The city of Venice may very well be, as the architecture theorist Manfredo Tafuri once claimed, “an unbearable challenge to the world of modernity,” but the Venice Architecture Biennale is mostly experienced as a challenge to the modern attention span. Scattered across dozens of venues and allowed access to some four hundred thousand square meters of exhibition space—one-sixth the area of historic Venice itself—the Biennale encompasses more text, visual stimulation and public speechifying than any single mind can process in a couple of months’ time, to say nothing of the 48 hours designated as a “press preview” in mid-May, when the global architecture community descends on La Serenissima en masse for a weekend of champagne and revelry, gossip and motorboat rides and, ostensibly, self-reflection about the direction of the discipline.
Judging by this year’s edition, dubbed “The Laboratory of the Future” by its curator, Ghanaian-Scottish architecture professor Lesley Lokko, the discipline is facing something of an identity crisis. For a decade or longer, architecture has been characterized by its high-minded savior complex, presenting itself in PR spiels and competition entries as a sort of messianic handmaiden to the green-tech revolution, capable of redressing the built environment’s mounting ills through socially sustainable approaches such as eco-friendly construction, mixed-use redensification and that buzziest of architecture buzzwords, “commoning.” The self-image, however, is becoming increasingly difficult to peddle, whether to architecture’s clients in the public and private sectors or to practicing architects themselves. Real estate, architecture’s disreputable step-cousin, is gobbling up the world. The global building sector, the sordid literalization of architecture’s highfalutin inner monologue, accounts now for a staggering 34 percent of the earth’s total energy consumption, alongside 37 percent of its greenhouse gas emissions and about a third of its waste. Even among true believers, it’s becoming harder than ever to maintain faith that architecture makes the world a more livable place for anyone but the most affluent—a reality that confronts Biennale visitors the moment they touch down at Marco Polo Airport outside Mestre, the bleak American-style mainland suburb where half of Venice’s population has been forced to relocate due to events like, well, the Art and Architecture Biennales.
Though no true believer myself, I make my living as a freelance translator of German architecture texts, and in the run-up to the Biennale I was assigned an essay whose title summarizes quite neatly the mood among growing cohorts of the profession: “Think More, Build Less.” Written by the Swiss architect Eva Stricker, the essay was featured in a Biennale catalog published by ARCH+, a Berlin-based magazine for lefty critical discourse and architecture debate founded in the ferment leading up to the 1968 student protests. At this year’s Biennale, ARCH+’s editorial team was chosen to curate the German Pavilion, making the magazine one of 64 “national participations,” in Biennale lingo, charged with staging an independent exhibition in conversation with the larger “Laboratory of the Future” exhibition overseen by Lokko—all of which, together with a series of “collateral events” scattered across Venice, remained open through November 2023, attracting an expected three hundred thousand visitors (six times the population of Venice’s historic center, half that of the more popular Art Biennale).
For a stretch of the 2010s I was an editor at ARCH+, hired not for any specialized architecture knowledge but because the magazine needed German translators as it launched its first English editions, a few of which we co-published with exhibitors and national pavilions at successive Biennales. (Beyond the Biennale’s lubricating role as a glorified industry trade fair, it’s also a prodigious generator of architecture text, with its swarms of affiliated books and pamphlets serving as CV stuffers for early-career academics and prestige multipliers for the featured firms.) I found the Biennales I attended in those days to be interesting X-rays of the industry’s self-perception. The 2014 edition curated by Rem Koolhaas, “Fundamentals,” was substantive and information-dense yet strenuously apolitical, showing a discipline in thrall to the era’s widespread gospel of technological solutionism. The 2016 edition curated by Pritzker Prize winner Alejandro Aravena, “Reporting from the Front,” is often credited with reinjecting social accountability back into architectural discourse, but it also showcased the discipline’s limited vocabulary for addressing the issues it sometimes sees as its unique prerogative to solve. Many of the exhibiting firms, while expressing lofty ambitions to fix the then-accelerating affordability crisis, presented projects that amounted to little more than cooperatively owned condominiums with shared outdoor space (modern-day “commons,” in contemporary architecture parlance). Seven years later, as property prices across the globe continue to skyrocket, it seems safe to venture that these cleverly rebranded gated communities may have failed to do the trick.
