Novelty, innovation and social purpose meet at the Venice Architecture Biennale

Large room with stone floor, two pillars and hundreds of metal shards pointing down from the ceiling
Chilean Pritzker Prize winner Alejandro Aravena took on the curatorial helm in the vast Arsenale complex and Central Pavilion for this year's Venice Architecture Biennale. His first room in both locations references back to past shows, made using elements from the previous biennale. Photography: Italo Rondinella 
(Image credit: Italo Rondinella )

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.

Dark room with a screen on the far wall

Wang Shu and Lu Wenyu's Amateur Architecture Studio from China created an expansive installation exploring materials in their recent projects. Photography: Italo Rondinella

(Image credit: Italo Rondinella)

Full-scale modular home model

Indian, Madrid-based architect Anupama Kundoo showcased a full scale example of her low cost modular home model. Photography: Italo Rondinella

(Image credit: Italo Rondinella)

Architectural model lit in blue, under a blue neon sign reading "NAUBAU"

Also participating in the Arsenale's Corderie hall are BeL Sozietät für Architektur. Photography: Italo Rondinella

(Image credit: Italo Rondinella)

Dimly-lit room with an architectural model lit in blue

Russian architect Boris Bernaskoni added to the display with a large model of his Matrex project, a public building in Skolkovo. Photography: Italo Rondinella

(Image credit: Italo Rondinella)

Lights on the floor appear to erupt with a pale, textured substance

A group consisting of ETH Zurich-Ochsendorf, DeJong & Block and the Escobedo Group were behind one more of the Corderie gallery's large scale installations. Photography: Italo Rondinella

(Image credit: Italo Rondinella)

Red optical illusion called a "self-supported open knot"

Nearby, C+S Architects showcased the eye catching 'Aequilibrium', a 'self supported open knot'. Photography: Italo Rondinella

(Image credit: Italo Rondinella)

Large, cylindrical structures made out of sand-coloured disks

The Arsenale also contains fellow Chilean architect Cecilia Puga's contribution. Photography: Italo Rondinella

(Image credit: Italo Rondinella)

Two men stand over a lit display. The words "MORE THAN A HUNDRED YEARS" is illuminated on the wall

Swiss architects Christ & Gantenbein's participation in the Venice Architecture Biennale is their second; they also contributed to the 13th Biennale. Photography: Italo Rondinella

(Image credit: Italo Rondinella)

An installation hidden behind semi-transparent curtains

Portuguese architect Inês Lobo created an installation hidden behind semi-transparent curtains. Photography: Italo Rondinella

(Image credit: Italo Rondinella)

A sculptural display that hovers between art and architecture

Drawing on their previous work, Austrians Marte.Marte created a sculptural display that hovers between art and architecture. Photography: Italo Rondinella 

(Image credit: Italo Rondinella )

A textured, acorn-shaped sculpture which appears to hover

Portuguese architect Paulo David went for a similar approach. Photography: Italo Rondinella 

(Image credit: Italo Rondinella )

A brick sculpture appearing like a round tower with a domed roof, cut in half vertically

Indian firm Studio Mumbai showcased their flair and masterful craftsmaking with an installation at the Arsenale. Photography: Italo Rondinella 

(Image credit: Italo Rondinella)

An architectural model built on both sides of a curved river

One of the few starchitecture names in the Biennale this year, Tadao Ando displayed his Punta della Dogana museum in Venice. Photography: Italo Rondinella 

(Image credit: Italo Rondinella)

Beams of light hit the floor of the gallery

An arresting concept by Transsolar + Anja Thierfelder, this display created the illution of rays of light into the dimly lit Corderie galleries. Photography: Andrea Avezzu

(Image credit: Andrea Avezzu)

A wooden, triangular structure floating outside the gallery

Meanwhile, outside, on the grounds of the Arsenale complex, NLÉ and Kunlé Adeyemi's Makoko Floating School came to life. It won him the Silver Lion for a Promising Young Participant. Photography: Italo Rondinella 

(Image credit: Italo Rondinella)

Large concrete, arched pavilion

Nearby, a large scale pavilion by the Belgian/US Organization for Permanent Modernity. Photography: Italo Rondinella 

(Image credit: Italo Rondinella)

Light installation appearing to shine both upwards and downwards into geometrical objects in an otherwise black space

The Giardini's Padiglione Centrale hosted the second chunk of Aravena's show. Pictured here, a mesmerising light installation by Aires Mateus. Photography: Francesco Galli

(Image credit: Francesco Galli)

A screen showing the side of a building and the words "De te fabula narratur" and below "(Of you the tale is told)"

Arno Brandlhuber and Christopher Roth took the opportunity to elaborate on the former's 'Antivilla' project. Photography: Francesco Galli

(Image credit: Francesco Galli)

Action shot of people walking through an exhibition featuring a planted centrepiece

Battle i Roig Arquitectes had a double presence at the Biennale this year – one in the Central Pavilion, exploring landfill landscapes and another at the collateral exhibition 'Catalonia in Venice'. Photography: Francesco Galli

(Image credit: Francesco Galli)

Architectural model which slowly increases in height, with a background showing a desert scene

David Chipperfield showcases his work for the Naga Museum in Sudan. Photography: Francesco Galli

(Image credit: Francesco Galli)

Exhibition with statements written on arrows, and yellow protest signs

EPEA Internationale Umweltforschung present the 'Cradle to Cradle' design concept during the Biennale, showing how architecture can improve our quality of life. Photography: Francesco Galli

(Image credit: Francesco Galli)

Large arched structure made of criss-crossing wood beams

Gabinete de Arquitectura won the Golden Lion for Best Participant in the International Exhibition with their installation, working with simple materials and unskilled labour. Photography: Francesco Galli

(Image credit: Francesco Galli)

Wooden stairs leading into a narrow corridor with photographic displays on the walls

Former Silver Lion winners Grafton are back, this time focusing on their work in Peru. Photography: Francesco Galli

(Image credit: Francesco Galli)

A man adding a plastic figure to a shelving unit covered in tiny plastic figures

At the same time, Chinese firm Jiakun Architects celebrated 'everyday life' through their display. Photography: Francesco Galli

(Image credit: Francesco Galli)

Exhibition called "Comparing Techniques", set in a room with exposed brickwork and wood beams

In the Sale d'Armi show ‘A World of Fragile Parts’, the Venice Biennale and the Victoria and Albert Museum collaborate in a display that investigates ideas of heritage, technology and copying

(Image credit: TBC)

INFORMATION

The Venice Architecture Biennale runs until 27 November. For more information, visit the Biennale's website (opens in new tab)

Jonathan Bell has written for Wallpaper* magazine since 1999, covering everything from architecture and transport design to books, tech and graphic design. He is now the magazine’s Transport and Technology Editor. Jonathan has written and edited 15 books, including Concept Car Design, 21st Century House, and The New Modern House. He is also the host of Wallpaper’s first podcast.