Radical rethinking at Biennale: Africa and the future share pride of place
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Radical rethinking at Biennale: Africa and the future share pride of place
Denmark’s pavilion includes dioramas picturing future landscapes remade by rising sea levels, at the Venice Architecture Biennale in Venice, Italy, May 18, 2023. Lesley Lokko’s “Laboratory of the Future” is the most ambitious and pointedly political Venice Architecture Biennale in years. (Matteo de Mayda/The New York Times)

by Christopher Hawthorne

VENICE.- It is rare enough for a Venice Architecture Biennale, so often dominated by sleek new architecture and design-world celebrity, to confront fraught subjects such as race, colonialism and climate change. Lesley Lokko’s nervy, elegant edition, which opened to the public Saturday, goes a step further, asserting that the three themes are inextricably connected in ways that have pressing implications for the profession.

“The Black body was Europe’s first unit of energy,” Lokko, a Scottish Ghanaian architect, academic and novelist, said during a tour of the exhibition last week. Through slave labor and colonial expansion, she argues, Western powers built empires whose imposing architecture — often neoclassical in style and claiming to represent universal aesthetic values — was itself an expression of political control.

In this Biennale, officially the 18th International Architecture Exhibition, Lokko gives pride of place to two kinds of stories: those that allow Africa and the African diaspora to narrate that troubled history on its own terms and those that imagine how things could have turned out radically differently. The first group uses architecture as a mnemonic device to recall histories and traditional design practices; the second as a vehicle — a time-traveling spaceship — for a kind of joyous science fiction.

In the mnemonic camp is Isabella Gibbons, whose enslavement in the 1850s at the University of Virginia, surrounded by the neo-classical architecture of slave-owning Thomas Jefferson, is central to “unknown, unknown: A Space of Memory,” an installation by architects Mabel O. Wilson, J. Meejin Yoon and Eric Höweler. (This is the same team that designed the recent Memorial to Enslaved Laborers at the University of Virginia.) Mounted in an archway on the wall in gold-leaf lettering, behind a flickering series of video screens, is Gibbons’ description of enslavement at the hands of university professor William Barton Rogers, who later founded the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: “Can we forget the crack of the whip, cowhide, whipping post, the auction-block, the hand-cuffs, the spaniels, the iron collar, the Negro-trader tearing the young child from its mother’s breast as a whelp from the lioness?”

The whipping post, the auction-block, the backdrop of Jefferson’s designs for campus buildings: The violent scene described on the gallery wall is one that played out in an undeniably architectural setting.

The sci-fi group includes Nigerian-born, New York-based artist Olalekan Jeyifous, who fills one of the largest Biennale galleries with a sort of Pan-African fantasia, imagining a continent where “imperialist infrastructures devoted to economic exploitation and resource extraction” have been replaced by cooperative local efforts to advance green technologies. Jeyifous’ installation, which ratchets up a color scheme of green and yellow to near-neon brightness, takes the form of a lounge for an “All-African Protoport” that allows zero-emissions air, land and sea travel across the continent and beyond.

In both cases, the point is to challenge the West’s assumption that it gets to be the narrator of every consequential history (architecture’s history included) and, as if that weren’t enough, every vision of the future city. As Lokko puts it, “The ‘story’ of architecture is incomplete. Not wrong, but incomplete.”

So, don’t be fooled by the exhibition’s noncommittal title, seemingly composed for maximum inoffensiveness: “The Laboratory of the Future.” In fact, Lokko is eager to use her Biennale post to make a series of pointed statements about how the design world has been reshaped by the Black Lives Matter movement and the pandemic — and to grapple with anxieties related to the climate crisis, economic precarity and the rise of artificial intelligence, among other deep wells of contemporary unease.

Like every Biennale, the exhibition is anchored by two huge central installations: one in industrial spaces at the Arsenale, the old shipbuilding yards; the other in a more museumlike setting inside the Giardini, or public gardens, which also house a series of national pavilions organized by their home countries.

“We were very interested in the relationship between architecture and what are often considered peripheral disciplines: people who are working at the urban scale, in landscape, in art practice,” Lokko told me.

