The plan was to meet Walter Hood at the Scarpa Garden in the Central Pavilion of the Venice Biennale. But when he arrived, and as we gazed from the doorway into the crowded little courtyard transformed with scaled-up versions of his basket-weave pavilions, we instead decided to walk over to the installation. But that, too, was a popular spot, so Hood, the landscape architect whose firm is based in Oakland, California, began to speak to the group of us gathered, his backdrop a historical timeline of Phillips, a 405-hectare rural agricultural settlement in South Carolina.

It was once a plantation; in the 1870s, those who were formerly enslaved there, now freedmen, purchased 10-acre parcels and founded the Phillips Community. And Hood marvelled at the beautiful logic by which the people — known as the Gullah Geechee — apportioned their land. They would gain recognition for the baskets they weaved from native sweetgrass: the stuff growing free and rampant along a rural edge of water, the “overgrown” that fades out into nothingness in the maps of 18th-century cartographer William de Brahm.

Yet more recent history would see the settlement boxed in by suburban development. “They wanted to ram a six-lane road through,” Hood explained, “so we came up with a plan to help them fight the road and that helped them also become a historic district.” Now that he has worked with the people to protect Phillips from further encroachment, Hood is proposing something called an Arts Lifeway — a network of pavilions along Route 1, the path where craftspeople have long made and sold their baskets. This is the installation’s focal point: a collection of wooden models that iterate what these structures, constructed from renewable wood harvested from the overgrown, could look like.

Hood Design Studio's installation at 18th Venice Biennale

The Scarpa Garden (top of page) features an installation of the basket weave–inspired pavilions
Walter Hood proposes for a South Carolina community. Here and below, the models are shown in the Central Pavilion exhibition. Photos by Matteo de Mayda

A close-up of Hood's architectural model for the proposed Arts Lifeway in South Carolina, shown at the Venice Biennale.

I want to begin with Hood’s project for two reasons: It carries you on a journey to a place where most of us have not been — in the tourist mecca of Venice, a slice of South Carolina’s Lowcountry — and second, it features architectural models. The first point speaks to the narratives that bring into view an often hidden subtext; the second shows off the very tangible fruits of architectural labour. For many critics of the Biennale (most voluble of them all is Patrik Schumacher, whose words, bouncing back to me via DM and LinkedIn, seem to constitute their own echo chamber), there was too much of the former, not enough of the latter. This hyperbolic reaction — that the Biennale is “an event that does not show any architecture” — rolled in faster than anyone could possibly process such a complex exhibition. But such is the velocity with which criticism is dispatched.

Bona fide architecture critics are routinely perplexed by the Biennale. Should it be an  architectural menagerie? Surely not. Of 2018’s “Freespace,” wherein the curators asked participants to recreate sections of projects at scalable dimensions, Tom Wilkinson wrote in the Architectural Review, “A curator has to curate, and fairly ruthlessly at that, otherwise objects might as well be chosen at random and visitors may ask themselves, ‘Why am I here?’ ” Should a biennale show works by the most prominent architects, elucidating the state of the art through a selection of the crème de la crème? That’s what David Chipperfield attempted in a 2012 show that included “an awful lot of stars” but was deemed by Christopher Hawthorne in the Los Angeles Times “limited, exclusive, stiff, starched and a bit cloistered.”

Should it venture beyond architecture to explore how the practice collaborates with, is influenced by and can influence other disciplines, entirely other realms? Yes, of course. But Hashim Sarkis was lambasted by Oliver Wainwright in the Guardian for his 2021 biennale, “How Will We Live Together”: a “muddled pick ’n’ mix of arcane academic research” in a show that “jumps from moon rocks to migration, biotech to bird boxes, showcasing architects’ voracious appetite for tackling territories beyond buildings, with often dubious results.” In 2014, Rem Koolhaas prevailed, somewhat ironically, receiving both high praise and a grudging pass, although he displayed no contemporary architecture at all in his Central Pavilion, instead focusing on the building components that have reduced “architecture today” to “little more than cardboard.”

