The 2021 Venice Architecture Biennale sets the pace – the renaissance is now

Looking ahead to urban living post-pandemic, the 17th International Architecture Exhibition organised by La Biennale di Venezia framed the new status quo: supercharged with new energy, courageous and collaborative beyond borders. Ellaveera Björk takes us through the biennale’s far-reaching topics and examines how they reflect the discussions in our recent Miltton Futures event.

The Arsenale exhibition site of La Biennale used to be the largest production center in Venice during the pre-industrial era

On May 18, Miltton Futures – our online roundtable hosted by Ville Blåfield and moderated by Billy McCormac – invited panelists to reimagine future cities and redefine resiliency. A passion fruit model for city building – in which a city consists of small centres with all services within a 15-minute distance – and a pan-Nordic collaboration mentality were envisioned, along with a shared economy and optimism for the Neo Roaring 2020s.

On the same day, I stepped into an imaginative world at the grounds of the Venice Architecture Biennale 2021, themed “How Will We Live Together?” The two platforms shared the same spirit though differed in scale and range, as the latter had had two years to deepen and develop the unimaginable.

Biennales have already been deemed obsolete by a wider design community. What would Venice’s post-pandemic role then be? In 1970, the critic and futurist Alvin Toffler forecast that what the world needed was “a multiplicity of visions, dreams and prophecies—images of potential tomorrows.” Could this thought have given birth to the concept of societal design?

What can the rest of us learn from architects?

Among the pressing issues of the built environment, the most puzzling one identified by the Miltton Futures panel was “preparing for the unexpected.” And this is exactly why we should pay attention to architects and creatives now. By default, architects dare to imagine the unthinkable and navigate the unprecedented, something that looks so amorphous on our post-pandemic sketching boards. They collaborate cross-sectionally and cater to the human, social and sensorial in us.

The biennale’s curator Hashim Sarkis put this practice in perspective: “Architects might have the ability to present more inspiring answers than politics has thus far offered in much of the world. We are asking architects because, much like them, we are preoccupied with shaping the spaces in which people live together, because we frequently imagine these settings different from the social norms dictating them.”

Supercharged with cumulated energy, a new generation of architects, who don techofuturist outfits similar to those in Bomfunk MC’s “Freestyler” video from 1999, are rediscovering what it means to be human. That is, deeply social and sensorial, leading the way to our post-pandemic, post-Trump renaissance. RIBA Royal Gold Medal architect David Adjaye sees the shift: “There’s a generation who have the opportunity to remake the world.”

The biennale: key take-aways

The 112 responses to the biennale’s theme “How Will We Live Together?” were diverse and bold, dissecting the economy, ecology, climate, data, border politics, communities, ownership, uncertainty and innovation – even space colonisation. The following two angles were clearly present in the biennale as well as in our Miltton Futures discussion.

1. Radical collaboration
In pivoting through the pandemic and building future resilience, unprecedented collaborations are sparking up across national borders, across sectors and between seeming opposites. Pioneering modernist social designer and educator Victor Papanek cautioned that there is nothing more dangerous than to concentrate on polishing the top of your own industry, criticising the inward-looking nature of the late modernist design industry. In 1971 he asserted: “the design of any product unrelated to its sociological, psychological, or ecological surroundings is no longer possible or acceptable.”

Collaboration leads to knowledge sharing, more elaborate communication and empathy. It lays grounds for more shared public spaces, shared services and shifting ownership. It enables the industrial revolution paved by circular economy creating about 30,000 new jobs in the EU in the following years.

In the Miltton Futures panel, Volvo’s Head of Sustainability Steinar Danielsen proposed that we create pan-Nordic collaboration on a “very human level,” suggesting a non-hierarchical approach to find strengths, instead of competing to meet climate crisis goals, for example. Incumbent Mayor of Helsinki Jan Vapaavuori reminded us of the relevance and cohesive power of our Nordic values: functional, reliable, predictable, safe, clean.

Detail of What We Share, a full-scale model for cohousing at the Nordic Pavilion

In Venice, the Nordic Pavilion displayed an experimental cohousing project by architects Helen & Hard, supported by a curatorial team from the National Museum of Norway. The aim was to “present a framework for designing and building communities based on participation and sharing.”

For me, the potential of this adaptable architecture can be found in everyday spaces and shared facilities, such as the garden, dining area, and craft tools beautifully displayed on a wood-panelled wall – an idea not far from the terraced houses of Alvar Aalto in the 1940s.

2. Rediscovering humanity
During Miltton Futures, Mayor of Stockholm Anna König Jerlmyr pointed out our need for collective experiences. The experience of having been locked up in our homes, glued to clumsy online platforms (while averting the hysteria of social and fake media) has made us sensorially deprived. Out of the pressure cooker, we now get to rediscover what it means to be human— profoundly social, spatially 3D, equipped with five senses.

Japan’s pavilion – titled “Co-ownership of Action: Trajectories of Elements” – welcomed visitors with a captivating, deep and musky, but refreshingly humid scent of hinoki and cedar wood which accompanied you through the elements of a dismantled wooden Japanese house. Curated by Kozo Kadowaki, it displayed ways to reuse materials and transform modern artefacts.

On the other hand, Austria’s pavilion Platform Austria – a balancing act between digital and physical worlds – highlighted social and economic issues of “platform urbanism” or the “platformisation of our lives,” our increasingly more digitally built environments. These online piazzas are no longer government-led public spaces for serendipitous encounters. Instead, they are fragmented “island-like platforms” built by big tech that increase addiction and exclusion.

A big bright slogan wall says: “Access is the new capital.”

It also asks: “Will they (platforms) assume a higher status than cities, and how will these two organisational models relate to one another?”

A few days before the press opening, Venice was calm and empty

Empty Venice was an absurd experience; a silent make-believe film set – except for the quotidian soundscape of ciaos in chorus – the locals holding it together.

In the following week back at the office, I remembered our own habit of – no matter how many times a day you come across colleagues – voicing out cheery choruses of hellos at our Tori.

Ellaveera Björk is an Art Director who seeks to inspire the unlikeliest segments of society by drawing attention to opportunities in design and cultural engagement. It was only thirty years ago when graphic design became a substantial part of the music and fashion industries, making them a larger part of visual culture. It is in this crossroads where a company’s vision and strategy can come alive to build a holistic living brand. Ellaveera’s latest work includes Finnish Design Shop’s sustainability communications, Rambol’s Sustainable Cities report and Madonna restaurant.