Real-world debates permeate this year’s Venice Biennale on architecture, from commemorating spaces once part of the US slave trade to maintaining the delicate status quo at religious sites in the Holy Land.
The sprawling International Architecture Exhibition, which opened on May 26 for a six-month run, reflects not only on the political implications of what gets built but also on the empty spaces in between.
“We have to be aware of the political issues in order to make buildings which protect the status of the human being in the world,” said Shelley McNamara, co-curator with Yvonne Farrell of the main exhibition, FreeSpace. “We are acutely aware of the things that are threatening the quality of life of human beings.”
The world’s most prestigious architecture festival invited 65 countries and 100 architecture studios to display their interpretation of FreeSpace in the vast 3,000sqm Venetian Arsenal and gardens.
The Israeli Pavilion, subtitled “Structures Of Negotiation”, outlines the consequences of multiple claims on revered religious places and how daily use defines monuments.
It doesn’t comment on how Donald Trump’s recent decision to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv might impact the Middle East conflict. But the curators agreed it is easy to draw inferences.
“What we know is that sometimes political events have a very heavy impact on the status quo of the holy places and vice versa, and even if the equilibrium of the status quo in the holy places is for some reason violated, it has an influence on the political situation,” said the pavilion’s co-curator Tania Coen Uzzielli.
Take the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, revered as the place of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial and one of the pavilion’s five case studies. The exhibit features a colour-coded, three-dimensional model of the church made for an Ottoman-era pasha to make clear which denomination controlled which area.
In the early part of the last century, a conflict over who had the right to clean a raised stone in the church courtyard led to violence, said pavilion co-curator Deborah Pinto Fdeda. “Tens of people died,” she said. “It is through the usage of places over time that these communities gain or lose power.”
Yet even there the status quo evolved: “Today the Latins and Orthodox agree to clean it as if the other doesn’t exist.” The US pavilion comments on the meaning of citizenship as governments dictate who belongs and who doesn’t.
Amanda Williams and Andres Hernandez created, in collaboration with Shani Crowe, “a pocket of retreat” in the courtyard behind a protective veil of black braids.
The refuge is built on a rail, symbolising the underground railroad that helped carry slaves to freedom in the 19th century in America. It projects upward, toward a better future. “The piece tries to embody that trajectory from fighting and surviving for your citizenship to thriving,” Williams said.
Inside, a group called Studio Gang brought 800 stones from a 19th century landing in Memphis, Tennessee, linked to the slave trade. Co-curator Ann Lui said the project was about “taking a moment to think about these fraught sites” without proposing how to remember them.
Seven countries – Antigua and Barbuda, Guatemala, Lebanon, Mongolia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the Vatican – are participating for the first time.
Saudi Arabia’s project that focuses on urban sprawl in the kingdom’s four major centres: political capital Riyadh, religious capital Mecca, the oil city of Dammam, and the port city of Jeddah.
“The sprawl is the result of the oil boom but the result of the sprawl is actually social isolation,” said curator Sumayah Al-Solaiman.
Participation in the Biennale is yet another sign of the recent opening in Saudi Arabia, giving Saudis an important chance to communicate their experiences directly to the world.
“I think it is becoming more and more relevant to be involved in things that relate in art and culture,” said architect Abdulrahman Gazzaz. “I think it is truly fascinating to us to be present at such a wonderful shift in the dynamic of the country.”
The Vatican had participated in the Biennale of art in 2013 and 2015 but is a first-timer for architecture. The Holy See entrusted 10 world-renowned architects, including Norman Foster, to create chapels in a wooded area on an island in the Venetian lagoon.
Curator Francesco Dal Co said the woods provided a metaphor “of where you get lost in life” and the chapels “are always a place of encounter, meeting experience and orientation”. The chapels may stay on as a permanent presence on San Giorgio island after the Biennale closes on Nov 25.
The opening also saw honours being given out to projects and people. The top award, the Golden Lion, went to the team behind the Swiss entry. Named Svizzera 240-House Tour, it was designed by Alessandro Bosshard, Li Tavor, Matthew van der Ploeg and Ani Vihervaara.
The entry is an empty flat with a focus on standards like 240cm, considered the optimal height for living quarters. Visitors can walk through the exhibit. British architect and architectural historian Kenneth Frampton also won a Golden Lion for lifetime achievement. – Agencies