In that spirit, she has given prominent space to Oakland, California, landscape architect Walter Hood, who teamed with Alma Du Solier to plant a version of a South Carolina wetland in an outside pocket of the Giardini, and to Eyal Weizman, founder of Forensic Architecture, who alongside David Wengrow documents new archaeological explorations of 6,000-year-old settlements in what is now Ukraine. Their installation projects a video of this excavation site onto the gallery floor. Some of the settlements coming to light were marked by “a surprisingly light ecological footprint,” the designers said, without any signs “of centralized control or social stratification.”

“If these ancient Ukrainian sites are cities,” Wengrow and Weizman argue, “then our concept of ‘the city’ as rooted in a history of extraction, predation and hierarchy must also change.”

In focusing, in large part, on architects from Africa and the African diaspora, Lokko has introduced a bracingly new lexicon and attention to buried and exiled histories. Her show offers a corrective to the self-satisfaction and narrow emphasis on a clique of big names that sometimes marks the Biennale.

In addition to decolonization and decarbonization — the twin themes around which the show pivots — subjects including collective labor movements, the inventive reuse of materials and buildings, migration, incarceration, storytelling and Indigenous forms of design practice (or what Ghanaian British architect David Adjaye, a major presence in this Biennale, calls “lost knowledge systems”) are underscored as never before.

For the first time in my experience here — over about 25 years — there is a frank exploration of the kind of architecture that is enabled by inherited wealth, what Lokko calls “generational means.” Architectural nepo babies, you’re on notice!

Every third or fourth Biennale, a curator argues that it’s time to broaden the show’s frame. Then the pendulum inevitably swings back toward a tighter disciplinary focus, as with Rem Koolhaas’ 2014 Biennale, which he tellingly called “Fundamentals.” Lokko’s exhibition makes its case for a dramatically expanded view of the profession.

Not since Alejandro Aravena’s version in 2016, with its emphasis on the global South, has the Biennale felt so communitarian, organic and close to the ground. High polish is out; a resourceful and sometimes hedonistic spirit, as well as frankness and dankness, are in, occasionally in ways that verge on counterculture cliche. The Finnish Pavilion features a composting dry toilet called a huussi. The excellent Belgian entry raises “the possibility of making an alliance with mushrooms, which can constitute a highly available, sustainable, renewable and inexpensive building material”; it includes a row of hemp-colored bricks fashioned out of mycelium, “the rootlike nature of the fungus,” and translucent panels made of “fungal leather.” Mycelium reappears in an installation on synthetic biology by designer Natsai Audrey Chieza in the main exhibition.

The Dutch have meticulously replumbed their landmark pavilion, designed in 1953 by Gerrit Rietveld, to collect rainwater. The Brazilian Pavilion — which argues that the establishment in the 1950s of its new, modernist capital, Brasília, was “a colonial invasion” of “the Indigenous nations of Central Brazil” — has a dirt floor and pedestals made of rammed earth. Split logs are turned into amphitheater seating in the Nordic Pavilion, arranged as a communal reading room exploring the architectural traditions of the Indigenous Sámi people. Leaves are scattered meaningfully inside the Uruguayan and Japanese pavilions, as if a brisk and symbolic wind had just blown them in. Several other pavilions replace the typical architectural models and computer renderings with archives and ongoing public conversations about colonialism or (as in Canada’s rather overstuffed entry) gentrification and the prospect of reparations and land return for Indigenous communities.

In a related way, part of this Biennale is about cleaning up messes left behind by wasteful predecessors, in architecture and elsewhere. The German Pavilion displays much of the construction waste — lumber, fabric and disembodied HVAC systems — produced by the Art Biennale in 2022; when I visited, a woman was carefully sewing a tote bag using some of this found material.

