Preliminary impressions from la Biennale de Venezia.

In the open-air museum called Venezia and the marketplace called la Biennale, I learned decades ago not to get irritated by the hype and superficial. I rather indulge in the inventive, praise the artistic and gain new knowledge from the investigating projects.

The “Reporting from the Front”  – 15th Biennale might not become a most memorable event, but certainly displays viable tendencies in International Architecture. Like the search for alternative ways of practicing, and looking at architecture as an involving process more than a unique project. Politically speaking this is the first Biennale that seen as a collective work, raises profound critique against the effects of globalisation and new-liberalism.

After years of indulging in the metropolis and excessively urban, the Biennale also displays much needed interests in the rural and the countryside – where modernisation processes these days most ruthlessly occur –and the potentials for architectural action are less restricted.

The exhibition at the Chilean pavilion in the Arsenale is a descriptive example, showing the work of young professionals struggling “Against the Tide”. Returning to the rural areas of the Central Valley of Chile “following their academic training to contribute to their communities, creating architecture which trace a filigree of places where the region´s campesinos and their families can live and work”  (Quoted from the catalogue of the Chilean exhibition). Most beautifully displayed in drone-made videos focusing in an out on the sites, videos also showed onto rusty steel project models, cheap plastic wrapping on the walls contrasting the mural tectonics of the Arsenale. Everything in this exhibition seem to be in line with the chief curator Aravenas concept for the Biennale.

A very emotional and scaring project is the “Tracing of wrongdoings back through Architectural Design Logic” showing the work of Eyal Weizman in war zones.  “Forensic architecture”, a London based group of scientists, journalists, computer engineers, artists and architects (a guess – it seems to me that all these qualifications are needed) has been working together with Weizman to show the logic and effects of the missile based high-tech wars.  The exhibited works illustrate how architecture as a tool for investigation merges with arts and science.

Among the more profound pieces of architecture that are shown, two projects by Chinese masters illustrate that the discipline, traditionally speaking, still holds potentials. These projects are intensely political in terms of questions and answers, at the same time their means are strictly architectural. Wang Shu and Lu Wenyu present rehabilitation projects for villages in Fuyang. Chinese villages are being demolished or gentrified as a part of large-scale rural policies. The politically expressed intention is to bring wealth to the countryside and bridge the huge economic gap between urban and rural. But behind these very social policies lures a suspicion that the actions are part of a strategy to redistribute the ownership of land and put the final industrialization of Chinese agriculture into action. Therefore Wang Shu and Lu Wenyus projects are far more than an architectural investigation into old material traditions and typologies.

Lu Jiakun is working at the other end of Chinese habitats. His project for West Village is situated in central Chengdu, one of the countless Chinese megalopolises. “If cities are good news, then we may consider densifying the open spaces and the services and not just the residences and the buildings,” he states. I read the project as a vast and sheltered urban housing community surrounding football pitches and recreational spaces. The program for the megastructure containing all kinds of social and urban services. This might referring to architectural history, not be a fundamentally new way of thinking. In a situation, however, where the pond for ideas on urban housing typologies seems to have dried out, this spectacular project is brave and inspiring.


Venezia 27th of June 2016







About Karl Otto Ellefsen

Professor in Urbanisme and Architecture at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design, (1997–) Rektor at AHO 2001-2015. Visiting professor at Visual Arts Innovation Centre, Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA), Beijing (2017–). Honorary professor, CAFA, (2019–) President in European Association for Architectural Education (EAAE), (2013–2017)
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