Looking forward to next week’s Venice Architecture Biennale amid frustration shared by curator Lesley Lokko


Looking forward to next week’s Venice Architecture Biennale amid frustration shared by curator Lesley Lokko

(Julian Stallabrass/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

Since the 2020 Venice Architecture Biennale was postponed due to COVID-19, odd years are now architecture years in La Serenissima. The 2023 rendition, themed as The Laboratory of the Future, is curated by Ghanaian-Scottish architect and academic Lesley Lokko. For the first time since the establishment of the architecture event in 1980, the Biennale’s main exhibitions will focus on Africa and the African Diaspora, “that fluid and enmeshed culture of people of African descent that now straddles the globe,” as Lokko wrote in her curatorial statement.

With 89 participants in the main exhibition, 63 national pavilions, and a full slate of auxiliary events around Venice, the Biennale looks to be a departure from the last decade, during which the curators of several prior exhibitions—Common Ground in 2012, Freespace in 2018, and How Will We Live Together? in 2021—were themed around bringing people together. Lokko’s focused vision for the Biennale seems more in parallel to Alejandro Aravena’s Reporting From the Front in 2016, which similarly directed the event to center the Global South as a site of experimentation and a possible harbinger for how architects can address contemporary social issues that impact global development.

Controversy surrounding the event is already here. As covered in Building Design and tweeted by critic Oliver Wainwright, Lokko has encountered difficulties with paying participants and securing visas for contributors. In an email reviewed by AN, Lokko wrote “out of a profound sense of anger, as well as sadness”:

Over the past 15 months, I’ve put together (and raised funding) for four teams to work on the Biennale — in Accra, Dublin, Johannesburg, and London. Each team has been central to the exhibition. In Accra, my team have worked on the overwhelming administration of getting funding to all the participants whom the African Futures Institute has supported through the generosity of Ford Foundation, Mellon Foundation and Bloomberg Philanthropies. It’s been months of ensuring payments get to participants across almost 20 countries and currencies, dealing with the taxation issues — it’s been full on for almost six months. My staff photographer, a young, talented Ghanaian photographer, has contributed photographs to both the exhibition and the catalogue, across all its sections. They have all been denied visas by the Italian government, specifically the Italian Ambassador to Ghana, Daniela d’Orlandi, who has accused me of trying to bring ‘non-essential young men’ into Europe. The Biennale have done everything they possibly can to assist, but to no avail. President Cicutto and the General Manager Andrea del Mercato have been magnificent and tireless. Not even they can sway an ambitious career diplomat looking to make her mark with a right-wing government.

She indicated that she will use the opening press conference to “highlight the absurdity and hypocrisy [of] a show about Africa to which Africans have been denied access, despite contributing our labour. Some things, it seems, never change.”

With that difficulty in mind, here are a few of the exhibitions, events, and discussions that AN editors are looking forward to at this year’s biennale.

The Laboratory of the Future (Arsenale/Central Pavilion)

The Laboratory of the Future will take place in two parts. Force Majeure will be located in the Giardini’s Central Pavilion, where “16 practices who represent a distilled force majeure of African and Diasporic architectural production have been gathered.” At the Arsenale, Dangerous Liasons will focus on the African diaspora and the concept of hybridization.

Both parts of the show include African practitioners working in Africa, such as Adjaye Associates, cave bureau, and Christian Benimana, co-executive director of MASS Design Group in Kigali, Rwanda; members of the African diaspora, such as Felecia Davis, Walter Hood, and Toni Griffin; and Western architects working in Africa. A set of international architects who do not readily fit into those categories are included, leaving a bit of mystery as to what visitors can expect.

Simon Anton, After the Federal Reserve, 2023, plastic and steel (Courtesy Simon Anton)

U.S. Pavilion

Titled Everlasting Plastics, the U.S. Pavilion will present six artists exploring the impact of plastics on the American Midwest—both positive and negative. Curators Tizziana Baldenebro and Lauren Leving describe the presentation as “interrogating our toxic chemical relationship with the material to suggest new ways of framing our dependency to it.” Everlasting Plastics features works by five Midwest-based artists and designers that will “connect plastics to systems of waste and waste production and are interested in thinking deeply about this region’s relationship with the material.”

National Pavilions With American Connections

In the Giardini, several national pavilions are curated by people with ties to the United States. New York’s Storefront for Art and Architecture is well represented, as cofounder Kyong Park has cocurated the Korean Pavilion titled 2086: Together How? which will ask what humans can do about climate change before world population peaks in 2086. Former Storefront Associate Curator Carlos Minguez Carrasco, now Chief Curator at ArkDes in Stockholm, will be cocurating the Nordic Pavilion with James Taylor Foster. They have invited artist and architect Joar Nango to present his long-term collaborative project Girjegumpi, a library that explores Indigenous Sámi design and architecture.

