Review

A grassroots, handmade Venice Architecture Biennale from Alejandro Aravena

The 48-year-old Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena calls his dense, earnest and grassroots edition of the Venice Architecture Biennale, which opened Saturday to the public and will run through November, “Reporting From the Front.” The show collects work from a range of architects operating on the forward lines of what Aravena calls “battles” against inequality, crushing poverty and environmental crisis and puts it on display with the informality of a journalistic sketch.

An equally good title would be “The Borrowers.” The stars of this biennale — both in Aravena’s main exhibition and the various national pavilions that complement it — are those in debt, in many senses of that word.

They borrow money; running through this biennale is a multifaceted critique of global real-estate speculation and its effects on domestic life.

They borrow ideas from other architects, from pools of collective knowledge or from the past. And they borrow the kinds of spaces common to the sharing economy: the backseat for the Uber ride, the bedroom for the Airbnb stay.

The emphasis is very much, as biennale President Paolo Baratta points out, on the “demand” (as opposed to supply) side of the architectural equation. This biennale shines a spotlight not just on the architects who design buildings but the people who use, buy, rent, build and clean them.

Because borrowing is by definition temporary, it also tilts from the permanent and the fixed and toward the expedient: the repair job instead of the grand gesture.

In material and visual terms this means a largely handmade or masonry biennale — an earthy show dominated by brick, ceramics, wood and rammed earth rather than steel, glass or pixels. (As the text accompanying a project by architect Anna Heringer puts it, “Three billion people on this planet live in buildings made of mud.”) Formal novelty is largely sidelined — along with the broader notion of novelty as a shrine where architects ought to worship — in favor of an emphasis on place, climate and tradition.

In thematic terms it means a show dedicated to the importance of incremental and bottom-up progress; what the north can learn from the south and the west from the east; and the value of cooperative or indigenous architecture rather than signature projects by the stars of the profession. Among the subjects that pop up in several corners of the exhibition are ritual; drones and their relationship to architecture and urbanism; and forensics and evidence.

It has been a heady few months for Aravena, whose most influential designs are social housing complexes in Chile but who increasingly oversees a global practice. In a year that it is not yet half over he has collected a Pritzker Prize, the leading honor in the profession, and served as biennale director, a slot that is typically filled by older and better-known figures.

The speed with which he has rocketed to the top ranks of the field reflects larger shifts in a discipline still dealing with the aftereffects of the 2008 financial crisis and eager to move past two decades of venerating a few celebrity architects at the expense of younger or more obscure figures without wealthy clients or teams of publicists.

It is surely something of a paradox that Aravena should arrive in Venice as one of the unmistakable stars of architecture’s post-star era — and bringing with him an anti-star agenda for the biennale to boot.

Though there’s an urgency and sincerity that gives his show an energy rare among recent biennales, this approach — fittingly, given the overarching emphasis on borrowing — is dependent on both new and old movements in architecture.

It is clearly connected to a surge of interest in history, communitarianism and vernacular architecture that helped shape recent biennales by Kazuyo Sejima (2010), David Chipperfield (2012) and Rem Koolhaas (2014). Looking back it has become clear that 2010 marked a turning point, a shift away from the often glossy or futuristic biennales of the 1990s and 2000s by directors including Kurt Forster and Aaron Betsky.

Aravena’s show has something in common with the primitivism — the interest in the primeval, the very long past — evident in recent work by the Chinese duo Wang Shu and Lu Wenyu and the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor (who are in the main show) and Aravena’s fellow Chilean Smiljan Radic (who is not).

Its critique of global markets and state surveillance, mixed with occasional post-apocalyptic scenarios, is a blend of Edward Snowden, Thomas Piketty, Naomi Klein and George Miller’s 2015 version of “Mad Max.” There are echoes of the 2007 Cooper-Hewitt exhibition “Design for the Other 90%” and the 2004 Bruce Mau book and museum show “Massive Change.”

There is also noticeable overlap between Aravena’s effort and the inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial last fall, which was curated by Joseph Grima and Sarah Herda and also focused on the ad hoc and the shared. (Those featured in both shows include architect Francis Kéré, the U.K. art and architecture collective Assemble and Mexico City’s Tatiana Bilbao, among many others.) The more distant intellectual forebears for Aravena’s biennale include figures from the 1960s and 1970s like Bernard Rudofsky (“Architecture Without Architects”) and Victor Papanek (“Design for the Real World”).

You wouldn’t learn any of that from the catalog, though. In part because Aravena had just 10 months to put together the show (as opposed to nearly twice that for Koolhaas) and in part because he wanted to underscore an interest in an architecture of action rather than repose and process instead of polish, there are no ruminative theoretical essays in the catalog. No essays at all, in fact, apart from brief introductory texts by Baratta and Aravena.

