Hashim Sarkis, curator of the 17th Venice Biennale of Architecture © Mirco Toniolo/AGF/Shutterstock

“How will we live together?” I read the title of this year’s Venice Biennale of Architecture to its curator Hashim Sarkis and raise a questioning eyebrow. He smiles back across the digital divide of Zoom that is somehow connecting us and keeping us apart. “Ah, yes,” he says, “In some ways it is ironic, even existential. We came up with the title before the pandemic. Perhaps it was an accidental prophecy . . . no, no, I don’t even want to think about that.”

Serendipitous or not, the theme of this year’s Biennale, which is opening a year later than planned and even then into nervy travel restrictions and uncertainty, hits the contemporary moment like a pinch on the forearm, a wake up from a dream of endless digital meetings and remoteness, characterised by the flattening effects of the screen.

Architecture should be everything the screen is not: three-dimensional, tactile, social, sensuous, unmediated, inviting, intriguing, direct. And here we are on each other’s laptops, wondering who might come, how it might work. “The theme and the subjects we are exploring are exactly the same as those that led to the pandemic,” Sarkis says. “The questions around globalisation, the erosion of the rural and urban edge, our relationship with other species, climate change, the polarisation of politics, exaggerated economic difference, mass migrations . . . ”

The Giardini venue at the 2018 Biennale © NurPhoto via Getty Images. Photo: Giacomo Cosua

That title, like others before it, looks deliberately vague — a phrase tailored to accommodate almost anything. We’ve had “People Meet in Architecture”, “Freespace”, “Reporting from the Front”, “Common Ground” — all feel-good platitudes which luxuriate in an idea of architecture’s capacity for creating a public sphere while shovelling its complicity in accelerating inequality, gentrification and environmental damage beneath a carpet of public space. This is why the Biennale is always so tasty: a manifestation of architectural culture’s internal conflicts, Janus-faced, attempting to display a public facade of ethical responsibility while indulging in the performance of form — this is where the real interest for most of the profession lies, but which it is now loath to admit.

As director, Sarkis is not a big-name designer like many of his predecessors (Rem Koolhaas, David Chipperfield, Kazuyo Sejima). While his built work remains little known, the Beirut-born architect is more recognised as the dean of the school of architecture and planning at MIT, so he can skirt the contradictions more skilfully. I ask him if the title is a little . . . well, bland? “It’s the first time that the Biennale title has been a question — and it is an open question,” he replies. 

It’s one he thinks architects are well-placed to answer. His statement for the Biennale reads: “more than ever, architects are called upon to propose alternatives. As citizens, we mobilise our synthetic skills to bring people together to solve complex problems. As artists, we defy the inaction that comes from uncertainty to ask ‘What if?’ And as builders, we draw from our bottomless well of optimism to do what we do best. The confluence of roles in these nebulous times can only make our agency stronger and, we hope, our buildings more beautiful.”

‘As Emerging Communities’ section of the Biennale in the Arsenale © Marco Zorzanello

It is a crunchingly optimistic view of the agency and will of architects. But it’s also a lot of ground to cover. He tells me, “We are seeking, through architecture, a spatial contract to imagine what a social contract could be, how architecture can help us understand better our relationships with each other, how we can generously live together.”

If that sounds ambitious, it quivers next to the list of concepts Sarkis is attempting to cover. He takes me through them. “We’re jumping scales from the planetary, the infinite, to the body and between us and other species.” The statement gives more detail, outlining the five scales of the Biennale: Among Diverse Beings, As New Households, As Emerging Communities, Across Borders, As One Planet.

The most intriguing thing is Sarkis’ acknowledgment of new conceptions of the body, which have arguably been absent from Biennale discourse. He embraces gender fluidity and new family structures, changing notions of privacy, and much more. He says “one room in the Giardini” — the central pavilion traditionally dedicated to big conceptual ideas — “is devoted to that new body, the cyborg, the prosthetic, the differently gendered, how these reconfigure the conception of space.” There are rooms that deal with other species, with new households and housing types, with resources and the global commons (the north poles, rainforests and oceans). Another looks at the cosmic scale, the planet and outer space. Other rooms deal with Venice itself and with the Levant, with refugees and parks for play and sport. 

But, as Sarkis says, each of these, from wildlife and the urban frontier to mass tourism and travel in Venice, has proved to be in some way responsible for the pandemic, which is the unmissable monster beneath the Biennale’s bed. With the show put back by a year, I wondered whether that extra time and the unravelling of Covid-19 led to any major changes in the content? “Yes, sure,” he confirms. “We approached participants to ask if they wanted to respond to the conditions of the pandemic, but they came back to say what we have done already is even more relevant now.

An installation view of the ‘As One Planet’ room in the Giardini, Central Pavilion © Marco Zorzanello

“A spirit of solidarity has emerged among the participants,” he adds. “There has been an acceleration in the online presence, we have sneak peaks at the work in progress online and on broadcasts. You can see the installations under construction, which is something architects usually try to hide, but the process is very important,” Sarkis continues. “All our events will be streamed live and there has been an increase in collaboration between the curators, they became a collective. Some pavilions are now hosting other countries, the collaboration has been . . . a good side effect.”

Finally, we broach the issue of attendance. Many countries will demand quarantine on return from Italy and a formidable barrage of testing and paperwork. As we speak, I look behind Sarkis and get a glimpse of a Venetian-looking wall, a gothic window, some peeling plaster, and that familiar, warm ochre. I tell him it is a vicarious thrill to see that little fragment of the city. “The idea of people coming to Venice is still extremely important,” Sarkis says. “I do feel that the vulnerability of this city, the rising sea levels, the mass tourism, the liners, the loss of visitors, makes it even more important as a venue — these are things about our planet.”

‘Silk Road Works’ (2020) by Azra Akšamija at the Arsenale © Marco Zorzanello

Do today’s conditions make the Biennale too exclusive, contrasting with his stated aims of social equity and a more global view? “It is exclusive,” Sarkis says decidedly. “But there is something about this beauty which makes it too precious to lose. Throughout the pandemic, [a heavily] photographed city was Venice . . . the empty St Mark’s Square, the cafés, the lack of tourists. I think we can build on that.”

It’s true that social media feeds were filled with eerily deserted scenes and moored gondolas. But for the Biennale, aren’t the crowds, the parties, the sheer enjoyment of the world of architecture coming together in a way it never does elsewhere, critical to its success, as a happening rather than pure exhibition? “The Architecture Biennale is very different to the Art Biennale,” Sarkis says. “For art, it is all about the scene. For architecture, it is about the future of the profession and anticipating change, about where architecture is going. It’s for the students as much as the architects. It used to be about the European avant garde showing the world what it was up to. Now it is the other way round: it is the world coming to Venice to show us what it is doing.”

To November 21, labiennale.org

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