More than anything, the Biennale struck me in those years as a place where the gap between architecture’s preening self-perception and its crass economic reality was on full display. Irrespective of the social or ecological justifications architects assign to their work, there’s no creative discipline more intimately linked—as Tafuri argued in his 1969 essay “Toward a Critique of Architectural Ideology”—to the commodification process whereby an immaterial good, urban space, is transformed into “a machine for producing new forms of economic accumulation.” Working on texts like Stricker’s for this year’s German Pavilion catalog, however, made me wonder if a new, more self-effacing spirit was in the air. “Think More, Build Less” argues that a “serious paradigm shift for our professional self-image” might commence if architects begin genuinely internalizing that the best thing they might do for the environment is simply to stop building altogether. In such a world, architects would devote themselves chiefly to the unglamorous tasks of rehabilitating existing building stock and “designing for disassembly,” in Stricker’s words, so their work “can be dismantled and sorted with as little waste as possible.” Advocates term the approach “circular building,” and have elaborated it into a fully-fledged and rapidly expanding research program—with proposals, for example, that every new building authorized for construction should have its components and materials stored in a digitized BIM model, detailing how they can be extracted and repurposed in the event the structure is torn down at a later date. A friend who teaches at the Technical University in Berlin told me it’s becoming commonplace when evaluating student projects to question whether the proposed new buildings should exist at all, or whether the assignment might be better fulfilled through a simple remodeling project.
While these approaches remain largely confined to theoretical discourse and German-language academia, they did strike me as bracingly realist correctives to the discipline’s typical insincere blathering about climate change. So in late April I found myself submitting a last-minute application for Biennale press credentials, curious to see if other participants in Lokko’s “Laboratory of the Future” might be offering similarly actionable perspectives for a disciplinary paradigm shift. (The thought of limitless free champagne in the Venice springtime, my journalistic integrity compels me to admit, had a certain appeal as well.)
My first morning in Venice, after a night of persecution by pesky lagoon mosquitoes, I awoke bright and early and marched to the city’s eastern edge to attend Lesley Lokko’s opening press conference. It was held in a large hall at the end of the Corderie, a lengthy row of brick warehouses where ropes were once manufactured for Venice’s maritime fleet. At the lectern, Lokko—the Architecture Biennale’s first-ever curator of African origin and, perhaps incongruously, a best-selling romance novelist in the U.K.—was wearing a billowing black dress with a bright yellow ruffle that framed her face dramatically above the shoulders. She spoke in a deliberate, sonorous voice, describing the exhibition’s guiding pillars as “decarbonization” and “decolonization.” A central ambition for Lokko, who departed New York’s Spitzer School of Architecture in 2020 to found the African Futures Institute in Accra, is to redirect the Biennale spotlight toward Africa, and in particular sub-Saharan Africa, one of the planet’s most rapidly urbanizing places and hence, with its comparatively young population and its equatorial climate, a “laboratory of the future.” More than half of the 89 participants in her exhibition, which occupies most of the Arsenale as well as a large multistory pavilion in the leafy Giardini, identify as African or belonging to the African diaspora, and their average age is a youthful (for the Biennale) 43.
Lokko also framed her exhibition as an explicit appeal for a disciplinary paradigm shift, stating that what was happening this year in Venice heralded “the birth of a new way of understanding architecture.” For her, this seemed to involve expanding what it means to be a practicing architect tout court. It would be better, she wrote in her curatorial statement, if instead of describing this year’s participants as “urbanists” or “designers” or “architects,” we refer to them as “practitioners,” since the “hybridizing” world in which we live demands a broader conception of the profession’s role. At the press conference, she acknowledged this might provoke criticism in the field, but she seemed unperturbed.
After Lokko’s speech, the audience stumbled into the sun. We received our first tote bags of the day and proceeded in small groups toward a different section of the Corderie, where our press badges were scanned and the exhibition began. At the front was an empty room painted in vivid Yves Klein blue. A text on the wall, written by Lokko, explained that this meditative space was called “The Blue Hour,” channeling that “period of time just before sunrise or sunset when the sun casts a diffuse light from below the horizon and the sky takes on a vivid blue tone. … The Blue Hour is sometimes marked by a subtle melancholy, or a moment between dream and awakening. It is also considered a moment of hope.”
