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La Biennale Architettura di Venezia 2021: How will we live together?

Cover photo: Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia

To start with

The latest Venice Architecture Biennale should have taken place in 2020, yet sharing the fate of Art Basel Hong Kong, Burning Man and other major events 'lucky enough’ to be set for the pandemic year, it was moved for 2021. Well, it finally happened. Meet the 17th edition of the International Architecture Exhibition, running through 21 November 2021, whose inauguration ceremony was held in late May. Speaking in numbers, the exhibition features 112 Participants from 46 countries, 61 National Participations, 17 collateral events except for the special projects. Titled ‘How will we live together?’, the project is curated by Hashim Sarkis, Lebanese architect, Professor and Dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

La Biennale Architettura di Venezia. Source_ Archinect .JPG

Reading curator’s mind

Regarding the forced shift of the event, Hashim Sarkis seems to have no regrets at this point, finding the downtime essential for reflecting upon the subject chosen. It's quite amusing that the theme of the current edition formulated as an open question had been selected some time before it would go mainstream (I refer here to all that chaos and confusion caused by the year odd of the COVID-19 pandemic). Just like the title of the 58th International Art Exhibition, which sounds like ‘May you live in interesting times’, ‘How will we live together?’ has recently taken on a new importance — and it has certainly acquired some fresh meanings.

Hashim Sarkis, the curator of the biennial. Image_ Brice Vickmark. Source_ ArchDaily

Some details

By raising such a controversial question, the curator of the biennial doesn’t expect to hear any single and explicit answer, rather preferring to merge into harmony with a choir of voices. Of course, it’s not the politicians, but the architects, artists, researchers, and other intellectual and creative forces who are given the floor this time. The main exhibition venues of Biennale di Venezia, the Arsenale and the Giardini, proudly host the subsections, of which there are five: Among Diverse Beings (Arsenale), As New Households (Arsenale), As Emerging Communities (Arsenale), Across Borders (Giardini, Central Pavilion), and As One Planet (Giardini, Central Pavilion), each bringing us closer to the cherished solution. No shortage of debutants in 2021: Grenada, Iraq, and the Republic of Uzbekistan took part in the event for the first time.

Uzbekistan, ‘Mahalla_ Urban Rural Living’. Image_ Giorgio De Vecchi and Giulia Di Lenarda. Source_ Dezeen

A very special programma speciale

Apart from the five scales presented in the Giardini and the Arsenale, the project covers a series of research stations or Stations, where worldwide universities delve deep into the issue, as well as Co-Habitats, spaces for experiments by prominent artists like Olafur Eliasson and Giuseppe Penone. Special projects and collateral events are meant to give space to even more voices including those of emerging talents (Young European Architects exhibition/Young Talent Architecture Award) and the biennial long-time collaborators (Victoria and Albert Museum presenting ‘Three British Mosques’ at the Pavilion of Applied Arts).

Three British Mosques’, Applied Arts Pavilion Special Project by V&A Museum. Image_ Andrea Avezzù. Courtesy_ La Biennale di Venezia.

Let’s play, let’s dance

More recently attached to the biennial venue, Forte Marghera displays an interesting spin-off in the exhibition concept, which reads like ‘How Will We Play Together?’ and features a rather childish (in its best, play-and-learning sense) approach to the outworld and urban space. An icing for the cake would be an intersection of the 17th International Architecture Exhibition with its first cousin, the 15th International Festival of Contemporary Dance in the last week of July. Curated by the world-famous choreographer Wayne McGregor, the participants of the dance festival will focus on reinterpreting the meanings and ideas embodied in the architecture exhibit through short choreo pieces, call them ‘snapshots’ or “sketches’.

