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Architecture Biennale to be held despite COVID

Stefan Dege
April 13, 2021

The international architecture exhibition in the Italian city of Venice defies expectations by taking place as a physical event in May.

A visitor to Venice's Biennale of Architecture in 2016 wearing a orange shirt and staring at an architectural model.
Will visitors actually be able to attend the Biennale in person in 2021?Image: DW/S. Dege

The Venice Biennale of Architecture is one of world's leading events in the field and one of the most important festivals of its kind.

But the major event has been postponed twice already due to the coronavirus pandemic: from last spring to the fall, and then again in the fall to this spring.

It is now slated to run from May 22 to November 21, 2021, and is supposed to be  a "physical event,"  organizers say. Nevertheless, it's a gamble, Biennale President Roberto Cicutto admitted during an online presentation of the event on Monday.

Architecture theorist and head curator Hashim Sarkis had already developed the theme of the 17th edition of the exhibition — "How will we live together?" — long before the pandemic. The original aim was to focus on climate change, migration and increasing political polarization with regard to architecture.

Biennale Director Roberto Cicutto (seated at a table with a microphone) and head curator Hashim Sarkis (blended into video background).
Biennale Director Roberto Cicutto (seated) and head curator Hashim Sarkis (background) during the online presentation of the 2021 programImage: Andrea Avezzù/La Biennale di Venezia

Living together in a pandemic world

But with the world struggling with the COVID pandemic this past year, the Venice Biennale of Architecture will integrate a new aspect to the program, Sarkis explained during the online presentation.

With additional offerings during the show, he intends to illuminate the social role of architecture. Along with the usual exhibitions in the national pavilions, the program will also include publications, films and symposia on topics such as sports, the refugee crisis or reconstruction. The Biennale may even "expand to include the field of dance," Sarkis said.

Biennale visitors can also get a glimpse behind the scenes of the event, as well as virtually tour the lagoon city, Sarkis noted.

Curators for the German pavilion believe they are well-prepared for the pandemic situation, particularly with films that can viewed virtually. The actual site of the country's pavilion in the "Giardini," a park area, will remain mostly empty this year, curator Olaf Grawert announced.

Instead, he and his "Team 2038" a group of architects, artists and scientists, including Grawert, Arno Brandlhuber, Nikolaus Hirsch and Christopher Roth have developed an unusual idea: a fictional look back from the future from the year 2038 to today. "Despite, or even thanks to, the major crises of the 2020s and 30s," the concept states, ″a change in thinking and action took place that just barely saved us."

A drawing of the the German national pavilion back in 2018 with black exterior, white interior, and trees and people in front.
The German national pavilion back in 2018 Image: Courtesy of OMA

Back from the future

Grawert and his fellow campaigners had no idea that a global crisis would occur so soon when they presented their concept in Berlin in February 2020. But the exhibition is not intended to revolve entirely around the coronavirus pandemic. Rather, the team draws on the big questions of the day, including the land property issue, which is central for architects: "Because without land," Grawert recently told German public broadcaster Deutschlandfunk, "people can't build."

People viewing displays in the Spanish pavilion in 2018.
The Spanish pavilion in 2018Image: Imago/Italy Photo Press

Several lockdowns have hampered installations efforts on the Lido, the barrier island in the Venetian Lagoon, where the main show is to spread across the central Biennale pavilion and the sprawling halls of the Arsenale.

Curator Sarkis has invited some 110 participants from 46 countries to contribute to the exhibition, many of them from Africa, Latin America and Asia. In addition to sites in the Giardini park, the "Biennale Architettura 2021" events will take place at other stations in the lagoon city. Furthermore, 63 different national pavilions will offer up their own presentations, with Azerbaijan, Grenada, Iraq and Uzbekistan presenting their own show in Venice for the first time.

This article was translated from German.