“Places for people”. This title at the entrance of the Austrian pavilion could summarise the topic the Architecture Biennale has tried to explore this year: the convergence of architecture and society. Constructed around the mottos “Against scarcity: inventiveness” and “Against abundance: pertinence”, the exhibition seemingly attempts to revisit Mies van der Rohe’s concept of “Less is more” from the eyes of the poor by pointing at saving resources as the key to design.
The zero-waste mentality is promoted through a variety of means, from installations built with upcycled components to constructions made of natural materials such as mud, clay, wood and bamboo. Visitors are welcomed at the Arsenale by an installation composed of reused metal studs hanging over their heads, and further on they come across structures made of bamboo and metal scaffolding, bed frames, plastic sheets and bags, as well as piles of rubbish. The effort towards a low-cost architecture seems to have produced a general lack of beauty throughout the exhibition, with a few exceptions.
The Armadillo Vault by Block Research Group from ETH Zurich shows how old construction principles can be revisited and extended by adopting computational and digital fabrication techniques to optimise the use of building materials. With a minimum thickness of only 5 cm, the limestone vault elegantly spans 16 m, standing in pure compression while the form is balanced by tension ties at the base. Block Research Group also participated in the Droneports project by the Norman Foster Foundation. The brick vault outside the Arsenale represents the modular structure proposed for multiple uses in Africa, from markets and covered squares to a cellular network of droneports in the perspective of using drones for the transport of goods to remote areas.
Exhibited at the Arsenale, the Warka Water project intends to tackle the problem of water shortage with a construction designed to capture the moisture in the air, condensing it and storing it in a reservoir beneath while providing a space with social significance for African villages.
In the Central Pavilion of the Giardini, Gabinete de Arquitectura from Paraguay created a large, arching structure to prove what can be achieved by combining a clever structural design with unskilled labour and simple construction materials such as bricks.
Provocative mottos inside the German pavilion may suggest an imminent change in the architects’ profession, promoting urban transformations towards informal, affordable and self-built cities capable of responding to the European migrant crisis.
Despite its emphasis on social problems such as poverty and the scarcity of resources, this year’s exhibition continues the Biennale’s tradition of an expensive entry ticket, positioning itself a bit arrogantly as an influential cultural event about everyone but not for everyone.
In conclusion, the 2016 edition of the Venice Biennale provides some food for thought for architects. Saving resources appears to be a priority in design, urging considerations on the quality of the artefacts as well as on the current business models. Can we make buildings from natural materials and still respond to contemporary needs? Can we build from waste and still produce beautiful, durable artefacts? How can architects’ and designers’ business models be improved in order to adapt to the changes in society? With a hunger for answers to these questions, you might leave this year’s Venice Biennale unsatisfied but stimulated.