Sculptures of Black African figures adorned in tribal body paint crowd the entrance of the 2021 Venice Architecture Biennale. They confront visitors out of jagged holes in doors through which they appear to have fallen—or perhaps been pushed. One is bent backwards by the weight of a heavy platter screwed to its face.
In another area, polyphonic voices rise from murmurs to crescendos. They come from a circle of totemic audio speakers surrounding an altar displaying a video of what looks like an intergalactic gaseous stew.
Other exhibits explore the microbiological realm: a retractable robotic arm waters a honeycombed earthen structure sprouting orange fungal flora. Designers manning another exhibit display bacterium-infused concoctions in drinking glasses decorated with 3D-printed algae blooms that they intended to serve to Biennale visitors before COVID-19 restrictions kiboshed that plan.
What are these arty installations and science experiments doing alongside building models and diagrams at the 2021 Architecture Biennale? This year’s curator, Hashim Sarkis, titled his pandemic-prescient exhibition How Will We Live Together?, and he hopes it will inspire viewers to think beyond the building envelope.
The experience of living through COVID has certainly made us more aware of the limitations of our homes and our workspaces. Affluent families in search of more commodious abodes and open space have fled cities for the suburbs. Many people are working online for the foreseeable future in cramped apartments built solely for shelter. Will life ever return to “normal”? Do we really want it to? How Will We Live Together? shows us the perils of sticking with the status quo and offers potential solutions.
Throughout the 317-m-long Corderie section of the Arsenale, a former Renaissance-era rope factory, and at the Central Pavilion, an exhibition hall in the neighbouring Giardini fairground, whimsical models, interspersed with serious plans for action, show where we might end up if we don’t change course.
Several are meditations on social isolation, which, even before COVID, was becoming its own kind of epidemic. A display called Social Contracts presents a dystopian view of the nuclear family, with a table set for four, each setting separated by walls you must walk around to share the salt shaker. There are potential cures for loneliness, such as the wearable memory-foam contraptions in Heavy Duty Love that are designed to replicate a human hug. Gig workers glued to their desks might actually welcome the gadgets on display in Catalog for the Post-Human, such as the diaphanous, hooded vest equipped with intravenous tubes to keep your body stocked with essential nutrients while you are “multi-tasking.”
At first glance, this year’s Biennale may appear chaotic. But the exhibits are arranged in sections ranging from the human body, to the household, to the community, to entire regions and, in the final section of the exhibition, the planet that sustains us. Governments are seen as unequal to the task. Sarkis, who is dean of architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s School of Architecture + Planning, and who appeared at the Biennale’s opening dressed in a casually styled blazer, jeans and a T-shirt, is calling for a “spatial contract” that requires architects to design spaces in harmony with all the scales of existence in his show. “The way we thought of ourselves as exclusive, and our existence as anthropocentric, has actually caused a lot of damage to ourselves, to other species and to nature,” Sarkis tells me. “We have to reconsider that relationship.”
One structure we should definitely rethink is the single-family detached house, the only housing type currently allowed on much of the residential land in major Canadian cities. Many urban planners link the restrictive zoning laws to skyrocketing property prices and sprawl, saying these types of dwellings no longer serve the needs of a great many people who currently call them home. We need to embrace “other models with shared amenities and shared living spaces,” Sarkis says, “like single-occupancy, co-housing and extended-family dwellings, which have been suppressed by architecture and the dominant economic models of development.”
Multi-generational families who want to live together might consider structures such as those displayed in the modern take on the in-law apartment in the House + Plus exhibit, which is designed with prefabricated components including furniture, reconfigurable interiors and aesthetically varied exteriors.
There are clever prefab solutions for how we can afford to live together. Bremer Punkt, an exhibit of reconfigurable four-storey modernist cube-shaped structures, is one of the many responses at the Biennale that address rising housing prices and suburban sprawl. Because of their approximately 14-x-14-m footprints, these units can be installed on lots too small to accommodate other types of development. Unlike typical cookie-cutter affordable housing, the cubes are available in up to 22 different apartment types.
But the future may belong to buildings like Maison Fibre, a two-storey structure built from a web of glass and carbon fibres that dominates its location in the Arsenale and weighs about 1/50th of a comparably sized building of concrete and steel. These robotically constructed fibrous buildings also are vastly less polluting to produce than standard housing, while erecting them requires a relatively minimal building site where surrounding neighbourhoods endure little construction dust and noise.
The lockdowns and fears that accompanied the pandemic underscore how stifling apartment living can be, especially for low-income people without adequate access to fresh air and open green space. One exhibit includes the description of an award-winning plan for Plateau Central, a large multi-storey development slated for the Clichy-sous-Bois suburb of Paris, an area populated mostly by immigrants. The design encourages social interaction through public and private spaces that include garden terraces, apartment balconies, a roof farm and a ground-level market with retractable walls to enhance the building’s sense of openness.
There also is a compelling alternative to the soulless monoculture of automobile-oriented high-rise developments ruining China’s landscape. This exhibit showcases Dongziguan Village, a prefabricated, updated version of the traditional Chinese courtyard house equipped with modern conveniences. The affordable-housing development, originally built for displaced farmers, is interlaced with public and private open spaces and pedestrian-oriented lanes instead of roadways, where people from different backgrounds can rub shoulders.
The emphasis on more sociable forms of habitation at this Biennale is underpinned by themes of environmental sustainability, which go far beyond standard tree-hugging tropes.
The Entangled Kingdoms exhibit asks the viewer to consider the endangered state of fungi and bacteria. “Only 10 percent of bacteria are harmful, the other 90 per cent are either neutral or beneficial,” declares landscape architect Thomas Doxiadis in front of a glass case displaying desiccated mushrooms and a log covered with sparkling orange lichen. “If you are using fungicides and certain pesticides,” he says, “you are killing beneficial organisms.”
The focus on microbiomes might seem out of place until you consider that the modernist architecture movement, which brought us scrubbable surfaces and minimalist furniture you can easily clean around, was in many ways a reaction to the 1918 flu pandemic. We might want to reconsider aspects of that sterile style and invite certain bacteria into our dwellings.
One candidate, chlorella, a type of freshwater algae harvested from streams and ponds, is celebrated at an “urban laboratory” specializing in “biotechnological architecture.” You enter the lab through diaphanous curtains containing a green, powdered version, which is purifying the air around you by absorbing carbon dioxide and heavy metals. Inside is all manner of glassware, including the 3D-printed glasses filled with a liquid chlorella, a protein-rich superfood. “The algae eats the pollution and becomes a nourishing element for you,” Sarkis says. “This is a very beautiful reimagination of the household as being the coexistence of two species.”
This concern with sustainability and coexistence is amplified by the creative ways in which many of the Biennale’s exhibits are slated to be recycled after it closes in November. The Philippine Pavilion explores the principle of bayanihan, which refers to a community cooperating to realize a common goal, with a small one-room wooden library with a sloping roof and exquisitely crafted shelves and cabinets. It will return home to the Filipino community that collaborated with trained architects in building and designing it.
Ego to Eco presents architectural models of housing developments on a large table dominated by hundreds of tree saplings being grown hydroponically. After the show closes, the saplings will be replanted in Denmark as part of a national strategy to reforest that country.
Clearly, even before COVID, many of the visionary architects exhibiting in this year’s Biennale viewed existing boundaries between the private, public and natural realms as being in need of a overhaul. This exhibition shows how new housing and development models can improve our physical health and our lives as social beings, while helping restore the health of the planet. We’d do well to rush out and sign Sarkis’s new spatial contract.
This article appears in print in the August 2021 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Can we stay in this together?” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.