Dezeen Magazine

"Is architecture really as guileless as Aravena's Biennale suggests?"

Venice Architecture Biennale 2016: Alejandro Aravena's Reporting from the Front-themed Venice Biennale is filled with good intentions, but can architects ever really be honest about architecture, asks Mimi Zeiger.

Alejandro Aravena opens his Reporting from the Front with a backhand lob. "ARCHITECTURE IS" greets Biennale visitors entering the Arsenale, the first of his exhibition's two main venues.

Neither a question nor a statement, it is an open phrase that begs completion. Aravena fills it in with the tenderhearted sentiment "giving form where people live", and the accompanying exhibition displays an equally sensitive array of designs that are humanistic, material-based, and locally contextualised.

With an introductory wall text that reads, "It is not more complicated than that, but also not easier than that," Aravena invites the jet-lagged and the hungover, the tourist and the professional into a self-effacing survey. Architecture is, the Chilean architect seems to argue, a return to the most elemental.

The first gallery is an assembly of reclaimed material from the last Biennale – 14 kilometres of aluminium studs densely hung from the ceiling and 10,000 square metres of artfully stacked drywall fragments chide earlier attempts at fundamentals. And many of the architectural solutions presented in the face of a host of worldwide crises around housing, natural disasters, politics, migration, density, or economic precarity, resort to base resources.

That is to say, there's a lot of mud, brick, wood, and bamboo on view. It's an honest palette. One that leads to some smart buildings around the world such as mud schools in Bangladesh by German architect Anna Heringer or Al Borde Arquitectos' thatched structures in Ecuador.

But in lauding the purposefulness of bamboo armatures or innovative brick vaulting, might we also ask, is architecture really this guileless? Can (or should) a discipline so regularly in the service of power and capital be honest even when celebrating the most earnest and humble of works?

In the Central Pavilion – Aravena's other space in the Biennale's Giardini venue, a short walk from the Arsenale – visitors would be forgiven for missing the photographic cutouts of workers precariously perched on scaffolds that line the walls flanking the dramatic brick and wood parabolic arch by the Paraguay firm Gabinete de Arquitectura.

Yet the project, which took home the Golden Lion for best exhibition, was praised precisely for its architectural unskilling. Or, as the award jury noted, the project harnesses "simple materials, structural ingenuity and unskilled labour to bring architecture to underserved communities."

Acts of honesty don't necessarily translate into transparency or truth telling. Reporting from the Front's fixation on the authenticity of construction valorises the handmade without engaging with the real costs of labour at local and global scales.

Similarly, despite Trump-like accusations of political correctness, the Biennale conflates community-based participatory processes and research on international urbanism with more autonomous works by some of the world's best-known architects.

While a dark Arsenale gallery punctuated with crepuscular rays of light is a phenomenological dazzle after a room of brick vaults, one should remember that it's not a representation of a rural school, refugee station, or social housing. The installation by German engineers Transsolar + Anja Thierfelder is a stand-in for Jean Nouvel's Louvre Abu Dhabi.

Peter Zumthor's contribution to the Biennale is a savvy move to reposition his debated LACMA scheme within the language of art and fashion. His installation at the far end of the Arsenale is an oversized model of the proposed museum cloaked, quite literally, in a rainbow gradient of chador-like garments by Christina Kim.

Kim is the founder of Dosa, an eco-chic LA-based fashion line that trades in a visual language of third-world patois. Walter de Maria's 1968 piece Ocean Music is the soundtrack accompanying seemingly strategic (yet baffling) mash-up of sales pitch and luxury textiles.

The honesty of what architecture is slips through our fingers and instead replicates "truthiness" — an obsequious quality suited to our global architectural now.

In his recent book, Zero K, novelist Don DeLillo describes a present not unlike our own, a time of crisis at every front: social, political, climatic, economic. In his narrative he presents a possible solution – The Convergence, a remote compound where those with means can cryogenically preserve themselves for revival at some utopian point the future. In the author's speculative world, the honest aesthetic of the facility, which owes as much to George Lucas' first sci-fi film THX 1138 as to 1970s conceptual art, masks the dubious belief system at play.

I read DeLillo in the days leading up to the Venice Vernissage, the two-day preview of the Biennale. Touring the exhibitions, I couldn't shake the feeling of participating in a parallel ploy.

Reporting from the Front understands architecture as buying into an essentially Modernist belief in the redemptive role of material rectitude, spatial logic, and technology.

Perhaps the counter to this "honesty" is not the negation of the social and material intents of Aravena's curatorial efforts or in preaching the technological might of computational formalism, but in looking at the slippery, the sideways, or the dishonest — architectural feigns that are "fronting" rather than reporting from the front.

