From the countryside to outer space: why the 2021 Venice Architecture Biennale is all about crossing new frontiers

From the countryside to outer space: why the 2021 Venice Architecture Biennale is all about crossing new frontiers
A neighbourhood featured in Uzbekistan's inaugural biennale offering, Mahalla. Image: Christ&Gantenbein;

Crowds may not be set to descend on Venice for this year's architecture biennale, but the world's leading creatives are still determined to make their mark in a world hunting for new solutions more than ever before. The Calvert Journal rounds up the innovative and noteworthy entries and exhibitions from Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

18 June 2021
Text: Elian Stefa

It was the summer of 2019 when Lebanese architect and educator Hashim Sarkis first asked creatives the question at the heart of this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale: “How will we live together?” At the time, he had little idea of just how literal and urgent that question would become over the following two years.

But after a cataclysmic 2020, this biennale’s public view from May until November 2021 marks a new beginning for large international cultural events. Hosting a biennale while a global pandemic remains in full swing leaves plenty of space for criticism. But the eagerness with which the architecture world is looking for answers — most of all to the looming issue of “what comes next” — is unquestionable.

There is a clear ambition to break old-fashioned borders and limitations, even those set by the biennale itself

The main exhibition is curated by Sarkis himself, who presents a roster of projects which vary in scale and practicality. A few presentations take a more traditional path, focusing on the research and representation of contemporary architecture, but elsewhere the biennale is dominated by pockets with a distinct low-fi sci-fi aesthetic, with echoes of utopias and dystopias embedded within the core of many of the pavilions. The richness of information can at times become overwhelming, and some conclusions feel disjointed; a reminder that there are no easy answers when it comes to the world-building aspects of architecture and planning, especially when ecological and environmental challenges are looming just over the horizon.

But among this year’s national pavilions, there is a clear ambition to break old-fashioned borders and limitations, even those set by the biennale itself. Cross-country collaborations and the search for meaningful relationships appear again and again. For many, it is a natural backlash after months spent in isolation. Elsewhere, it is a response to rising insularity and nationalism; but across the board, forging new connections is being framed as a method of tackling seemingly localised problems. By opening up their national pavilions to others, countries across Eastern Europe are seeing so-called regional issues being brought to the global stage — gathering new perspectives and solutions.

The Újpalota Apartment Tower, one of the buildings spotlighted in Hungary's Othernity. Image: Dániel Dömölky

In one example, Hungary’s pavilion invites other architects from across Central and Eastern Europe to reimagine the country’s socialist architecture. Othernity — Reconditioning Our Modern Heritage sees 12 emerging practices from across the region take on 12 of Hungary’s suffering Modernist structures and create new ideas on how to use them in the future.

“Involving foreign architects was a cornerstone for Othernity,” curator Dániel Kovács told The Calvert Journal. “It reaffirmed our conviction that our contemporaries, who have a similar cultural background but are not emotionally attached to specific locations, are able to come up with new, unprecedented proposals. [But] this can also be interpreted as a kind of critique of the genre of the national pavilion: we think that good solutions can only be expected by stepping beyond the usual national, political, and social boundaries.”

Inside Serbia's 8th Kilometer. Image: MuBGD

The Serbian and Slovenian pavilions also look at their countries’ relationship with infrastructure from the socialist past, underlining the need to metabolise history in order to work towards a more equitable future. The Serbian Pavilion takes a detailed look at the city of Bor, a case study of a single-industry town with their 8th Kilometer. Like many former socialist towns built at the mercy of centralised planning, Bor’s economic activity revolves mainly around a single resource: copper. The pavilion raises questions regarding the long term sustainability of such towns, when extractivist powers have marked their economic profile for so long. The Slovenian Pavilion takes a broader look at Local Cooperative Centres and how these modest rural structures have transformed and survived through different political tides by retaining their principal function of bringing local communities together. In contrast, the Albanian pavilion In Our Home looks at the past as a melancholic escape from the present, through the uncritical filter of old propaganda-laden films of the totalitarian regime. The pavilion gets stuck in a controversial attempt at neighbourly nostalgia which, in its naivety, risks becoming a form of societal gaslighting.

Probably the best use of the biennale’s year-long delay was from the team behind the Russian exhibition, who used the extra 12 months to renovate their pavilion and bring it back to its original design from 1914, when it was first created by architect Alexey Schusev. Led by upcoming Russian-Japanese architecture studio Kovaleva and Sato Architects and the Milan-based 2050+, an international consortium modified the pavilion’s Soviet-era additions to open up the building, its gardens, and lagoon. An online pavilion was created as an alternative research platform to look at the relevance of cultural institutions and biennials in the current cultural panorama. A third chapter of the pavilion utilises digital environments to experiment with architectures and habitats in more symbolic and carefree ways.

But while many pavilions sought to gather in international expertise, others measured the neglected countereffects of such moves— the impact of culture and knowledge as it flows away from national borders.

The Armenian Pavilion reflects on the country’s culture of diaspora and the hybrid identities of coexistence that mass emigration from Armenia has produced. Curated by Allen Sayegh, the augmented reality installation Hybridity connects 80 communities of Armenian descent across the world through digital space. Romania’s Fading Borders touches on similar themes with a combination of two projects: the photographic documentation of migrants who have left Romania in search of better opportunities, and research into the territorial consequences of these waves of migrations. Estonia, meanwhile, puts on view its tried and tested solutions to activate public space in shrinking cities, with Square! Positively shrinking. Six case studies of public place-making bring forth tangible interventions to combat a phenomenon which is endemic throughout the whole of Eastern Europe: the abandonment of the periphery due to internal and external migration.

Poland’s pavilion reflects a different take on the rapidly emptying countryside. In Trouble in Paradise, six pan-European studios were invited by Polish curatorial team PROLOG+1 to look at the post-socialist countryside as an independent space deserving of its own research. Poland itself is 93 per cent rural, but long-neglected communities are in dire need of new ideas and approaches towards rural living as technologies and industries change. The pavilion takes a speculative look at an abstract rural space and infuses it with conceptual solutions — trying to give communities the answers they need to everyday problems before they are pushed to move elsewhere.

An image of a rejuvenated public square in the town of Võru, featured in Estonia's Square! Positively shrinking Image: Villem Tomiste

The biennale is quick to remind us too that there are still new boundaries to be broken. A breakthrough new entry is the spectacular contribution from Uzbekistan, Mahalla: a traditional typology of vernacular Uzbek architecture which goes hand in hand with the endangered style of community living. Curated by Christoph Gantenbein and Emmanuel Christ, and an international research team from ETH Zurich, the installation brings forth a tangible reminder of the alternative modes of human agglomerations from around the world, and the sustainability of the relationships that are cultivated with the environments they inhabit.

The Kosovar and Latvian pavilions opted for more scenographic and sensorial installations which, while sincere in their playful and virtuous use of building materials and architectural elements, added little concrete to the conversation. But that’s not to say that the spectacularly absurd does not deserve its own space. The most outlandish contribution to this biennale is, without doubt, the Lithuanian Space Agency’s pavilion, which stands out by responding to “How will we live together?” with an important question of its own: “Why don’t we use humans as a building material for a new planet?” The highly Instagramable, tongue-in-cheek installation by Belgian curator and designer Jan Boelen is a fun although sombre reminder that biennales in their current form remain primarily a platform for networking and spectacle. After all is said and done, there is nothing that brings people together quite as much as a breath of fresh Venetian air — even if it is to discuss: “Instead of sending humans to colonise other planets, what if we catapult them into space?”

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