Floating schools in Nigeria, homes for homeless children in India, houses for immigrants in Portugal, entire new towns in Germany, water tanks as public parks in Colombia and rebuilding schools after the 2014 earthquake in Thailand. Just a few of the many ideas on display at this year’s Biennale.
There is almost too much to see, but it is possible to spread visits over several days, given that there are three different exhibition areas – the Arsenale, the Giardini and the scattered locations in the heart of Venice which host special exhibitions or national pavilions which haven’t found space in the main venues - which in many ways creates more impact because time is less pressured – such as the national exhibitions from the Philippines, Seychelles and Ivory Coast in palazzi across the centre of Havana alongside design exhibitions from the European Cultural Centre, with Hong Kong and Estonia in buildings near the Arsenale itself.
The theme “Time Space Existence” has been interpreted in an impressively diverse way by architects, engineers, designers and urban planners. Within the Arsenale, the focus of sustainability, immigration, urban life in the future linked to ever-increasing populations, starts with an entrance space made from the dismantled material from the 2015 Biennale.
Moving beyond architecture, there is a new collaboration with the Victoria and Albert Museum about how, in this digital age, museums (and indeed other organisations) can sustainably disseminate information across the world, a 21st century version of the great plaster casts made in the 19th century.
In many ways, the star of the Biennale is the Arsenale itself, an immense robust and flexible complex of buildings which it was a joy to explore, with different spaces used in different ways, including the waterfront, with the main exhibition area including proposals for its refurbishment as a contemporary arts centre. Would this impact on future Biennales? Perhaps spreading them out across the city would be a better answer?
From the Arsenale it is a 15 minute walk to the Giardini through the back streets of this part of Venice. The modernist main exhibition hall lacks the space of the Arsenale and has a confusing array of exhibitions jostling for attention with each other, with a variety of levels giving a feeling that something might have been missed. Here, well known British architects made up for the strange domestic exhibition in the British pavilion. Are we British so focussed on bedrooms and toilets? There is a colourful and jazzy café in which to rest and recharge before tackling the national pavilions.
The pavilions that dealt most with architecture were the USA with ideas for rebuilding post-industrial Detroit – Donald Trump take note! – and the Danish pavilion which had two floors showing new projects. The relatively new Australian pavilion had a large swimming pool, reflecting Australian culture, Romania had a fun exhibition of automatons and Poland focussed on the exploitation and safety of construction workers. Sadly, opportunities seemed to be missed to showcase the best of new and future projects in the national pavilions and there may be a problem that every two years is too fast to change much. It was fun, however, to see the architecture of the pavilions themselves.
What, if anything, were the overriding impressions? A huge amount of creativity from all across the world seeking to solve the problems of today and the future through education, architecture, engineering and urban planning, but also seeking to celebrate diversity, history and reinforce local cultures, finding simple local solutions if possible, rather than impose answers from one culture onto another.
It would be interesting to visit the Art Biennale, in order to compare the two.