It makes one wonder why anyone would want to take on the curatorial mantle. If the popular desire is to see a proliferation of standout architecture projects around the world (an odd expectation of any professional discourse), there should be no curator at all. No theme. Just a world’s expo of architecture. In critiquing and even condemning Lesley Lokko’s “Laboratory of the Future” biennale, whose twin themes are decolonization and decarbonization with a special focus on practitioners from Africa and the African diaspora, the hot take that there is no architecture feels especially persuasive, even seductive. It’s a handy way to dismiss a show that requires a lot of brain work. And it would be relevant — architects have a right to be angry if they feel left out of the most important international platform for their profession, one meant to reflect their praxis and world-making back to them — were it true.

Kéré's installation at the Venice biennale

Francis Kéré’s installation features vernacular approaches to architecture, with curved clay walls and a timber ceiling that seem to envelop you. Photo by Matteo de Mayda

At the crux of Schumacher’s criticism, directed mostly at the national pavilions, is the valid argument that architecture should be the medium through which we examine the issues brought up in Lokko’s exhibition. The exception, he contends, is the national pavilion of China, a showcase of the many ambitious architectural projects that will continue to accommodate its unprecedented urbanization.

But if one were concerned about how human rights abuses (one of the Republic’s most concerning issues) intersect with architecture, they would want to spend time in the Arsenale installation Investigating Xinjiang’s Network of Detention Camps by Alison Killing of Killing Architects, dedicated to the alleged Uyghur “re-education” camps uncovered through her forensic architecture work alongside a robust journalistic investigation. That these two realities could coexist in one biennale is a credit to Lokko. (China responded to Killing’s work with a threat to shutter its pavilion; according to the Biennale’s press office, it remains open.)

British architect and urban designer Alison Killing's installation at the Venice Biennale focused on her work as part of an investigation into alleged Uyghur detention centres across China.

British architect and urban designer Alison Killing’s installation at the Venice Biennale focuses on her work as part of an investigation into alleged Uyghur detention centres across China. Photo by Marco Zorzanello 

There is also the sentiment that the Biennale (which includes dozens of ancillary events) has long been fomenting in practitioners a bummer of a guilty conscience over the collateral damage caused by the major architectural developments they are involved in. Yet the profession itself — and its elites — have been hammering this message for years now: The practice of architecture is inextricably linked to everything from resource exploitation and human rights abuses to displacement caused by gentrification and the climate crisis. The Canadian pavilion refreshingly embraces the truth of this reality as a rallying call to rethink housing.

Rich in ideas, provocations and projects already underway, it shows how architects working with local activists, communities and organizations can create new models to address possibilities like “on the land housing” for Indigenous reservations, shelter for the unhoused on city land, new multi-generational typologies, a gentrification tax that would support the retrofitting of affordable rental units and more.

A retrofuturistic vision for a travel network based in post-liberation Africa, Olalekan Jeyifous’s contribution to the Biennale epitomizes its focus on African and African diaspora perspectives. Photo by Matteo de Mayda
A retrofuturistic vision for a travel network based in post-liberation Africa, Olalekan Jeyifous’s contribution to the Biennale epitomizes its focus on African and African diaspora perspectives. Photo by Matteo de Mayda

Beautiful architecture from African and African diaspora practitioners — in the manner of projects that celebrate form, aesthetic and placemaking — abounds in the curated components as well, especially in the Central Pavilion, under the banner of “Force Majeure.” Lokko states that its 16 participants “individually and collectively” are “irresistible examples of the richly creative power of the Black Atlantic, a culture whose roots extend a thousand years into the past, equally stretching towards the future.” Concerning the latter, there is much pondering over a future that might have been, hope for a future that ought to be — one where local communities can thrive in a globalized world — and a foreboding for a future that likely will be, where there is more exploitation of people and resources.

My favourites here are Sumayya Vally and Moad Musbahi’s The African Post Office, or APO, which shows off a speculative future in which African nations have co-created a communication system of poles based on minarets and totems that bypass the power structures of Western colonialism; and Olalekan Jeyifous’s ACE/AAP (African Conservation Effort/All-Africa Protoport), a retrofuturistic vision of what might have been an international travel network across air, land and sea based in post-liberation Africa. Or perhaps both are nebulously situated in time, hinting as much at what could have been as at what still might be, seeding a fantastical future.

