This, the 15th Venice Architecture Biennale, showed all the signs of the truculent teenage years. There was outright rebellion and a grudging respect for elders, all mixed in with a fair amount of politics, doom-mongering and angst. Curated by the Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, 'Reporting from the Front' presented contemporary architecture as a series of linked dispatches from myriad battlefronts, some literally real and others set against numerous forces of capital and culture.

In recent years the Venice Biennale has shifted dramatically in tone from the starchitect-infused displays at the turn of the century, when budgets were high, prestige was higher and architecture teetered on the edge of becoming fine art's equal, with the same sheen of glamour and investment. That moment has passed, the old guard is moving on and the new generation doesn't seem to want to follow.

Aravena's Biennale is true to his theme of novelty, innovation and politically charged work, bringing some countries into the fold for the first time and displaying grass roots projects that would barely have had a satellite showing a decade ago. Some things don't change, however, and the tendency to distil complex projects into bold imagery – making the intangible Instagrammable, perhaps – held sway in many of the big rooms in the Arsenale, where the bulk of Aravena's invitees were assembled. From the very first room, where Aravena created a thicket of steel supports and plasterboard culled from the 2014 show, there were visually arresting installations, combinations of light and structure that served as welcome counterpoints to the denser, text-heavy displays.

In all, there were 88 participants from 37 countries, 50 of whom had never before exhibited at Venice. And although the old guard were on hand, their involvement felt more of a passing nod than a wholesale embrace. The approach worked best for presentations like Amateur Architecture Studio, who demonstrated the craft behind their Chinese projects, or the work of Rural Urban Framework in Mongolia.

In India, Anupama Kundoo Architects explored the limits of pragmatic materials and available labour, creating simple structures out of as little as possible. A Golden Lion was awarded to Paraguayan studio Gabinete de Arquitectura for its vast parabolic brick arch in the Central Pavilion, while the Silver Lion was awarded to Nigerian architect Kunlé Adeyemi for his wood-framed floating school, set up in the Arsenale basin. There were tonal clashes – Boris Bernaskoni's Matrex, a public building for the Skolkovo Innovation Centre, seemed at odds with the low-tech approach on display elsewhere. Vaults were also a feature of Norman Foster's prototype 'Droneport', an architectural elaboration for a simple idea (distributing medicines via drones in Africa).

Simplicity usually triumphed, as with Transsolar + Anja Thierfelder's striking light installation, or the sheer scale and scope of Bel Architects' exploration of new systems building types to help solve Germany's massive housing problems. The national displays housed in the Arsenale – the Gulf States, Slovenia, Italy, Chile and more – displayed facets of Aravena's grand (or rather, not so grand) theme of simple architectural ideas impacting upon communities and cultures that needed it most. The juxtaposition of big names with unconventional sites also drove this message home, like David Chipperfield's Naga Museum in Sudan.

Architecture's tendency to side-step politics was also addressed. The Central Pavilion saw both Forensic Architecture's eerie dissection of the blast path created by a drone strike and 'The Evidence Room', the assembled architecture data of the Auschwitz gas chambers, originally assembled to counter Holocaust deniers but presented here as evidence of 'the worst crime ever committed by an architect'.

Finally, it was left to the V&A-curated show, 'A World of Fragile Parts', to show the intersection between technology, memory and human cruelty, a chronicle of how reproductions and replicas have steered culture through periods of repression, destruction and the loss of knowledge. Venice 2016 was occasionally chaotic but always interesting, setting new standards and ambitions for the architectural community. It didn't always work, but when it did, the scales of privilege fell away and new approaches made themselves clear, perhaps for the very first time.