Image 5 biennale

Picturing an Exhibition: Closing the 18th Venice Architecture Biennale

Forming a coherent picture of this year’s Venice Biennale, in traditional formal terms, is pointless, as the 18th International Architecture Exhibition was, by design, a heterogeneous collection of installations across a wide range of media, many located at the periphery of architectural production and discourse. The tie that binds this biennale—that frames it without any one fixed image—is the provocation of making the edge the center, if only for 190 days. Leslie Lokko, the artistic director who curated this year’s event, invited research, mixed-media projects, and, more important, focused on what has been, until now, at the margin of architecture culture: Africa. 

Much has happened since the biennale opened on May 20, which colors how, at its end, one apprehends the extraordinary feat of logistical, geopolitical, and aesthetic orchestration that was the event. Shortly after its opening, the sleepy masses were woken by Patrik Schumacher’s vitriolic attack on the biennale, published on his Facebook page, of all places. Zaha Hadid’s partner claimed that this year’s event was largely absent architecture. In July, Sir David Adjaye, whom Schumacher had singled out as one of the few positive exceptions—a large dimly lit room in the main pavilion was filled with well-lighted, perfectly crafted wooden models of his firm’s work in Africa—was found wanting as an employer, if not a person, due to news about a series of unwanted sexual incidents (both harassment and liaisons) with employees. Many commissions have been rescinded or indefinitely delayed, including some on display in Venice. Israel’s decision to deny access to the interior of its pavilion was intended as an overt political act underscoring a country isolated and under siege. Since the massacre on October 7 and the ensuing assault on Gaza, it took on a wholly different tone, one it could not have had in the previous months.

Venice Biennale Poster, Designer: Fred Swart.


The issue that set Schumacher’s hair ablaze seems a debate not worth having. During the past decade, “architecture” has become so plastic a term that it’s as fungible as bitcoin—which, given that monetary platform’s collapse, seems apt. Certainly, were one judging by Vitruvian standards of firmitas, commoditas, and voluptas (with the presumption of inhabitable built space), it’s difficult for any exhibition of architecture to include architecture. This has always been the fundamental problem with architecture exhibits and museums of any stripe: architecture is not a movable feast. At least, it hasn’t been for the past several thousand years. But things change, and this is not your mother’s biennale. 

The exhibition included exhibits by 53 participants (usually teams of several people), and 64 national or regional pavilions (Venice and Catalonia included), all exploring the theme chosen by Lokko: The Laboratory of the Future. The participant’s average age was 43. While Lokko’s focus privileged the Global South, Africa, and the African diaspora, her intent, explicated in countless print interviews and videos, was intended to be all-embracing: a return to the anthropological birthplace of humankind.

United States Installation, Biennale Gardens, Video Staging, Executive director: Tiziana Baldenebro, Curator: Lauren Leving.
United States Pavilion Installation, Biennale Gardens, Video Staging, Executive Director: Tiziana Baldenebro; Curator: Lauren Leving.


Lokko situates the biennale’s two subthemes—decolonization and decarbonization—under a pancultural canopy. There is a great irony in Lokko choosing decarbonization as one of this year’s biennale subthemes, since Venice may be the least sustainable city on the planet. Its essential implausibility is the thing that makes it so extraordinary, drawing a crushing 13 million visitors a year to a city of about 50,000 permanent residents.

Lokko’s thesis, however, is a hopeful one: As we return to humankind’s umbilicum, we also re-enter what she often calls “the world’s youngest continent.” It’s a provocative and complex catchphrase. In terms of population average age, Africa is the most youthful of the seven continents; Niger’s median age is just under 15 years. Yet this young population dwells atop the earth’s geologically oldest continent as environmental extremes ravage its surface and threaten its future. Last year, a U.N. Africa Climate Week Report warned: “Scientists have long noted that countries in Africa have contributed the least to greenhouse gas emissions, yet climate change threatens to expose up to 118 million of the poorest Africans to droughts, floods and extreme heat by 2030.” 

Israel Pavilion, Biennale Gardens, Cloud-to-Ground, Curators: Oren Eldar, Edith Kofsky, Hadas Maor.
Brazil Pavilion, Biennale Gardens, Places of Origin, Archaeologies of the Future, Curators: Gabriela de Matos and Paolo Tavares.


The effects of climate change in Africa are hardly limited to that continent. Those living in the Caribbean or along the North American east coast know well that Africa and the seas off its west coast are the birthing areas of the seasonal hurricanes that ravage the Caribbean, Mexico, and the North American coastline from Texas to Newfoundland, often moving inland as far as Oklahoma. Africa’s problems are the world’s problems. So, too, Africa’s successes, in Lokko’s strategy, will be the world’s to share. Hence, The Laboratory of the Future.

One of the most generous innovations Lokko brought to the biennale was the inaugural “Biennale College Architettura 2023,” which ran from June 25 to July 22. The “college” consisted of 49 participants chosen by Lokko from 986 applications, including undergraduates, recent graduates, and graduate students, all under the age of 30, and a range of academics and emerging practitioners, under the age of 35, representing countries across the globe. 

