What to see at the 2023 Architecture Biennale
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What to see at the 2023 Architecture Biennale

Curated by Lesley Lokko, the 2023 Venice Biennale of Architecture shines an artistic and intellectual spotlight on Africa, climate change, and sustainability

What to see at the 2023 Architecture Biennale
By Redazione The Plan -

Like all previous editions of the Venice Biennale, the 18th International Architecture Exhibition has become a global attraction for both the industry and the public. It runs through November 26 at the Giardini and Arsenale venues. The event is an opportunity for reflection, exchange, and learning. A chance to step back and focus on a cross-section of today with an eye to tomorrow.

Even before it opened, this edition, curated by Lesley Lokko and entitled The Laboratory of the Future, promised to be revolutionary. This was partly because of its highly topical themes, and partly because of the narrative shift to Africa, a continent that generally plays a minor role at the event. From decolonization to gender equality, sense of community, land rights, climate change, and sustainability, the Biennale is focusing on several key issues that visitors are being encouraged to reflect on and discuss. And all of these issues are highly topical, demanding international involvement.

There has been no lack of criticism, however. Patrik Schumacher, director of Zaha Hadid Architects, for example, commented that architecture itself is missing from this edition. His sentiments were echoed by Luigi Prestinenza Puglisi, who wrote on his Facebook page, “The positive of this Biennale is that it tells us that architecture can be made of anything. (We knew this in the sixties, but it’s worth repeating). The negative is that it’s scared to take ownership of such a radical idea, settling instead for a generic environmental radicalism. In fact, there are no projects on show (or almost none). People are saying that for the first time the starchitects are missing. That’s fair enough, but there’s also a lack of young architects and new architecture”.

Everlasting Plastics - Padiglione degli Stati Uniti - Norman Teague, Re+Prise Photo by ReportArch / Andrea Ferro Photography, courtesy SPACES


The key themes of the Laboratory of the Future

With the 18th Architecture Biennale, Laboratory of the Future, curator Lesley Lokko has put together what could be described as a politico-artistic manifesto, in which her continent of origin, Africa, is the subject of the narrative. Divided into six parts, the exhibition brings together the work of 89 participants, most of them from Africa or the African diaspora.

The first keyword of this Biennale is immigration, as something that can trigger creative processes in ways never seen before. Then comes decolonization, as the African continent is still tied to the north, even though many nations have been independent for some decades.

Of particular interest from this perspective is Looty, a Nigerian project for reclaiming works of art stolen during colonialism by converting them into NFTs, with each object recreated in three dimensions and written into the blockchain. The first of its kind, this digital process allows anyone to access these stolen cultural treasures.

Also not to be missed is the small exhibition focusing on the work of Baba Demas Nwoko, winner of the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement, in the Stirling Pavilion in Giardini.

Archinfusion - Padiglione del Niger Photo by Luca Casonato, courtesy of the author

The third keyword of the 2023 Venice Biennale is decarbonization, referring in particular to environmentally sustainable processes for the generation of renewable energy, especially in Africa. The Biennale itself is committed to minimizing its ecological footprint, with brochures and maps only available in digital format.

And there are other keywords, such as gender equality, with the event recording an almost equal gender balance. Another interesting statistic is that the average age of the 89 participants is 43, with the youngest exhibitor just 24.

But the big names in architecture are missing. We might have expected the involvement, for example, of Pritzker Prize winner Diébédo Francis Kéré. The only major name is David Adjaye, who designed The Kwaeε, a word that in Twi, one of the main languages of Ghana, can be translated as forest. Located just outside the Arsenale, this installation comprises a large black triangular prism made entirely of wood. It’s intended to host conferences, roundtables, and performances but is also a space for listening to archival materials.


The pavilions to see at the 2023 Architecture Biennale

Everlasting Plastics – United States Pavilion

This exhibition addresses the plastic waste emergency through a series of works by artists and designers. Their creations highlight our dependence on plastics in our daily lives and the huge problems involved in moving away from this material for the sake of the environment.

Co-curated by Tizziana Baldenebro, executive director of the Cleveland arts nonprofit SPACES, and Lauren Leving, curator for the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, the pavilion invites us to reflect on the coexistence of humans and plastic without ethical judgments so as to make the material itself into a potential agent of change.