This set the hazy tone for the Biennale, which proved to be more baffling and difficult to categorize than I had anticipated. Over the next few hours wandering between the Arsenale and the Giardini, where the permanent national pavilions are housed, I encountered exhibits about extractivism, about memory, about the dematerialization of landscapes, about coastal imaginaries, aridity, seating solutions, about paper as a material of memory and about the digital repatriation of stolen art through NFTs. There were exhibits about “young robots surviving at the sharp end of inner-city life,” about “dance, procession, games, growing, and worship,” about “the infrastructural mechanism of a postal network that considers routes of prior passage.” There were cartoons envisioning the global financial market as a plumbing system. There was a 3D-printed Saudi smellscape examining “the converging point between tradition and innovation, material and immaterial.” In front of the reliably half-baked U.S. Pavilion, there were piles of basketballs stacked on plastic pots exploring “our fraught, yet enmeshed, kinship with plastics.” There was a punishingly loud audiovisual opera whose protagonist was a shape-shifting, mezzo-soprano-singing digital avatar of Uruguay’s 1987 Forestry Law (quite spectacular, in its own delirious way). There was the Swiss Pavilion, which achieved an apotheosis of Teutonic meta-museological navel-gazing by removing a small segment of brick wall separating its building from the adjoining Venezuelan Pavilion and pronouncing this newfound “spatial relation” the subject of its empty exhibit. There was an exhibition, hosted across three separate off-site palazzos and sponsored by the European Cultural Centre, tackling the modest theme of Time Space Existence.
Scarce at the Biennale were exhibits that had anything to do with, well, buildings, or cities, or infrastructures, or how any of the above might respond concretely to the challenges of climate change or the global housing crisis—two phenomena in which the construction and real-estate industries, and by extension the world of architecture, are directly complicit. This went unremarked upon in most legacy media coverage of the event, which, not atypically for the field, was hard to distinguish from the Biennale’s own PR proclamations (“Radical Rethinking at Biennale,” ran the New York Times headline). Nevertheless, within the ecosystem of high-traffic daily architecture blogs whose content is typically devoted to cheerful clickbait about new buildings (Dezeen, designboom, Archinect, etc.), the absence of buildings became a central narrative surrounding Lokko’s show. The discourse was sparked by a controversial Facebook post the day after the preview by German agitator Patrik Schumacher, principal of the London-based firm Zaha Hadid Architects: “The Venice ‘Architecture’ Biennale is mislabelled and should stop laying claim to the title of architecture,” began his screed, entitled “Venice Biennale Blues” and penned in tumblingly evocative Denglish. It’s worth quoting at length:
What we are witnessing here is the discursive self-annihilation of the discipline. Most national pavilions … refuse to show the work of their architects, or any architecture whatsoever. …What does this tell us? That there is no noteworthy architecture in Germany, France etc. etc. etc. or anywhere in the Western world? Is the design and construction of buildings only an occasion for bad conscience? … The professional work of architects seems to be beyond the pale [at the Biennale], either too banal or morally too compromised to receive a platform in the lofty realm of a critical cultural event.
Schumacher finishes by disparaging the Biennale’s preponderance of “virtue signalling conceptual-symbolic installations” and suggesting that the event’s “vital function” for the discipline is officially “up for grabs.”
His broadside’s virality seemed to indicate a widening divide between architecture theory and practice, a divide that the Biennale—once, according to Schumacher, “the most important item on our global architectural itinery [sic]”—seems no longer capable of bridging. Financially speaking, Schumacher is one of the world’s most successful working architects. As an unapologetic libertarian and staunch advocate for architectural “autonomy” (the argument, essentially, that a building’s aesthetic considerations should trump any social concerns), he also articulates and literalizes what other “starchitects” of his stature often put into practice behind their charades of social accountability. In 2016, for example, he was in the news for arguing that London’s social housing should be abolished and its public space entirely privatized; in advance of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, his firm’s Al Janoub Stadium made headlines as one of the brutally managed projects for which somewhere between three and 6,500 migrant workers died during Qatar’s World Cup construction push. Lokko, meanwhile, is a career professor hailing from an academicized milieu, which tends to emphasize socially engaged text production and curation rather than engineering or realized buildings. “I can’t even change a light bulb,” she joked in a New York Times profile.