For example, the German and Dutch national pavilions both take on questions of migration – the former looks at the urban conditions and housing solutions in arrival cities and the latter at United Nations peacekeeping sites across the world. But Sam Jacob Studio's full-size replica of a Calais refugee tent confronts viewers with the visceral scale of a single unit.

Produced for the exhibition on copying, A World of Fragile Parts, curated by Brendan Cormier in the V&A's new Applied Arts Pavilion at the Biennale, Jacob had an assistant 3D scan the existing shelter and then it was 3D printed at scale. The resulting resolution is chunky, imprecise, and telling in its untruth. The piece acts as an architectural meditation on the truthfulness of representation and implicates our own limitations in understanding real circumstances from afar.

"Simply pointing out conditions is fundamentally dishonest," says Albanian pavilion curator Leah Whitman-Salkin, noting that it is a privileged position to observe and research.

By contrast, the Albanian contribution, entitled I Have Left You the Mountain and curated by Whitman-Salkin, Simon Battisti, and Åbäke, quite literally voices the longings and displacements of migratory Albanians via a recording of iso-polyphonic folk singing, a vocal heritage that's protected by UNESCO.

According to the curators, in 2013 45 per cent of Albanian nationals lived abroad. Rather than reproduce this factoid, they invited texts from 10 writers, poets, and thinkers on the topic, such as poet Mourid Barghouti and architect Yona Friedman.

These works were translated into Albanian, sung by traditional singers, and recorded as a 12-inch vinyl record that's played continuously in the pavilion as an eight-channel audio installation. The voices on the record carry a gut-level poetic that few of the more typical architectural installations achieve.

The spare furniture in the small pavilion is by British designer Max Lamb. Although the pieces bear a slight resemblance to fragments of classical ruins, the benches and chairs are actually made out of chunks of Styrofoam packing bound together by polyurethane rubber. Repurposed materials are pervasive throughout Reporting from the Front — glass bottles, cardboard, or construction debris whimsically salvaged by engineer Nek Chand from the building of Le Corbusier's Chandigarh for his 35-acre rock garden.

Lightweight, waterproof, nearly bombproof, Lamb's furniture is nihilistic in its recycling. These are stools ready for the end of the world. The overall impact of I Have Left You the Mountain might belong more to the art world than to architecture, but its shifting fidelity between mediums proves both abstract and seductive.

Likewise, the Uruguay pavilion draws from art, especially performance and social practice, which has a growing application within architecture. Entitled Reboot, the charmingly deceptive pavilion includes an archive of illegal activity — items that were stolen from other pavilions by visitors during the Vernissage. Participants donned green plastic "invisibility cloaks" in order to make raids on outlying exhibitions.

As a site-specific performance, these subversive actions were meant to mirror the 60s-era revolutionary efforts of urban guerrillas in Montevideo, the Movimiento de Liberación Nacional Tupamaros, and reproduce a parallel urbanism within the Giardini. Now that the Biennale is open to the public, the Uruguayan curatorial collective behind piece has closed and sealed the archive, hiding they booty behind the architecture of the pavilion itself. "You may now enjoy the legal biennale," they say.

As those actions are removed from view, the actions of Detroit Resists remain in virtual plain sight. The group, a self-described coalition of activists, artists, architects, and community members, digitally occupied the US Pavilion in protest against the curatorial position The Architectural Imagination, which they see as a misguided attempt to use Detroit as a site for formal experimentation at the expense of city citizens and stakeholders.

"[The projects] use the language of engagement, but who is being engaged?" asks Detroit Resist member Andrew Herscher. "We question if any of these projects are capable of catalysing Detroit culture."

The resistance group has created an augmented reality installation that overlays the space of the pavilion, inserting slogans, protest posters from #blacklivesmatter and other local movements, and a water tower reading Free the Water. Biennale visitors can view the installation by using the AR app LAYAR.

Detroit Resists' use of technology is important because it flips the narrative of how we understand community-based architecture and activism. For the last few years the social/political side of architecture and the formal side of architecture have been split within discourse into two operational modes: crunchy "hands-on" and slick "computer-on". These fronts are not oppositional.

The truth is that in our largely networked world, socially minded design is not restricted to the honesty of material culture, but is an active participant in a pervasive, democratic digital realm. It is not more complicated than that, but also not easier than that.

Main photograph by Luke Hayes.

Mimi Zeiger is a Los Angeles-based journalist and critic. She has covered art, architecture, urbanism and design for a number of publications including The New York TimesDomusDwell, Architects Newspaper, and Architect.