Archinfusion – Republic of Niger Pavilion

Curated by Boris Brollo, the Republic of Niger Pavilion was developed around the concept of eclecticism. Specifically, it reflects on the mixing and harmonization of two very different cultures, African and Western, to create a cultural melting pot in which each tradition serves the other to create something new. Hence the name of the pavilion: Archinfusion, or fusion in architecture. The collaborative approach typical of a workshop is exploited here to achieve common goals, such as using technology to safeguard the beauty and architectural history of Niger, without compromising their aesthetic authenticity.

This process produced the “Brique Magique,” a mud brick that can be produced with different structures and shapes. Although small, these modifications give the brick entirely new characteristics. To cite just one example, they can make walls thicker using the same amount of material.


Spaziale – Italian Pavilion

The full title of the Italian pavilion is Spaziale. Everyone Belongs to Everyone Else. Conceived by the Fosbury Architecture collective, the pavilion houses works by nine small architectural firms from around the country who were asked to address the issue of things unfinished through the same number of site-specific installations.

A combination of factors make the pavilion special: the young age of the members of the collective and of the studios involved, the conceptual recomposition of the Italian peninsula through the projects, and the theme of things unfinished. The sense of emptiness visitors experience in the pavilion itself is also striking – a void that poses many questions, while also allowing you to focus on the message.


Terra [Earth] – Brazilian Pavilion

Winner of the Golden Lion for Best National Participation, the Brazilian pavilion plays on the word Earth in the sense of both a tangible place and as a poetic reference to a place of identity – in other words, what could be defined as homeland.

The exhibition doesn’t just feature the creations of individual artists but brings together works by whole indigenous communities that reflect on the social use of space and inherited knowledge. The result is a pavilion in which design and architecture combine with the traditions of communities, offering potential answers for the future.

Dancing Before the Moon - Padiglione della Gran Bretagna Photo by Marco Zorzanello, courtesy La Biennale di Venezia

Dancing before the Moon – British Pavilion

The British Pavilion has received plaudits for its storytelling. The question it poses is clear: How do diasporic communities manage to maintain a connection with their homeland? The answer is through a daily ritual of dance, food, and traditions. This is the germ behind the exhibition, made up of handicrafts that, together, map out a shared vision of people who have left their homeland.


Moving Ecologies – Chilean Pavilion

In alchemy, the crystal ball offers a possible vision of the future. The association between 250 glass spheres and the word future is what animates the Moving Ecologies installation in the Chilean Pavilion.

The work comprises 250 small spheres, each containing the seed of the endemic plants of the South American country able to restore ecosystems, improve air quality in cities, and regenerate soil. Its message is that the future is to be found in a return to our roots, in restoring our connection with nature. This is an evocative and conceptual experience.

IRTH إرث - Padiglione dell'Arabia Saudita © Venice Documentation Project, courtesy of Ministry of Culture

IRTH إرث - Saudi Arabia Pavilion

The IRTH إرث project ("heritage" in Arabic) proposes a sensory and interactive exploration of traditional Saudi architecture, starting precisely from its constitutive element: the earth. The pavilion examines the symbiotic relationship between material and immaterial, drawing a line that links past and future.

The exhibition is curated by Basma and Noura Bouzo sisters, co-founders of &bouqu (creative and cultural consultancy firm). The set-up, designed by architect AlBara Saimaldahar, managing partner of Dahr design studio, enhances the essence of Saudi craftsmanship with elaborate artifacts, and takes up the traditional motifs of Al-Balad, the old city of Jeddah, transforming them into fluid shapes.


Unbuild Together: Archaism vs. Modernity – Uzbekistan Pavilion

Some pavilions are able to transport you into their unique narrative dimension, which might sometimes be difficult to understand but is nevertheless stimulating. This is true of the Uzbekistan Pavilion in which just a few well-mixed elements come into play in an example of visual storytelling composed of tradition, materiality, and light. The element of tradition stems from the pavilion being a recreation of a typical fortress of the Karakalpakstan region; materiality, from the labyrinth made of bricks with pronounced ceramic aggregates; and, finally, light, from the way it’s used to highlight the exhibits to the exclusion of the dark backdrop.

