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Top Three Take-aways from the 2021 Venice Architecture Biennale

December 13, 2021 - Article
The Biennale Architettura is one of the most exciting and prestigious cultural events in the world. Every year countries submit exhibition content and ideas. The Canadian Pavilion was designed in 1956 by Enrico Peressutti of the Milanese firm BBPR (Banfi, Barbiano di Belgiojoso, Peressutti, Rogers) and is one of only 30 permanent pavilions. The Biennale is the only international visual arts exhibition to which Canada sends official representation and serves as an opportunity for Canadian artists to exhibit there on a global stage. More recently Canada has explored the topic of unceded lands, reflected on the modernization and innovation of northern architecture, and examined this history and relationship with resource extraction.

A couple of weeks ago, Senior Partner and Architect Stephen Rotman toured the 17th International Architecture Exhibition: Biennale Architettura 2021. Even with his limited time, Stephen was inspired by the installations and work at this year's event. Over 300,000 people toured the exposition this year, a record number especially given the ongoing travel restrictions.  This year's theme was "How will we live together," curated by Hashim Sarkis, Dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at M.I.T. The event takes a closer look at our constantly evolving world and asks participants and the public to consider how we support each other. In the wake of the global pandemic, this issue seems even more pertinent than ever. Stephen reflects on his top takeaways from this year's event. 

1. Architecture is International  

The Biennale is a critical reminder that the issues that touch architecture are both global and local. This year's exhibition included 112 participants from 46 countries. What makes this event so unique is the opportunity for architects and artists to reflect on contemporary issues meaningfully. It serves as an opportunity to share a diverse range of ideas in front of a global audience. It was great fun to see so many displays of architectural issues worldwide, underlining that architecture is truly an international profession. 

No visit would be complete without a tour of the Canadian Pavilion. Imposter Cities looked at why Canadian cities make great stand-ins for other cities on film with a virtual exhibition accessible by a QR code posted outside. The building itself was a literal backdrop, wrapped as it was in green plastic.

2. A greater focus on Participatory Design 

One of the more interesting observations from the Biennale Architettura 2021 was the emphasis on participatory design. Participatory Design is a process by which all stakeholders and community members are actively involved – a foundational value that Figurr integrates into all its projects. The era of the "starchitect" appears to be over, and there is greater awareness of teamwork. Architects now, more than ever, are part of a complex process of creation and transformation. Design follows a generally circular process of collaboration among numerous players, quite like indigenous models. Architects play a vital role in the design and construction process, but they are part of a bigger team where everyone works together to achieve project success. 

Certain countries chose to emphasize this participatory aspect of living together more than others.  In particular, the Nordic countries explored "co-housing," replicating a practical collective living situation. The U.S. pavilion addressed the democratic process of building homes with a three-storey balloon wood frame skeleton that encouraged visitor exploration. 

3. Climate change is top of mind  

One final observation from the Biennale is that climate change is top of mind for everyone and that integrating sustainable design practices into projects is now mandatory. Architects have the skills and training needed to reduce the negative contributions made by the built environment. There are many ways that architects can participate in reducing CO2 emissions and creating a positive future.  

Several of the pavilions explored the concept of sustainable design directly. The Danish Pavilion promoted a system of rainwater purification, illustrating, with a beautiful design, the entire process from original rainfall to final potable water. The Japanese Pavilion presented the re-use aspect of sustainable design by taking a house slated for demolition and showing new uses for the various elements of the building (of course, the pieces travelled halfway around the world to do this!).  

While there is a lot of value in seeing all participants and countries coming together to talk about contemporary issues, there is some contradiction in organizing a large international exhibition such as the Biennale that requires a significant carbon footprint for everyone to get there. Balance is a critical factor when considering the value of hosting an international event that brings people together for thoughtful collaboration and trying at the same time to reduce its overall environmental impact.  

Attending the Venice Biennale at least once in a lifetime (although, hopefully, more!) is an essential expedition for any architect or design professional. It is always exciting to see collaboration on an international scale. Moreover, events like this are an opportunity to bring the profession and the public together to explore ways we can build a collective positive future. International exhibitions like this are good for the mind and the soul – sparking conversation, imagination, and creativity.  



The Canadian Pavilion:

Canadian Artists Exhibit on the Global Stage:


Arctic Adaptations: