While the Padiglione Centrale and Arsenale’s centrally curated part of the Venice Architecture Biennale is half the point (and fun) of the grand celebration, the event’s numerous national participations, spanning locations in and out of the official sites, provide the all-important global context and other half. Responding to Alejandro Aravena’s 2016 theme, 'Reporting From The Front', some 60-plus countries took part this year, presenting a show that is rich, layered and varied.
Thirty or so national participations are spread across the Arsenale complex’s various buildings and other locations across Venice, forcing the visitor to take a thoroughly welcome stroll through the magical canal city. As always, the Giardini park hosts some 30 of the biennale’s constants – including this year’s Golden Lion for Best Pavilion winner, Spain. Entitled ‘Unfinished’, the Spanish display, curated by the architects Iñaqui Carnicero and Carlos Quintáns, looks at the country’s economic and construction crisis, urging for ways to turn a difficult situation into a positive one through an attractive and thought provoking combination of design and photography.
Several more shows offer a well-planned, eye-catching installation. Australia’s ‘The Pool’ – a full scale paddling pool – was the perfect spot to relax and take on the role of one of the country’s key cultural institutions; while Belgium’s ‘Bravoure’ show depicts examples of craftsmanship within the mundane and in the context of our economically-challenged times, through full-scale mock-ups and beautiful shots by photographer Filip Dujardin.
Meanwhile, execution aside, simply by taking note of each pavilion’s chosen theme, a map of the key issues dominating architectural debate in each country soon emerges. Migration, asylum and the refugee crisis take centre stage at the German and Finnish pavilions, while the Dutch offers an arresting study in blue; an exploration of the architecture of peacekeeping missions. The Brits identify housing as their key theme. This also appears in Japan and Korea's participations – though seen through very different means and angles, adding urban density, social issues and regulatory constraints to the mix.
The US presents a series of architectural proposals for Detroit, using the North American city as a case study for their response to urban and socioeconomic issues. Greece aims to touch upon almost all of the above themes, while Denmark and the Nordic Pavilion look into their countries’ legacy and future. France investigates transformation in ordinary, everyday locations and neighbourhoods. Turkey’s Pavilion, 'Darzanà', focuses on dockyards, ports and cultural interchange between countries, represented through a fascinating deconstructed vessel, hanging from the Arsenale’s Sale d’Armi.
This was also a Biennale of firsts – the Seychelles, Nigeria, the Philippines, Yemen and a trio of Baltic countries all created debut displays for the show.
In addition, a brand new pavilion made its appearance within Giardini. Solo Galerie teamed up with Chilean architects Pezo von Ellrichshausen to create 'Vara', a deep green, labyrinthine concrete structure, nestled among the national participations – the first ever of this scale to pop up in the park.