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Venice Architecture Biennale 2023

(20 May – 26 November 2023)

Review by Gabriel Gbadamosi


The 2023 Architecture Biennale in Venice was curated by the Ghanaian-Scottish architect and writer Lesley Lokko, and focused on the past and future of the built environment in marginalised communities everywhere, from the global south to the ice-bound north, from the Amazon to the Australian outback. The central exhibition space of the Arsenale covers about the size of an entire city block, with further national pavilions and exhibitions scattered throughout the islands of the lagoon on which Venice sits. The sheer scale of the Biennale demands a theme to give it coherence and, for 2023, a theme of ‘The Laboratory of the Future’ was chosen to focus on working for change, particularly change in which the marginalised get to design their own futures. With historically marginalised Africa predicted to have around 40% of the world’s population in this century, there was a particular emphasis from Lokko and her curatorial team on Africa and its diaspora.

The tone established across the exhibitions of the Biennale for that utopian future was hopeful: rather than projecting future dystopias, they turned the tables to put the dystopic past and present on display. I found myself sitting in a dark, flimsily walled enclosure watching film of destructive machine mining practices in Australia, which prompted me to reconstruct in my own mind the environmental impacts of similar, less accessibly filmable mining operations in Africa. Uighur detentions camps built by China in Xinjiang – erased from maps, concealed online – were reconstructed online from satellite and other evidence, because the internet leaves traces – and here on the walls of that installation are the scrawled diagrams analysing how one such camp works, urgent as messages scratched in a concentration camp. Even the ‘ephemeral urbanism’ of a tent city built for 100,000 people over 55 days to attend the 45-day Khumb Mela festival in India – which attracts millions of people – echoed the refugee camps of today and foretold the scale of future climate emergencies. A comparative, global conversation emerged from this Biennale, which radically questioned what we mean by building and architecture, and suggested alternatives.

For example, there was advice for future architects and builders in West Africa. If the essence of architecture is the ruin – a pile of stones – build with what’s beneath your feet. Stay local, ensure what you use can be sustainable, recyclable (the Architecture Biennale reused the structures of the previous year’s Art Biennale), to be continually rebuilt, repaired and maintained. Consider raw earth bricks – biomaterials, low carbon and humane – normalise them through use and transmit your knowledge of the eco and thermal fit. Use materials to question what goes on – why not the mud-built rather than concrete? Drawing on film, photography, diagrams, models, interactive sculpture, built structures and installations, and light, the Biennale felt more like an experimental workshop than a laboratory, with smells of earth, sawdust, paint and glue. That feeling, of a huge, ongoing work of construction towards a better future, represented a change from the literal meaning of Arsenale, or house of construction, in which the Venetians built their warships. 

We are, in a sense, invited into these sprawling exhibitions as ‘guests from the future’, looking back at our ancestral practices in order to go forward into futures we operate, not just out of our histories but out of our imaginations. Some futures were never going to make it: Belgian propaganda films extolling the development of industrial infrastructure for agriculture in the Belgian Congo – ‘the future that never was’. We have to look for our own futures, the Biennale constantly reminded us, out of our own resources. The Inga people, for example, living in forest at the foothills of the Andes among tributary rivers to the Amazon, don’t want to lose their young people to the cities. They want to keep and transmit to them Inga culture and knowledge of the forest, not have them go off to university in Bogotá. To this end, they want to develop a university where they are because the forest is the source of the knowledge they want to develop, and you don’t have to build it; it’s already standing among the fountains of rivers, under a green canopy. I didn’t immediately see the wood for the trees on this one, but finally I heard what the Inga people were saying. Don’t build on the Amazon.

A question that arose for me about the experiment of the Biennale focused on the possible downsides of privileging imagination over experience. You want people to look into the future with hope, but also, in looking to the horizon, not blindly stumble on a stone. In answer, the poet-activist Audre Lorde’s advice (prominently displayed at the entrance to the Arsenale) for us to love each other’s creativity ‘even when we don’t know what will emerge’ movingly grounded this hopeful experiment in the present – a dangerous moment in the building of a world we all need to share. 

Photo by Andre Avezzu courtesy of the Venice Biennale