A woman in housedress and slippers, scarf wound round her head, stands on a ladder staring at the desert. This arresting image, a photograph taken by Bruce Chatwin, was chosen by the Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena to represent the themes of this year’s Architecture Biennale in Venice, which closed November 27. The woman, whom Chatwin encountered in southern Peru, was a German archeologist. She was there to study the Nazca lines, which look like random gravel from the ground but from a small elevation take shape as geoglyphs, or man-made images of animals and plants. The point? A slight shift in perspective achieved by modest means can alter our experience of the world.
More than sixty countries were represented in the Biennale’s two locations, the Gardens and the Arsenale. At both sites, Aravena, who recently received the Pritzker Architecture Prize, constructed compelling entry halls from over ninety tons of scrap material left over from previous Biennales. Out of plasterboard and the metal posts it attaches to, he formed cavernous spaces with textured walls and sculptural ceilings. The boards were cut with ragged edges and stacked like tiles, leaving small ledges here and there, or tiny gaps for windows, while lengths of torqued aluminum stalactites hung just above our heads. The spaces felt like primitive shelter: cave, hut, igloo, ger.
The most moving stands at the Biennale evinced the same elemental qualities, of which Chatwin the adventuring seer would certainly have approved. The Portuguese Aires Mateus dotted a pitch-dark chamber with magical illuminated geometries chiseled out of the walls. A video by the collective Ephemeral Urbanism discussed infrastructure for the Kumbh Mela, a religious gathering that takes place in India every twelve years and becomes a temporary megacity—120 million pilgrims were estimated in 2013. The Belgian hall by Jan De Vylder surfaced ideas about craftsmanship in relation to scarcity, deploying plain materials for basic uses in ways at once practical, unaffected, and profound. The name of the team behind this stark strategy was Bravoure, which translates as courage.
The Gardens were dankly morose the Saturday of our visit, but inside the spaces were brightened by the buzz of engaged students taking notes. WHY BE LESS BAD IF YOU CEN BE MORE GOOD, exhorted a placard planted in seven million grams of local soil, representing the displaced people of Syria. A text on the wall informed us that IF PEOPLE FEEL SAFE, ACCEPTED, AND VALUED, THEY ARE ALWAYS KIND AND GENEROUS—EVEN THE POOREST OF POOR. RESPECTING PEOPLE AND LOOKING AT WHAT THEY CAN DO, INSTEAD OF WHAT THEY CANNOT, INCREASES THEIR CONTRIBUTION TO SOCIETY AND THEIR DIGNITY AT THE SAME TIME. THIS IS WHY IT IS SO IMPORTANT TO CELEBRATE OUR HUMAN FOOTPRINT AND LIVE BY A POSITIVE AGENDA. It made good sense. Young people clambered up the Scandinavian pavilion’s bleacher, an assembly of massive squared timbers around a tree growing through the roof. The air here was fragrant of wood.
By evening, a thick fog was rising from the lagoon. The dense film misted off the quays and along alleys, sonorous and empty, and around bridges haloed with light, making Venice appear even more otherworldly, suggesting we might dissolve and pass through walls. The thick veil persisted through Sunday’s visit to the Arsenale, where the atmosphere around the formidable former shipyards toward gloaming was suffused dark lavender that seemed bioluminescent. The rope-makers building, thin and straight and long, held a majority of the exhibitions. Midway down its considerable length, Auburn University’s Rural Studio constructed a screening room out of bedsprings and insulation panels that would be recycled for housing once the Biennale closed; their video explained, in a drawl accompanied by acoustic guitar, how a new fire station refashioned a community in Hale County, Alabama. One exhibition seemed to have trapped madmen below a glass floor, banging on what would be their ceiling. Another appeared to be a dry cleaner’s rack hung with shrouds in a graduated color scheme of ghostly pastels. A third was simply constellated spots of light. Children played in them. It was perhaps the purest expression that imagining can take.
Where were we? Someplace where the sheer improbability of everything was reason enough to hope, is where. If that’s not a stepladder, tell me what is.
Jeff Seroy is senior vice president at Farrar, Straus and Giroux and one of the Daily’s correspondents.