Ann Dingli reviews the 18th Venice Architecture Biennale, drawing parallels between its newly spotlighted social, historical, political and planetary narratives and a local pursuit for urban righteousness.

Two weeks ago, Valletta as a frequent site for protest played host to the islands’ manifold mix of urban and environmental activists, uniting NGOs, small-scale government figures, and everyday citizens in an organised tirade against the islands’ gross overbuilding and densification.

The demonstration berated the scale of development on the islands, its accompanying disregard for natural and heritage lineage, the health and wellbeing implications of this unchecked expansion, and the lack of foresight in achieving social, environmental, and even haptic justice in the local built environment at the hands of its makers.

Meanwhile, a week earlier in Venice, a more glamorous demonstration opened in the form of the 18th Architecture Biennale.

ZAO / standardarchitecture, Co-Living Courtyard 共生院. Photo: Marco ZorzanelloZAO / standardarchitecture, Co-Living Courtyard 共生院. Photo: Marco Zorzanello

Curated by Ghanaian-Scottish architect, academic and novelist Lesley Lokko, the edition has been framed as the Laboratory of the Future, unapologetically shifting its axis of focus to the African diaspora, and thusly bringing a traditionally ignored, uninvited or even tyrannised narrator to the Arsenale and Giardini.

In the curator’s words, “the dominant voice has historically been a singular, exclusive voice, whose reach and power ignore huge swathes of humanity – financially, creatively, conceptually – as though we have been listening and speaking in one tongue only. The story of architecture is therefore incomplete. Not wrong, but incomplete.”

The strength of Lokko’s curation lies not just in the task of revealing overlooked dimensions of architecture’s story, but in highlighting its often-unregistered synchronicity with what has hitherto been taken as its ‘central’ evolution.

Pavilion of Germany, Open for Maintenance – Wegen Umbau geöffnet. Photo: Matteo de MaydaPavilion of Germany, Open for Maintenance – Wegen Umbau geöffnet. Photo: Matteo de Mayda

Meaning – Lokko doesn’t just bring ‘emerging’ ideas or ‘faraway’ projects to the centrefold of a historically Western catalogue of thinking, she invites and showcases the scale and quality of production helmed by the African diaspora from within that system – much of it constituting the most magnetic built form and urban conception that we are witnessing today (cue Burkinabé-German architect Diébédo Francis Kéré, the first African to receive the Pritzker Architecture Prize; American artist Theaster Gates, the first non-architect to design the UK’s Serpentine Pavilion; and South African architect Sumaya Vally, the youngest architect to be commissioned for that same pavilion in the year preceding).

But their work forms only one knot in the hard-working tapestry that Lokko has threaded together. Admittedly, it is a copious and at times bitty Biennale, its content veering away from the traditional architectural mediums of drawings and models to a concentration of art, installation, and video works. It demands a more focused, or re-tuned, attention span than is typically expected.

Pavilion of Canada, Not for Sale Photo: Matteo de MaydaPavilion of Canada, Not for Sale Photo: Matteo de Mayda

As Lokko herself said in her press introduction; “it’s an exhibition that requires a certain amount of energy to understand. We hope people will take the time.”

It hasn’t resonated with everyone. In his comments on the edition, Patrik Schumacher – principal at Zaha Hadid Architects – mourns what he has characterised as an “anti-architectural biennale”, describing the lack of purely architectural content as “the discursive self-annihilation of the discipline”.

Lokko’s laboratory declines to skip ahead to solutions without first outlining the context of crisis that global architectural practice now faces

Schumacher lauds only the sections of the biennale that provided concrete ‘solutions’ to audiences, in the form of complete architectural ideas, proposals or existing evidence. His reaction to the show’s more theoretically flexile content – which, admittedly, makes up the majority of the curation – is that it is merely amplifying egos, harking back to his 2018 call for “architects [to] fight back to reclaim the Venice Biennale from the arrogant and self-indulgent curators”.

But what Lokko’s laboratory does do is decline to skip ahead to solutions without first outlining the context of crisis that global architectural practice now faces. In so doing, her curation pointedly focuses on race, colonialism and climate change, and most importantly, demonstrates how interconnected each are as both precedent and ongoing issues.

Tolulope Fatunbi, Northwest pavilion of The Trade Fair Complex in Lagos, 2023. Photo: Private Collection/Tolulope FatunbiTolulope Fatunbi, Northwest pavilion of The Trade Fair Complex in Lagos, 2023. Photo: Private Collection/Tolulope Fatunbi

This demonstration occurs mainly within the main curation spaces of the Arsenale and Giardini, where Lokko brings together the ‘preface’ of why and how the world’s architecture is where it is today. So context-driven is this content that it does at times feel rudimentary, and indeed does trigger an instinct to ask to be shown answers.

That’s where the national pavilions come in, and where the cohesion of this year’s edition most strongly lies.

Despite Schumacher’s assertion to the contrary, the national pavilions do serve up solutions for some of the most urgent problems outlined in the biennale’s core narrative. The ones that do this best are those who do so with specificity, and which treat a singular problem with one dramatic response.

The German pavilion does this in a bid to highlight systemic waste within the industry, piling up physical inventories of past biennale materials into one thickly populated space. The Canadian pavilion does it in a concertedly activist tone, draw­ing on the visual lexicon of grassroot movements to shed light on housing and land ownership injustice.

The Chilean pavilion romantically focuses on extrapolated ecological fates, isolating matter in nature that it presents as the building blocks to future material infrastructures. The Serbian pavilion arrestingly uses the example of the past and current state of the Lagos International Fair to address architecture’s power in circumventing identity-cleansing, reasserting new identity, and what happens once that reassertion is abandoned.

Pavilion of Chile, Moving Ecologies. Photo: Marco ZorzanelloPavilion of Chile, Moving Ecologies. Photo: Marco Zorzanello

In the purest sense of the word, these are not solutions. But what they constitute collectively is a challenge for audiences to re-learn what that term means.

The definition of ‘solution’ touted by Schumacher sings from the same hymn book as the choreographers of Malta’s urban decline. Its tune is one of building as an exclusive response to meet demand. Its beat goes: opportunity-devise-mate­ria­lise; without any cognisance or acknowledgement of who and what it might be hurting. On the contrary, Lokko and her collective of exhibitors rightfully examine what happens ‘before’ architecture.

Around the grounds of the Arsenale and Giardini this year, the question on whether Malta has its own national pavilion sprung up on occasion. It doesn’t. Not at the architectural edition anyway. But back on the islands, the mobilisation of crowds through the gridded streets of the capital acts as a worthy substitute.

As an event, this protest does what much of Lokko’s show tries to do – which is to highlight a multifarious condition of woes, as simplistic as they may at times appear, and ask the world to watch, listen and care.


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