Dezeen Magazine

Neom architects at Venice Architecture Biennale

"Neom's unwelcome presence in Venice reinforces the need for radical change"

The Venice Architecture Biennale and Neom's Zero Gravity Urbanism exhibition presented two alternative visions for the future, writes Dezeen editor Tom Ravenscroft.

This year's Venice Architecture Biennale was a significant moment – a moment of enthusiasm, a moment of youth, a moment to celebrate the future. But alongside the main event, a vying vision of the future was presented in Venice, one that threatened to overshadow the spark of the 18th International Architecture Exhibition. Almost in eyeline of the main biennale site, just across the Grand Canal, Neom's Zero Gravity Urbanism exhibition showcased a competing, bombastic "vision for the future of cities".

Named the Laboratory of the Future, this year's architecture biennale aimed to shine a spotlight on themes of decolonisation and decarbonisation by placing the continent of Africa at the centre of the show for the very first time. Curator Lesley Lokko, the first Black woman to lead architecture's most significant global gathering, brought together a diversity of approaches and participants never seen before at the biennale.

Suitably, over half of the 89 participants in Lokko's main exhibition were from Africa or its diaspora. What's more, 43 was the average age of all involved, and this number dropped further – to an average of 37 – in the curator's special projects section.

The Neom exhibition, on the other hand, showcased a stark contrast.

This core curatorial ethos was replicated in the teams designing many of the national pavilions – the British pavilion, for example was curated by a team of four, young-ish, people of colour – Jayden Ali, Joseph Henry, Meneesha Kellay and Sumitra Upham.

This brought a youthful energy to the biennale as contributors aimed to draw attention to the numerous, often heavy, issues the world is facing, and confront them by envisioning alternative paths.

The Neom exhibition, on the other hand, showcased a stark contrast. Although not part of the official biennale program, the display was timed to align with it, opening to the public on the same day in a super-sized marketing suite-cum-gallery dedicated to the Saudi mega-project. While Patrik Schumacher, whose studio Zaha Hadid Architects is also working on Neom, complained about the lack of traditional architecture in the biennale, the exhibition was packed full of large scale models and visualisations of the planned development.

A widely circulated official photograph of the contributors to the exhibition (above) was impressive in its homogeneity. While Neom itself is highly controversial due to reported forced evictions and death sentences connected to the project that have been criticised by human rights groups, Amnesty International and the UN, the photo poses further questions about who is designing this city of the future.

It is an official photo. This is how Neom wants to present itself – pale, male and stale

Described by Neom as "world-leading architects, designers and urban thinkers", the photo features ageing architects including Peter Cook (aged 86), Massimiliano Fuksas (aged 79) and Jean Nouvel (aged 77). Only one of the 23 world leaders in the photo was a woman – Italian architect Doriana Fuksas. This makes the represented team 96 percent male, ostensibly 100 percent white, and, without calculating the average age of everyone in the photo, it is fair to assume that it is certainly over 43, and probably closer to double that.

The photo is not a complete representation of the designers of Neom, which includes the controversial 170-mile-long city named The Line that is set to be built in the northwest of Saudi Arabia. Some of the young-ish architects involved, including Bjarke Ingels (aged 48), who is masterplanning the Octagon port region of the project, perhaps wisely, stayed away from the photoshoot.

Another notable absence was British-Ghanaian architect David Adjaye (aged 56), whose work features in both the biennale and the Neom exhibition. Although his involvement in Neom may add a lone voice from Africa, those lauding his work in the biennale can not have been enthused to see his involvement in a project that seems to reject many of the biennale's core ideals.

However, a picture paints a thousand words, and this is not an unauthorized or leaked shot. It is an official photo. This is how Neom wants to present itself – pale, male and stale. The fact that those posing for it did not see an immediate problem is itself highly worrying.

Are ageing starchitects best placed to design our future cities?

"Their presence marked their collective contribution to the development of the principles of Zero Gravity Urbanism, and reflected the global significance of this moment," said a release from Neom. The global significance achieved, however, surely isn't what the developers envisioned.

Rather, this a moment where two future visions are being presented alongside each other, and the garish contrast between who will be designing our future cities in the biennale's Laboratory of the Future and those drawing up Neom could not be clearer.

So the question has to be asked: on which side of the line will we land? Are ageing starchitects best placed to design our future cities? Or do we want a broad range of young, driven and diverse voices shaping the spaces to come?

Nothing makes the case for a radical changing of the architectural guard better than Neom's unwelcome presence in Venice. This is a future built on ideas from the past – one last hurrah for the age of the starchitect, where unsustainable, literally divisive geometric shapes are realised on a scale never before seen. It so deeply contrasts, and in doing so, emphasises the strengths of Lokko's vision. Hers dreams up a rich and truly inspired tomorrow – one that ushers in new, creative legacies from a broad cast of cultural and ecological caretakers – that we should all hope to see realised.

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