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National Pavilions at the Venice Biennale of Architecture, Photo: Jakob Schoof

A Strong Presence: The National Pavilions at the Venice Biennale of Architecture

Germany is showing virtual reality in empty halls; Australia has simply stuck a QR code onto the locked door of its pavilion: these represent one extreme in the national pavilions of this year’s Biennale of Architecture. At the other, material end of the scale we see the USA: placed by curators Paul Andersen and Paul Preissner by the entrance yard of the neo-Classical American pavilion, the skeleton of a bisected wooden house rises four storeys high.

Just how the countries of the world, hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic, would present their building culture in Venice was one of the most compelling questions in the lead-up to the 2021 Biennale of Architecture. Fortunately, most decided in favour of a physical presence.

Regional building traditions, global resource issues and social coexistence are the dominating themes of this year’s national Biennale pavilions. There can be no doubt that the cloud-based solution chosen by the German curatorial team will conserve resources; nonetheless, something is missing in the digital implementation. Other contributions convey current challenges in a more conventional, yet more impressive way. For instance, the Japanese presentation: the curatorial team surrounding Kozo Kadowaki has disassembled an unspectacular, dilapidated, wooden Japanese house from the 1950s into its component parts and sent it on a trip to Europe. Beams, wall panels, lampshades and bathtub now lie neatly arranged on the pavilion floor. Turkey’s contribution is a must-see, if somewhat puzzling: curator Neyran Turan has enacted the planning and construction process of a fictional building project in monochrome yellow dioramas. However, the fact that the installation intends to refer to the waste of resources on building sites does not become apparent until visitors have read the accompanying text. In this case, the aesthetics simply eclipse the message.

The curators of the Danish pavilion have taken a more direct approach to their own theme. Marianne Krogh and Lundgaard & Tranberg have installed basins and rivulets full of rainwater in the spaces of their pavilion. In addition, free tea is served in order to draw attention to the value of clean drinking water. The United Arab Emirates are offering a view into the post-reinforced-concrete era. The half-complete igloo in the middle of the exhibition space consists of a concrete-like substance developed from salt by curators Waed al Awar and Kenichi Teramoto in collaboration with scientists.

How we will live together

As is known, How will we live together? is the motto of this year’s Biennale. The “together” aspect is accentuated by the pavilion of the Nordic countries with a residential landscape on a scale of 1:1. This was designed by Norway’s Helen & Hard studio following the example of the highly respected Vindmøllebakken cohousing project in Stavanger. The Garden of Privatised Delights by Unscene Architecture, the theme of the British pavilion, is a vividly colourful, neo-postmodern urban landscape that is a call to give new life to pubs, high streets and children’s playgrounds. The installation by Bovenbouw is similarly colourful, yet more conventional: the curators have assembled 50 models of Belgian buildings dating from the past 20 years into a town with the aesthetics of a doll’s house.

The Belgians show fascinating architecture, yet there is a ghostly character to their presentation. For over the past months, urban (inner-city) landscapes in many countries have become vacant backdrops. Astoundingly, only a single country’s contribution deals with the theme that has been the elephant in the room since the beginning of the covid pandemic. In Platform Austria, Peter Mörtenböck and Helge Mooshammer examine the changes imposed on our cities, architecture and social structure by the business models of Amazon, Delivery Hero et al. Twenty years ago, the shift of communal life into virtual spaces was the hot topic. As we now know, the downfall of the city, as foretold, did not come to pass: quite the opposite. Will the consequences of the new digitization wave be as mild? We cannot be certain.

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