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At the Venice Biennale, an architecture exhibition to meet the moment

The global event, curated by MIT’s Hashim Sarkis, queries how people can best live together at a time of uncertainty, crisis, and change.
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Hashim Sarkis
The 17th International Architecture Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia 2021, curated by Hashim Sarkis, pictured, dean of MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning, displays a broad range of ideas addressing its thematic question: How will we live together?
Credit: Andrea Avezzù, Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia
Hashim Sarkis, right, with Roberto Cicutto
Hashim Sarkis, right, with Roberto Cicutto. Roberto Cicutto is President of La Biennale di Venezia.
Credit: Jacopo Salvi, Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia

By many lights, these are challenging times: The worldwide Covid-19 pandemic, the climate crisis, rampant political polarization, and the social and economic effects of globalization have all contributed to a sense of unease or outright turmoil around the globe.

This summer, the Venice Biennale’s 17th International Architecture Exhibition, the world’s premier event of its kind, is directly tackling those types of issues, led by the exhibition’s curator, Hashim Sarkis, dean of MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning.

As curator, Sarkis chose the exhibition’s organizing question: “How will we live together?” It is a searching approach, asking architects and designers to envision new solutions to our pressing social concerns.

“Every generation asks this question, and every generation deserves to come up with its unique answers,” says Sarkis.

As challenging as the present moment may be, Sarkis says, architects are “fated to optimism” by the forward-looking nature of their craft. To design is to think about improving the world.

“We build,” Sarkis says. “Building is an investment in the future. We build new households, new work places, new facilities. We build for better lives. This is why we are fated to optimism. However, we need to be more responsibly optimistic, more attentive to the impact of our proposed futures on the planet and on the aspirations of future generations. This is what the 17th Biennale is about.”

Indeed, in an opening statement he issued about the Biennale’s theme, Sarkis calls for “a new spatial contract” to bolster our sagging social contract. 

“The spatial contract is constitutive of the social contract,” Sarkis says. “This has always been the case, but we often forget about it as we replicate old spatial models that no longer correspond to the social challenges at hand. Architecture can imagine alternative and better ways of living together.”

One exhibition, five scales

The Venice Biennale began holding art exhibitions in 1895, later adding biannual shows in other areas of culture. Since 1980, the Biennale of Architecture has usually been held every two years. This year’s exhibition was originally slated to open in May 2020 but was rescheduled due to the global Covid-19 pandemic. Instead, it opened on May 22 of this year and runs through Nov. 21.

The current Biennale has 112 participants with entries from 46 countries; there are also exhibition elements such as “research stations” that illuminate the social context of architecture, and “co-habitats” that present case studies in the ways diverse people live together. The Biennale has multiple large exhibition spaces and about 30 dedicated national pavilions, many located in Venice’s Giardini della Biennale. This year’s Biennale allows in-person attendance and has integrated virtual events into its presentation.

To further structure the Biennale, Sarkis divided the exhibition into five distinct scales: the body, the household, the community, transborder regions, and the planet. Among other things, that structure engenders interdisciplinary thinking about the ways architecture and design interact with civil society.

“The conventional scales of past Biennales — architecture and city — miss out on scales where we are seeing the more radical changes in the practice, the scale of the body and that of the planet,” Sarkis says. The use of scales, he believes, also lends itself to innovative thinking — and has helped organize the exhibition for visitors and participants alike.   

“Scale is a way we architects think, and therefore it fits within the way we organize our knowledge and our tools, even if it is here stretched much further,” Sarkis observes.

Given that the pandemic has forced many people to learn to live apart from each other, Sarkis acknowledges an apparent “irony” in the Biennale’s thematic question. Conversely, however, the pandemic has powerfully underscored the need for responsive, thoughtful architecture that will let people live together in a range of circumstances. Sarkis notes that multiple such ideas were already present in the Biennale’s entries.

“There were many projects that already anticipated architectural attributes that have become more pronounced after the pandemic,” Sarkis says. “For example, one project by a Jordanian architect, Sahel Alhiyari, looks at the courtyard house as a resilient typology over centuries — how the interior/exterior organization has adapted to many uses, and how the exterior space remains essential as an organizing but also breathing element for the house. We have seen how important enclosed outdoor space has been during the pandemic.”

