Dezeen Magazine

Seven key topics for the Venice Architecture Biennale 2016

Venice Architecture Biennale 2016: the world's biggest architectural exhibition kicks off next week. Dezeen's architecture editor Amy Frearson examines some of the key themes already emerging ahead of the event, ranging from the housing crisis to robotic construction.

The Venice Architecture Biennale 2016 is curated by Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, who has committed much of his career to tackling the housing crisis through a radical reinvention of social housing models.

His theme, Reporting From The Front, is a bid to encourage architects to address some of the most important global issues.

The Biennale officially opens to the public on 28 May and continues until 27 November. Dezeen will be there a few days ahead of the opening to preview the best contributions to Aravena's exhibition at the Arsenale and Giardini, as well as the most provocative national pavilions.

We've identified some of the key topics that will be explored:

Refugees and migration

MoMA's Insecurities: Tracing Displacement and Shelter exhibition considering the issue of security within the refugee crisis

There are over 19 million refugees around the world, and the question of how to accommodate them within existing communities is an ongoing challenge for designers.

The exhibition in the German national pavilion will showcase some of the innovative designs of established refugee camps, as well as examining systems that countries can put in place "to turn refugees into immigrants".

Similarly, the Finnish exhibition called From Border to Home will present temporary accommodation proposals for just-arrived asylum seekers awaiting a decision on their refugee status. Austria and Albania will also address the topic in their pavilions.

The debate is likely to continue beyond the Biennale too. MoMA has announced an exhibition later this year drawing attention to global refugee emergencies, while the new What Design Can Do Refugee Challenge has called for designers to think of fresh solutions to the crisis.

Changing role of the home

Home Economics exhibition at the British pavilion for the Venice Architecture Biennale 2016

A number of shifts in home design have taken place in the last few years. Several architects have reported a gradual phasing out of the once coveted open-plan layout, as families favour more private spaces for using digital devices, while the narrow houses once consigned to Asia have become attractive options in densely populated cities around the world. Other trends include the rise of co-living accommodation, a cross between student housing and hotels that aims to create more opportunities for socialising.

Several pavilions at the Biennale will address these changes and how they relate to concerns such as privacy. The British show, called Home Economics, will propose solutions to different domestic situations, all relating to different periods of occupancy.

In the Slovenian Pavilion, the curators are building a compact wooden library showcasing books that reveal how the home has changed across the decades, which they hope will become a platform for discussion.

Learning from economic crises

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The global recession has had a visible impact on cities, with many ambitious projects such as Steven Holl's Copenhagen skyscraper bridge and Frank Gehry's Abu Dhabu Guggenheim suffering huge delays. But some designers have been able to respond creatively to limited budgets.

This is the topic that will be explored by both Spain and Belgium with their Biennale exhibitions. As one of the worst affected countries, Spain will use 80 examples to define a new type of architecture that emerged in a time of financial instability, while Belgium will present 13 projects that show how scarcity can lead to craftsmanship.

The USA will also use its exhibition to draw attention to Detroit, the country's poorest big city. By suggesting architectural solutions to problems like abandoned buildings, racial divides and population loss, the show will promote Detroit as a model for cities still suffering the effects of post-industrialisation.

New forms of construction

The ICD/ITKE Research Pavilion 2014-2015

Recent developments in building technology have paved the way for a future where robotics, 3D printing, carbon fibre and animal-inspired structures could all become commonplace in architecture.

These trends – championed by architects including Wolf D Prix and BIG's Kai-Uwe Bergmann – are being pioneered by researchers at the University of Stuttgart and ETH Zurich, and have resulted in projects that include a sea urchin-inspired pavilion and a rock tower held up with string.

In a similar vein, ETH Zurich's Block Research Group is building an armadillo-inspired shell in the Biennale's Arsenale.

An ETH Zurich team is also working with architect Christian Kerez on a project at the Swiss Pavilion that seeks to combine digital fabrication and craftsmanship. Meanwhile, the Israeli Pavilion will focus on the relationship between biology and architecture, centring around a free-standing structure inspired by a 3D scan of a bird's nest.

Construction labour

London construction site

The responsibility of architects towards construction workers has been a hot topic ever since Zaha Hadid blamed the Qatari government for neglecting the hundreds of migrants who have died working on football stadiums for the FIFA World Cup 2022.

Poland – a country seen by many as a source of cheap construction labour – aims to examine the plight of builders, and how working conditions and respect are often overlooked in favour of deadlines and budgets. Its pavilion exhibition will question whether "fair trade" is possible in this industry.

Housing crisis

Alison Brooks will address the role of state-sponsored housing in modern-day society for the Venice Architecture Biennale 2016. Photograph by Paul Riddle
Photograph by Paul Riddle

The global housing crisis is one of the biggest challenges for city planners and has been the pet subject area of Aravena, who recently made a series of his own low-cost housing designs available for free.

This year's Biennale includes exhibits from housing-design pioneers like Mexican architect Tatiana Bilbao and Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, and will cover the whole spectrum – from the rise of micro-apartments in western cities to the future of Europe's housing estates, and the need for easily deployable homes in disaster areas.

In the Arsenale, Indian architect Anupama Kundoo will be building a full-scale housing prototype aimed at both cities and rural areas, using materials recycled from the German Pavilion exhibition from the 2015 Art Biennale.

Canadian-British architect Alison Brooks will address the role of state-sponsored housing in modern-day society and whether it can ever be separated from the stigma of economic and social segregation, as part of the Time Space Existence event at Palazzo Mora.


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Like Kundoo, many architects will highlight the growing awareness of waste in the construction industry by making use of recycled materials. For Turkey's exhibition, a vessel built entirely from waste will travel to Venice from Istanbul, while the Chilean pavilion will showcase rural architecture built using leftover resources from agricultural processes.

At Palazzo Badoer, the Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism has organised a symposium dedicated to the subject. With speakers including architect and event co-director Alejandro Zaera-Polo, MAXXI curator Pippo Ciorra and British Council director Vicky Richardson, the event will explore whether ideas about adaptive reuse and upcycling can be applied on an urban scale.