Taking a long view, Lokko has worked on several fronts to help this temporary exhibition continue to resonate long after the last installation has been carted up and loaded onto a Venetian barge. One of these is the African Futures Institute (AFI), in Accra, which she founded and has directed for the past several years, where the graphic designer for the 2023 biennale, Fred Swart, is on the board of directors, and where much of the preparatory work for the biennale was done. In Lokko’s July lecture at Accra, “Bringing the Biennale B(l)ack,” an exhausted Lokko eloquently presented the colonial rape of Africa as the basis for the biennale, briefly concluding with how the AFI is transforming into the “F Platform,” as her faith in institutions continues to be undermined by personal experience. That said, for Lokko, the closing is not the exhibition’s end, but the start of innumerable projects well beyond the event. The Laboratory of the Future, for Lokko, contains many threads woven into the fabric of works continued across the globe. The AFI at Accra is simply the first. 

Sumayya Vally and Moad Musbahi, The African Post Office, Main Pavilion, Biennale
Main Entrance to Arsenale Corderie with Colonnade of Light Beyond.


By virtually every mark she has left on this year’s biennale, the Ghanaian-Scottish-born Ph.D. made clear that at her core, she is teacher and provocateur. In Lokko’s précis, published in the exhibition catalog, she explains: “The Laboratory of the Future is not didactic. It does not confirm directions, offer solutions, or deliver lessons. Instead, it is … a kind of rupture, an agent of change, where the exchange between participant, exhibit and visitor is not passive or predetermined. The exchange is intended as reciprocal, glorious and unpredictable in form, with each participant transformed by the encounter and emboldened to go forward into another future.” 

In her July lecture, Lokko posited: “The Black body was Europe’s first unit of energy. … When we talk about decarbonization, we are not only looking at it through a scientific, quantitative lens. It is intimately entwined with decolonization.” It takes but a passing knowledge of energy to know the first statement is technically false, albeit a great trope; the second is up for debate. Decarbonization and decolonization certainly intersect in architectural production on occasion, more so of late. That is part of Lokko’s brilliance: her ability to combine two or more fundamental ideas, sometimes at odds, into a single argument and, like all great teachers, writers, and orators, bring the brethren along to learn something new from the story before they can question its premise.

Rhael “LionHeart” Cape, Those with Walls for Windows, Arsenale Corderie.
Studio Barnes, Griot, Arsenale Corderie.
Studio Barnes, Griot, Arsenale Corderie.


If that’s not in the job description of a biennale artistic director, it ought to be. Novelist, architect, dean, professor, partner-in-practice, and curator, despite Lokko’s claims, the biennale was didactic, often confirming directions, severally offering solutions, and at times, delivering lessons. She was careful, however, to leave these tasks to the individual exhibitors, as the biennale itself offered only the general framework for the contributions. The result, by default, was a mixed one—the natural byproduct of a sprawling, logistically complex, broad-themed exhibition with multiple venues, including several outside the Biennale Gardens and the Arsenale. 

It seems perfunctory to call out specific entries for critical review, as each was sui generis. There are dozens of previously published reviews that canonize a chosen few. Speaking of the whole, Lokko advised the press corps before the opening (with unintended irony): “It’s an exhibition that requires a certain amount of energy to understand. We hope people will take the time.” There were QR codes for those on a tight schedule. 

The day after its closing on November 26, Italy’s left-leaning newspaper, La Repubblica, hailed the biennale “a success, or rather a challenge won.” La Biennale di Venezia (the administrative office overseeing the biennales since their conception in 1895) announced that this year’s was the second-most attended architecture biennale since the first one, by Paolo Portoghesi in 1980, with nearly 300,000 tickets sold, a remarkable post-pandemic recovery.

Gloria Cabral and Sammy Baloji with Cécile Fromont, Debris of History, Matters of Memory, Arsenale Corderie. Photo: Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia.
AMAA Collaborative Architecture Office for Research, It’s Kind of a Circular Story, Arsenale Corderie.
Croatia, Same as it Ever Was, Arsenale Corderie, Curators: Mia Roth, et al..


La Repubblica rightly praised Lokko and La Biennale di Venezia; it was a challenging project to pull off, and the project challenged its willing visitors. Yet successes such as these are more tenuous than they seem and will require more than financial support by major patrons such as Rolex if they are to continue. 

Many unforeseen and potentially disagreeable moments, politically and artistically, lie in the biennale’s path. Roberto Cicutto, the president of La Biennale di Venezia, explained at the opening ceremony that the holder of his office recommends to a governmental committee the artistic director for each of the biennales (art, architecture, film, etc.). Italy’s neo-Fascist Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s recent appointment of the right-wing journalist Pietrangelo Buttafuoco to replace Cicutto does not bode well for the artistic directors of future laboratories of future biennales. 

It took several years, and the combined force of Peggy Guggenheim’s personal art collection and Carlo Scarpa’s creative genius for exhibition design, for the Venice Biennale to recover from the decade under the reign of Benito Mussolini, as attendance dropped and exhibitors were limited by nationality and political content. Long an outlier in Italian culture and politics, even when Italy was largely composed of papal states, Venice was typically at odds with Rome, at times on the battlefield. 

While many real and horrible battles rage elsewhere today, in Italy most are fought on television, social media, and online newspapers, which are largely controlled by the right. Venice has never been more of an island-state than it is today. Inserting right-leaning Roman politicians into the leadership of Venetian cultural heritage will require a watchful eye. Lokko’s goal is for the content of The Laboratory of the Future to continue well past the exhibition’s closing. The goal of director Cicutto and many others at the Biennale di Venezia will be for the biennales to continue unfettered by the consistently unstable politics of Rome and its neo-Fascist politicians, to ensure the vitality and freedom of their own laboratories of the future.

Featured image: Alma Du Solier and Walter Hood, Hood Design Studio, Main Pavilion, Biennale Gardens. All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.


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