Atelier Masomi has wall-mounted models in ways that provide fascinating glimpses of building sections. Photo by Matteo de Mayda

Atelier Masomi has wall-mounted models in ways that provide fascinating glimpses of building sections. Photo by Matteo de Mayda

There is also the tangible now: inspiring projects underway across Africa. Niger’s Atelier  Masōmī shows off architecture that “brings local narratives to the fore, translating dispossessed identities and history into architectural form” (including the HIKMA Community Complex in Niger, Bët-bi Art Museum in Senegal and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Presidential Center for Women and Development in Liberia) in models that are wall-mounted to provide fascinating glimpses of building sections. Francis Kéré creates an installation that is fully experiential — with curved clay walls and a timber ceiling that seem to envelop you — while also presenting videos of the processes behind locally constructed works inside circular peepholes that you have to lean into.

A stunning menagerie of illuminated wooden models — of the Thabo Mbeki Presidential Library in Johannesburg; the Edo Museum of West African Art and MOWAA Creative District in Benin City, Nigeria; the Newton Enslaved Burial Ground Memorial and Museum project in Barbados; and the Africa Institute of Sharjah — is dedicated to the growing oeuvre of Adjaye Associates. The firm also erected a black pyramidal structure, called Kwaeε after a Ghanaian word for “forest,” that is skewed in form, perforated like a sponge and punctured by two oculi: “a space for listening to the past” programmed with music, poetry, debates and lectures.

Adjaye Associates's Kwaeε pavilion was one of numerous projects the firm contributed to the Venice biennale. Photo by Andrea Avezzù

Adjaye Associates’s Kwaeε pavilion was one of numerous projects the firm contributed to the Biennale. Photo by Andrea Avezzù

(As it came to be, in early July, three women who once worked for David Adjaye accused him of sexual misconduct. The Ghanaian British architect denied the charges but resigned as architectural advisor to the mayor of London; the Sharjah project was immediately cancelled, the first of many works either scrapped or put on hold. The now-apparent power imbalances at his international firm alone could bolster the thesis that architecture is about much more than buildings.)

Is the solar economy another sham? Grandeza Studio’s multimedia presentation at the Venice biennale interrogates the ongoing resource exploitation of Pilbara in Australia. Photo by Andrea Avezzù
Is the solar economy another sham? Grandeza Studio’s multimedia presentation interrogates the ongoing resource exploitation of Pilbara in Australia, one of ecocolonialism’s “sacrifice zones”. Photo by Andrea Avezzù

Mostly, the ideas presented in the Biennale are expressed in film, performance and other intangible (and not always compelling) arty stuff. It often gives the observer the impression of being at an art show. On the one hand, a variety of representations of architectural thought and discourse is necessary to convey a multitude of diverse stories about architecture’s influence on complex systems and vice versa. (Unlike physical models, however, they demand much more from the visitor: patience, imagination and, especially, time — which no one ever has enough of.) On the other, their overrepresentation made the scarcity of more typical architectural communication tools — especially advanced rendering and modelling systems — more pronounced.

Still, the contribution that has stuck with me the most is Grandeza Studio’s “Pilbara Interregnum: Seven Political Allegories.” The title alone might megaphone its intellectual pretensions and serve to prove the point of the naysayers, yet it is one of the most memorable pieces in the Arsenale. The rich mineral deposits of Pilbara, in Western Australia, have made the tiny territory the powerhouse of the nation — and, with the recent discovery of lithium, the site of a “21st-century green gold rush” — even though its local, mostly Aboriginal population lives with “infrastructural underdevelopment” and suffers high rates of “racialized social exclusion.” On a triptych of screens fronted by a table-long, gold-tinted model of a dystopian solar development, guerrilla-styled activists wearing balaclavas spit anti-capitalist rhetoric.

Is the solar economy another sham of resource-intensive exploitation? This combination of performance art and physical model posited what seems to be the Biennale’s central point and inexorable narrative: that so much of architectural production, especially in big developments, relies on exploitation; that colonialism continues, in the guise of hyper-globalized capitalism, with its complex modern supply chains obscuring rich nations’ subjugation of poorer places. And it might eventually put you in a nihilist funk. Or, in raising important questions that poke at the underwater mass beneath the tip of the architectural iceberg, which is what we typically have access to, it might leave you inspired to ask more of your own.

