An African Biennale

The 18th Venice Architecture Biennale is the first real post-Covid edition of the world’s most important architecture showcase. Curated by Ghanaian-Scottish architect, writer, educator and activist, Lesley Lokko, it seemed, at first, extremely promising. 

With the (generic) title “The Laboratory of the Future,” Lokko set out to give space to those who are underrepresented: in particular Africans and members of the African diaspora. The show aims to walk away from Western canons and focuses on the extraction of resources and expropriation of the wealth of others. There is a lot of fascinating stuff: From investigating Xinjiang’s detention camps, a shocking documentary on Uyghurs internment camps by British architect Alison Killing, to an innovative installation led by Spanish architect Andrés Jaque, in which the Office for Political Innovation questions reflective materials in contemporary buildings, which often result from a destructive process of extraction. 

Less cerebral, more intuitive works offer poetic commentary on the future of materials: From “Debris of History, Matters of Memory,” the beautiful origami-like brick wall by Gloria Cabral and Sammy Baloji with Cécile Fromont, to “In Vivo,” the Belgian pavilion by Bento and Vinciane Despret, a poetic yet concrete large-scale experiment with organic materials like uncultivated earth and the vegetative parts of mushrooms. Finally, there are the critics from within: The Latvian pavilion, a mini market, is an ironic comment on the commercial aspect of past biennials, while the Austrian pavilion offers a harsh commentary on the privatization of the Giardini. 

Some questions remain: How does giving a full room to David Adjaye contribute to showing works outside the canons? Why are there so many giant screens in an exhibition that problematizes extraction? Why is the Arsenale’s entrance—traditionally the first “bang” announcing the color of the main exhibition—almost empty? If some perceive “The Laboratory of the Future” as slightly moralizing, I can only commend the change of direction. My only regret is that I expected more: more radicality, more surprises and to be truly destabilized. Maybe in two years’ time…? 



Laboratory of the Future, 18th Venice Architecture Biennale, Venice



curated by Lesley Lokko