Decolonization and decarbonization, as well as the environmental battle, are central themes at the 2023 Architecture Biennale, which opens to the public this weekend and which, thanks to its curator Lesley Lokko, has focused, above all, on proposals for African creators, also in those of the great African diaspora (in America, Europe, the Caribbean, etc.) and, by extension, in those of other cultures considered peripheral from our continent.
Under the title The laboratory of the future , this biennial offers in its central pavilion a selection of about twenty creators, inaugurated by a 360-degree video installation, vindictive of the already lost traditional African construction methods. The firm David Adjaye, one of the most internationally successful African architects – he was born in Tanzania but has studies in Accra, London and New York – and a worthy potential member of the star system world of other times. Adjaye opens this selection, and also closes it, with a collection of eight models for as many projects, destined for different cities, almost all of them African.
Some contributions are eminently practical, take advantage of used materials and are not without humor
Between this Adjaye sandwich –which also signs an outdoor mega-installation, where Norman Foster or Alejandro Aravena previously signed it– other proposals of interest fit in the central pavilion. Like that of Francis Kéré, the other African architect with international projection, winner of the Pritzker 2022, in which he invites African architects to act with autonomy, overcoming the temptation to “copy and paste” the ideas of the industrialized world.
Nigerian Olalekan Jeyifous presents a collection of renders colors with which he illustrates the movement to replace the colonial exploitation structures with a new conservation effort, with an optimistic look to the future. Other installations stand out for their humility, like those of the Nigerian Atelier Masoni, who draws his buildings with chalk on a brown wall, achieving beautiful images. The biennial also exhibits the cabins that his great-grandfather inspired Sean Canty, from Boston, or the reflection of Theaster Gates Studio, from Chicago, on the condition of African-American artist in the United States.
Catalonia, with the manteros
Catalonia allies itself with the manteros in its Venetian pavilion, through the montage Following the fish (Following the fish, or the fish). This title refers to the cayucos with which the Senegalese fished and were later used, given the scarcity of resources, to emigrate. Eva Serrats, Daniel Cid and Francesc Pla, the three curators, have interacted with landlords to analyze their housing needs. And, later, with 105 university students –from Etsav, EAR…–, they have addressed three typological needs of said community: flexible living spaces, close to coliving; others related to the relationship between such spaces and the exterior; and others for dining rooms. The blankets, turned into canvases where landscapes of origin, arrival or days of social protest are reflected, have a predominant role in the assembly.
This central pavilion, which also exhibits a hanging installation summarizing all his contributions, and those of Arsenale, carried out by the team of curators, is a manifesto by Lokko, who defines him, using a Gallicism, as Force majeure.
At the Arsenal. But, as usual, Arsenal also brings together contributions worthy of being analyzed with a time that the profusion of long videographic offers does not always facilitate. One of those that receives the visitor, the firm Rhael lionheart Cape (London, 1987), through an impressive video of spoken poetry. This recording extols the carnival, as a paradigmatic space of freedom, and contrasts it with a British architecture that he considers boring. Rhael recites blindfolded – “because we must feel, not only with sight” – and concludes that “if we can free the body in the carnival, we must also be able to free ourselves from certain buildings”. A whole program of transformation, although perhaps more typical of the activist poet than of the architect.
There are other pieces of interest in the following rooms, such as the shining golden model of a extraction pavilion, dedicated to silver, cobalt, lithium, cocoa, or diamonds, but also to memory, culture, history and other elements extracted by the colonialists from Africa. Or that of Gloria Cabral and Sammy Baloji with Cécile Fromont, a huge concrete tapestry, built with construction debris and glass, which illuminate it. Or that of Lotty, a London creator who, using state-of-the-art digital technologies, manages to repatriate (replicas of) stolen African works of art.
Spain, rethinking agriculture
“The architecture of the food chain must be completely rethought,” says Eduardo Castillo-Vinuesa, curator with Manuel Ocaña of the Spanish pavilion. “The way we produce, distribute and consume food is at the origin of an unsustainable transformation of the natural environment.” The dimension of the phenomenon to be reviewed is enormous. A fact: 73% of the surface of Spain is dedicated, directly or indirectly, to food production. The central space of the pavilion is occupied by an excellent photographic report by Pedro Pegenaute, which documents the state of the infrastructures dedicated to the food chain (from chicken farms to waste plants). The five perimeter rooms are used for as many films, of various genres (documentary, audiovisual essay, trap video clip…).
But one of the most impressive pieces is Investigating Xingiang Camps a video work by the British architect Allison Killing and the journalist Megha Rajagopalan, who have managed to document, with satellite photos, Google Maps and field research, the extensive network of prisons and concentration camps built by China to repress the minority iugur muslim A million inmates have passed through them.
Also at Arsenal we see three Spanish collaborations. That of the Barcelonan Flores and Prats – emotional inheritance –, who redeployed their studio at the biennale, to value the role of users in the memory of buildings, and vice versa, showing five projects, including the transformation of the Varietés theater in Brussels into a cultural center . Or that of Grandeza Studio, with bases in Madrid and Sydney, which reflect on The Pilbara over an arid region in northwest Australia, the object of successive colonial raids. Or Andrés Jaque and his Office for political innovation that analyzes the distant origin of materials used in New York.
National pavilions. Environmental reflection and a certain economy of means, with gaps included, are very present in the national pavilions. Let’s start with the latter. Switzerland has decided not to exhibit anything, and has limited itself to opening a connection with the neighboring pavilion of Venezuela, in what it defines as a manifesto for the neighborhood. Japan has preferred to celebrate the 67th anniversary of the construction of its pavilion by Takamasa Yoshizaka by showing his architectural virtues. And Russia, albeit for other reasons, keeps its flag empty and closed. He’s on something else.
Regarding environmental reflections, those of Germany, Denmark and the United States stand out. With open for maintenance , Germany takes the bull by the horns and installs workshops in which to produce, with the appropriate machinery, in a more sustainable way. Denmark, in coastal imaginaries , addresses a subject that usually produces a paralyzing juyu: the rise in sea level. And he does it with sometimes primary, but useful ideas, from withdrawing from the coast, to laying out dunes, island barriers, marshes, agriculture or underwater urbanism. And, in the US pavilion – plastics forever –, Lauren Yeager (with her plastic debris totem poles blurring the pavilion’s classic façade) and other creators reflect how this material shapes and erodes contemporary ecology and economics. Holland is also committed to pragmatism, which presents systems to take advantage of the 180,000 liters of rainwater that each year falls on the 256 square meters of the roof of its pavilion… and is lost.
In this biennial there is a lot of postcolonial debate, sometimes it seems that in proportion superior to the architecture. And much more than fits in this hasty chronicle. But there is also some humor. Latvia has set up a fake supermarket in her pavilion, with remnants from previous biennials, so that everyone can buy the one they like best. And the UK offers a video titled dancing before the moon in which, echoing the writer James Baldwin – “some already think of colonizing the Moon, while others prefer to dance before it, as before an old friend” -, images of innumerable festive celebrations are collected that the groups of the South Asian diaspora , African and Caribbean have contributed to the very formal British culture.