My Biennale Haul

Two weeks ago I was in Venice for the Biennale, covering the 18th International Architecture Exhibition curated by Lesley Lokko for World-Architects. It was my first trip back to Venice since the 2018 Biennale, which was the 16th edition and was curated by Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara of Grafton Architects. Like other writers outside of Europe, the interim edition, though delayed from 2020 to 2021 due the pandemic, still opened at a time when international travel was difficult. I passed on it, as many others did. 

My 2018 trip yielded a pair of "book briefs" on this blog with two handfuls of catalogs from the main exhibition, some from the national pavilions, and some on collateral events. Although a similar number of books from the current Biennale is featured below, it felt this year that print catalogs were slimmer than in years past. For instance, the national pavilions were focused more on digital than print publications, making them available via QR codes and offering to ship print versions later. And only one pavilion, Bahrain, had a large stack of books that whittled down over the course of the two-day vernissage.
The FOODSCAPES book in the Spanish Pavilion

I have a hard time passing up any printed catalog, but I could only carry so much with me, so the below list is limited to the ones I felt were important enough to bring home with me. What's missing? The most exceptional printed catalog I came across was for the Spanish Pavilion, FOODSCAPES, whose website indicates part of the exhibition includes "an archive in the form of a recipe book." The book I flipped through on the large table in the middle of the venue (photo above) was large, the size of an atlas; its large pages were full of essays, images, architectural projects, and other content related to the theme. But only a newsprint was distributed during the vernissage and, while the Biennale bookshop was selling catalogs to other pavilions, Spain was not one of them. For now, this book remains a mystery.

The days leading up to the opening of the Biennale on May 20 were also packed with book launches, some that I signed up for ahead of time but, for one reason or another, didn't make it to, and others that I happened upon as I trekked the Biennale grounds or ventured around Venice. These books I missed include: Sketches on Everlasting Plastics, the first iteration of an ongoing editorial intervention around the US Pavilion exhibition Everlasting PlasticsArchitecture in Islamic Countries: Selections from the Catalogue for the Second International Exhibition of Architecture Venice 1982/83, the first English translation of the Italian catalog for the second Venice Architecture Biennale, directed by Paolo Portoghesi; and the launch of the first volume of Khōrein: Journal for Architecture and Philosophy.

Main Exhibition:
As seems to be the norm in Biennales this century, the catalog for the International Architecture Exhibition is published in two sizes (small and large) and, at least in the large size, in two volumes: one volume devoted to the main exhibition and one volume cataloging the dozens of national pavilions. The latter for this year is the slimmer volume (176 pages) and is basically unnecessary, given the numerous standalone catalogs for the national pavilions and the only cursory, preliminary content available for each contribution. The volume basically serves as a reference, with two-page spreads providing a curatorial statement, list of contributors, and an image giving a sense of the theme for each pavilion and collateral event. 

On the other hand, the longer, 440-page volume devoted to Lesley Lokko's exhibition, The Laboratory of the Future, is more than necessary. Not only does it provide similar statements, team information, and images on the 89 contributors to the exhibition, it helpfully presents them in the multifaceted structure Lokko set up for the exhibition. Within the theme are a handful of sections (Force Majeure, Dangerous Liaisons, Curator's Special Projects, etc.) that are split between the Giardini and Arsenale venues but also intertwined. The catalog presents the contributions within this thematic structure and in alphabetical order; plans of the venues with numbered keys indicate their physical location. Short essays and images inserted between the color-coded sections round out the beautifully produced volume.

National Pavilions:
With just two days of the vernissage to take in the large main exhibition, dozens of national pavilions, and even more collateral events and other exhibitions around the city — and with most visitors to the Biennale spending a day or two there anyways — catalogs are valuable for allowing visitors to devote more time to exhibits of interest. They're particularly valuable for the national pavilions, which are major efforts that often treat the catalogs as extensions of the materials on display. A case in point is Israel's pavilion, cloud-to-ground, which is empty this year and just consists of a few models of buildings on stands in the adjacent courtyard. The concrete models depict old telephone exchanges that are, in reality like the Israel Pavilion, closed off, symbols of how technological change leads to a residue of "black boxes" and provoke the obvious question: What will happen to today's server farms tomorrow, when their technology is obsolete? If the pavilion is slim on information, the book is thorough — and lovely, in its own way — overloaded with essays, interviews, a 112-page "telephone exchanges index," an index of data centers, and much more content.

Brazil and Great Britain won the jury's awards for national pavilions, but two of my favorites didn't: Austria and Germany. Though markedly different in content, each pavilion is about connecting to the Venetian context; Austria does it through a proposal to physically link its pavilion to the Sant'Elena neighborhood just beyond its walls, and Germany does it by turning its pavilion into a materials depot and workshop for Venetian students and craftspeople to use scrap from the 2022 Venice Art Biennale for school and building projects. Austria's bilingual catalog gives a background on the Biennale's gradual encroachment into Sant'Elena as the reasoning behind the temporary footbridge the curators wanted to build for this year's exhibition; the book also catalogs the expansion of the Biennale this century into the rest of the city via small venues and has essays on the right to the city and other relevant topics. It's a strong, politically charged idea — no wonder the Biennale and other authorities shot down the proposed temporary bridge. 

