The 17th International Architecture Biennale opened in Venice on May 22 – a year later due to the pandemic – with the title “How will we live together?”, which was invented a long time ago. Although the world has changed dramatically since then, this question remains relevant. Until November 21 we can get acquainted with the newest ideas of architects and designers at the architectural exposition and experience how they react to the new situation.

Hashim Sarkis © Jacopo Salvi / Courtesy La Biennale di Venezia

This year’s Biennale is curated by the Lebanese-American architect Hashim Sarkis, who heads the Department of Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston. Before the opening of the exposition, he proclaimed that the world can no longer wait for “politicians to propose a path towards a better future” as they are “continuing to divide us”. The people themselves must start looking for alternative ways of living together, in which architecture should help. During the following press conference, he mentioned that the architectural plans existing today are hopelessly outdated. The ideas take their roots from the first half of the 20th century, from the time when the functions of buildings were clearly divided into “private” and “public” with a strict division between home and work, when industrial enterprises were allocated territories outside the cities and agriculture was developing away from the metropolises. Today architects face different challenges. Such aspects as climate change, sustainability, social inactivity, mass migration, political polarization come to the fore. The pandemic may end soon, but if architects do not address the mentioned issues, humanity will not have the opportunity to move forward.

Parsons & Charlesworth “Catalog for the Post-Human” (2020) Mixed media installation, Abstracta display system, LCD TV monitors, acrylic surfaces, physical models © La Biennale di Venezia

Sarkis divided the Biennale into five thematic sections, focusing on ideas such as the boundaries of the human body, national and planetary forms of coexistence, including the healthy coexistence of man with nature. Many of the participants have found an original, albeit not overly optimistic, approach to visions of the future. British couple Jessica Charlesworth and Tim Parsons, based in Chicago, created the so-called “Catalogue for the Post-Human”. This project is a brilliant satire on nascent everyday life, in which smart bracelets and phones measure sleep efficiency and count steps, thereby driving people into the trap of self-optimization. A huge “closet of horrors” exhibits accessories for the everyday life of a future office worker who is forced to survive and remain competitive: A coffee machine loaded with the morning dose of LSD or a fancy suit, which provides nutrients directly into the human’s veins.

Nicolas Laisné architectes “One Open Tower” (2020), Lacquered steel tubes and wood panels, screens, and physical models © La Biennale die Venezia

A group of architects led by Nicolas Laisné reflects on the question “What will the new forms of coexistence look like?” Their “One Open Tower” project at the Arsenale features a skyscraper with spacious terraces and hanging gardens to replace the typical façades of contemporary residential developments.

A visitor entering the Central Pavilion in Giardini is greeted with deafening thunder coming from inside. This is the sound of ice cracking in Antarctica. The author of the project – Giulia Foscari – brought 200 experts together, including climatologists, lawyers and chemists for her work called “Unless,” dedicated to saving 26 quadrillion tons of ice. She urges us not to forget that the consequences of the impending catastrophe will make all the efforts of architects and city planners useless. It is in this pavilion that most of the projects devoted to the topic of the environment are concentrated, as well as showing models of the ecological apocalypse. Forecasts for the future are very different. Thus, the DESIGN EARTH studio with the work “Planet after Geoengineering”, it seems, wants to reconcile us with the inevitable catastrophe, demonstrating in drawings and animation how the planet is enmeshed by a “sulfur storm” or “dust cloud”. Australian landscape architect Richard Weller is inclined to find positive solutions. He proposes to create a global park.

Giulia Foscari “Unless” (2020) © La Biennale di Venezia

Discussions about “sustainability” are being held in the national pavilions. Sometimes you get the impression that architects want to go back to wooden buildings. The Finns are nostalgic for their once successful project, the Puutalo House, first built in 1940 for Karelian refugees. Its structure became an export commodity of this small country, which sent the house to 30 countries of the world, from Israel to the former USSR.

Pavilion of FINLAND © La Biennale di Venezia

The American Pavilion is hidden behind a wooden structure that resembles a narrow house or an overly monumental entrance to it. Most one-family homes in US still continue to be built in a similar way, only they have become more often faced with synthetic materials that imitate wood. Photos of giant SUVs parked in front of houses hint that material choices alone will not save the world, and that the problems of our coexistence lie deeper, particularly in politics. The Japanese were the easiest to comment on the topic of “sustainability.” They sent an ordinary wooden house to Venice without bothering to assemble it. The separate parts of the building are laid out around the pavilion in a shape very similar to wabi-sabi.

Pavilion of the USA © La Biennale di Venezia

The historic building of the Russian pavilion, erected in Giardini back in 1914, has been significantly rebuilt by the Russian-Japanese bureau KASA over the past two years and implemented with the participation of MAP Studio, TTE and bureau 2050+, owned by the curator of the pavilion, Ippolito Laparelli. The locked windows and doors of the first floor are finally opened, beautifully overlooking the lagoon, as originally conceived by the first architect of the project Alexey Shchusev. Three arches decorate a new entrance. In the upper tier, the walls turned white, in the lower – they cleared to brick. The facades are painted green again and the floor became parquet, as it was to the time of Shchusev. Hopefully this example may prompt other countries to update their exhibition spaces.

Pavilion of Russia © La Biennale di Venezia

All in all, the current edition of the Biennale does not offer quick solutions to our problems. Instead, visitors are offered an abstract look at the future life of people in an artificially created space. The guests are shown projects in which the end of the world and the global crisis serve as a source of inspiration. There are many metaphors, such as aromatic stones in a glass display case reminiscent of extinct flowers, or water dripping from the ceiling, evoking thoughts of global warming. An important aspect of this exhibition is undoubtedly its underlying political character. According to the curator, architects can help people gain access to common goods, build bridges of communication, and overcome social isolation by simply creating a space where buildings will bring people together and help them see the world from a better perspective.