As someone who doesn’t relish the idea of ceding more control over our built environment to a consortium of international banks—which is what Schumacher’s architectural libertarianism amounts to, with its calls to abolish building codes and privatize all public space—my inclination is to side with Lokko in the dispute. But as I inched my way across the massive Biennale exhibition, I found myself sharing Schumacher’s bewilderment at the near-total absence of what a layman might identify as “architecture.” On the afternoon of my second day, my bafflement reached the point that I began keeping an informal list of items on display. I counted 119 digital videos or projection screens; fifteen piles of dirt or minerals; three digital videos projected onto piles of dirt or minerals; sixteen maps with inscrutable diagrammatic markings; 29 abstract-architectural art installations. As for architectural models, I counted a grand total of fourteen, more than half of which were located in one expansive room of Lokko’s Central Pavilion dedicated to the work of starchitect David Adjaye, famous in the U.S. for designing Washington, D.C.’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. (Six weeks after the opening, a disturbing Financial Times report accused Adjaye of sexually assaulting and harassing three female employees—no fault of the curators, but an uncomfortable circumstance for visitors reckoning with his preeminence in the show.) In the weeks afterward, I struggled to make sense of what the Biennale communicated about architecture today, and how it conceives its role in addressing the social and ecological challenges that will shape our planet over the decades to come. Altogether, my impression was that of a discipline, confronted with the complexity of the task lying before it, burying its head determinedly in the sand.
If there was a unifying thread at the Biennale, it was the theme of utopia. A well-received exhibit by the Brooklyn-based practitioner Olalekan Jeyifous—winner of the Silver Lion prize for a promising young Biennale participant, awarded by a Lokko-appointed jury—took the form of a spacious, colorfully furnished waiting lounge for an “All-Africa Protoport” that, in a fictional, speculative past, has harnessed “Indigenous knowledge systems” to facilitate emissions-free transit by air, land or sea to any affiliated Protoport in the world. (How this miracle has been accomplished, eliminating in one fell stroke the massive carbon footprint of the transit and shipping industries, isn’t specified.) Inside the Finnish Pavilion, a tongue-in-cheek mockumentary from 2043 presents a “toilet of the future” that has miraculously solved the world’s water and fertilizer crises. (It’s actually just a traditional Finnish outhouse.) In a similarly vaporous alternate universe, the Belgian Pavilion proposes “making an alliance with mushrooms,” invoking a future where fungi have been harnessed to build fully organic and sustainable structures. The curators demo how this might work with a structure made of dried mycelium bricks, which glow attractively under a skylight like limestone. But the bricks are non-load-bearing and held up by a wooden superstructure, meaning they’re useless as a construction material.
Do utopias have an obligation to be plausible? They have always, of course, played a significant role in architects’ output, from the Jeffersonian suburban idyll proposed by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City to the totalizing functionalist cityscape of Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse. Such speculative visions return us to the territory of Manfredo Tafuri, whose 1973 book Architecture and Utopia argued that the ultimate “ideological” role of architects in the modern era was not actually to design buildings, but rather to mediate between the revolutionary credos of avant-garde artists—who registered the horror of the middle classes at society’s accelerating mechanization—and the pragmatic demands of industrial production. (Tafuri, for example, characterizes the Bauhaus as a “decantation chamber” for avant-gardes such as Expressionism, Dada or De Stijl, testing their aesthetic visions against the “reality” of industrial prefabrication.) Seen in this light, the main function of architectural utopias such as Wright’s or Le Corbusier’s was the “extraction of consensus” during the heyday of mid-century modernism as architects aided governments and industrialists in “the organization of production” across the globe, their sphere of activity extending from the design of new towns, factories and modular construction parts to the estates and floor plans of the workers producing them.
