The Happenstance by Baxendale Studio at the Scottish collateral installation. Photo by Sam Holleran

Who Says Architects Have to Make Buildings?

At the Venice Architecture Biennale, some of the most exciting exhibitions were provisional and collectively produced.

by Sam Holleran
May 31 2018, 8:31pm

The Happenstance by Baxendale Studio at the Scottish collateral installation. Photo by Sam Holleran

Venice, a city full of canal-side bars, where cognoscenti sip Aperol spritzes and watch private boats zip by, may seem like a strange place for showing work with a humanitarian bent. The city’s Architecture Biennale can feel like a cross between a mid-century World’s Fair and Burning Man, but, in recent years, it has directed its focus on the social dimensions of space, spotlighting projects that are meant to improve the lives of the world’s marginalized—and, unusually, don’t involve building permanent structures. Biennale exhibitions must make complex ideas bite-sized, but recently, the transience of these installations has become a matter of principle, not necessity: they are provisional because architecture should be contingent and produced collectively with the people who end up using it.

At the British Pavilion (the winner of an honorable mention from the Architecture Biennale’s jury), scaffolding floats viewing decks above the neoclassical building where British artworks have been displayed since 1909; inside, traces of last year’s wall text are visible, but there is nothing on display. Island, created by architects Caruso St John with artist Marcus Taylor, turns the United Kingdom’s increasing isolation from Europe into an architectural gag: the pavilion’s mansard roof just barely peeks out from its scaffolding, as if it has retreated from its neighbors behind a hedgerow. The sun-roasted rooftop space it creates is pretty unpleasant, and the scaffolding forces visitors to move awkwardly, squeezing through crevices and scaling roofs. The bone-dry humor of the piece is evidenced in its only recurring programming: a properly British tea hour, offered daily.

“Les Grand Voisins” by Yes We Camp at the French Pavilion. Photo by Sam Holleran.

Other works use ethnographic research methods—interviews, workshops, and community drawing sessions—to focus on the people who use public space. In the Japanese Pavilion, curator Momoyo Kaijima (with Laurent Stalder and Yu Iseki) presents over 40 projects, among them design charrettes that took place in vulnerable communities, including refugee camps. In these projects, architects learned how informal settlements were built and managed from the ground up. Unlike the practices of architecture-activists like Alejandro Aravena (the curator of the last Biennale), these research-based endeavors don’t always seek to build but instead to learn, and, through this research, treat the developers of informal settlements as architects in their own right.

The French Pavilion’s exhibition, Infinite Places, illustrates grassroots city planning, including architecture collective Yes We Camp’s project in an abandoned hospital, Les Grands Voisins (good neighbors). The architects facilitated community dialogues, creating pop-up models to test out different uses for the sprawling site. Without a finished work to display, Infinite Places focuses on the deliberative decision-making process key to the success of large-scale projects. Cheerful infographics track the transformation of abandoned or neglected sites into free spaces for the city’s residents.

Chapel by Francesco Cellini at the Holy See Pavilion. Photo by Sam Holleran.

Far from the crowds of the Giardini is the Scottish installation, The Happenstance, a polychrome pergola nestled in the gardens of the Palazzo Zenobio. The structure was designed by Baxendale Studio, who have created a number of community-led projects in Glasgow using quick construction to create playground-like environments and sculptural seating. On a Sunday afternoon in Venice, kids swing from wood beams while adults lounge in canvas chairs. The structure exhibits the work of the architects, but it also emphasizes the contributions of planners, performance artists, and entrepreneurs, and the people who use it. As a structure, The Happenstance feels unfinished, and that’s a good thing—it lets in the sloppiness and beauty of everyday life.

Venice Architecture Biennale