Instead the catalog, like the show itself, is full of examples of contemporary architecture as it is practiced on the ground and in the moment. The overall effect is less a manifesto for a new philosophy of architecture or exhibition-making than a series of dispatches, heartfelt and dashed off, about how design can be enlisted to help the poor and the marginalized as well as new waves of migrants struggling to survive brutal journeys to Europe and elsewhere.

It is not quite as grim as all that. Aravena makes a point of insisting that the show include not just strategic but beautiful work. His biennale is generally optimistic if also sometimes overly altruistic (with a few notable exceptions, including a sharply political project by Eyal Weizman analyzing “the distinct architectural signature” of drone strikes by the U.S. military).

In general Aravena’s focus is on escape hatches (from oppression, lack of opportunity or architectural stagnation) and where to find them — or more to the point how to make them yourself, with your bare hands.

The only entry in the main exhibition made up entirely of American architects is from the Rural Studio, the design-build group operated in Hale County, Ala., by the architecture department of Auburn University. An American documentarian, Gary Hustwit, is also here showing a new film, something of an outlier in the Aravena universe, on the design of the 21st century office.

That sparse U.S. showing leaves the American pavilion, organized at each biennale by the State Department, to shoulder a heavier weight than is usually the case, at least in terms of suggesting the current preoccupations of one nation’s architects. Titled “The Architectural Imagination,” it has been directed — in controversial fashion — by the editor and writer Cynthia Davidson and by Monica Ponce de Leon, for years architecture dean at the University of Michigan and now in the same position at Princeton.

The pavilion’s dozen projects re-imagining sites in Detroit have drawn fire for imposing lofty, formally overwrought proposals on a struggling city. Though the exhibit itself is beautifully designed by Ponce de Leon, the projects (by architects including Greg Lynn, Preston Scott Cohen, Pita & Bloom and Andrew Zago) do stand quite blithely for everything Aravena wants to rail against: top-down and slickly rendered solutions shot through with disdain for the kind of expertise required to get architecture at this vast scale approved, financed and built.

The urban space cleared out by Detroit’s long decline is recast as an irresistible tabula rasa, a playground for American architecture’s digitally savvy but (with very few exceptions) politically illiterate parametric wing.

More effective are the national pavilions whose presentations suggest some solidarity with the larger themes of Aravena’s show without swallowing them whole. The British pavilion, overseen by Shumi Bose, Jack Self and Finn Williams, is an experiment in redefining residential architecture in terms of time rather than space. It includes full-scale mock-ups of apartments designed to be lived in for a few hours or months — there are the borrowers again — as well as a few years or decades.

Even better is the Belgian pavilion, produced by the firms De Vylder Vinck Taillieu and Doorzon and the photographer Filip Dujardin. Linked in spirit to Aravena’s interest in unpretentious as opposed to preening beauty, it begins by asking if “bravura” architectural effects are still possible in cities struggling since 2008 with austerity and scarcity.

The answers are not what you’d expect. In displays by 13 contributors, including Stèphane Beel and Office Kersten Geers David Van Severen, the pavilion combines experiments in remaking existing buildings in physically crude but poetic ways with digitally manipulated photographs by Dujardin of buildings with no apparent function.

Dujardin calls some of these fictional constructions “memorials,” but it’s hard to tell what they’re commemorating beyond a grotesque banality or shrunken, apologetic sublime. One, a pavilion made of a mismatched collection of skinny columns holding up a wide roof, stands by itself on an abandoned concrete plaza; another shows a boulder squeezed between two apartment buildings. All of them are pictured under Soviet-gray skies.

The results celebrate the same architectural “imagination” as the American pavilion, but in ways that are both more subtle and more provocative.

Aravena’s main show, though full of timely and meaningful projects, doesn’t succeed terribly well strictly as an exhibition — as a sensory and visual experience on its own terms. (Over the last seven or eight biennales only Sejima’s rigorous, precisely choreographed 2010 show managed to impress in this way.) The little rectangles of text explaining each entry, hanging from small poles resting on the floor, are hard to read and then — when you are able to do so — blandly written. Some of the displays are overstuffed with projects and information, a sign that Aravena hasn’t been sufficiently ruthless in reminding the participants that the biennale entries that work best are almost always in presentation confidently stripped-down and in tone (choose one) blunt, elegiac or ironic.

In part this weakness may be explained by the quick time frame; it also seems to flow from Aravena’s generous sensibility, his interest in opening his arms wide to the architecture of the moment and featuring a range of voices usually not heard in Venice. In that sense a desire for inclusion is his Achilles’ heel.

Some architects — some architects left out of the show, that is — complained in Venice that what Aravena has produced is little more than a politically correct biennale. It’s true that the only way this exhibition is likely to give offense is in its reluctance to give offense.

Yet the tone is more tolerant and curious than strident or doctrinaire. Ultimately the PC charge is a caricature, a reflection mostly of the anxiety of a Western architectural elite realizing that its influence is waning even in Venice, the place it has long gathered every two years to toast itself.

christopher.hawthorne@latimes.com

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