Alejandro Aravena named as director of 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale


Venice Architecture Biennale 2016: Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena has been appointed as artistic director for the Venice Architecture Biennale, which will focus on the "battles to be won" to improve quality of life within the built environment.

"There are several battles that need to be won and several frontiers that need to be expanded in order to improve the quality of the built environment and consequently people's quality of life," said Aravena, who is based in Santiago, Chile, and is best known for his work with his firm Elemental.

"This is what we would like people to come and see at the 15th International Architecture Exhibition: success stories worthy to be told and exemplary cases worthy to be shared where architecture did, is and will make a difference in those battles and frontiers," he added.

The 15th annual architecture exhibition in Venice will be open to the public from 28 May to 27 November 2016 and occupy the Arsenale and Giardini venues in the east of the Italian city, as well as a number of smaller satellite spaces.

"The 15th International Architecture Exhibition will be about focusing and learning from architectures that through intelligence, intuition or both of them at the same time, are able to escape the status quo," said Aravena. "We would like to present cases that, despite the difficulties, instead of resignation or bitterness, propose and do something. We would like to show that in the permanent debate about the quality of the built environment, there is not only a need but also room for action."

Quinta Monroy by Elemental and Alejandro Aravena
Quinta Monroy by Elemental and Alejandro Aravena. Photograph by Cristobal Palma

Aravena's approach is a sharp contrast to that of the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale director, Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, who chose to "disconnect from contemporary architecture" in favour of his research-focused Fundamentals theme for the event.

Related content: see all our coverage from the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale

"After the important experimental Biennale developed by Rem Koolhaas, dedicated entirely to the curator's research, it is our belief that we must follow up with a Biennale that convenes the architects," said Paolo Baratta, president of the Biennale.

Baratta said Aravena was the best architect of a new generation to examine the growing gap between architecture and social need.

"This Biennale intends to react once again to the gap between architecture and civil society, which in recent decades has transformed architecture into spectacle on the one hand, yet made it dispensable on the other," he said. "Among architects of the new generation, Alejandro Aravena is, in our opinion, the one who can best describe this reality and highlight its vitality."

Aravena, 48, is best known for his social housing work with Elemental – a "Do Tank" he founded in partnership with the Chilean Oil Company and the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile to tackle social issues in South and Central America.

Elemental's 2004 Quinta Monroy, a 93-home residential development in Chile created to provide houses for a community that had previously occupied the same site illegally, helped Aravena win the Silver Lion for a Promising Young Architect in the International Exhibition at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2008. Based on traditional row houses, each building on the site was designed as a basic concrete structure, with a void incorporated to allow the residents to adapt and extend their homes themselves.

Innovation Center UC – Anacleto Angelini by Elemental. Photograph by Nina Vidic

The firm's monolithic concrete Innovation Center UC – Anacleto Angelini on the campus of the Universidad Católica de Chile, in Santiago, was named one of the 2015 Designs of the Year by London's Design Museum.

Aravena also runs his own architecture firm, founded in 1994, and has previously been a professor at Harvard University and a juror for the Pritzker Prize – architecture's most prestigious award.

Ruta del Peregrino: Crosses Lookout Point by Elemental
Ruta del Peregrino: Crosses Lookout Point by Elemental. Photograph by Iwan Baan

His other projects include a viewpoint pavilion for the Mexican pilgrimage route La Ruta del Peregrino, a strap designed to wrap around the body of a sitting person and provide support without using a chair, and a prototype house at the Milan Triennale in 2008.

  • less and less interesting…

    I am not so sure about this choice. Rem was very bad indeed, but this will be like “let’s see who has the best ideas about the slums-architecture”. PS, sheltering is not an architecture.

  • spadestick

    Great choice, certainly one of the most interesting leaders of the decade. It would also be fantastic if participants could come up with solutions to the Naples garbage problem, the Nepalese earthquake rebuilding projects, feature Curitiba’s total sustainability and Europe’s proposals for unconditional basic income.

    • social illusions

      Yeah right! Let’s be the Red Cross. Architecture is losing it, I think. Are we supposed to be some kind of social institution, really? To that point?

      By the way, all the great architecture is sustainable in its meaning. This trendy crap, happening right now, is nothing more than architects without a job desperatelly seeking to create one. It’s pathetic.

  • kejr

    Who is he? The only thing everyone knows is that he is on the Pritzker jury. I don’t know how he got to be there, I have not seen anything but that Innovation Center from him, and that does not even look innovative. It’s just boring.

  • Wondering…

    I wonder what the work conditions are at his practice…

  • spadestick

    Some uninformed comments here of a person you’ve never met nor understood his mindset. Unlike many, he certainly took a different route and does not come off as pretentious, self serving and only for the hyper wealthy.

  • Architectyour

    From Chipperfield’s celebrities to Rem the celebrity, Aravena celebrates the power of architecture, not the architect’s power.

    It is encouraging to see the potential of architecture being acknowledged as relevant for people aside from those seeking spatial indulgence.

    If architecture is a reflection of its time, [unfortunately] Aravena and Elemental are truly progressive.

  • proxemiks

    I have just recently returned from a workshop in parametric/agile pavilion design. I think the context of the 2016 Biennale poses really interesting challenges to the kinds of digital systems we were working with, and their relevancy/application to architecture that addresses social need. As a graduating student, I look forward to attending next year!

    • rachel

      Lucky you. Digital workshops and trips to Venice! You must be a pretty enthusiastic student. I have heard Aravena speak at an Australian conference and he was inspiring on a number of levels.

      Beyond the elegant formality of his private client architecture, which was up there with the best – yet he hardly mentioned – he knew his stuff about the monetisation of architecture/property and also the much more elusive thing for architects… how to set up a solid, satisfying architectural environment for clients who aren’t wealthy or fortunate, and then let them be to manage it, express themselves and their lives on their own.

      In all the recent history of architectural activism and socially motivated endeavours, few have actually achieved it with Aravena’s skill. Regards, Rachel.