• The shallow pool built inside the Australian pavilion offers a respite from the Venice heat, but also serves as a prompt for examining the country’s architecture, culture, and identity. Photo by Andrea Avezzu

The theme of the 15th Venice Biennale of Architecture, “Reporting from the Front,” frames the work of architects as a battle shaped by the complexities of real-world circumstances, the challenge of which is not only to survive but also to have positive, transformative impact. For Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, who curated this year’s biennale and is the most recent Pritzker Prize laureate, the aim was to “select examples that address a problem that matters and for which quality architecture made a difference.”

The Biennale’s main exhibition, which occupies the Central Pavilion at the Giardini as well as the nearby Arsenale, gathers projects by 88 participants from 37 countries, giving visitors a sense of what kinds of problems contemporary architects are taking on globally, but also showing what exactly Aravena means by quality architecture. In both venues, one enters the exhibition through rooms constructed with materials left over from last year’s Art Biennale. Drywall is cut up and stacked in layers to produce a textured interior envelope, while bundles of discarded metal studs similarly redefine the ceiling above. Each handsomely designed room explains a bit about the exhibition — the making of it, in one, and the inspiration for it, in the other — but in terms of innovation offers little more than a lesson in trash-to-treasure material use.

Beyond, in the Central Pavilion, a series of beautifully composed rooms — each conceived and laid out independently, based on its specific content — features an array of projects conducted and conveyed through a range of means. One of the first installations to encounter is Paraguayan firm Gabinete de Arquitectura’s impressive arched diagrid structure built at full-scale using only bricks, mortar, and unskilled labor, making a case for an architecture that transcends its humble resources. German architect Anna Heringer transformed the interior of another exhibition area using 25 tons of mud in order to promote the material’s contemporary relevance. A large sectional mock-up showing the layers of trash, various soil types, and vegetation that make up the ground of a capped landfill is the centerpiece in a landscape restoration project by Batlle i Roig Arquitectes. It gives literal depth to dirt by revealing its highly engineered synthetic nature.

The aesthetics of dirt, mud, and other neutrally toned humble materials that dominate the exhibition is occasionally disrupted by projects like the multi channel video installation about a school project by Chilean architects elton_ léniz set in a space invitingly lit with fire-red neon. Provocative media work by Forensic Architecture, a London-based group led by Eyal Weizman, is perhaps the most overtly political content in the exhibition and one that radically redefines the role of architecture in interdisciplinary research and practice.

The Arsenale portion of the exhibition continues to carry the curatorial tone of the Central Pavilion and presents works by the likes of Rahul Mehrotra, Cecilia Puga, Atelier Bow-Wow, Kengo Kuma, and the only U.S. architects included in the exhibition, Rural Studio. The Biennale’s most remarkable installation — it would have been my personal pick for the Golden Lion for best installation, which was instead awarded to Gabinete de Arquitectura — is the Armadillo Vault by the Block Research Group from ETH Zurich and engineers Ochsendorf DeJong & Block. A sprawling thin-shell canopy composed of nearly 400 slabs of limestone, the installation is a study of new possibilities afforded by compressive structures, and a compelling synthesis of high technology and traditional masonry construction. The project’s development and realization were made possible by one of its key collaborators: the Escobedo Group from Buda, Texas, where the installation was fabricated before traveling to Italy. Assembled entirely with dry connections — there is no mortar or adhesive between the limestone panels — the structure is as aesthetically rich as it is intelligent.

Exhibitions within national pavilions, mostly scattered throughout the Giardini, are somewhat independent of the Biennale’s main curatorial theme, but there are deliberate overlaps. The Spanish exhibition titled “Unfinished” — this year’s winner of the Golden Lion for the best pavilion — focuses on the status of the country’s architecture after the 2008 financial collapse. Curated by architects Iñaqui Carnicero and Carlos Quintáns Eiras, the exhibition juxtaposes stunning photographs of buildings unfinished because of funding cuts with a series of recent built projects by a range of Spanish practices designed within tight constraints. Diverse in typology, scale, and style, what the selected projects have in common architecturally is their role in completing the seemingly incomplete conditions (infill sites, abandoned buildings, leftover facades) while managing the relationship between the existing and the new through sophisticated calibrations of continuity and contrast. “Unfinished” optimistically highlights architecture’s ability to collectively direct adverse circumstances toward both inspiration and action.

The exhibition at the U.S. pavilion advocates the role of architectural imagination in shaping our future cities — as perhaps something different from the problem-solving ingenuity that results from real-world built commissions — and presents a group of theoretical projects speculatively sited in Detroit. Curators Cynthia Davidson and Mónica Ponce de León selected 12 design teams, ranging from some of the most prominent voices in contemporary American architecture, including Greg Lynn, Merrill Elam, and several emerging practices. The intention of linking experimental avant-garde works of vivid imagination (“The Architectural Imagination” is the exhibition’s title) with the stark realities of a shrinking city like Detroit is provocative, but the connection between the two may seem too tenuous, to some. However, the open question of how innovative works of architecture primarily driven by the discipline’s internal concerns — and often constrained by the computer screen rather than physical sites — can continue to meaningfully impact the future of our constructed environment remains important and relevant.

Elsewhere in the Giardini, national exhibitions range from didactic to immersive, to downright delightful. In the Swiss pavilion, Christian Kerez’s “Incidental Space,” an amorphous white cloud of sprayed cement made through a combination of high- and low-tech means, allows one to explore its surprisingly inviting cavernous interior. The Australians built a swimming pool inside their gallery, an obviously appealing amenity on a hot Venice day, but also an effective foil for exploring broader cultural issues. The British exhibition, “Home Economics,” likewise offers a playful experience — psychedelically colored inflatable spheres, designed by the London-based art collective åyr, inside which non-claustrophobic visitors are encouraged to lounge — while critically exploring new financial models for housing in the 21st century. More than simply acts of novelty, these clouds, pools, and pods serve as important thresholds that connect architecture to its broader audiences and encourage further engagement. 

Much in the way he refers to his practice, Elemental, as a do-tank rather than a think-tank, Aravena places what he sees as the most relevant contemporary architecture at the front, rather than on the cutting edge. Where the cutting edge traditionally aligns itself with the latest technological and theoretical innovations, the architecture of the front is in this regard skeptical. The front is drawn to political intricacies but seems to seek out formal and material restraint. Despite its global ambition, approximately 60 percent of the practices represented in Aravena’s exhibition are based in Europe, most of them practicing in their home regions and within a familiar modernist canon (Francis Kéré, who is based in Berlin but produces much of his work in his native Africa, is among the exceptions). In this regard, the exhibition makes one wonder how many different ways the discipline may be able to consider notions of inclusiveness in order to further architecture’s vitality and relevance as we move forward. Inclusivity starts on home turf, so perhaps one possibility is for architecture to embrace its own plurality of ambitions, expanding beyond the well meaning, but ultimately reductive notions of timelessness, usefulness, and good quality. In this way, architectures at the front and the cutting edge need not be mutually exclusive. “Reporting from the Front” offers a few glimpses of this, and it feels worthwhile to want to see more.

The 15th Venice Biennale of Architecture is on view from May 28 to November 27 2016.

Igor Siddiqui is an associate professor at The University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture.

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