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How does the Venice Biennale tackle sustainability?

Hattie Hartman
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Amid the superficial and uninspired, Hattie Hartman finds plenty of exhibits that show the profession addressing some pressing global issues

I am not a Biennale regular, but Alejandro Aravena’s ambitions for Reporting from the Front prompted me to make the Venice pilgrimage this year. Inequalities, communities, sustainability, waste and pollution number among the ‘battles’ – or issues – that Aravena set out to tackle. I was curious to see how sustainability in its broadest sense would fare in Venice.

The answer is mixed. At the entrance to the Arsenale, a theatrical installation of 14km of steel studs left over from the previous Biennale sets the tone. Exhibitions that marry good design with a strong sustainability agenda are numerous and this alone makes a visit worthwhile. Yet as ever, too many submissions rely on one liners; and others are worthy but uninspired.

Biennale 2016 takes time to absorb. This is partly down to its sheer size – 88 entries in the Aravena halls and 61 countries in the Giardini pavilions and elsewhere across the city – but also because video has reached a tipping point. Be it Francis Kéré describing his proposal for a new parliament for Ouagadougou; life in the periphery of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia (the coldest capital in the world); the mass Hindu pilgrimage of Kumbh Mela, which attracts more than 100 million people every 12 years; or – closer to home - Assemble’s overlong ramblings of children’s play, video brings an immediacy and intimacy to our grasp of these varied people and places. The Brazil pavilion alone features 17 videos (on too tiny screens), and the most compelling bits of the Brazilian show are buried in the videos.

Sam Jacob’s 1:1 prototype of a shelter from the Calais jungle is bordering on the gratuitous

The refugee crisis is the overriding subject that emerges from this year’s Biennale, starting with Germany’s punching bold openings in the Neoclassical stone facade of its 1909 Giardini pavilion as a metaphor for its open door policy. While some have dismissed this as mere ‘sloganising’, the permanent aspect of these steel-lintelled openings forcefully conveys how Germany is ‘walking the walk’. Also nearby in the Giardini, much can be gleaned from Basel architect Manuel Herz’s research into the semi-permanent refugee camps of the Western Sahara where a self-governance structure has evolved over several decades of occupation.

Less convincing – and bordering on gratuitous – is Sam Jacob’s 1:1 prototype of a shelter from the Calais jungle in the V&A’s disappointing inaugural Biennale show, A World of Fragile Parts. The small black and white photograph of the same shelter hanging nearby is strangely more informative – and more compelling. While tackling a critically important and controversial subject – the role of reproductions in preserving cultural artefacts (about which we will undoubtedly hear more in future) – the V&A’s Venice debut is superficial in content and facile in presentation. By contrast next door, Ricky Burdett’s Conflicts of an Urban Age is a polished and visually dramatic installation, which makes a multitude of facts and figures easy to grasp.

On the environmental front, Barcelona landscape architects Batlle & Roig’s transformation of the city’s former 70ha landfill through a combination of terracing, planting and new drainage systems in the Garraf Natural Park, inspires hope as an example of how our planet can be healed with long-term vision. With phase 3 (of 4)  underway, an enormous photograph of this 2008 World Architecture Festival award-winning project runs the full length of the gallery and effectively conveys the dramatic makeover of the landscape.

In a completely different vein, VAVStudio’s work in Iran, where trade sanctions mean that all construction materials have to be local, reveals that exceptional work can flourish despite severe constraints.

Stuttgart-based environmental engineer Transsolar’s light installation in the Arsenale (which relates to simulations undertaken for Jean Nouvel’s Abu Dhabi Louvre) is visually forceful when viewed along the axis of the Arsenale but bears little relation to the theme of Reporting from the Front, while Michael Braungart’s confused A Building Like a Tree installation is replete with worthy platitudes.

Most disturbing of all is the American pavilion, which under the banner of The Architectual Imagination subjugates the impoverished city of Detroit to 12 speculative projects described by co-curator Cynthia Davidson as ‘an architecture of porosity.’ Outrage at the appropriation of Detroit for this theoretical exercise has spawned a digital occupation of the exhibition by grass roots organisation detroitresists.org.

AHMM partner – and AJ Biennale blogger – Simon Allford has expressed concern about Biennale 2016’s fetishisation of the vernacular architecture of the poor. My view is that confronting the Biennale audience with these global realities raises awareness about the profession’s potential contribution to addressing some of these pressing issues.

A case in point is the Norman Foster Foundation’s proposal for a network of adaptable droneport structures, which could be used to facilitate delivery of medical supplies to remote parts of Africa. Foster’s droneport is designed to be built with local materials and can be extended to serve as a community hub, health clinic or market. A full-scale prototype sits on the Arsenale basin and a network will be trialed in Rwanda.

And if you go, don’t miss the exceptional Zaha exhibition at Palazzo Franchetti…

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