The German Pavilion is curated in part by the editors of ARCH+, so logically the catalog to Open for Maintenance – Wegen Umbau geöffnet is published by the German architecture magazine; it has been released in separate German and English issues, the latter done with Spector Books. The 208-page matte-paper issue, number 252, comes with a 24-page glossy insert that explains the premise of the pavilion and documents its realization through color photographs. The various pieces of the pavilion — exterior ramp, material repository, workshop, kitchenette, waterless toilet, and meeting space — are both illustrative and functioning parts of the circular economy promoted by the curators. The numerous contributions to the issue proper address everything from maintenance and care to race and gender, from the politics of disability to squatting and the right to the city. The issue even has built projects, set off from the rest on gray pages, that follow from the pavilion's theme.

Last of the national pavilion catalogs I brought home is Walkers in Amazonia: The Calendar Project, Peru's contribution to the Biennale. Housed in a smallish building at the Arsenale alongside a few other nations that don't have their own pavilions in the Giardini, Walkers in Amazonia is structured as an A-frame displaying colorful calendars created by indigenous communities in the Peruvian jungle. The catalog contains all of those calendars on glossy pages, but at a smaller size that means many of the words accompanying the drawings are too small to read (they're all in Spanish, obviously, but still). The calendars clearly express a circular understanding of time that is rooted in natural cycles, of reciprocally living in and caring for the jungle. Coincidentally, I met architect Marta Maccaglia, who was in town to accept the inaugural divia award (see below) for the work she's been doing in Peru for about a decade; she told me how happy she was to see the Peruvian jungle as the subject of the pavilion, especially its expression in the colorful circular calendars.

Elsewhere in Venice:
La Biennale di Venezia has a structure that is clear but can be confusing for people visiting Venice during the Biennale — which is about half of every year, when considered between the alternating art and architecture exhibitions. The official exhibitions and events for the Venice Architecture Biennale consist of the International Architecture Exhibition (the one curated by Lesley Lokko this year), the national pavilions (in the Giardini, traditionally, but also in the Arsenale), special projects like V&A's Applied Arts Pavilion, and collateral events that are distributed around the city. But many unofficial exhibitions and events overlap with the Biennale, taking advantage of the people visiting the city to look at architecture exhibitions but also giving the impression that any exhibition in Venice in that time is part of the Biennale. Of these four books, only one is for an official Biennale event.

One of the just nine collateral events in this year's Biennale is Catalonia in Venice_ Following the Fish, which is strongly aligned with Lesley Lokko's exhibition. (National pavilions, or in this case a regional collateral event, don't need to follow the theme of the main exhibition, but they have every right to — and often they do.) It looks at the community of vendors ("manters") in Barcelona who traveled there from Senegal for better opportunities, but instead of being able to ply their trades they are left to hustle cheap wares on the sidewalks, always on the lookout for police ready to arrest them. The story is more complicated than this description, but the exhibition bravely addresses the racism the manters confront on a daily basis; and it reveals to visitors the unseen or ignored community that the curators have formed an alliance with, one aimed at much-needed reparations. Architecturally, the pavilion includes some small-scale solutions for community places in Barcelona, but the catalog focuses on texts that contextualize the complex issue.

Want an experience that is the near-opposite of Following the Fish? Head to Abbazia di San Gregorio and the over-the-top, non-Biennale exhibition of The Line and other NEOM projects. Zero Gravity Urbanism—Principles for a New Livability is, I wrote, more marketing than culture: numerous models of various scales for The Line, the inane — or it it insane? — proposal for a 170-km-long "city" in the Saudi Arabian desert that would house 9 million people and somehow be a model for sustainable living. I'll admit that the models on display are impressive, and the architect in me who was educated in the early 1990s liked seeing designs that were almost plucked from the decade ... but this is irresponsible planning, to say the least. Yet, with the country's deep pockets and architects willing to go along with it, at least a portion of it is being realized: The Hidden Marina, clearly catering to the super rich and their vessels. The catalog I was able to get a hold of is "not for sale," per its insides, but like the exhibition it's more marketing than anything else of value.

Not far from the NEOM exhibition, at the Berührungspunkte venue along the Grand Canal, the inaugural divia award was celebrated the Friday of the vernissage. The event was not the unveiling of the winner, Marta Maccaglia, which had taken place a couple weeks prior in Berlin, but a celebration of the award taking place during the Biennale and the distribution of a few copies of the book on the award. (World-Architects is a media partner for divia, which is short of Diversity in Architecture, so I was able to get a copy.) The book is slim, at less than 100 pages, but is very well done, from its red cover boards to the color photos with projects of the winner and finalists, and interviews with the same. While the inaugural award created by Ursula Schwitalla and Christiane Fath is focused on women in architecture, future iterations of the award are supposed to branch out to encompass other areas of diversity within the profession.

Directly across the Grand Canal from Berührungspunkte is Palazzo Franchetti, a venue for Portugal's national pavilion but also host to an exhibition of cultural projects underway in Qatar (almost as questionable as NEOM) and a sizable monographic exhibition on Kengo Kuma. Onomatopoeia Architecture, which I'll be reviewing for World-Architects in the coming weeks, is a pleasing show, with beautiful models of Kuma's buildings sitting in the palazzo's lushly appointed rooms. The displays are accompanied by two installations: a wooden structure at the entrance to the exhibition on the piano nobile and a larger aluminum piece in the garden overlooking the Grand Canal and the Accademia Bridge. The catalog isn't a particularly deep exploration of Kuma's buildings, but it does a good job of articulating the ideas behind the Japanese architect's "onomatopoeia architecture."