VENICE, Italy — In the time it has taken to prepare for the Venice Biennale, violence in the Middle East has overtaken a Palestinian family farm in Gaza featured in one of the exhibits. It gives real-time urgency to the question posed by the Biennale curator: “How will we live together?”
The 17th International Architecture Exhibition opens Saturday after a one-year pandemic delay, during which time architecture has emerged as one of the key disciplines in the global coronavirus response.
One exhibit “Border Ecologies and the Gaza Strip,” looks at how Israeli control of the border impacts the Qudaih family farm in the Gaza village of Khuza'a. It recounts, for example, that 20 of the Qudaih family’s olive trees were bulldozed to create a buffer zone, and a greenhouse necessary to grow tomatoes has been repeatedly destroyed.
Since 2014, the village had been “more or less” quiet, said curator Malkit Shoshan.
But as she prepared for the Biennale opening, violence erupted anew. The farm, near the border fence, has been destroyed by bombs and the family is sheltering in their home, which has been damaged by shells, about a mile away, said one of the sons, Amir Qudaih, who lives in the United States and who helped put the exhibit together.
Qudaih, a 27-year-old recent engineering graduate, was supposed to be in Venice for the opening. But he said he is too anguished by the bombing and uncertainty over his family’s safety to travel. Communications are spotty due to interruptions in electricity and the internet, and his last contact was earlier in the week.
“My family cannot access the farm anymore because it is very close to the border and no one can leave the house. They are running out of the food," which mostly comes from the farm, Qudaih said by phone. “Every time I text them or call them, it could be the last call because things are happening 24/7 there. It is very stressful.”
Not every exhibit in Biennale carries the same immediacy, but the issues driving it are fundamental to shared existence, also with other species.
The event curated by Hashim Sarkis also examines how architecture can address other global issues, ones that helped him formulate the title question well before the pandemic: climate change, political polarization, increasing inequalities and population displacement.
Exhibits look at how climate change and an international presence is affecting Antarctica; illustrate how global warming endangers sea life and how rising seas may be left as hollow spaces without life; and trace the architecture of man-made infrastructure on the outside of a globe, while making a more utopian proposal on the inside of how it might look under a regime of strategic preservation.
The strongest lens for this Biennale, though, is the pandemic.
“More than ever before, architecture is present in our lives, and in our thinking,” said Sarkis, a Lebanese architect who is the dean of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's architecture and planning school. “We are now able to measure with our eyes what a meter is, what two meters are. That is a new skill everyone has had to acquire.”
Some architectural responses to the pandemic have already emerged in everyday life: Zoom meetings have replaced conference rooms, giving new importance to virtual architecture, restaurant tables have taken over sidewalks, parking spots and traffic islands while public and private spaces from train stations to art galleries are being repurposed as vaccine centers. People are more aware of the impact of ventilation systems, and everyone has become an interior decorator, Sarkis noted.
Even the new rituals on public behavior that have emerged during the pandemic, and are part of Biennale protocols, signal a paradigm shift that emphasizes architecture: Visitors must maintain social distancing, have their temperatures checked and wear masks.
Some 112 architects from 46 countries are participating in the main show curated by Sarkis, while 61 countries have organized national pavilions. Some projects had to be rescaled, due to pandemic complications on shipping, with some architects sending plans for Italian artisans to construct projects out of locally sourced materials.
Due to rolling travel restrictions around the globe, a handful of pavilions will open late and the arrival of some participants and jury members has been delayed. Sarkis decided, as a result, to delay the awarding of prizes, which usually happens on opening weekend, until August. The Biennale runs until Nov. 21.
After a year when public assembly has been mostly outright banned, the idea of presence is key in several exhibits.
The Canadian pavilion is covered with a green textile, and visitors can download a smart phone application that uses CGI technology to transform the pavilion into the backdrop of a film that used a Canadian city as a stand-in for other places, from Tokyo to Moscow or Paris. The opening backdrop scene is from the “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
Germany facilitates virtual visits to its pavilion, which is empty apart from some QR codes on the interior walls, putting virtual users on the same footing as physical visitors. Both wander the virtual pavilion with avatars that can interact and even speak with each other.
The Venice Biennale also is seen as a neutral place that creates space for dialogue.
Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, who curated the 2016 event, has created a space where he hopes Chileans and the Mapuche indigenous people can meet to discuss age-old disputes over land.
The architecture created by his Elemental studio meets criteria stipulated by Mapuche tradition: that it be circular with an eastward orientation, and made of wood placed vertically. Aravena said the Mapuche accepted the design.
Aravena’s team took wooden piles of the sort used to support Venetian palaces and criss-crossed them in a circular pattern to create an interior courtyard.
It has been built on the side of a canal inside the Arsenale, the spiked tops of its piles visible from a distance, with the hopes that both Mapuche and Chileans could travel to Venice and hold a parley, or traditional negotiation. But COVID has made that uncertain.
“It is not clear if they will come at some point during the Biennale. If not, this thing is traveling back to Chile in any case,” Aravena said.
If all goes well, this could be one concrete legacy to the question: “How will we live together?”