The United States Pavilion is also concerned with waste, of the not-so-fantastic plastic variety. Organized by the Cleveland nonprofit art center Spaces, and curated by Tizziana Baldenebro and Lauren Leving, it features artists who have repurposed various plastics — or petrochemical polymers, to use the formal name — into objects of playful, craftlike or camp display. One of them, Lauren Yeager, stacks used coolers and other found consumer items to create plastic totems: Brancusi a la Igloo. It’s all in service of a critique of just how many “traces of plastics course through our veins, waterways and air molecules.” Compared with the most memorable pavilions this year, which are linked by a messy, raucous interest in communal experiments that draw visitors into their imagined worlds, this one feels inert, not nearly plastic enough. It also has relatively little to do with architecture.

The rhetoric supporting these installations can feel heavy-handed. Congo-born artist Gloria Pavita, who lives and works in Cape Town, has heaped three giant piles of soil on the concrete floor of the Arsenale, alongside a text explaining that “soil is a body that holds and hosts the extractive, exploitative, and violent practices of the colonial and apartheid regimes.”

But the bulk of Lokko’s show has a lighter touch, along with a subtle choreography and generously multigenerational spirit. Awarding the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement to Demas Nwoko, 88, a Nigerian artist and architect, Lokko has also threaded throughout the main show the work of 22 emerging architects, a group she calls “Guests from the Future.” Many of these younger architects, and other firms in the exhibition, are unsurprisingly angry about the ruined world they’ve inherited. White Arkitekter, from Sweden, ruefully notes that “’The Laboratory of the Future’ comes at a time when any imagined future looks bleak.”

One of the weirdest and most provocative expressions of this attitude comes from Spain’s Grandeza Studio, in the main exhibition, which contributes a gold-colored model and an entertainingly militant video exploring possible responses to destructive mining practices in the Pilbara, an arid section of Western Australia. Wearing a range of costumes, masks, balaclavas and space helmets, and holding a giant prop shotgun, the group makes up a kind of ragtag revolutionary force of eco-warriors.

Among the questions they raise is what might happen to organized labor once artificial intelligence takes over. “Can algorithms strike?” the video asks.

If this Biennale has a blind spot, it’s in not fully confronting the possibility that the young architects it spotlights may find it tricky to separate themselves from — or avoid being sidelined by — the larger multinational machine of architectural production, which continues to hum voraciously along. In the show’s catalog, Rahel Shawl, founder of Addis Ababa-based Raas Architects, optimistically reports that in “Ethiopia alone, the construction industry is projected to grow at an annual average rate of more than 8% to 2026. It is an exciting time for African architects and design professionals.”

I imagine that Lokko, were she to encounter this kind of marketing-speak outside her own exhibition, might have some questions: How much of this anticipated construction work will be carried out by the usual Western (or Chinese) design and engineering conglomerates? Where will the building materials come from? Who will profit?

The echoes of the pandemic in the show are limited but impossible to ignore. Lokko calls one section “Force Majeure,” a legal phrase that wealthy institutions leaned on after the arrival of COVID-19 to slip out of contracts and other obligations. Near the entrance to the Arsenale galleries, American architect Germane Barnes has installed a series of busts, sitting atop marble pedestals, that wear futuristic masks, some resembling gas masks and others N-95s.

Barnes’ entry also reflects some of this Biennale’s interest in resetting architectural practice according to a less restrictive and more global set of priorities. The centerpiece of his contribution is a solitary monolithic “Identity Column,” under a bright spotlight, made from a single rippling piece of black marble. The column, according to Barnes, “demands a reorientation of foundational principles” in architecture, “one that positions Africa and its descendants as a force to be acknowledged and revered.”

Lokko’s show sometimes gives in to the temptation to include more architects, more images, more wall text than any visitor can realistically be expected to absorb.

There are more than a few sections that feel oversaturated, to pick a fitting metaphor for Venice, where climate change laps at every canal-side palazzo and vaporetto stop. Yet, that makes sense when you consider that she is making up for lost time, restaging ideas about architecture and city-making that have been overlooked at the Biennale for far too many years. There is a palpable feeling in the show that dams have broken, at long last, producing the exhibition’s own acqua alta. Lokko succeeds admirably at shaping and directing the flows, but a flood is a flood.

Venice Architecture Biennale

Through Nov. 26, Venice, Italy, labiennale.org/en/architecture/2023.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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