These were years of welfare-state munificence, and within the profession they’re generally regarded as heroic, even as they kicked off the “Great Acceleration” of prefabricated concrete whose ecological effects we’re only coming to terms with today. Yet if they yielded improved social conditions for workers, Tafuri argues, this was not primarily due to the utopian content of architects’ visions, but due to “a fiduciary relationship established between leftist intellectuals, advanced sectors of capital, and [social-democratic] political administrations.” Mid-century utopias, in other words, only achieved some measure of social impact because they presumed an extra-architectural, politically mobilized client capable of carrying them out. Today, it’s difficult to imagine what such a client would look like. Since the late 1970s, when architecture’s public-sector benefactor departed the scene, architects have had nowhere to turn for commissions but the real estate industry, whose Brahmins ask only for help gentrifying transitional neighborhoods and extracting ever-higher rents from their urban fiefdoms. Although occasional works of architecture still get financed by what remains of the public sector—airport terminals, contemporary art museums, Calatrava bridges, sport stadiums or global event spaces like the ever-expanding Venice Biennale itself—such commissions tend to be awarded to a small pool of brand-name firms with the goal of boosting adjacent property values for local and international landholders. Within the field this is termed the “Bilbao Effect,” named for Frank Gehry’s famous Guggenheim Museum Bilbao from 1997, which transformed a moribund Spanish port town into a global tourist destination overnight. Under this paradigm, architects’ task is little more than to launder their clients’ rent-seeking with greenwashing slogans and a veneer of social accountability, a performance to which the public has grown increasingly—and justifiably—hostile.
This year’s Biennale speaks to an inflection point. Schumacher is correct in his assessment that globally active, Bilbao-drunk firms such as his own have been dismissed as “morally compromised” by architecture’s teaching, publishing and theorizing ranks. The problem is that an alternative has failed to materialize. If you want to make architecture with a public profile that makes an impact on urban life, there remains little choice but to be a loyal vassal of what geographer Samuel Stein has termed “the real estate state.” Things will continue this way for the foreseeable future, short of a New Deal-style political mobilization with a renewed commitment to public housing, or a massive infusion of subsidies toward green infrastructure and “circular building,” as advocated by my former employers in the German Pavilion. This is probably why when Lokko challenged a generation of young practitioners to meditate on the direction of their discipline, what they proposed instead was contriving alternate realities, directing long-form documentaries and making conceptual sculptures. The “hybridicity” that Lokko has called for might be better understood, then, as a strategy for competing over increasingly scarce culture-industry resources rather than a way of addressing any of the productive challenges architecture once aspired to solve.
My favorite exhibition at the Biennale, housed in the Austrian Pavilion, found a way to dramatize these circumstances. Curated by Vienna’s AKT collective and the architect Hermann Czech, the pavilion proposed offering an olive branch to residents of the Venice neighborhood of Sant’Elena, which borders the Biennale to the east and is one of the city’s only surviving working-class areas thanks largely to social housing constructed under Mussolini and later in the 1960s. Although Sant’Elena residents live right beside the Giardini—one of the only green spaces in Venice before it was fenced off for the early Biennales—they’re barred from entering its grounds without a ticket, except for a few months in winter when the exhibitions are closed. With the Austrian Pavilion standing right at the edge of the Giardini, its curators proposed a small act of restitution: they would knock out a hole in the boundary wall and turn their building and its pleasant terrace, designed by the legendary Vienna Secession architect Josef Hoffmann, into a publicly accessible space for Sant’Elena residents.
When this was rejected on preservation and security grounds by Biennale organizers and the local monuments authority, the curators suggested constructing a bridge made of scaffolding instead. This too was rejected. They resolved, in the end, to make their pavilion a document of their failed efforts to offer something useful to the public, extending the scaffolding as far as allowable from the pavilion walls and leaving it hanging there in its unfinished state. It’s a dispiriting monument, no doubt, to the impotence of contemporary architecture, caught between a ravenously commercial culture industry and political gridlock it’s powerless to resolve. But if we wish to achieve “a new way of understanding architecture,” a clear-eyed assessment of the problem is probably the best place to start.
Art credit: Adjaye Associates, “Kwaeε,” 2023. 18th International Architecture Exhibition La Biennale di Venezia, “The Laboratory of the Future.” Photo by Andrea Avezzù. Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia.