfolded; from the sounds, and scents of the exhibition – the bush, the bushfire and the inescapable scent of processed public pool water – to the exhibition texts presented in broadsheet format. Sitting in the pavilion reading the paper evoked the feeling of dipping in and out of the newspaper while watching your kids take Saturday morning swimming lessons. The effect was spatial and social all at the same time.

But, let’s return to the overall question of what we will take away from this year’s Biennale and what we will leave behind?

Wanted: Clever, considerate curators

A take-away from this Biennale – and, as far as I can see, every biennale I have visited – is that architecture could do with more thoughtful curators. In a statement published on the Biennale di Venezia website, creative director Alejandro Aravena said, ‘There are several battles that need to be won and several frontiers that need to be expanded in order to improve the quality of the built environment and consequently people’s quality of life.’ But what exactly are these battles and where are these frontiers?

In ‘Reporting from the Front’ there was very little acknowledgement of the historical legacy of the theme. Placing emphasis on the social relevance of architecture has deep roots in humanist architectural practices post World War II, such as those promoted by CIAM’s ‘Team 10’, and the socially engaged and community focused architects of the 1970s and 1980s, such as the ‘Architects’ Revolutionary Council’ and ‘Matrix Feminist Design Co-operative’ in London and the ‘Community Design Centres in the USA. (Spatial Agency provide a  good resource that touches on a variety of these forms of practice.) In addition, questions on equity and diversity fit perfectly into a conversation on how architecture is reporting from the front and it would have been nice to see these issues addressed more directly – particularly in the structure of the Biennale, where it seems that all-male panels are still the norm. The Biennale, while outwardly focused on people, did not tackle the people that make up our profession. We need to ask, what are the fronts without and also within architecture that need to be addressed?

Aravena’s opening rooms began with a provocation about the wastefulness of the biennale format. These spaces, in both the Arsenale and the main Giardini pavilion, used material recycled from the previous biennale – metal studs and plasterboard – to create beautiful (if almost content-less) rooms. These rooms were an open-ended provocation and what followed were the invited participant exhibitions. These exhibitions were often text heavy and densely layered, making engagement with them difficult, particularly considering all of the Prosecco that gets consumed during the vernissage.

Prosecco-soaked vernissage aside, you have to wonder what the everyday curious non-architect visiting the Biennale might make of all of these architectural offerings. What began with a provocation did not end with any kind of summary or commentary. Aravena left the invited exhibitions to their own devices and the audience to draw their own conclusions. Although the overall Biennale framework was strong, what was really needed was a curatorial hand to draw out the architectural threads and themes, and to articulate the ways that they are influencing contemporary and future practice across the breadth of the exhibitions.

Who is the audience?

The Architecture Biennale needs to focus on communication and presentation. It has a much more difficult job than the Art Biennale, where the objects of contemplation are typically of a size that fits within their allotted pavilions. An artist I met at the Biennale expressed disappointment in the event, noting, ‘It just feels like an architectural trade show’. I can safely assume he has never visited an architectural trade show, but his comment was telling. If we can’t communicate with artists who are sympathetic to the causes of architecture, who are we communicating with? If Aravena’s Biennale focused on people, what about the people visiting the Biennale?

An architecture biennale is not a building. It is not experienced in the same way and it does not communicate the same things. It communicates both more and less than the object of architecture. The architecture biennale is an opportunity – an opportunity to communicate the ideas and the context that informs architectural practice and to talk to people (not just architects) about architecture beyond the physical building.

16. Postscript… We can’t look at an exhibition focussed on the public and arguably democratic space of the pool without examining that other iconic Australian body of water – the ocean. As Australians, we are defined by our edges and this edge has often been one that speaks of our isolation but also of our great potential – our broad horizon. Unfortunately, in contemporary Australia, this has become a cold and heartless place. It is a space of censorship, where we #turnbacktheboats and are not allowed to speak of them in any meaningful form. And, it is a place where we place people who seek #asylum in indefinite detention. Where is our generosity? We need to work harder to find it. #BiennaleArchitettura2016 #architecture #venice #australia #parlourinstaguest Signing out @taniadavidge… #reportingfromthefront

A photo posted by Parlour (@_parlour) on

Tania Davidge is an architect, writer and co-director of the research practice OpenHAUS. Her research focuses on the way we communicate architecture and the built environment to different audiences.