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How will we live together? 2021 Venice Architecture Biennale

The Venice Architecture Biennale is the Olympics of architecture. And like the real Olympics, it was pushed back a year and is moving forward with an IRL exhibition which will launch this May.

As much as I am itching to travel and Italy is handing out some money to those willing to go there (Sicily) I will experience this from afar and through digital means.

International Architecture Exhibition titled How will we live together? is curated by Hashim Sarkis and organized by La Biennale di Venezia. This topic couldn’t be any more timely as we are still in the thick of a pandemic and many lockdowns. As Sarkis describes the theme, it is about establishing a new spatial contract.

In the context of widening political divides and growing economic inequalities, Sarkis is calling on architects to imagine spaces in which we can generously live together

together as human beings who, despite increasing individuality, yearn to connect with one another and with other species across digital and real space; 

together as new households looking for more diverse and dignified spaces for inhabitation; 

together as emerging communities that demand equity, inclusion, and spatial identity; 

together across political borders to imagine new geographies of association; 

together as a planet facing crises that require global action for all of us to continue living at all. 

The participants in the 17th International Architecture Exhibition are collaborating with other professions and constituencies – artists, builders, engineers, and craftspeople, but also politicians, journalists, social scientists, and everyday citizens. In effect, the Biennale Architettura 2021 asserts the vital role of the architect as both cordial convener and custodian of the spatial contract. 

In parallel, this Exhibition also maintains that it is in its material, spatial, and cultural specificity that architecture inspires the ways we live together. In that respect, we ask the participants to highlight those aspects of the main theme that are uniquely architectural. 

Unpacking the Question: 

The theme of this Biennale Architettura is its title is a question: How will we live together? The question is open. 

How: Speaks to practical approaches and concrete solutions, highlighting the primacy of problem-solving in architectural thinking. 

Will: Signals looking toward the future but also seeking vision and determination, drawing from the power of the architectural imaginary. 

We: Is first person plural and thus inclusive of other peoples, of other species, appealing to a more empathetic understanding of architecture. 

Live: Means not simply to exist but to thrive, to flourish, to inhabit, and to express life, tapping into architecture’s inherent optimism. 

Together: Implies collectives, commons, universal values, highlighting architecture as a collective form and a form of collective expression. 

The open question, not a rhetorical one, looking for (many) answers, celebrating the plurality of values in and through architecture. 

And it is indeed as much a social and political question as a spatial one. More recently, rapidly changing social norms, the political polarization between left and right, climate change, and the growing gap between labor and capital are making this question more urgently relevant and at different scales than before. In parallel, the weakness of the political models being proposed today compels us to put space first and, perhaps like Aristotle, look at the way architecture shapes inhabitation in order to imagine potential models for how we could live together. 

Every generation feels compelled to ask this question and answer it in its own, unique way. Today, unlike with previous ideologically-driven generations, there seems to be a consensus that there is no single source from which such an answer can come. The plurality of sources and diversity of answers will only enrich our living together, not impede it. 

In the context of the Biennale Architettura we are asking architects this question because we believe they have the ability to present more inspiring answers than politics has been thus far offering in much of the world. We are asking architects because architects are good conveners of different actors and experts in the design and construction process. We are asking architects because we, as architects, are preoccupied with shaping the spaces in which people live together and because we frequently imagine these settings differently than do the social norms that dictate them. 

Hopefully, the question continues to propel us hopefully ahead and, in doing so, to build on the optimism that drives architecture and architects. Our profession is tasked with designing better spaces for better living. Our challenge is not whether to be optimistic or not. There we have no choice. It is rather how successful we are at transposing the inhabitants to better lives through the ‘wish images’ that we produce with architecture. 

The current global pandemic has no doubt made the question that this Biennale Architettura is asking all the more relevant and timely, even if somehow ironic, given the imposed isolation. It may indeed be a coincidence that the theme was proposed a few months before the pandemic. However, many of the reasons that initially led us to ask this question – the intensifying climate crisis, massive population displacements, political instabilities around the world, and growing racial, social, and economic inequalities, among others – have led us to this pandemic and have become all the more relevant. 

Richelle Sibolboro
Richelle Sibolboro

Design strategist and content creator for hire with a passion for arts and culture specifically in design, architecture, and travel. She has produced content for designboom, Azure magazine, Open City Projects, Digifest, and World Design Weeks. Follow her on Instagram and LinkedIn.

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