In Vivo - Padiglione del Belgio Photo by Matteo de Mayda, courtesy La Biennale di Venezia

In Vivo – Belgian Pavilion

Belgium has put together a minimalist exhibition in which art and architecture occupy the same narrative level. The In Vivo exhibition, curated by Bento Architecture, focuses on the use of living materials in architecture, in particular, mycelium – that is, the root-like structure of a fungus. It has been used in recent years in ecological architecture for reasons of reduced emissions, cost, and availability.

While difficult to grasp in its entirety, this is a pavilion in which to discover this innovative material that could revolutionize architecture in the short term.


Before the Future – Ukrainian Pavilion

Over 400 days of armed conflict have transformed Ukraine into an enormous battlefield. This installation represents the sorrow of war, represented by the black drapes that envelop the room. They form dark, narrow, claustrophobic spaces, in which you might just trip over the folds. Like war, the space mixes story with fear.


Renewal: a Symbiotic Narrative – Chinese Pavilion

This pavilion reviews the last forty years of architecture and urban planning in China through a series of models in which the key elements are urban and rural renewal. The exhibition makes it possible to observe and analyze experiments with living conditions in high-density residential settings.

The pavilion poses a series of questions about the future, such as how will cities respond to the changes and needs of tomorrow?

Architecture, a place to be loved - Padiglione del Giappone Photo by Matteo de Mayda, courtesy La Biennale di Venezia

Architecture, a Place to Be Loved – Japanese Pavilion

Although the pandemic highlighted the importance of coexistence, cities continue to grow in a completely impersonal way. So, the question must be asked: Are we right to believe that people still love architecture?

Japan provides an answer in its pavilion designed by Takamasa Yoshizaka, a student of Le Corbusier. The upper section is the heart of the exhibition, which brings together projects, photographs, and models. The lower section is an interactive space where visitors can create moodboards using provided photographs, papers, and paints. The result is a diverse, personal collage, in which everyone tries to transform their love of architecture into a manifesto.


Home Stage – Estonian Pavilion

Cities are constantly changing, and homes reflect this change. They become places of exchange within the living space, disposable places that lose their identity. Estonia has taken a snapshot of this and, in a rented apartment in Venice, has created a home and stage in which daily life unfolds. The stars of the show are several Estonian artists, who, one at a time, will live in the apartment.

Ninety-minute performances alternate with real life, with the public interacting. The event is a kind of Big Brother with an evolved vision, full of questions and personal answers. This is certainly the most unusual of all the pavilions.


T/C Latvija – Latvian Pavilion

Can architecture be sold in a discount store? At a time when anyone can buy ready-made designs to build on their own land – even if that’s on the other side of the world – Latvia has created a supermarket-inspired pavilion. T/C Latvija is an Instagrammable pavilion with strong communicative power and a focus on social sharing. It reinterprets previous editions of the Venice Architecture Biennial, transforming them into supermarket shelves, each one filled with fake packaging marked with the event slogans. And the installation is interactive, with visitors first choosing three products to put in their shopping cart and then choosing their favorite Biennale from 2000 through today by throwing a ball.

Utopian Infrastructure - Padiglione del Messico Photo by Marco Zorzanello, courtesy La Biennale di Venezia

Datament – Polish Pavilion

A monumental pavilion in which data is transformed into physical reality. The pavilion features four distinct architectural styles from Hong Kong, Malawi, Mexico, and Poland combined in an apparently haphazard fashion with colors used to identify the different styles. The installation asks us to consider the dual nature of data: on the one hand it helps organize information, while, on the other, it’s a source of errors.


Utopian Infrastructure – Mexican Pavilion

During a visit to the Biennale, it’s only right to make time for a little fun. An alternative to the usual coffee break is the Mexican pavilion, entitled Utopian Infrastructure: The Campesino Basketball Court. And the pavilion has indeed been set up as a basketball court, where everyone can try their hand at shooting baskets. But after the fun, there’s a question: What’s a basketball court doing at the Venice Architecture Biennale?

The installation relates to land reform in Mexico in the 1940s. At the time, thousands of basketball courts were created with the idea that they’d serve as community spaces. So it was that extremely disparate populations – from the Zapatistas to indigenous communities – found themselves sharing both a space and leisure time. The courts soon became small town squares, where events, meetings, and markets would take place. The basketball court therefore came to represent an important meeting place for many Mexican communities.

Please refer to the individual images in the gallery to look through the photo credits

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