The New York Times has called the theme of this year’s Biennale “remarkably prescient,” in light of the pandemic, and described the exhibition itself as “a case study for how to begin to tackle such questions.” 

The MIT participants

The MIT faculty participating in the Biennale this year include architects, artists, technologists, historians, urban studies experts, and environmental studies scholars. Sarkis points out that MIT has already been well-represented in recent editions of the architecture Biennale; 2021 is not different in this regard.

“There has been indeed a growing presence for MIT at the Biennale over the cycles,” Sarkis says.

Sarkis’ team certainly drew upon MIT talent. The Biennale assistant curators are Roi Salgueiro, a research scientist and instructor in MIT’s Department of Architecture, and Gabriel Kozlowski SM ’15, an instructor and research associate at MIT’s Norman B. Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism (LCAU). Xhulio Binjaku MA ’19, a lecturer in MIT’s Department of Architecture, is the Biennale research associate.

Sarkis also credits “two great groups of students” at MIT for participating in the Biennale effort — one through a “formative” workshop about the event and another focused on the design process of the installation.

The MIT-based projects on display at the Biennale cover a wide range of topics. At the scale of the human body, called “Among Diverse Beings,” Associate Professor Azra Aksamija designed a fabric exhibit, while Professor Nicholas de Monchaux (with Kathryn Moll) contributed a prototype of space suit gloves.

In the section called “As New Households,” MIT architectural historian Mark Jarzombek (with Vikramaditya Prakash) created a research station exploring the construction of a house in Seattle, and visiting lecturer Susanne Schindler (with Anne Kockeltorn) developed a research station about finance, architecture, and policy in Zurich.

On the scale titled “As Emerging Communities,” Aksamija led the creation of a co-habitat about the Al Azraq refugee camp in Jordan; de Monchaux (with Moll and Sandro Bisa) created a co-habitat about Venice; and Kent Larson of the Media Lab developed a co-habitat about Nigeria, Egypt, and Mexico. Professor of architecture William O’Brien created an outdoor installation, as did lecturer Cristina Parreño Alonso (with Sergio Araya). Associate professors Rafi Segal and Sarah Williams created (with Greg Lindsay and Marisa Moran Jahn) a research station about new cooperative communities. And Paola Malanotte-Rizzoli, a professor in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS), created (with Laura Fregolent) a research station on the resilience of Venice itself. Matěj Peč, an assistant professor in EAPS, collaborated with Cristina Parreño Alonso and Sergio Araya Goldberg on an installation about carbon capture.

In another of the exhibition’s segments, the “Across Borders” scale, Associate Professor Skylar Tibbits led a team, including collaborators from the Maldives, to develop an exhibit about using self-assembly technology to build forms that could fight coastal erosion.

On the largest scale, the “As One Planet” section, Associate Professor Rania Ghosn (with El Hadi Jazairy) created a visual installation about geoengineering and historical attempts to influence climate and earth; faculty members Sheila Kennedy, Janelle Knox-Hayes, Miho Mazeereuw, and James Wescoat collaborated on a research station about communities being forced to move due to climate change; and lecturer Angelo Bucci created an installation depicting both how thin the inhabitable layer of the Earth is for humans, and the possibility of using geostationary satellites to illuminate parts of the planet.

Venice Architecture Biennale publications is issuing three books about the exhibition this year, surveying all these works: a catalog as well as two books edited by Sarkis and architect Ala Tannir, titled “Expansions” and “Co-habitats.”

For his part, Sarkis considers innovative architectural thought at all scales to be important; last year, Sarkis and Salgueiro, with Kozlowski, co-authored a book, “The World as an Architectural Project,” published by the MIT Press, exploring large-scale design ideas in history.

There is, Sarkis says, “a very long tradition in architecture where architects propose visionary designs for the whole world. The necessity for this imagination grows stronger today with questions of climate change and globalization as an economic and cultural phenomenon. It is still very difficult for us to fathom the world as one entity and to understand the impact of global phenomena and the way to address them. Architects have always been engaged in this challenge. No field is able to do that better.”

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