Brazil’s pavilion, themed as Terra, looks at “earth as the center of discussion, both as a poetic and a concrete element.” It will be cocurated by Paulo Tavares, a visiting professor at Columbia GSAPP and one of the curators of the 2019 Chicago Biennial. Among the notable participants in the Spanish Pavilion, themed as Foodscapes are the inimitable Marina Otero Verzier and Igor Bragado and Miles Gertler of Common Accounts, a practice recently awarded a League Prize from The Architectural League of New York.

Aquatic Themes

Water seems to be on everyone’s minds. At least seven national pavilions will take the issue on, including Argentina (El Futuro del Agua), Denmark (Coastal Imaginaries), Egypt (NiLab – The Nile as Laboratory), Greece (Bodies of Water), Grenada (Walking on Water), The Netherlands (Waterworks), and Panama (Panama: Stories from beneath the water).

NiLab. Nile as Laboratory. Egypt Pavilion at the 18th International Architecture Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia. Film Grand Tour on Nile, directed by Ahmed Yasser.

The Vatican Pavilion

The Holy See debuted its Vatican Pavilion in 2018 with a spectacular lineup, curated by Francesco Dal Co and Micol Forti, who designed chapels on Isola di San Giorgio Maggiore in an area usually only open to the Benedictine community. The pavilion returns this year with a contribution from Portuguese architect Álvaro Siza, whose scheme O Encontro will lead visitors to a garden designed by the Italian collective Studio Albori.

Siza called it “a manifestation of the Church’s desire to be close, not only to the world of architecture but to arts in general. It should be seen as a programmatic declaration of how the Dicastery will seek to ensure the presence of the Church in those places, events and spaces where artists gather.”

Special Projects and Participations of Laboratory of the Future

For the first time, the special projects will be as big as the Arsenale and Central Pavilion exhibitions. Thirty practitioners will be show work divided into four categories: Food, Agriculture & Climate Change; Gender & Geography; Mnemonic; and Guests from the Future.

There will be three special participations: Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai, Wales-based photographer James Morris, and London poet and critic Rhael “LionHeart” Cape.

This year, the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement award will be presented to Demas Nwoko, Nigerian-born artist, designer, and architect.

Outside Events

For the last five years, World Economic Forum has been developing The Davos Baukultur Alliance. The initiative will seek to include private sector businesses—especially the real estate industry—with national governments, international organizations and civil society groups “around a shared set of principles to improve quality and culture of our living environments.” Building on the eight criteria of the Davos Baukultur Quality System, the alliance will promote the German concept of baukultur, or high-quality building that is not only economically sustainable, but environmentally, socially, and culturally sustainable as well. The inaugural event of the organization will take place on Friday, May 19. Speakers include Alain Berset, President of the Swiss Confederation, as well as presentations from MASS Design Group, Neri & Hu, and Pritzker Prize winner and curator of the 2016 Venice Biennale Alejandro Aravena.

The European Cultural Centre will again host the Time Space Existence exhibition at Palazzo Mora, Palazzo Bembo, and Marinaressa Gardens. New York–based WXY Studio has designed a circular bench in Marinaressa Gardens that is based on the palaver tree, large, shady trees used for gathering in many African societies. At Palazzo Bembo, fellow New Yorkers Archi-tectonics will be presenting an exhibition “Strange Objects that will showcase their master plan and building designs for the 2023 Asian Games, opening in September 2023 in Hangzhou, China. In Palazzo Mora, The Norman Foster Foundation will be presenting affordable housing schemes developed alongside concrete manufacturers Holcim.

(Courtesy WXY architecture + urban design)

Fondazione Prada will unveil Everybody Talks About the Weather, a research-based exhibition curated by Dieter Roelstraete that will be installed within Ca’ Corner della Regina, Fondazione Prada’s Venetian venue. The effort will showcase more than 50 works by contemporary artists alongside historic pieces to trace the semantics of “weather” in visual art, “taking atmospheric conditions as a point of departure to investigate the emergency of climate crisis,” according to press materials. The New York–based studio 2×4 has designed the exhibition.

NEOM will also have a presence during the festivities. In the exhibition Zero Gravity Urbanism – Principles for a New Livability, curated by Ramon Prat, the Abbazia di San Gregorio will host designs for The Line. Contributors include Morphosis, Sir Peter Cook, UNStudio, Fuksas, Oyler Wu, DMAA, and Adjaye Associates, among others.

Finally, AN will host its own symposium and gathering at Carlo Scarpa’s Fondazione Carlo Scarpa on Thursday, May 18. Panelists include Erandi de Silva, Mohamed Elshared, Davide Tommaso Ferrando, Inga Saffron, and Oliver Wainwright. Their conversation will be moderated by AN executive editor Jack Murphy. RSVP to join us in Italy.

Stay tuned for AN’s reporting from Venice next week.