La Biennale Danza 2021 takes off on July 23. Courtesy_ La Biennale di Venezia

Calling on the curator once again

But back to the exhibition concept. Besides the names of the scales prompting the curator’s intentions and aspirations within the project, Hashim Sarkis literally spells out the essence of his thoughts in the curatorial statement. ‘We need a new spatial contract’, he writes, implying the dominant importance of such an agreement. So, how will we live together? And here Sarkis unpacks the query: each of the five words constituting the question (which is, by the way, open, not a rhetorical one) marks the proper lines of thinking we as visitors might pursue. The approach can be referred to while exploring the architectural gems of the biennial. What kind of hint does a particular work give us? How do its authors answer the curator’s question?

Courtesy_ La Biennale di Venezia


The question ‘How?’ implies both specific responses (methods of improving our co-existence on this planet here and now) and general ideas, which more relate to strategic thinking. Surely, it wouldn’t have been without the role of an architect and architecture in this <supposed> section.

Reconstructing a dismantled house means altering its original appearance, for which multiple architects gather and create new forms from the old ones, that’s how diversity meets collaboration (Japan, ‘Co-ownership of Action: Trajectories of Elements’). And it’s architecture that should finally take on the role of an agent, actively shaping the environment in response to the challenges of our time, such as economic crises and climate change (Turkey, ‘Architecture as Measure’).

07. Turkey, ‘Architecture as Measure’. Source_

However, those for whom the architects do their best can also change their attitude, becoming more involved and qualified in terms of using the medium. ‘What if the inhabitants try acting on their living environment daily?’ wonders the team from the Pavilion of Finland (Aalto) in the ‘New Standards’ project. Another highly practical response to the question is given by the UAE Pavilion (‘Wetland’): the project group sought to reproduce the Sabkha ecosystem, natural salt flats nascent to the United Arab Emirates, which represent an eco-friendly alternative to Portland cement.

United Arab Emirates, ‘Wetland’. Image_ Laurian Ghinitoiu. Source_ ArchDaily

In contrast to the previous solution, the installation ‘Uncertainty’ by Spain features a very broad, nebulous (the title suggests that), yet attractive concept. Deemed essential for the creative process, uncertainty might even sound positive, when one has to deal with some complex, cross-disciplinary issues. In interesting times like now we need uncertainty to come up with some innovative strategies (no doubt, that accounts for both social actions and architecture, which intersect, in fact).

Spain, ‘Uncertainty’. Image_ Laurian Ghinitoiu. Source_ ArchDaily


It’s in the air, we are going futuristic here. How will we communicate, study, resist the pressure of digital tech and at the same time interact with it? German architects respond by drawing a bigger picture: ‘2038: The New Serenity’ is a utopian vision of the upcoming years touched by sterility. Is there still anything to look forward to, now that fundamental rights, decentralization, and self-sustainment of the systems have triumphed, radical democracy prevails, and all thanks to big data.

Germany, ‘2038. The New Serenity by 2038’. Image_ Laurian Ghinitoiu. Source_ ArchDaily

Latvia’s architects are less optimistic in this regard: they insist, today architecture needs a human perspective, to escape from the ‘techno-nonsense’ and enable a liveable coexistence of humans and technology (‘It’s not for you! It’s for the building’). Meanwhile, some forms of reflection on the homo digitalis era look rather inventive:

e.g. ‘Planet of People’ project by the Lithuanian Space Agency comes as an astro-disciplinary initiative to shape a satellite from the bodies of individuals, while the ‘Entanglement’ exhibition in the Irish Pavilion represents the digital as the material, in all its blinding glory (hint — it’s about a bonfire).

Lithuania, ‘Lithuanian Space Agency Presents Planet of People’. Image_

Somewhat less pathetic, but still exciting is the project ‘Future School’ by the Korean Pavilion. The phenomenon of a traditional educational institution is being reconsidered — right on the air. Workshops, lectures, performances, and other events on the theme will enjoy regular broadcasts from Seoul, where they will be running parallel to the Venice exhibition for all 25 weeks.

Republic of Korea, ‘Future School’. Image_


It’s the ‘Who is we?’ installation by the Dutch Het Nieuwe Instituut that may initiate the subject of usness. Not until we define who we are, eliminating the irrelevant narratives that still design our existence, we should pursue transforming the urban environment and life around us.