The Past Meets the Future at the 18th Venice Biennale of Architecture

The structural columns of classic Western architecture are subverted in Studio Barnes’s Griot, which posits that their precedents are African. Photos, above and below, by Marco Zorzanello  

The Past Meets the Future at the 18th Venice Biennale of Architecture

Grandeza’s eccentric installation is in the Arsenale, the domain of “Dangerous Liaisons,” where Lokko “focuses on practitioners working at the productive edge between architecture and its myriad ‘others’ — landscape, ecology, policy, finance, data, public health, AI, heritage, history, conflict and identity, to name a few…” Conflict (and conflicting narratives) come to the fore here, where you first encounter Griot, the work of Germane Barnes. The Chicago-born, Miami-based architect has been researching elements of classic European architecture — specifically the columnar orders in Rome — that have precedents in the wooden pillars of North African structures.

In his installation, Barnes subverts all the rules set out by the Greeks and the Romans, then superimposes his subversions onto blueprints of the historically Black institution of Howard University. “Why would those buildings be adorned with non-Black columns?” Barnes asks by way of explanation. In the centre of the Arsenale, he has installed a 2.75-tonne pillar of knobby Spanish Marquina Black Marble whose uneven surface is robotically sculpted but finished by hand to feel like bark and mimic Black hair. By redesigning the column, he is also recentring its precedent in architectural history and hauling it out of the anthropological shadows.

Correcting the historical document is also the subject of Ente di Decolonizzazione, Borgo Rizza, by DAAR — Alessandro Petti and Sandi Hilal. Their Golden Lion–winning installation in the Arsenale shows that colonialism wasn’t just something that Italy practised outside its borders: In the Mussolini era, the city of Syracuse, Sicily, was deemed a backwards and “empty” place just as desperate for despotic oversight. The government established a rural settlement there, populated with “modernist-colonial-fascist architecture.” Flattened versions of the style’s prominent features are recreated in the installation as benches.

DAAR’s Golden Lion–winning installation includes benches that riff on the fascist architecture foisted on Syracuse, Sicily, during the Mussolini era. Photo by Marco Zorzanello  

DAAR’s Golden Lion–winning installation includes benches that riff on the fascist architecture foisted on Syracuse, Sicily, during the Mussolini era. Photo by Marco Zorzanello  

The act of erasure by way of architectural development is best exemplified in Brazil’s exhibition, “Terra,” which reckons with Brasília’s legacy in a pavilion paved in fragrant earth. Even the most hallowed of modernist architecture emblems hides a local reality — in a place that was also deemed “void,” despite its being on Indigenous and Quilombola territory — that is too  problematic to contemplate. It too won a Golden Lion, not least for the Indigenous and African Brazilian forms of architecture it honours, which “present a decolonial view of heritage.”

In this way and many more, the Biennale makes space for a taking back by communities that have often been threatened with erasure. Most successful to my mind is the Nordic Countries’ pavilion. It is entirely dedicated to the work of Joar Nango, who has gathered written materials about Indigenous architecture for the past 15 years for his “Girjegumpi: The Sámi Architecture Library.” The hewn-log amphitheatre, hide-draped screening tents and multimedia micro-libraries throughout the natural light–filled pavilion are magnificent, every hyper-vernacular material seemingly carved, skinned, strung and otherwise assembled by many hands.

Joar Nango’s “Girjegumpi: The Sámi Architecture Library” filled the Nordic Countries Pavilion with marvellous spaces for gathering. Photo by Matteo de Mayda

Joar Nango’s “Girjegumpi: The Sámi Architecture Library” filled the Nordic Countries Pavilion with marvellous spaces for gathering. Photo by Matteo de Mayda

Combining both the vital work of revising — and augmenting — the architectural canon and the tangible fruits of architectural labour, it is as visceral an architectural pavilion as any that can be imagined. While I was there — and I did not want to leave — kids scampered about, jumping from level to level on the gathering platform; people huddled together watching the Post-Capitalist Architecture-TV series; and official participants dressed in traditional Sámi clothing made themselves available to discuss aspects of the vibrant installation to anyone and everyone. It felt like being in a timeless place connected to the Earth and welcoming of all.

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